With the medium of comic books exploding, and the genre of super-heroes combusting right along with it, many publishers entered the comic book field. One such person, Martin Goodman, a publisher of pulp magazines, contracted for material for his own line of comics. The line was called Timely. The first offering was "Marvel Comics", an anthology book that featured a mix of super-heroes, westerns, and detectives. In doing so, Goodman and his creators inadvertently laid a corner stone for one of the most popular comic book universes to arise in fiction.
Marvel has produced five series of golden age Masterworks. They inaugurated their series with this, "Golden Age Marvel" Vol. 1, which reprinted in their entirety the first four issues of "Marvel Comics." Well, "Marvel Comics" #1, and then "Marvel Mystery Comics" #s 2-4, as the title had changed: a common practice in the golden age.
This series introduced three major super-hero characters: the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and the Angel. Truthfully, while Angel was important, he was relegated to the second tier when Captain America was introduced a year later. The Torch and the Sub-Mariner stayed big sellers for the remainder of the golden age.
It's not hard to see why. First, as DC had made it impossible to blatantly ape Superman, other creators had to find new takes on super-heroes very quickly. In this case, Timely (rather ahead of its time) created characters who found doing the right thing wasn't always easy (admittedly, Superman did some rather strange things in his early days). Carl Burgos' Human Torch was an android who, thanks to a design flaw, burst into flames when he made contact with the air. While the character meant well, initially he was an unintentional menace, as his flame was so hot that it could melt all metals in his immediate vicinity. Eventually, he learned to control his powers quickly, and used them to combat evil. Oddly, although the Torch only graced the first cover of "Marvel", he had the highest page count; nearly fifteen or so pages. The popularity of the character was such that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby based their own Johnny Storm, the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four, on the Burgos character. Of the big three from Timely, Torch had the hardest time catching on again later.
The other true classic from this volume is Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner. In contrast with the Torch, Prince Namor was from a water-breathing race that held the surface world responsible for the tragedy that had befallen his people. Thus, he started out as something of a villain, wreaking havoc on surface folk, often murdering those who opposed him. However, he soon shifted gears when he concluded some surface dwellers were worse than others, and he began a war against the Axis. Everett's art is some of the sharpest line-work to be found in the golden age. Unfortunately, the coloring didn't always bring that out. In the first Sub-Mariner stories, the underwater setting led to a heavy use of dark blues and greens, frequently blurring the action. As time progressed, the color scheme grew more realistic, and the pencils were allowed to speak for themselves. Namor remains a popular favorite in comics, although he's still not always a friend to surface-dwellers.
The third super-hero, the Angel, was actually a more straightforward vigilante. The art by Paul Gustavson is quite sharp, supporting some very interesting action tales. The Angel is actually quite violent. In his first story, he is hired by a community that is being preyed upon by a gang of racketeers. Angel simply kills the gang's leaders. Never one of Timely's big guns, Angel nonetheless had a lengthy career. His penchant for violence led him to finance his own vigilante gang in later years.
Of course, Goodman wasn't putting all his eggs in the super-hero basket. Other features shared "Marvel" with the super-types. The "Masked Raider" was a western series that overtly aped the Lone Ranger, as the Raider rode around righting wrongs. "Ka-Zar the Great" was actually based on a pulp novel, and nakedly aped (pardon the puns) Tarzan. Later on, the robot Electro, and the PI Ferret were introduced. However, while Ka-Zar was revised dramatically, only the super-heroes continued on more or less unchanged.
I applaud Marvel's decision to reprint their golden age material. I disagree with the criticism that the reprinting is shabby. It is not. Rather, the original production process of the comic books was quite primitive. As the volume progresses, the quality takes a dramatic up-swing. Consider the early Superman stories in their Archives--many of the same flaws exist from 1938 to about 1940. Marvel's product is a fine bundle of goodies.