ATLAS ERA BLACK KNIGHT/YELLOW CLAW

(Roy Thomas, foreword/Stan Lee, Al Feldstein, Joe Maneely, Jack Kirby and others; MARVEL PUBLISHING; 256 pages; 2009) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

Black Knight Yellow Claw

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.

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior panel (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior panel (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

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.

BLACK KNIGHT #1, May 1955 cover (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

BLACK KNIGHT #1, May 1955 cover (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

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.

YELLOW CLAW #2, December 1956 cover (artwork by JOHN SEVERIN)

YELLOW CLAW #2, December 1956 cover (artwork by JOHN SEVERIN)

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.

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

BLACK KNIGHT #3, September 1955 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

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.

BLACK KNIGHT #4, November 1955 interior splash page for The Crusader (artwork by: JOHN ROMITA)

BLACK KNIGHT #4, November 1955 interior splash page for The Crusader (artwork by: JOHN ROMITA)

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 #1, October 1956 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

YELLOW CLAW #1, October 1956 interior splash page (artwork by: JOE MANEELY)

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.

YELLOW CLAW #4, April 1957 interior splash page (artwork by: JACK KIRBY, pencils and JOHN SEVERIN, inks)

YELLOW CLAW #4, April 1957 interior splash page (artwork by: JACK KIRBY, pencils and JOHN SEVERIN, inks)

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.

Artist Joe Maneely, circa 1945 (uncredited photo)

Artist Joe Maneely, circa 1945 (uncredited photo)

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.


SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, VOLUMES 1-3

(DC COMICS CLASSIC COLLECTIONS/WARNER HOME VIDEO; 2005-2006; Original Television Series, 1996-2000)

Superman TAS

With MAN OF STEEL an unqualified hit, I thought it was time to examine one of my favorite non-comic book versions of the Last Son of Krypton. The three volume DVD collection of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES is once again gracing the shelves of your local box store and readily available for a sweet lower price (there also exists a SUPERMAN – THE COMPLETE ANIMATED SERIES, which is exactly what it sounds like. It just isn’t available at the box Mart in my neighborhood). So, we concern ourselves with the three separate volumes: all 54 episodes of the now-classic cartoon are here, as well as plenty of bonus extras that delve into the characters and the creators.

For the 3 volumes of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, rather than giving us a more traditional season-by-season release, Volume 1 offers the first season and the first five episodes of Season 2 (which is 28 episodes, more than double the Season 1 total). The second volume features the next 18 episodes of Season 2, while Volume 3 features the final five episodes (including two 2-part arcs), all 10 Season 3 episodes and the last 3 episodes, which make up the entirety of the fourth and final season. Why only three episodes in that last season? Well, producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had intended a full season story arc initiated with the two-parter “Legacy.” The WB network (which aired this series, the BATMAN animated show, as well as the BATMAN BEYOND series), however, wanted the team to focus their creative energies on the newer BATMAN BEYOND. Interestingly enough, BATMAN BEYOND was also put on hold two years later to allow Timm and Dini to work on the new JUSTICE LEAGUE series, allowing everything to come full circle, as that series utilized elements and plot threads from all previous DC animated universe shows (including STATIC SHOCK). But, for now… let’s go back to the beginning.

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Debuting in September, 1996, this new, animated SUPERMAN took its cues from BATMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, with a very stylized approach to the artwork and with stories that stuck very close to the source materials. That made comic book geeks extremely happy! The production team, headed up by Bruce Timm, gave us fairly traditional takes on Martha, Jonathan and Clark Kent, Jor-El and Lara, Lois Lane, Perry White and the major villains (Brainiac, Metallo and – of course – Lex Luthor). There’s also an updated, hipper Jimmy Olsen, as well as retro-versions of a few second-tier baddies like the fifth-dimensional imp, Mister Mxyzptlk and the Toyman. Throw in the nearly forgotten Jim Shooter/Al Plastino creation, Parasite, add a healthy contingent from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (New Gods, Darkseid, Granny Goodness) and some new blood, in the form of Livewire, and you’ve got a party. Heck, even Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Arthur Curry, the Flash, the Joker and Harley Quinn show up in various episodes.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

