By Peter S. Svensson
“Crate 4-1939. That’s what you should be focused on.”
Okay Jason Aaron. I’ll take you up on that.
The recently released Marvel Legacy #1 featured a mysterious crate labeled 4-1939. Most Marvel fans picked up on 1939 being the year that Marvel Comics #1 was published, featuring the original android Human Torch, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the first Ka-Zar, and a vigilante named the Angel. (No relation to either of the Angels running around the Marvel Universe today.) The comic was the first of which published by Timely Publications, the company that would eventually become the Marvel we all know and buy too many comics from today.
So, a pretty simple easter egg right? There’s an issue with this being the issue in question. Marvel Comics #1 came out in October, the tenth month of the year. 10/1939. So where did the 4 come from? Is it a sly reference to the Fantastic Four, whose premiere in 1961 reinvented the Marvel Universe? Was it a hint to look for the fourth issue of a Marvel comic published in 1939? Nope. More obscure than that. Grab a snack. This will take a while.
In the distant past of the 1930s, most comics were just reprints of comic strips. Many companies existed that grabbed old comic strips and slapped them together into book form, making money from selling a collected edition of something that had been previously serialized. Huh. The more things change, right?
Even when National Publications (who would eventually become DC) proved that you could commission new work and make a comic that was brand new rather than reprinting something else with their New Fun #1, you still had companies whose job it was to find a bunch of comics to bundle up as a comic and sell to publishers. Rather than hire talent directly, publishers would hire “packagers” who would assemble the comic for them. One of those companies, Funnies Inc, made a plan to market comics to movie theatres.
Movies were big! You got a cartoon and news and so that they could give the comics as incentives to get kids to attend. “Go to the movies this Saturday and get a free comic!” They made a sample issue, Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly #1 as a proof of concept, with the goal of getting movie theatres to see how profitable having a comic would be. It never got off the ground. So little kids would never get the joy of going to the movie theatre to read about the adventures of the crimefighting detective called the Wasp, the aviator known as the American Ace, the silly adventures of Kar Toon and his Copy Cat, and some jerk known as Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Yeah.
From what we can tell, Bill Everett originally made Sub-Mariner for Funnies, Inc back in April 1939, and when Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly never got off the ground, was able to sell the feature to Timely. The first eight pages of the Namor feature in Marvel Comics #1 was originally meant to be published in Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly, the sample copies of which are among the absolute rarest comics out there. Less than ten copies exist, having been found in an estate sale in the 70s.
So, Crate 4-1939 is dated for the first appearance of Sub-Mariner, and thus technically the first appearance of what would one day be called the Marvel Universe. Okay, what does that mean? If Jason Aaron wants to hint that Namor is going to be important in Marvel comics to come, there’s one clear possibility. With the Fantastic Four’s return seemingly on the horizon, it seems safe to say that Namor will have to be involved in some form or another, given his long association with that team.
Peter S. Svensson is a teacher, a former comic-shop retailer, a trivia master, a live action role-playing aficionado and occasionally a journalist. He’s also a big ol’ kid at heart.