(Roy Thomas, foreword/Stan Lee, Al Feldstein, Joe Maneely, Jack Kirby and others; MARVEL PUBLISHING; 256 pages; 2009) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT
What we now know as Marvel Comics went through several permutations before they “Made Mine Marvel.” The publishing company started by Martin Goodman started as an outlet for pulp magazines before branching out into comics in 1939, as a way to profit from the popularity of the world’s first super-hero, Superman. The comics wing of Goodman’s “empire” was initially called Timely Comics (with several other companies under the larger umbrella of Timely). In 1951, Goodman hit the reset button as the Golden Age of Comic Book Super-Heroes came to an end, renamed the company Atlas and started throwing every genre of book against the wall to see what would stick. Ten years later, with DC Comics/National Publications again leading the way with a resurgence (and updates) of their super-hero line, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ushered in the “Marvel Age of Comics” with the premiere issue of FANTASTIC FOUR.
Now, Marvel has begun to dip into that deep (if convoluted) history with hardbound reprints of, not only the Golden Age Timely books, but also the Atlas titles that straddled the Golden and Silver Ages. The “throw everything against the wall and let’s see what sticks” attitude of the publisher is certainly on display with this collection, which features the full (and, unfortunately, short) runs of two of the oddest titles ever scheduled by a front-line comics publisher: BLACK KNIGHT (five issues, beginning in 1955) and YELLOW CLAW (four issues, starting the following year). Now, let’s be clear here… “odd” doesn’t necessarily mean bad or unreadable, just… well… odd! And, as you know if you’ve ever picked up a comic book, characters and concepts never really die. The Yellow Claw character (based on Sax Rhomer’s pulp creation, Fu Manchu) made a comeback in the ’60s as a villainous foil for SHIELD and Captain America, among others. Black Knight was reincarnated as a villain (Nathan Garrett, a descendant of the original Knight, Sir Percy of Scandia) in the Giant Man strip in TALES TO ASTONISH, meeting his demise against Iron Man in TALES OF SUSPENSE.Garrett’s nephew, Dane Whitman, took up the mantle, restoring the heroic name by becoming a Defender and, eventually, a member-in-good-standing of the Avengers.
As was the standard during those days, comic books generally consisted of four or five stories with an average length of five pages, as well as a two-page “text” story (to give them some type of legitimacy to “grown-ups,” I assume). BLACK KNIGHT featured three Knight tales, alongside one story featuring a character called “The Crusader.” For the first three issues, every single page was lavishly illustrated by a man affectionately called Atlas’ “workhorse,” Joe Maneely. Maneely brought a depth to the medium that few artists of the day could duplicate. His work appeared in western, horror, science fiction, war, crime, satire and just about every other genre book of the time. And, without exception, each page was more beautiful than the last. He was also on hand for the first issue of YELLOW CLAW, drawing the three Claw stories there, before turning the pencil over to Jack Kirby.
The debut issues of both titles are as famous for the writers (who were rarely given due credit at Atlas) as for the artists, or for that matter, the characters. Joe Maneely always signed the splash panel of his work and, if you check closely on BLACK KNIGHT #1, you’ll see that someone else signed his name above: Stan Lee. Before comics began printing full credits, Stan was making a name for himself by letting the reader know who was responsible for what they were reading. Check out some of those Atlas monster books: Stan’s name is right there with Ditko, Ayers and Kirby (and sometimes, if the artist didn’t sign, Stan’s was the only name there). YELLOW CLAW #1 was written by Al Feldstein, a writer and artist from the glory days of EC Comics. His stories were always dark and didn’t always have a happy ending. This made the menace of the Claw’s character almost palpable and the chance that evil would ultimately triumph over good a very real possibility. Where the Black Knight stories dealt with the Arthurian legends of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, Yellow Claw walked a fine line between horror and Cold War espionage (leaning heavily on the latter in the first issue). So… enough of the preliminaries, eh? Let’s get into the specifics about this MARVEL MASTERWORKS edition.
The first part of the book (after an insightful and entertaining foreword by the legendary comic book creator, Roy Thomas) covers BLACK KNIGHT. The Knight tales are enjoyable stories filled with swords and sorcery, lances and horses and, of course, damsels in distress. In the first story (a long, 10-page origin story), Sir Percy is chosen by King Arthur’s confidant and mage, Merlin, to become the Black Knight, a protector of King and Realm. Every good hero should have a secret identity and the Knight is no exception. In true Clark Kent fashion, Percy is portrayed as a somewhat bumbling coward. His appearance at Court is more of a foppish boob than anything else, allowing himself to be laughed at and pushed around by the evil Mordred and his loyal minions. Of course, the Knight proves his worth in battle against the evil Mordred and is knighted by Arthur. In the second story (this one runs eight pages), the Knight’s sword is empowered by the magic of Merlin… as long as he wields the “Black Blade” only in service of the King. The third story is an origin story of sorts for the Crusader, a character fighting the Saracens in the Holy Land during… what else?… the Crusades. While the length (five pages) doesn’t allow much in the way of character development or plot (or action, or story or a whole lot of anything else), it does kinda whet the appetite for future installments.
