Black Knight/Yellow Claw Two of the Best Atlas Era Titles from Marvel


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This review is from: Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Black Knight / Yellow Claw

Collects Black Knight 1-5 and The Yellow Claw 1-4. Extras include a lavish 12-page tribute to Joe Maneely by Dr Michael J. Vassallo and a great 4-page introduction by Roy Thomas.  The tribute piece has 14 pieces of artwork at thumbnail size and pictures of Joe Maneely and Stan Lee in 1958.

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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.

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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, from EC fame, 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 steeped in machinations and intrique, a power broker much in line with Darkseid or Dr Doom.

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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.

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I also enjoyed the Cold War era spy stories, one in each volume. These make me want to get other Atlas Era spy comics.

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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! In these four  issues, Lee, Maneely and Kirby create a recurring character much in the vein of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.

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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.

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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 Atlas 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.

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