As with the BATMAN series, this show works on a myriad of levels, one of the most important being the use of great actors. From the lead characters (Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delaney as Lois Lane) to secondary characters like the Kents (Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares) and the wickedly evil Granny Goodness (played to the hilt by – are you ready for this? – Ed Asner!), the cast of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES reads like a producer’s rolo-dex of some of the most recognizable and well-loved voices in Hollywood. In fact, most of the actors are so spot on that they were asked along for the ride when Timm and company launched JUSTICE LEAGUE (and its later incarnation, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED). I believe the only actor who would have had overlapping roles in both this and the JL/JLU series not to appear in the latter show would be Supes himself, Tim Daly, who was already under contract to star in another (live action) series. That these talented individuals made themselves available to reprise their roles (often quite small, especially in the JUSTICE LEAGUE shows) speaks volumes about production standards and the top-notch, knowledgeable writing staff.

Every good super-hero story should start with an awesome origin story and, Superman’s is the one that every creative team since 1938 have been using as a template, to varying degrees of success. As it should, this series begins with an awesome three part story called “The Last Son of Krypton,” which is heavy on the Kryptonian lead up to Kal-El’s arrival on Earth, offering new insights into the societal hierarchy of the doomed planet, as well as an intimate look at the lives of Superman’s birth parents, Lara and Jor-El. A major divergence with the comics is the revelation that the evil mind-construct Brainiac started out as the “brains” behind Kryptonian science, culture and politics. The seemingly benevolent computer is seen as the dispassionate destroyer of the planet, preferring to collect all pertinent information on the planet and its inhabitants rather than offering a solution to its ultimate demise. In short, the ultra-rational Brainiac puts knowledge (and his own survival, as the conservator of the history and knowledge of Krypton) above life. While the comic book version went through various incarnations and minor adjustments in his origin since his debut 45 years ago, this version just seems right. I am rather surprised that DC didn’t adopt this storyline when they deconstructed their entire universe with the New 52 (of which, the less said here, the better). I mean, there is precedent: Harley Quinn, arguably one of DC’s most popular villains, made her first appearance in the BATMAN animated show. A later episode of SUPERMAN introduced Livewire, who went on to appear in various DC titles, as both villain and reformed hero.

Other stellar episodes from that first season (a total of 13 episodes, airing during1996-1997) include “Feeding Time,” which introduces Parasite, a little used character from the comics, turning him into a force to be reckoned with in the Superman animated universe; a two-part story called “The Main Man,” guest-starring – DUH! – Lobo, the loud-mouthed galactic bounty hunter; and “Tools of the Trade,” in which recurring gangster boss Bruno Mannheim signs a deal with the devil… Jack Kirby’s ultimate DC creation, the evil megalomaniac Darkseid (deliciously voiced by Michael Ironside), who from this point forward is the focal point of the series as Superman’s main nemesis. Darkseid casts a huge shadow over the DC animated universe, as the ultimate climax of the massive storyline isn’t realized until much later, in the final episode of the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED series.

Livewire (publicity still)

Livewire (publicity still)

Standouts from Season 2 (probably THE standout season of the entire series) include “The Prometheon,” in which a giant alien android is unwittingly loosed by Superman, to wreak havoc, Godzilla-style on high-tension wires and nuclear generators across the world. The Flash shows up in “Speed Demons,” featuring a plot right out of the comics, with Supes and Wally racing around the planet for charity. When the Weather Wizard decides to hold the climate hostage to get a little respect, hilarity and a tag-team beatdown ensues. The aforementioned “Livewire” is born when a shock jock with a mad on for the Man of Steel is hit by lightning before Superman can save her. Obviously, the fact that he showed up late to the electrocution meant that Kal was to blame and Livewire would become a constant thorn in his side throughout the series (and beyond, in the final season of JLU). Two recurring characters from the comics debuted in this second season: Bizarro (a failed attempt by Lex Luthor and others to clone Superman) and Mister Mxyzptlk, the latter splendidly voiced by the abrasive comedian, Gilbert Gottfried. Often used in the comic books as a comedic foil for Superman, Bizarro’s appearances here are more poignant than funny, as he – like Kal-El before him – seeks his place in a world (and universe) that mocks and shuns him.

