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.


RAWHIDE KID: SLAP LEATHER

(Ron Zimmerman/John Severin; MARVEL COMICS FIRST EDITION Hard Cover, 2010 – collecting RAWHIDE KID Volume 3, Issues 1-5, 2003) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

APR100663

The Rawhide Kid debuted in 1955, a time when parents (and a few United States Congressmen) were worried that the horror and crime comics of the day were seriously warping the fragile minds of America’s youth (much like the thought Nazis decried the violence in the Looney Tunes cartoons and forced all of the best parts to be edited out for television viewing during the ’80s). But I digress. Comic historians have debated who actually created and wrote those early issues, but betting men usually cite either the legendary Marvel mastermind, Stan Lee or his brother, Larry Lieber. We do know that as Atlas Comics was becoming Marvel Comics, Stan and artist Jack Kirby relaunched the Kid, giving him something he hadn’t had in the previous 16-issue run: a background story (an origin, if you will… or at least as much of one as a western gunslinger can have).

Now, writer Ron Zimmerman has taken that back story, fleshed it out and, in doing so, has given us a much different Johnny Bart than we’ve ever seen! I’d seen a couple of news stories and read a couple of reviews about this “revision” of the Rawhide Kid character when the strip was first announced in 2003. Apparently, there were some folk who were more than a bit upset about the character’s sexual orientation. What? The Rawhide Kid was gay?

I wasn’t too sure how I felt about that. Not that I cared one way or the other if a writer from the HOWARD STERN SHOW had taken a relatively minor (and presumed hetero-sexual) comic book character and “turned” him or “outed” him or however you wanna phrase it; it just reeked of that bastion of capitalists the world over – exploitation! Just one more character being transformed or revisioned for the sake of change or for the shock value. Maybe managing editor Joe Quesada knew that the Marvel brand may take a hit for this one, so when Zimmerman brought the idea to the powers-that-be, they foisted a third-stringer in the Marvel Universe on him to try it out. I don’t know. And, to be perfectly honest, I really didn’t care all that much. The Rawhide Kid – gay, straight, celibate (which, I guess, he seemed to be in all of his previous incarnations) – was never high on my list of must-read books.

Anyway… I wrote all of that so I could get to this: Nearly ten years after the fact, I decided to check out the hard cover collection (published in 2010), partly because I’d remembered reading something about the series and primarily because it was in the 80% off rack (which made the final price somewhere south of five dollars American). I wasn’t expecting much, aside from amazing artwork from the legendary John Severin. Boy, was I wrong! Not only is Mister Severin’s art exactly what I expected, but SLAP LEATHER is one fun-filled ride from first to last! Yeah… it is a bit cringe-worthy in spots (the Kid in blue speedos, the Kid in buttless chaps and trap-door long johns… you get the idea), but the story is also filled with enough gun-totin’ action and over-the-top, laugh-out-loud comic moments to excuse those. Some of the asides regarding the Kid’s style sense reminds me of the hilarious (and sadly overlooked) 1985 Tom Berenger movie, RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY.

Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, issue 2, page 20 (art by JOHN SEVERIN, story by RON ZIMMERMAN)

Rawhide Kid: Slap Leather, issue 2, page 20 (art by JOHN SEVERIN, story by RON ZIMMERMAN)

Built around a solid plot with a great message, SLAP LEATHER, takes the Rawhide Kid mythos (if such a vague thing actually existed before) and fleshes out the Stan Lee “origin” story, to show a young Johnny Bart as a harassed and bullied “sissy,” both at home by his drunken father and at school by the bigger boys. Obviously, the diminutive young lad, having taken all that he could stand, finally took matters into his own hand and a legend was born.

Fast forward to… uh… I don’t know, somewhere between the early 1870s and the late 1880s or so. The sleepy little town of Wells Junction has been set upon by an ornery gang of desperadoes and ne’er do wells, with only a single, untried sheriff to stand up to them. Obviously, things don’t go well for Sheriff Morgan, much to the dismay of his young son, Toby. Of course, as in any good Western yarn, in rides our hero. Always dapper and well-dressed, the Kid really just wants to have a nice hot bath, a good meal and a few drinks. He doesn’t want to get involved and only does so when he’s provoked by the villainous horde of marauders riding roughshod over the town-folk (and making fun of the Kid’s clothes). The story is enhanced by the inclusion of several very recognizable characters, drawn from such classic TV shows as BONANZA (Michael Landon and Dan Blocker as Little Joe and Hoss in one of the funniest sequences in the whole book), GUNSMOKE (Milburn Stone as Doc), BAT MASTERSON (Gene Berry) and an unlikely LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE storyline (Melissa Gilbert’s Laura Ingalls). Heck, Zimmerman even throws in Don Knotts’ character from THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST!

So, if ya ain’t read this’n yet, saddle up, pardners, there’s a laugh-riot goin’ on down ta Wells Junction and you don’t wanna miss the fun! I understand that there’s a sequel out there somewhere and if I ever see it, I will own it! I might not even wait for it to hit the 80% off rack!