March 22, 2010

Golden Age Artist Spotlight -- Joe Maneely

Joe Maneely was as much a story of "What if?" as he was an example of a prolific, immensely talented golden age artist.   He was a relative star for Atlas Comics (Martin Goodman's precursor to Marvel Comics), and handled assignments in every genre.   An excellent draftsman, Maneely drew characters and scenes with a distinctive style, yet with almost photo-realistic detail.   His cowboys dressed like real cowboys and his soldiers fought with off-the-assembly-line-like gear.  His drawing was above all action-oriented.   Not as pretty as some other artists, but very vivid.   And his inking became stylized over time, resembling fine etching as he reached the apex of his career.  

Maneely was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  After dropping out of high school his sophomore year, Joe enlisted in the Navy,  serving three years as a specialist in visual aids and contributing cartoons to ship newspapers.  In 1947, after his discharge, Maneely married his childhood sweetheart.  Under the G.I. Bill, Maneely trained at the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia.  His first professional art experience began in the art department at the Philadelphia Bulletin.  His first comics work came via freelance for Street & Smith Publications.  With several other artists, Maneely formed an arts studio in Philadelphia.  

Shortly after the birth of his first daughter (he and his wife Elizabeth would have two more daughters), Maneely would begin working for the outfit that would fully showcase his talents:   Atlas Comics.   Atlas was in the process of transitioning from the superhero-centric books of Timely to the globe-logoed Atlas books, which moved into a host of different genres, including westerns, horror, crime, science fiction, and humor (following E.C. Comics' lead in most of these area no doubt-- most golden age comic publishers were nothing if not devoted imitators).      From 1950 until 1955, Maneely freelanced for Atlas, at which time he went on staff.  Until his family moved to Queens in 1953, Maneely actually traveled back and forth from Philadelphia to New York three times a week via train to pick up scripts.  In either 1954 or 1955, the Maneely family moved to suburban New Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

Quickly becoming a favorite of writer/editor Stan Lee, Maneely possessed two qualities that would serve him greatly as a comic book artist -- speed and versatility.   As the covers below show, Maneely could handle any assignment, in any genre.  He could go from drawing Petey the Pest to the Black Knight.  In researching this piece, I was amazed to see that in roughly seven years at Atlas, Maneely drew approximately four hundred covers (assuming that the GCD's records are accurate).   These were not quick-scribbled, minimalist, hack-jobs either.   Most of these covers had an amazing amount of action, detail, and linework.  This does not even count his interior pages, which he was estimated to produce at a rate of seven pages a day.   Hence the nickname other Atlas contemporaries gave him:  "Joe Money."  

But by the summer of 1957, work at Atlas was drying up.  Shortly afterward,  Martin Goodman stopped distributing his own titles, and switched to American News Company, which soon went belly-up, leaving Atlas Comics without a distributor and which prompted Goodman to fire all staff except for Stan Lee, Maneely included.  With the loss of his primary income, Maneely had to scramble for a limited number of freelance assignments for DC/National, Charlton Comics, Crestwood Publications, and federal goverment PSA comics.  He also continued to draw (with Lee writing) a Chicago Sun Times-syndicated comic strip Mrs. Lyon's Cubs, which debuted on February 10, 1958.  

Then came the night of June 7, 1958.  After meeting with other laid-off Atlas colleagues in Manhattan, and enjoying dinner and drinks, Maneely boarded a commuter train and headed back to his home in New Jersey.   At some point on the ride home, he walked out on the platform between passenger cars and fell between them, and was killed.   He was thirty-two years old.   It's alleged that he was still clutching his artist's portfolio when his body was found.

How Maneely died is not in debate, why he died is another.   There have been accusations from his widow that he fell because of symptoms related to exhaustion brought on by excessive workloads at Atlas, rumors of suicide related to fallout of the Atlas layoff, questions of drunkenness and missing eyeglasses contributing to accidental tragedy.  In any case, Maneely left behind a load of bills, a house recently purchased, zero savings, and three young children.  It was a tragedy that would not only deprive the world of a huge talent, but devastate a family for years to come.  

