Book Review: The First 10 Marvel Mystery Comics
The remastered image here is the very first cover of a marvel superhero as we think of them today. Characters will come and go, but this is what started them all for Marvel. The second issue was renamed Marvel Mystery Comics and ran throughout the 1940s.
Marvel Comics #1-10 (Oct. 1939 – Aug. 1940) are a wild ride. Being 80 years old, this first handful of comics introduces several characters. We see an earlier version of The Human Torch [All] (massively different from modern retelling), Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner [All], The Masked Raider [All], Ka-Zar the Great [All], The Angel [All], American Ace [#2-3], The Ferret [#4-9], Electro [#4-10], and various other one-off stories. Each character grows and transforms between their first issue and last, but it’s amazing to see how these characters feel like training wheels for future superhero and villains. With each part of their story, the writers and illustrators were able to test the waters for various elements of comic book writing.
The Ferret and his ferret, Nosy, in their second remastered story (Marvel Mystery Comics #5).
The Ferret [#4-9] only ran for a few issues, with resurgences in the future, but at the end of his run, he was replaced with a boy and his monkey (Terry Vance, The School Boy Sleuth, and his monkey, Dr. Watson) in issue #10. My amateur guess is they were test-running the mystery genre and didn’t see a lot of traction with The Ferret. I mean, who doesn’t want to see a man and his pet ferret solve crimes in a gangster-style monthly comic. The first story of his didn’t include his furry friend, Nosy, but the rest did. Once again, I think they were trying something out that didn’t quite work out for the audiences reading. As I reflect on its execution, I’m not sure if it was the illustrations themselves that was off-putting of the storyline. The illustrations aren’t all that different from the other stories, and actually looks more like a traditional comic book than any of the rest. But when the story has Nosy come to aid his research, I’m not too keen on following it again. Although this material was created for kids (fella’s, as they continually say in promotional text), I wonder if they got a similar vibe. Whenever the Ferret gets into trouble after the first issue, he just summons his pet, Nosy, to come to the rescue. At one point, Nosy is assumingly miles away and The Ferret just whistles and he comes scurrying in to bite through the rope holding him hostage. Plausible impossible? Maybe, perhaps Nosy is just outside. Either way, The Ferret met his untimely end, becoming the second canceled story after American Ace.
Queen Ursula, the main antagonist in American Ace, appearing in Marvel Mystery Comics #2.
American Ace [#2-3] also appeared just briefly, although their story was rather confusing. There wasn’t concentration on a person, rather a history of this fictional world, with Queen Ursula mad with power and wanting revenge on various countries. The premise is promising as a villain, and quite frankly might gain more traction today than in 1940, but it wasn’t executed well. It was dialogue heavy, fairly inconsistent in tone, and the scenes didn’t flow quite right. And considering it was called American Ace, there wasn’t a whole lot of the character Ace. Some say, too, that it was deemed too political for younger readers and was cancelled. As of now, I like to think of this as the first Marvel Casualty, an uprooted story never to be revisited (or if revisited, in short). The creator, Paul Lauretta, is also unfortunately never to return to the Marvel universe after writing this story. Whether it was creative differences, a nasty, dramatic cancellation, or a quiet leave, I’m not sure, but I like to imagine things could have gone in a different direction, had Lauretta been given a chance to revive the story with a different intention or story arc.
A portion of the first page introducing Electro, The Marvel of the Age. He may be missing the iconic circular heart, but he closely resembles Iron Man of future Marvel fame.
Electro, the Marvel of the Age [#4-10] is one of our newest recruits to the Marvel Mystery Comics series, having joined the same issue as The Ferret. Electro is a robot controlled by Professor Philo Zog always from some remote place. Not only does the outfit closely resemble Iron Man’s future suit, Electro is literally named an iron man several times within this short collection. Electro isn’t the main character, since he’s just a robot, but is used by many different controllers as a weapon. Once the robot is forced into the wrong hands to commit crime rather than fight it, it show how dangerous this type of advancement may be. I know this discussion isn’t new, considering that Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010) talk about Tony Stark’s suit as being a weapon and needing to be under government control, but here is possibly one of the first discussions on heroes being heroes only as long as they fight for good.
