Book Review: Atlas Artist Edition No. 1: Joe Maneely: “The Raving Maniac” and Other Stories

Before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics, it was Atlas Comics. Fantagraphics kicks off a new archival series in their ongoing partnership with Marvel with this look at the broad range of comics published under the Atlas banner in the 1950s, specifically those drawn by largely forgotten artist Joe Maneely. Superheroes had fallen out of favor in the 1950s, so the contents of this book range from Westerns to sci fi to suspense to comedy, with not even a hint of capes and tights.

Buy Atlas Artist Edition No. 1 – Joe Maneely – The Raving Maniac and Other Stories

Since Atlas dabbled in anything that might turn a buck, Maneely was tasked with morphing his artwork to match each particular assignment rather than establishing an easily identifiable look. The book fully demonstrates his incredible flexibility, showcasing his work in short stories across everything Atlas published. The comics are presented in chronological order, with the earliest entries in Western and suspense genres largely looking like every other generic release of that era. His talent really begins to shine around a third of the way through of the book in his richly detailed war comic, Inchon. From there on, he’s operating above his calling, packing in more fine detail than the comics called for, which makes this new deluxe presentation especially valuable to appreciate his effort. He worked from scripts by a variety of writers, including quite a few by Stan Lee, and while none of the stories are particularly memorable, his artwork elevates the material. 

The comics history of Joe Maneely neatly parallels the history of Atlas Comics, unfortunately due to his tragic early death at the age of 32. He joined just as Timely Comics, the predecessor to Atlas, was shutting down to make way for the new Atlas business model, and remained there until his death and the end of Atlas. The book’s introduction raises the fascinating hypothesis that Marvel may not have ever become Marvel if not for his accidental death, as his absence led to the return of the legendary co-architect of the Marvel universe, Jack Kirby. Martin Goodman, the owner of Atlas, was already planning to shut down Atlas in the days around Maneely’s death in 1958, until Stan Lee and the newly re-hired Kirby approached him with the idea to launch/re-launch six new/old sci-fi comics, titles which paved the way for the emergence of the current Marvel superheroes in 1961.

Fantagraphics has given this material exceptionally lavish treatment, supersizing the comics to whopping 10” by 14” dimensions in a deluxe hardcover format. That’s roughly the same size as their gorgeous Prince Valiant books, almost overkill for material that was originally considered disposable pulp product. The thick pages are semi gloss, which may be a negative for those who prefer matte finish. The comics have been restored, but have not been re-colored. This means that the colors retain their original spot color/dot printing look, but white areas such as word balloons and blank backgrounds are brilliantly white, not tanned. Linework and text are super sharp, only dipping in quality when the original unidentified inkers weren’t quite up to snuff. 

Based on the comics included in this collection, Maneely’s most impressive talent is his mind-boggling ability to effectively switch between all of the genres he covered. One moment he’s mimicking Hal Foster’s intricate Prince Valiant linework in Black Knight, then he’s cranking out a Hank Ketcham Dennis the Menace clone in Pascal the Rascal, then he’s parodying Marilyn Monroe in The Seventeen-Year Twitch, switching up his art style so much between each outing that he’s more chameleon than identifiable artist. His later Westerns are particularly impressive, with highly detailed pencils breathing life into the smallest folds of clothes and models of guns. We’ll never know if he may have settled into a signature look as he aged, but the record he left is an indelible testament to his multifaceted talent. 

The book includes a lengthy retrospective of Maneely’s life and career, as well as a cover gallery to close out the book. Reviewing the covers included, the primary image chosen for the book cover is one of the least visually impressive, although it communicates that the book isn’t beholden to any particular genre. I prefer his sci-fi cover of a tentacle monster for Adventures into Weird Worlds, but I get why it might mislead readers into assuming the whole book is in a similar vein.

Fantagraphics is continuing to mine the Atlas catalog later this year with their ongoing 9” x 11” format Atlas Comics Library series, but this is the only deluxe Atlas Artist Edition currently announced. This debut Atlas Artist Edition sets a new high mark for future archival projects, towering over all other Golden Age collections. It’s also a long-overdue monument to an important and little-known creator who helped Marvel bridge the gap from Timely Comics to superhero dominance.

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Steve Geise

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