As you can see, guest-stars and old school villains abound in this season, including the Dark Knight and his most crazed protagonists, the Joker and Harley Quinn, who all show up in a three-part episode called – what else? – “World’s Finest.” Doctor Fate is called upon for mystical assistance in “The Hand of Fate.” John Henry Irons becomes the hero Steel in “Prototype” and returns in “Heavy Metal” to help Superman against Metallo. The final four episodes prominently feature Jack Kirby’s Fourth World creations, including Granny Goodness and Darkseid. The last two episodes are called “Little Girl Lost” and serve as an introduction to Kal’s cousin Kara, better known as Supergirl, as she and Jimmy Olsen infiltrate a teen gang who are actually being controlled by Darkseid’s evil minion, Granny Goodness.

Darkseid (publicity still)

Darkseid (publicity still)

The most stunning piece of writing and animation comes with episodes 25 and 26, a two-parter called “Apokolips.” With Superman beaten and captured by Darkseid and his armies, the people of Metropolis, led by Detective Dan Turpin (whose character and appearance are based on Jack Kirby himself), rise up and refuse to surrender. As Turpin turns the weapons of Apokolips on Darkseid and uses one to free Superman, Darkseid uses his powers to make an example out of the policeman, vaporizing him with his gaze. Now free, the Man of Steel begins crushing both weapons and parademons alike, forcing Darkseid to retreat, vowing vengeance. The final funeral scenes are some of the best television moments ever. Yeah… I just said that!

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Season 3 is not as dramatic as the previous… how could it be? There are, however, a couple of episodes that are – if nothing else – pure and simple super-hero/comic book fun. Robin (the Tim Drake version) appears in “Knight Time,” covering for a certain Darknight Detective. Once Clark Kent realizes that the Batman has gone missing, he swoops in to lend a hand, much to the chagrin of the Dynamic Duo’s junior partner. The Legion of Super-Heroes show up in “New Kids In Town,” Kyle Raynor makes a rare DCAU appearance as Green Lantern in “In Brightest Day” and Aquaman is captured by Luthor in “A Fish Story.” “Little Big Head Man” finds the fifth dimension imp, Mxyzptlk, tricking a contented Bizarro into returning to Earth to confound Superman with a double whammy of lunacy.

Superman battles one of Batman’s most dangerous foes, as Ra’s Al Ghul brings his Society of Shadows to Metropolis in “The Demon Reborn,” the first episode of the unfortunately aborted fourth season. Darkseid returns for the series two-part finale, “Lagacy.” The Lord of Apokolips brainwashes Kal-El into believing that he was raised on Apokolips as Darkseid’s son. With Superman reappearing on Earth after a long absence, the citizens of Metropolis are appalled at his destructive actions. By the time he regains control of his own mind, the populace of his adoptive planet are in total fear of the Man of Steel and, as a result, have turned against him. Had the series not ended, this story would have arced across the season, as Superman worked to regain the trust of the people of Earth. Thankfully, this thread is picked up later in JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED.

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

There is so much neat stuff going on in this series (and, in fact, all of the other DCAU series) that any comic book geek should find and watch it in any form available (DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, whatever). If you find the DVD/Blu-Ray collections (either the three separate volumes or the complete series), buy them, if for no other reason than to have the cool bonus features, including creators’ commentary on several key episodes, lending insight into the series and the characters. It is well worth the investment, especially at these new, cheaper prices.