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The Atlas Artist Edition No. 1: ‘Joe Maneely Vol. 1 “The Raving Maniac” And Other Stories’ (review)

By Joe Maneely
Edited by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo
Originally Published by Atlas/Marvel
Published by Fantagraphics

 

The first time I ever saw the artwork of Joe Maneely was nine years after his 1958 death, in 1967, when Marvel’s Fantasy Masterpieces began reprinting his Black Knight stories. Without checking at the moment, I don’t believe his name was mentioned so as much as I admired the ornate art style, it would still be some time before I learned whose it was.

Joe Maneely’s story is ultimately tragic. It’s the story of a shining talent that developed quickly, burned brightly, and stood out at a time when most of the real stand-out artists were across town at E.C. Comics. His accidental death has become the source of speculation not only as to how and why it happened but as to what impossible to know effects it had on Atlas Comics—the company that would soon be Marvel.

Atlas Artist Edition # 1, Featuring Joe Maneely, is the first ever collection of his work, and it’s about time. I have to say I do wish they had gone with a different title, though, as “Artist Edition” has become synonymous with Scott Dunbier’s full-size books of original art from IDW. This Fantagraphics book, however, is completely unrelated and dissimilar, being just a compilation of color stories from Atlas, Joe’s main employer during his brief career.

Maneely’s forte was the short story and herein we get 37 of them, in order of publication. Thus we can witness how the artist moves from his early, perfectly acceptable but unremarkable style, to his later, uniquely personal, heavily detailed style. That is fun to watch.

Superheroes were on the outs during most of Maneely’s tenure in the field so outside of a couple covers for the mid-‘50s Sub-Mariner revival, we have no idea what a Maneely super guy might look like. The fact that he excelled in every other genre, though, gives the reader food for thought.

In this book, for example, we see Joe’s art on westerns, science fiction, medieval adventure, Yellow Peril spies, supernatural horror, MAD-style spoofery, and EC-style war stories. To my mind, his war stories are where the artist really excelled, with his middle-period westerns right behind.

Always a bandwagon-jumper, Martin Goodman’s Atlas slavishly copied EC Comics for a time. Under Stan Lee’s guidance, and with top-notch artists such as Maneely, Bill Everett, Russ Heath, and Joe Sinnott, it would be easy for a casual reader to mistake one for the other.

Along with EC’s horror, sci-fi, and parody comics, Atlas also jumped on another trend—westerns. In fact, I believe Atlas had more western titles than any other company throughout the 1950s, and Maneely left his mark on them, as well.

One of the artist’s trademarks was to leave background figures without any heavy blacks so as to make the foreground figures stand out. At his peak, he was also using thousands of lines per page to add depth and texture that numerous other artists just didn’t seem to care about.

One artist who may (or may not) have influenced him on that last score was EC’s Will Elder. When Maneely drew for the humor mags (two stories of which are present here), his work at a quick glance looks nearly indistinguishable from Elder’s.

Finally, my favorite aspect of Joe Maneely’s art is his faces. Most comics artists seem to have a limited number of faces that they use over and over again for characters in different stories. Ditko did it. Kirby, too. But more often than not, Joe Maneely comes up with new and detailed ones for each new story.

Some of the stories here are fun in one way or another but none are particularly memorable. Atlas expert Dr. Michael Vassallo fills the reader in on Joe’s life and his non-Atlas work in his lengthy and informative text piece up front, with lots of rare illustrations included.

At the end of the day, though, Atlas Artist Edition # 1, Featuring Joe Maneely is an art book, celebrating the genuinely creative and tragically short career of Maneely. It’s one to savor and enjoy over and over again. And yes, like others before me, especially after finishing the book, I found myself speculating about what the Marvel Universe might have been like had Joe lived just a few more years. We’ll never know.

Booksteve recommends.

 

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