The Cape Gauntlet

The Cape Gauntlet

The Golden Age: Action Comics #1 & Marvel Comics #1

December 10, 2019

Two companies stand at the forefront of comics book publishing. While this is common knowledge, a good majority of readers may not have experienced the seminal issues that laid so much of the groundwork for what would come in the 80+ years that were to follow.

This time on The Cape Gauntlet we'll be going back to the late 1930's. We'll be taking a look at Action Comics #1 from National Allied Publications and Marvel Comics #1 from Timely Comics. While Action Comics debuted Superman, Marvel Comics debuted the concept of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner; both of which would become staples in each company's future.
Action Comics #1
The cover of Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1.

As we touched on in the last episode of The Cape Gauntlet, National Allied Publications released Action Comics #1 in 1938. It tells the story most of us know, about a baby being rocketed from his dying planet to Earth, where he is adopted, becomes Clark Kent and Superman, and saves the day. While the story is familiar to many of us, there are some differences that are the basis of what the character would become as more writers and artists got involved in fleshing him out.

For instance, Superman's power set isn't as wide-ranging as more recent iterations. We see that he can leap 1/8 of a mile, hurdle 20-story buildings, "raise tremendous weights", outrun a train, and "that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin". We also don't see any mention of kryptonite. We do, however, see the first appearance of Lois Lane, who would become the love interest for Clark Kent and Superman as more stories were published.

One interesting fact is that Action Comics wasn't just about Superman, as most readers might think, given the current run, in which he is the main focus. No, in 1938, the book was an anthology and Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster was just the first story. While most of the other stories never grew to be much more than a strip in this series of comics, a closer look shows the roots of another character: Zatara, the father of current DC Comics magic-user Zatanna, who would become an ally of Batman, a hero we'll touch on in a future episode.
Marvel Comics #1
Human Torch debuts on the cover of Timely Comics' Marvel Comics #1.

Timely Publications released their first book, Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. In it, they debuted the Human Torch. He was created by Carl Burgos, but he wasn't the smart-Alec kid brother, Johnny Storm, when he made his first appearance. In fact, he wasn't human at all; he was a "synthetic man" built by Professor Horton, who is worried he's created a monster. Once a couple of press members see the android burst into flames after being exposed to oxygen, they demand the professor destroy it or face "the power of the press".

After receiving a second opinion from the Scientists' Guild, Horton realizes he has no control over the Human Torch and decides to "entomb him in a concrete block". This is supposed to buy him more time so he can find a way to fix the Torch and not destroy his creation. As time passes, however, the concrete block explodes caused by an ever-so-slight leak that gave the Torch oxygen.

As the Torch runs through the town, we see that he is much more human than the professor first let on, as he asks himself, "Why must everything I touch turn into flame?" Firefighters attempt to extinguish him, but to no avail. The Torch runs off to put himself out in a nearby pool which happens to belong to Sardo, a bad guy who decides to use the android's ability to commit insurance fraud. The Human Torch misunderstands Sardo's intentions and, after being set free, goes after the crook. During the fight, a canister of nitrogen extinguishes the flames and proves the android is invincible after he's shot in the head and the bullet melts upon contact. Sardo,