Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Black Night/Yellow Claw - Volume 1 Hardcover – Sep 2 2009
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But the real reason I picked up the book was for the four-issue Yellow Claw series, also included in the volume. The first issue was drawn by Maneely and scripted by EC writer/editor Al Feldstein, his only work for Atlas. But the final three were written and drawn by Jack Kirby, and features some of his most imaginative art. The stories, only four or five pages each, are quite silly as only Gold or Silver Age comics can be. But the art is stunning, and the final issue features some incredible inks by EC veteran John Severin. For my money, this is one of the best Atlas Era Masterworks yet, up there with the equally great Bill Everett Sub-Mariner volume.
The reproduction is superb. Maneely's art really shines in this volume. The Black Knight stories themselves are really too short for modern tastes, no more than 5 pages apiece. It's difficult to work up much plot sophistication in that amount of space. Still, it all seems to work as Merlin's agent, the Black Knight, the secret identity of the foppish Sir Percy, foils plots against Camelot. A strange twist to Arthurian legend is Morgana as Modred's wife, instead of his mother. There is also an undistinguished back up feature, the Crusader. The follow on artists in Black Knight #4 and #5 are also excellent.
Yellow Claw is a less satisfactory book. Maneely did only the first issue and the covers before turning the book over to Jack Kirby. Kirby did the scripting also and the stories are just all over the place with elements of cold war intrigue, horror, science fiction, fantasy, etc. The contrast between Maneely and Kirby art is interesting. Maneely always did his own inking whereas Kirby never did his.
The book is topped off with a 12 page Maneely biography by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo. This is a superb text piece and adds tremendously to what is in effect a Joe Maneely tribute book.
The stories don't age well like most Atlas stories from this period but the art is timeless.
Comics historian Michael J. Vassallo tops it off with a detailed essay on the life and work of Joe Maneeely. The book is sharply reproduced and well worth seeking out for the comics afficianado.
In addition to 14 Joe Maneely stories and 6 covers, we also get pre-Marvel Kirby inking assists by Roz Kirby on 12 amazingly illustrated stories, two John Severin covers, a Bill Everett cover, three stories with Fred Kida art, four stories with Syd Shores art, and artwork from John Romita, Werner Roth, George Roussos, and Manny Stalman.
The Black Knight scripts in #1 are written by Stan Lee. The art is by Joe Maneely and is outstanding. Modred and Merlin join a cast from Camelot. I wouldn't be surprised if He-man and the Masters of the Universe drew inspriration from the Black Knight. The foppish Percy is the cunning disguise for the fearsome Black Knight, protector of Camelot and King Arthur. Each issue has three Black Knight tales and one adventure with the Crusader.
The Crusader follows a somewhat similar formula with a noble warrior and his famed sword fighting to protect his liege against an internal traitor and external forces. I was surprised at how even-handed these stories were. I'm sure some might view these stories as a bit naive, I choose to view them as optimistic and hopeful. Though war is the backdrop for both characters, there is an overall optimism in the valor and nobility of humanity that is seldom exemplified in modern stories.
The true jem here is the Yellow Claw. Al Feldstein writes the Claw stories in the first issue. Kirby writes the stories he penciled. It's amazing to me what a focus The Yellow Claw was to the storyline. In the first story, we don't meet the hero, Jimmy Woo until the last half of the last page. The Claw's a ruthless adversary, much in line with Darkseid or Dr Doom. His daughter, Suwan, catches Jimmy's eye. I loved these first stories and definitely would've enjoyed several more adventures in line with these first few. These stories were sophisticated and entertaining.
I also enjoyed the Cold War era spy stories, one in each volume. These make me want to get other Atlas Era spy comics.
When Kirby takes over on the Yellow Claw, anything goes. From the first story in #2, the Claw harnesses a group of Mutants to warp reality with their minds. This is seven years before Marvel's Merry Mutants take the stage! Interspersed, we get mysteries, "Temujai the Golden Goliath", "The Microscopic Army", "UFO, the Lightning Man", the Daily Globe announcing "The Yellow Claw Captured!", "The Living Shadows", "The Thought Master" and the supremely weird "The Screemies". In "Five Million Sleep-Walkers" the inking is attributed to John Severin. The inks here look an awful lot like Steve Ditko's style of a few years later.
Kirby demonstrates amazing creativity and imagination, completely up-ending the construction of a serious spy adventure into a cocktail of sci-fi, horror, and mystery as a prelude to his later run on Captain America. Here is the Marvel Age in microcosm. I found these stories even more enjoyable than Kirby's original take on Nick Fury and SHIELD. In my opinion, these scant four issues are a hallmark of the Atomic Age of comics, perhaps even the pinnacle, from the material I've observed. The fact that three Claw stories were in each issue along with the spy mystery, made it feel like we get a good glimpse of Feldstein, Maneely and Kirby's visions for these characters.
I was left wanting more at the end of The Yellow Claw. He had the makings of being an all-time best villain. It's a shame that the At;as implosion caught this title in a numbers game and, with its departure, so too did Kirby, however briefly, as he focused his freelance work with DC to create the Challengers of the Unknown wth Dick and Dave Wood. This 256-page masterwork is packed full of great stories, writing and, above all, artwork.
The Yellow Claw, his niece Suwan and F.B.I. agent Jimmy Woo introduced in the four-issue Yellow Claw series would later appear in the Nick Fury stories in Marvel's Strange Tales (1951 - 1976 1st Series) #161 - 162 (October - November 1967). Agent Woo would later join the counterespionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 (July 1968), and also reappear in Agents of Atlas (2006) #1 - 6 (Oct. 2006 - March 2007) and Agents of Atlas (2009) #1 - 5 (April - November 2009).
These issues from the '50's were jam-packed with good stories and art, and each of the nine issues in this collection also had a two-page text story. The color-reproduction is top-notch as are all the Marvel Masterworks collections, and I highly enjoyed this book.