The Masked Raider with his iconic black-covered face fighting crime in the West. Maybe it’s a taught behavior, but the mild blackface seen here just doesn’t feel quite right.
The Masked Raider [All] is harder for me to describe and honestly the jury is still out on this character. There is a lot to discuss of cultural appropriation of marginalized persons, but honestly I just skip these when I run into them. I got as far to meet his sidekick, which is a Mexican immigrant who wears a sombrero in every pane, speaks with broken English, and doesn’t fully “understand” the white man. It’s just got to be too much and I’ve decided to move along and start enjoying the luxury of other characters instead, which I think is the strength of these early comic book series. Having multiple characters to follow gives readers a different place to find enjoyment with every edition. If they wanted to skip certain stories, just like I do, I don’t think that’s wrong. I imagine something like that exists today and perhaps I’ll take a dive into researching that someday soon.
Ka-Zar the Great, also known as Ka-Zar the Savage, Ka-Zar Lord of the Jungle, and David Rand.
Ka-Zar the Great [All] is a man living in the jungle. He’s referred to as a jungle spirit, either haunting the land or saving it. The neighboring tribe is consistently afraid of him and his actions and turn and run in the other direction every time he appears. Now when we’re talking about cultural appropriation, I don’t think the drawings done of the tribe are particularly politically correct. Of course, there is much to be discussed, but there’s just something in there that doesn’t feel right. Now, I’m imaging that you don’t necessarily remember Ka-Zar the Great or the Masked Raider, and it might be because that same discord was felt by early readers as well. I don’t know for sure, but I like to hope.
The Angel, pictured here with his Angel emblem across his chest and his vaguely Superman appearance.
The Angel [All] is a superhero bent on saving the world with his super strength and his ability to fly. He also always casts a shadow that supposedly has wings even though he definitely does not. I like to imagine him as the Marvel Superman. He’s just an all around good white guy going around saving screaming damsels, fighting zombies and ghouls, and fighting crime (typically in the form of some organized crime like the mafia or gangsters). Although he does have a lot to bring to various stories, he is currently missing that spark our next two heroes have.
In this restored/reissued image is Namor the Sub-Mariner in his second issue. Notice his V-shaped head and eyebrows. Those significant features will be used at varying lengths during his run during the Golden Years.
Namor, the Sub-Mariner [All] is probably my favorite so far in Marvel Mystery Comics. He’s this vaguely anti-hero amphibian-man that lives in “The Antarctic.” (I say it with quotations because the direction and placement of stories makes it seem like The Antarctic is actually located in the North Pole rather than the Antarctic.) He originally comes to New York City to destroy the “white people” (the human race) because they originally fought his city hundreds of years ago. He meets a few people on his travels, including a woman on the police force, Betty Dean. Being his only companion in the world above water, she is known to appear here and there to get him on the path to justice. As his story continues, I hope he can stop destroying things just because he can. He gets mostly outraged at various random things and it doesn’t quite make sense. Anyway, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
The Human Torch [All] is actually someone we may know today (the Human Torch aka Johnny Storm), but this version that appears in 1939 is much different. His image is across the first front page of Marvel Comics, making him the headline for most issues going forward. This Human Torch is actually a robot created by some scientist (Phineas Horton) that dies in the issue after he was created. The only thing wrong with his robot is that whenever its exterior comes in contact with oxygen, the entire robot bursts into flames. Once the robot escapes and learns of his devastating build, he eventually learns to subdue his flame and start fighting crime. It feels as though the character’s robotic origins are completely swept to the side once Human Torch gets to New York City and joins their police force. (And yes, in true Marvel fashion, he meets Betty Dean of Sub-Mariner fame.) He rarely interjects saying that he’s actually a robot, so either that idea was completely forgotten or intentionally left behind. Either way, he’s pretty great to follow along considering he is somewhat naively floating through life and just trying to survive.
Overall, I think the first ten issues of Marvel Mystery Comics are such a joy to read. Pushing aside the date it was written and some of the pictures being mildly out of date, it was such a blast to enjoy the roots of Marvel Comics. I typically find myself going against the grain of popular characters, but the headlined heroes are the ones I want to read more.