What compounds the loss is that Atlas was only a short time away from a renaissance as Marvel Comics.  Fellow Atlas artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby would go on to co-create the Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and a host of other familiar characters.  There's every reason to believe that Maneely, had he lived, would have been a huge part of the "new" Marvel.  Whether Maneely would have substituted for Kirby or Ditko on FF or Spider-man is obviously debateable.  Mark Evanier, who worked closely with Kirby, notes here that:
First off, if Maneely had lived, Atlas/Marvel would have been a very different company.  Actually, between him and Kirby and Ditko (Stan's other favorite artist), there would have been little room for anyone else to draw for the firm. ... As I wrote in a recent Jack Kirby Collector, 'Would it [Rawhide Kid] have gained readers if Stan had put Maneely on the book?  Who knows?  Sometimes, it's not a matter of having a good artist but of having the right good artist and the right chemistry.'  [Re:  Fantastic Four] - The Lee-Maneely team would have come up with a completely different comic.  Would it have sold as well and spawned a new Renaissance in super-hero funnybooks?  Again, who knows?
My two cents is that Kirby had already been known as an established and well-respected artist for decades prior to co-creating the Fantastic Four with Stan Lee, so no substitution was warranted or likely.  Perhaps Kirby never gets hired.  I doubt that severely.   I think it's more likely that Maneely would have taken the spot that Don Heck and others filled (a Maneely Iron Man perhaps), and he probably would have done the majority of non-super hero work, including westerns, and he might have led to the creation of lots of new titles, superhero or otherwise.   Or not.  Guessing Maneely's impact is an interesting intellectual exercise, if only to deepen the impact of the tragedy;  like Kirby or Ditko is now, Maneely might have been on the short list of the greatest comic book artists of the entire medium, as he was just coming into the prime of his career when it was horrifically cut short. 

There are fewer available reprints of Maneely's works than one might expect.   There are a list of Marvel reprints on Maneely's wikipedia page and there is a well-regarded Marvel Masterworks hardcover collection of Maneely's Black Knight and Yellow Claw series (containing nice Kirby art as well) available here.   It's slightly distressing to see that, despite being part of the larger Marvel legacy, there has been very little in terms of Atlas reprinting on a broad, widely available basis, or a particular emphasis on producing a complete artist's profile.  With the reprint market holding steady, one might hope for a Complete Maneely series sometime in the near future.   Maneely deserves the retrospection and the respect.  His was a bright star that extinguished much too early.

Enjoy the covers, and I welcome your observations and insights. 



  1. Great, great piece Ray. I really enjoyed it.

    Once upon a time, I thought that Maneely could do no wrong and that he only would have improved the Modern Age but your points (as well as those raised by ME) are well taken.

    I think Kirby would still have been the main man, and he'd been doing work for Atlas since 1956, so he was in Stan's sights at the time of Maneely's death. Same goes for Ditko. I know that Lee speaks fondly of Maneely, but had all 3 men been alive in 1961 and 1962 - I wouldn't have been surprised to see Maneely take the Don Heck role.

    Heresy Warning: I've soured a bit on Maneely over the years. I've always admired his covers, but I find some of his interior stuff to be rather uninspired. It holds up just fine against the likes of Vic Carrabotta or Mac Pakula (both solid yet unspectacular) - but if I look at it with ,objective eyes - it is not in the same league as Kirby, Ditko, Severin or Heath. Much of it seems rushed, which is understandable given his workload - but I just can't get around the fact that for every masterpiece like Black Knight, there is a very generic story hidden in the pages of some random Atlas war or western title.

  2. Many thanks for the insightful comment (as well as linking from your blog -- I appreciate the additional traffic), Scott.

    Like I said, it's an interesting intellectual exercise to play "what if" in discussing the Marvel silver age Renaissance. Thanks for your take on it.

    And I don't see your final point as heresy, BTW. Maneely DOES look rushed on interiors, and I don't think there's a way around that when you're blasting out seven pages a day (as well as covers). I think John Severin does the same type of art (crisp line, historical detail, action sequencing) much better than Maneely, but I say that without having seen the vast majority of Maneely's interior work.

  3. Maneely would have needed to change his general look (or be inked by someone other than himself) to join in the early '60s Marvel revolution. One of Kirby's and Ditko's strengths were their ability to draw (and ink) with an eye to how their work would look coloured.

    Maneely had a ornate ink line that tended to bring a stasis to his pencils -- in contrast to the Kirby 'power' line or the gymnastic grace of Ditko's Spider-Man.