This is it – the primordial Marvel Comics, in 1939 when the company was known as Timely. Because Marvel Comics #1 is such a mixed bag, I'm going to grant each feature a separate grade instead of one for the whole issue.
Marvel Comics #1
“The Human Torch.” Grade: C.
Very busy page layouts, with up to 12 panels on 2 different pages! Carl Burgos' artwork is crude and sketchy. The “science” behind a flaming android is just ridiculous. He's pretty much unstoppable, unless you have water or a chemical lab handy. The most character depth we get is the since-quoted line of angst, “Why must everything I touch turn to flame?” and the rebellious vow, “I'll be free, and no one will ever use me for selfish gain – or crime!” Sardo the Racketeer is a pretty sad nemesis with an overly convoluted scheme for sneaking the Torch into warehouses and making him inadvertently burn them down. I can't see that having worked more than once. It is interesting how the Torch gets out of punishment in court for having murdered people, since he's an android and technically his creator's property.
“The Angel.” Grade: C+.
This one has 12-panel pages 4 times! Paul Gustavson's artwork is clearer than Burgos' and has heavier inking to give it a noirish look, but it is hard to follow the action from the art alone. The story is a simple Angel-kills-mobsters-one-by-one story until a mystery woman enters the story, leaving cryptic notes for the Angel and rescuing him during the obligatory captured-by-the-bad-guys scene. When she turns out to be working for the main bad guy (the mystery of who he is was spoiled back on page 2), it completes the collection of cliches – though it's not so bad a collection of cliches.
“The Sub-Mariner.” Grade: A-.
Compared to the last two pages, Bill Everett's art looks expansive, with only 1 page of 7 panels and most averaging 6 panels. The inking is gorgeous in the on-land scenes, though with excessive lines in the underwater scenes. There is a slowly mounting sense of menace to the early pages that gets their payoff when Namor really does turn out to be a menace. Then he surprisingly turns out to be a Mommy's boy, raised for revenge by his mother for how she was impregnated by an American (and giving us Namor's origin story; we learn that Namor was born in either 1920 or possibly 1921). That he is naïve enough to not know he's killing surface-dwellers when he takes them prisoner without their air supply makes him strangely sympathetic. Also sympathetic is Lady Dorma, back then a waif-like half-breed who seems to idolize Namor, but her motives are subtle and never spelled out for us. Further, at this point Namor and Dorma do not know they are bulletproof (nor do we, though we find that out about Namor in the next installment) and that turns the sense of menace back on them by story's end (which is not really an ending, but more of a cutting-off point where Everett simply ran out of pages).
Points are docked for senseless violence (Namor never faces repercussions for the deaths he causes) and, well, it's just too weird for me that some of the merfolk have faces like catfish while others don't.
“The Masked Raider.” Grade: B-.
The layouts here never get more than 10 panels long, averaging 8 panels per page. The artwork (signed simply as “Anders”) is dismally inadequate – when everyone is dressed like a cowboy, you need to be able to draw faces so they all look different. Most everyone here is a western stereotype. Our hero, Jim Gardley, reinvents himself by getting back to nature as he hones his skills. His strength comes from exiting society and living free, the cowboy way. The corrupt sheriff, idiot that he is for falling for the pretend-to-be-sick-in-the-jail-cell routine, at least neatly repents before story's end, which is probably more important for the ending than seeing the Bruder Gang shot up or lassoed.
“Jungle Terror.” Grade: D+
Only 1 12-panel page here, but there's still a lot crammed into this “complete adventure story” about diamond thieves stealing from Amazon savages (you can tell the good thieves from the bad thieves because the good thieves brought a kid along). There's planes crashing, people being shot, and tons of coincidences to move the plot faster, but it's all happening to characters so cardboard they make the Masked Raider look like Citizen Kane.
“Burning Rubber.” Grade: C.
A mini-soap opera about a race car driver/inventor whose girlfriend has to find a buyer for the gas feeder he's using before the prototype his race car is using explodes (or something). She saves his life, then he mistakenly (it's irony) scolds her for being selfish, and somehow the buyer never questions why he'd be interested in a gas feeder that makes race cars explode.
“Adventures of Ka-Zar the Great.” Grade: C.
The boyhood adventures of Ka-Zar have nothing to do with Zabu the sabre-toothed tiger and the Savage Land in Antarctica and everything to do with ripping off Tarzan as directly as possible. Ben Thompson's artwork is rough every time it does not appear to be traced from photo references. The pages average 9 panels per page, but the last page is a real rush job where at least 2 pages of story are squeezed into 11 panels. That said, I like how every animal has a name that Ka-Zar (actually David Rand; the name Ka-Zar is somehow given to him by a lion named Zar, even though it can't talk) somehow knows. I also like the explanation for why Ka-Zar and his father never leave the jungle – the father takes a blow to the head and goes crazy, thinking that he IS home in the jungle. The story is also pretty dark, since we have to read about how both of Ka-Zar's parents die in depressing circumstances.