With issue number two, the stories return to the mean… nothing spectacular outside of the beautiful Maneely artwork. Each issue now features three 6-page Knight tales plus the five-page Crusader piece. For what it’s worth, the Crusader, with its continuing storyline, offers a bit more with each new episode. Does this mean that Stan Lee was only responsible for penning the first issue? It would seem to be the case, even though he may have stayed around for the Crusader. I bring up that possibility only because of the linear story-telling throughout the series’ run. By the fourth issue, Joe Maneely was gone. The Black Knight stories were now illustrated by Fred Kida; the Crusader has some great, stylized work from John Romita. Kida’s art is actually pretty good; his shortcoming – compared to Maneely – is more in composition and layout. Romita is… well… Romita! Number five has another new artist, Syd Shores. Again, Syd’s work is serviceable, maybe a step or two down from Kida. Part of the problem could be – at least on the Knight stories – is the fact that another artist, Christopher Rule, inked Shores’ pencils. On the Crusader, Syd inked himself and attempted to maintain the more stylish work of Romita’s story from the previous issue.
YELLOW CLAW is a completely different beast but, you find yourself immediately drawn in by that beautiful Joe Maneely art. The Yellow Claw is a 150 year old – possibly other-worldly (check the pointy ears) – scientific genius with great powers of suggestion. For whatever reason, he has a mad on for the good ol’ US of… and, seeking to overthrow all of Western civilization, comes up against FBI operative Jimmy Woo. A warning for the Politically Correct among you: all of the Asian and German (the Claw’s second-in-command is a Nazi war criminal) characters are stereotypical 1950s depictions; my suggestion: Get over it and enjoy these stories for what they are. What they are, at least in the first issue, is Cold War spy stuff with the Communists looking for ways to gain control of the American government, utilizing the nefarious Claw and his minions to accomplish that goal. The fact that they also have supernatural elements – due, no doubt, to Al Feldstein’s creative writing – only adds to the fun. The first issue features three Yellow Claw/Jimmy Woo stories (two 6-pagers and one 7-pager) and an unrelated four-page “foreign intrigue” tale, with art by Werner Roth.
If the entire concept of YELLOW CLAW was something completely different, the final three issues were something else altogether. Before the second installment of the book came out, Feldstein was offered and accepted the editorial reins of EC’s MAD, leading to the entire creative team being replaced by the immortal Jack Kirby. Now, for me, Kirby has always been hit and miss… especially his writing (I enjoyed a lot of his 1970s DC Comics stuff, particularly THE DEMON, but could not get behind his run on the Losers). Anyway, Kirby quickly turned the series in a more sci-fi direction. The stories were shorter (the second issue featured three 5-page tales and one 4-page piece), the art panels larger (partially to highlight Kirby’s pencil work, partially – and this is conjecture on my part – to hide his script-writing shortcomings) and the stereotypes intensified. “Footsteps In the Dark” is a four page stand-alone, totally uncredited spy story that kinda sticks out amidst the over-the-top Kirby pages. The final two issues follow suit, page-wise. The non-Claw tales are, respectively, “The Trap” (art by George Roussos) and “The Locked Room” (with weird, Ditko-like art from Manny Stallman). What may have been an attempt to rein in Kirby’s bizarre style resulted in the final issue being inked by John Severin. In my humble opinion, inking Kirby’s pencils takes a special type of artist; these artists are few and far between… Vince Coletta on Thor and Mike Royer on a lot of his ’70s DC output come to mind. Severin over Kirby was an absolutely genius pairing. Unfortunately, I think this may be the only time this combination worked together. As a bonus to Severin fans, he was also responsible (pencils and inks) for the covers of issues two and four. Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett produced a beautiful cover for number three, by the way.
As the incredible artwork of Joe Maneely served as a focal point to this collection, there is also a 12-page essay by comics historian, Doctor Michael J Vassallo, called “Joe Maneely: Adventure Comics,” as business cards for Maneely’s studio were printed. It is an in-depth examination of the man, his work and his life, which was cut far too short, at the age of 32, in a 1958 commuter train accident. His is one of the great “What if… ” stories in Marvel Comics history. Add this special feature to the nine issues worth of comics and this is definitely a collection worth owning.