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A few years ago, Marvel Comics celebrated their 75th Anniversary with various promotions and events. For this milestone, Marvel included the founding of the company before Marvel, when it went by various names. Marvel has had many successes and has become one of the two primary names (along with DC) synonymous with superheroes. So people have appropriately celebrated and praised most of Marvel’s publishing history on many occasions. However, there is one important comic book series that rarely gets any publicity from Marvel, even though I believe that it may have been one of the most important comic book series in the entire history of the various Marvel publishing incarnations. Without it, Marvel Comics as we know it may have never existed. This title – Millie the Model – is probably the most critical Marvel Comics series that nobody ever discusses.
If you have more than a passing knowledge of Marvel (or have ever heard Stan Lee speak) you are probably familiar with the basic history of Marvel Comics. In 1939, pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman went into comic books, seeing it as a way to make money. The company used many names for tax and distribution reasons, but the two most frequent were Timely and Atlas. Timely hired some talented writers and artists and gradually found themselves with some hits. In the early 1940’s, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America, Bill Everett created Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and Carl Burgos created the Human Torch. Thus, Timely sold well as World War II approached. This is now called the Golden Age of comics. The comics were hugely popular with kids as well as G.I.s overseas once the U.S. firmly got into WWII.
However, after the war ended and soldiers returned home, their interest in superheroes battling foreign powers diminished. Timely’s sales struggled accordingly. The next big age of supeheroes would not occur until the early 1960s when Lee and a series of talented artists including Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood and others created most of the Marvel heroes we know and love today. This is called the Silver Age of comics and usually begins with Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. While this is a convenient capsule of Marvel/Timely’s history, if you look at those dates, you’ll notice that it leaves out about fifteen years between 1946 and 1961. If superheroes nearly went extinct, how exactly did Timely continue to exist and publish comics?
While Lee deserves a large amount of credit for the creative push of the Silver Age of Marvel Comics series, people often overlook the role that Goodman played in the company. His business acumen and willingness to adapt were essential to Timely/Marvel. As opposed to Lee and others, Goodman didn’t have any great attachment to superheroes. After WWII, sales figures showed that superheroes were losing interest, and Goodman was smart enough to move on. He shifted to other genres of comics that were popular in the 1950s: Westerns, kids’ comics, romance, monsters and horror/true crime. It is fair to say that Timely at the time was really chasing trends. However, Goodman was able to make the company agile enough that it could shift from highlighting one genre to another when the first’s time was fading.
The 1950s output of Timely is frequently glossed over in Marvel histories because so much of it was never revisited once the Silver Age began. There is also the reality that much of Timely’s 1950’s comics were not all that great. So a lot of series came and went between the Golden and Silver ages. However, there is one particular comic title that never really faded: Millie the Model. This series began in 1945 and would be published in some form for the next 28 years, ending well into the Marvel age in 1973 and covering 207 issues. It was the longest-running comic for Timely during that period. This feat is particularly impressive because the late 40’s and the 50’s were a time when Timely was not remotely interested in legacy or continuity. So the durability of Millie the Model during this time speaks to its sales success.
Two of the most vital comic book characters for Timely in the 1950’s were Millie the Model and Patsy Walker. Comic fans are much more familiar with Walker. Writers brought Walker into Marvel continuity, and eventually she became the superhero Hellcat. She even appeared in the Marvel’s Jessica Jones Netflix series, played by Rachael Taylor. Millie, on the other hand, is basically forgotten. The success of Millie the Model spawned a spin-off with different names (A Date with Millie, Life with Millie, etc.) in the same way that Patsy Walker would get a spin-off Patsy and Hedy. Before the direct market (aka comic book stores), space on newsstands was a precious commodity because it was limited. Therefore, Goodman and Timely would not have given spin-offs to Millie and Patsy if their main titles were not breadwinners.
Millie the Model also has some historical significance outside of its role in the success of Timely/Marvel. The character was created by Ruth Atkinson, one of the first female cartoonists. Atkinson was also the co-creator (with Otto Binder) of Patsy Walker. This means that Atkinson played a role in the origins of two of Timely’s most enduring 1940’s and 50’s characters. Additionally, Millie the Model is significant for two of its artists. Mike Sekowsky drew many of the early issues of Millie the Model. Sekowsky would later become well known for his art on the superhero team-up comic Justice League of America. In 1949, another artist, Dan DeCarlo, took over the art for Millie the Model for a 10-year tenure. Even if you don’t know DeCarlo’s name, you will recognize his art style because he pioneered a fun, cartoony drawing style he later famously used on Archie Comics.
As I mentioned, Goodman had no lifelong love affair with comic books. He was a shrewd businessman. So if Timely/Atlas had ceased being profitable in the 1950s, he would have without a doubt moved onto another enterprise. Basically, without the success of Timely/Atlas in the 1950’s, there never would have been a Marvel Comics. There likely never would have been icons like Spider-Man, Captain America, Avengers, X-Men, Hulk and so many others. We probably would never have heard of Stan Lee. It’s also possible that without the success of Marvel, DC would not have been able to carry on alone for all those decades, and we may not have comic books today at all. All of this is due to the continued profitability of Timely for over fifteen years during the superhero lull. A huge part of that success comes from their forgotten comic book star, Millie the Model.