Marvel First: WWII Superheroes

Collecting first appearances of Timely characters

Writers, artists: Various

Marvel Comics, $39.99, color, 456 pages

I learned more than I expected from this collection.

I had planned to skip it, because I've read most of the first appearances of Marvel's earliest heroes. But Legionnaire Jeff Plackmeier pointed out that the book collects some first appearances I've never read because they're obscure (Jimmy Jupiter), they arrived relatively late (Miss America), they've never been reprinted before, or some other reason.

For the record, here are the characters whose first appearances are found in Firsts, in the order they appear in the book: Human Torch, Angel, Sub-Mariner, Fiery Mask, Laughing Mask, Electro: The Marvel of the Age, The Ferret: Mystery Detective, Flexo the Rubber Man, Blue Blaze, Dynamic Man, Breeze Barton in the Miracle City, Marvex -- The Super Robot, The Invisible Man Known as Dr. Gade, The Falcon, The Black Widow, Mercury in the 20th Century, The Vision, Captain America, The Black Marvel, The Terror, The Blazing Skull, The Thunderer, The Fin, The Silver Scorpion, The Silver Scorpion, The Challenger, The Patriot, The Defender, Whizzer, Mr. Liberty and the Spirits of Freedom, Rockman: Underground Secret Agent, Jack Frost, Father Time, Young Allies, Destroyer, Captain Terror, The Vagabond, The Witness, Jimmy Jupiter, Secret Stamp and Miss America.

And, as I said, I learned a few things, especially by seeing all these stories in one place to see what they mostly had in common. For example, even at this early stage, it's clear that there was an editorial difference between Timely and DC. At the Distinguished Competition, most super-doers were really just brawlers with fancy names, and they behaved in a noble and heroic fashion (never killing, etc.) At Timely, though, the heroes often had real super-powers, they often were relatively unique, they tended to deal with their foes permanently and many had quite an attitude.

We're all familiar with Sub-Mariner's anti-social rampages, but he was not alone. The Human Torch, for example, started out on the wrong side of the law before he was quickly sanitized. Characters like The Ferret, The Witness and even The Angel on occasion were regarded as somewhat shady. And what to make of the Black Widow, who worked for Satan and whose modus operandi was to torture and kill the bad guys? You wouldn't find any of that at DC! Sure, they had the occasional Spectre, but DC's default mode was a "weird figure of the night" who punched a lot. (Even Green Lantern was played for years as a "weird figure of the night," despite his power being based on light and having a day-glo costume.) And even Spectre eventually took a back seat to Percival Popp, Super-Cop.

Continuing in that vein, just compare DC's Justice Society to the All-Winners Squad. DC/All-American's team was usually Flash, Green Lantern and a bunch of brawlers with masks. But the A-W Squad's only non-powered character was  Bucky, accompanied by a super-soldier, a Wonder Woman type character, a super-speedster, two flaming firebrands and Sub-Mariner! And if you look at the group above, you find even more characters who could almost single-handedly whip the JSA, like Dynamic Man, Jack Frost and maybe even Black Widow. This is a formidable bunch of characters.

And a bloodthirsty one! As mentioned, Timely heroes tended to kill off their foes. You had typically superheroic types like Captain America who tried to knock out their foes, but his kind was the exception at Timely -- and even Cap's enemies tended to fall off parapets or into buzzsaws or something in the final few panels. Otherworldly characters like Vision, Jack Frost and Mercury weren't human and had no compunction about offing mere mortals, and Timely's version of the masked brawlers -- like The Phantom Bullet, The Phantom Reporter, The Ferret, The Witness -- were armed with guns, instead of blackout bombs and boxing skills. And then there's Black Widow, whose origin and M.O. make my head spin.

Speaking of which, Black Widow works for Satan, who also appears in "Mercury." Timely Comics seemed to be more visceral, more Manichean that DC. Timely heroes didn't just fight bad guys, they fought THE bad guy (Satan), or villains whose schtick was HUGELY evil, like mass murder. While the DC heroes famously stayed out of the war, Timely heroes dove in, tackling entire fleets and armies of bad guys. The stakes seemed higher at Timely, the adventures more colorful, the endings more permanent. At DC, there were a lot of bank robbers to arrest. At Timely, there were a lot of mass murderers to kill. If DC was the staid, conservative superego, Timely was the gleeful, out-of-control Id.

One other thing I learned is something that I knew intuitively, but couldn't prove until this, the Golden Age of Reprints. And that is that there's nothing new under the sun. Maybe Iron Man looked original in 1963, but he didn't appear out of whole cloth: He had at least two predecessors in this collection alone (Electro, Marvex). Names like Black Widow and Falcon would be re-used, as well as certain super-powers (Jack Frost=Iceman, for example). This book joins a lot of recent reprints where I keep finding protoypes of modern characters that I never knew existed -- and finally explain to my satisfaction how things like the Marvel Age could seemingly explode full-blown out of Stan and Jack's heads.

But does that mean the average Joe Comics should buy this collection? That depends on how interested Joe Comics is in comics history. While interesting historically, there's a a lot of dreck (See: The Vagabond). I can't answer that question for anyone else, but for me, what I learned was worth the $40 -- and plowing through a lot of amateurishness.

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For those of us that thought Mr. Fantastic was a poor name for Reed Richards' costumed identity, we should be happy Stan and Jack didn't call him Flexo the Rubber Man.

Strange the origins/first appearances they didn't include like Red Raven, Blue Diamond, the Thin Man and the Phantom Reporter.

Still, a volume well-worth getting!

