« The cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people who were all replaced. » — Georges Clemenceau
Commercially and creatively, the 1950s held some of the best and the worst years for the American comic book industry. Basically, the first half was a glut and the second, a massacre. This is all well-trod ground. Today, we’ll stick to one artist and his main employer.
In his one intensely-prolific decade as a professional cartoonist, Joe Maneely (1926 – 1958) produced the overwhelming bulk of his work for publisher Abe ‘Martin’ Goodman’s Timely/Atlas, which would become Marvel Comics by the decade’s end.
Atlas historian Dr. Michael J. Vassallo sums up the Tao of Goodman (and, by and large, Marvel’s):
« As one genre faded, another would add titles to compensate. It didn’t matter if the new titles were basically redundant titles with new names. Goodman followed all trends in the comic book industry and the publishing industry in general.
A savvy businessman, he rarely led, mostly followed, but had the resources to follow with gusto, overwhelming competitors with product. »
As Ger Apeldoorn tells it, Maneely was a mere thirty-two years of age and at his frenetic artistic peak when tragedy struck:
« … on June 7, 1958, after going out for the night (with old-time friends John Severin and Walt Kelly assistant George Ward) he stepped out on the balcony of the train to get some air, fell between two trains and died. For a long time the story was that he had been drunk, but according to Dan Goldberg* he had lost his glasses earlier that week and that may have been a contributing factor. »
If the inspiring story of Joe Maneely, and its heartbreaking and sudden end is at all remembered these days, it has chiefly been through the diligent efforts of aficionado-historians such as Jim Vadeboncœur Jr. and the aforementioned Dr. Vassallo. Now why would an artist of such calibre fade so swiftly from memory? Since that happens all of the time (what one might term ‘invisible evidence‘), let’s move past the realm of the rhetorical and be more… specific. But first, some samples of the late Mr. Maneely’s goodies.
And so… why have Maneely’s star and memory dimmed so? It has been proposed, and I agree, that it’s because he just didn’t draw superheroes (a couple of Sub-Mariner covers being the lone exceptions), and Marvel itself hardly lifted a finger, over the years, to preserve the reputation of one of its principal architects.
There’s been much idle speculation as to what course comics history would have taken had Maneely lived. Stan Lee wrote, in his usual disingenuous way, that:
« How I wish the world (and I) could have seen what he’d have done with the F.F., Spidey, Thor and all the other Marvel super-heroes! It’s a true tragedy that we’ll never have the chance. »
Let’s be honest here: Maneely was an incredible artist, and he made Stan look good, but Joe wasn’t a writer, and certainly not a world-builder in the fashion and class of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, John Stanley, Basil Wolverton… and precious few others. Without Kirby, the so-called Marvel Age never would have come to pass. Not to mention that Maneely, with a wife and three daughters to feed and support, had just begun to work for one of DC’s friendliest editors, Murray Boltinoff**. He would have been unlikely to drop a better-paying, likely secure gig to drop everything and return to Marvel’s uncertain prospects. Ah, and I see Mark Evanier views it along the same lines.
Oh, and I’ve mentioned in the past Maneely’s likely influence (mostly in the inks) on his contemporary Rocco Mastroserio. Take a look at this gallery of his covers and see if you agree.
*Stan Goldberg, actually.
**as a matter of fact my first encounter, as a child, with Maneely’s work was through a reprint of one of his DC stories: The Doomsday Drum (House of Secrets no. 9, March-April 1958).