Everyone knows that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionized comic books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four bringing on the Marvel Age of comics. Most comics readers know that both men were instrumental back in the 1940s Golden Age as well working on characters like Captain America. But do you know what they were up to in the 1950s? They were makin’ monsters. Join me after the jump to learn more about the Atlas monsters!
The Lost History of Marvel Comics
DC Comics since its inception eight decades ago has essentially always been DC Comics. Despite being known as National or All-American at times, and absorbing companies like Quality, Fawcett, and Charlton, it has always essentially been called DC Comics. Its major competition, Marvel hasn’t always been that straight forward in its name and identity.
Marvel began in 1939 as Timely Comics, a spinoff of Red Circle pulps. Its first publication was Marvel Comics #1, from which the modern company took its name, and featured the original versions of the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, Ka-Zar, and the Angel. The company soon hired artist Jack Kirby who would co-create Captain America, and later a young Stan Lee who would write and edit many features for the company.
The Atlas Age
When superhero trend ended at the end of the 1940s, Timely shifted gears toward producing comics that did sell. Although there were failed attempts to revive the big three (Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner), Timely published mostly genre comics like romance featuring Millie the Model and Patsy Walker, westerns with the Rawhide Kid, the occasional odd adventure like the Black Knight, and finally science fiction and horror. At this time they changed their name to Atlas.
Some superheroes did seep through, though not the famous ones we would expect. There were Marvel Boy, Venus, Jann of the Jungle, Miss America, and Namora. The last four of those fit more into the romance genre as the years went by. Marvel Boy, the original, not the Grant Morrison version, was fun science fiction rather than more traditional superhero action. There was also the Yellow Claw, a comic about the Fu Manchu-based villain who would return in the Marvel Age decades later. Many of the above would also return, along with scifi-horror characters Gorilla-Man and the Human Robot as the 1950s Avengers, later known as the Agents of Atlas.
These scifi and horror titles with familiar names like Marvel Tales, Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, Amazing Adventures, Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales, and Amazing Fantasy featured creators that included not only Lee and Kirby, but also Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and others who would become famous in the Marvel Age.
Here Come the Monsters
These watered down science fiction horror stories of the atom age were all similar but carried elements that would define later Marvel Comics. The formula was usually the same. The hero was a Reed Richards or Henry Pym prototype scientist who no one believed until it was too late, and he would succeed through outthinking his foe as opposed to the brute force of the military (shades of the Incredible Hulk!). A monster or alien with a weird name like a comic book sound effect would come to earth or appear from nowhere seeking to conquer the planet or just crave its destruction. Sometimes the hero and the human race would prevail, and sometimes, a la “Twilight Zone” or O. Henry, sometimes the monster(s) would win.
The names of these menaces were names to conjure with. They were funny, ridiculous, hilarious, but the stories and art were so good, that you didn’t notice it, even if you said these names out loud. Lee and Kirby and the rest were having fun, and so were the readers. And so creatures like Gorgilla, Fin Fang Foom, The Glob, Mumba, Groot, Xemnu the Hulk, Orrgo, Thorr, Zzutak, Elektro, Gargantus, Spoor, It the Colossus, and Googam, Son of Goom made their way onto the comics pages of the late 1950s and early 1960s. To make them even cooler, Stan would add subtitles to their names like ‘the thing that would not die’ and ‘he held the world in his iron grip.’ As I said, if the stories weren’t so good, we would have burst with laughter.
As the years went by, eventually some of the more popular Atlas creations returned to the Marvel Comics mainstream. Not just superhero prototypes like Doctor Druid (originally called Doctor Droom, and the pilot version of Doctor Strange), and transient incarnations of Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch, but also the monsters came back as well.
The Glob would fight both the Hulk and the Man-Thing. The original Hulk, now known as Xemnu the Titan, returned to menace the Defenders. When Neil Gaiman’s Angela entered the Marvel Universe recently, she was accompanied by Moomba. The dragon Fin Fang Foom became entwined in the origins of Iron Man foe, the Mandarin, and has become one of the more popular Marvel monster creations, both in the comics and in animation. Speaking of popularity, one monster, Groot, has found new vitality as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and will be featured in the big screen movie next summer.
The legacy of the Atlas monsters not only lives on in the Marvel Comics, but elsewhere as well. Writer/artist Chris Wisnia‘s wonderful feature Doris Danger has a plethora of Lee-Kirby-inspired monsters like Hoo-Hoo!, Koo-Chee Demon of the Dark Orient!, and Wutt Wet Nightmare Creature of Seamen!, just to name a few, and don’t spare the exclamation points. The Atlas Age of Monsters is still alive and well!