Great minds think alike! That is exactly what I thought when I saw that name! And then you see his face ... !

Richard Willis said:

For those of us that thought Mr. Fantastic was a poor name for Reed Richards' costumed identity, we should be happy Stan and Jack didn't call him Flexo the Rubber Man.

I also wondered about those, especially Red Raven (who reappeared briefly in the Silver Age) and Phantom Reporter, who appeared recently in The Twelve. Come to think of it, Thin Man and Blue Diamond appeared on some Golden Age team in Marvel Two-In-One or someplace.

Philip Portelli said:

Strange the origins/first appearances they didn't include like Red Raven, Blue Diamond, the Thin Man and the Phantom Reporter.

Still, a volume well-worth getting!

We've been talking about them here.

*sob* No one reads my stuff here! ;-)
 
Captain Comics said:

I also wondered about those, especially Red Raven (who reappeared briefly in the Silver Age) and Phantom Reporter, who appeared recently in The Twelve. Come to think of it, Thin Man and Blue Diamond appeared on some Golden Age team in Marvel Two-In-One or someplace.

Philip Portelli said:

Strange the origins/first appearances they didn't include like Red Raven, Blue Diamond, the Thin Man and the Phantom Reporter.

Still, a volume well-worth getting!

I, personally, hadn't gotten to that thread yet, Philip. But I will. TODAY.

And everyone else should go there, too, right now! Or no porridge for afters for ANYONE!

Philip Portelli said:

We've been talking about them here.

*sob* No one reads my stuff here! ;-)
 
Captain Comics said:

I also wondered about those, especially Red Raven (who reappeared briefly in the Silver Age) and Phantom Reporter, who appeared recently in The Twelve. Come to think of it, Thin Man and Blue Diamond appeared on some Golden Age team in Marvel Two-In-One or someplace.

Philip Portelli said:

Strange the origins/first appearances they didn't include like Red Raven, Blue Diamond, the Thin Man and the Phantom Reporter.

Still, a volume well-worth getting!

I find this volume to be a useful reference companion to such recent series as The Twelve, Invaders, Now!, and even such not-so-recent series but recent collections such as the Liberty Legion’s appearances in Marvel’s (now sadly defunct) Premiere Editions series. Still (as Philip pointed out), there are some odd omissions.

Two more items of business…

MARVEL FIRSTS: THE 1980s: Marvel Firsts: The 1980s, Vol. 1 has been solicited for November 6 release. Your first inclination is going to be to pass this one up, too, but I’ll wager that this decade’s volumes turn out to be just as interesting as the other volumes in the “Marvel Firsts” series. There’s something about seeing Marvels’ series ordered chronologically that is something akin to a poor man’s time travel. Flipping through these collections elicits all kinds of other memories not necessarily tapped while sorting through long boxes at random.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF REPRINTS: You and I have been bandying this term about for many years now, but I’ve recently seen it in print for the first time. Kim Thompson used it in his afterword to the first volume of Fantagraphics’ new collection of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Speaking of which, don’t make the mistake (as I did initially) of giving these a pass just because you have all 50 volumes of Fantagraphics’ previous softcover series. The new series, unlike any other, has been reproduced directly from Foster’s own set of syndicate proofs. And speaking of that (I’m all over the place today), page 4000 of “the chronicles” (now by Schultz and Yeates) is coming up October 6th. And speaking of that, have you seen IDW’s “Artist’s Edition” of Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales? (Sorry, I’ve been off the board for a while. I’ll stop now.)

You're tempting me with those other collections, Jeff. But I have trouble justifying the expenditure when there's so much stuff out there available now I don't already own! For the price of a "Firsts" edition, I could get two Marvel NOW! or New 52 TPBs, or another volume of all the various Golden Age and '50s reprint collections I'm getting. Maybe I'll pick them up the next time my LCS holds a sale.

And I am getting the new Prince Valiant editions, even though I also have the Fantagraphics softcover series. For one thing, I don't think I have all 50 of the Fantagraphics series -- I think I stopped buying them during some life event, like going to college or something. Also, the quality isn't high -- not just the art, but the binding. And thirdly, I knew this series would be high quality. But, like above, already owning the material means I handle this stuff differently, in this case tossing them on the "I'll read them some vacation week" pile -- they're not new enough (to me) to get to them right away, especially considering the size of the Wall of Shame currently. (WoS is my wife's term for all the unread trades and hardcovers sitting in stacks in the den.) Just like I try to buy stuff I don't have more than better versions of what I already have, I tend not to read stuff I've already read when I have stuff I've never read available. Always looking for novelty, I suppose. :)

From the above, you'd guess I haven't bought the Artist's Edition of Xenozoic Tales, since I already own the originals. Maybe someday, but not today.

So Kim Thompson is using our phrase? He must read the board! (Seriously, it's easy to believe he came up with it on his own. But it's nice to see the term spreading.)

I wasn’t asking if you bought the Xenozoic Tales AE, only if you’d seen it. All of the others shipped as a shrink-wrapped book within a box, but this one had no shrink-wrap within the box. Retailers (understandably) don’t like to take things out of their shrink-wrap, but if your retailer stocks it, chances are he’d let you take a peek. It is a thing of rare beauty, indeed.

…and John Romita has a second Spider-Man AE due out in a couple of months!

I don't think I'm going for the Marvel Firsts: The 1980s -- I still haven't bought Vols. 2 or 3 of the '70's yet (though I probably will) -- but that WWII volume is so very, very tempting.  That's a serious full-color phonebook, full of stuff I've never read but would like to, at a nifty price.

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