|Copyright MARVEL COMICS|
Before Marvel there was Atlas (and before Atlas, Timely), so it's nice to see an Atlas Facsimile Edition in the shape of The Black Knight #1, illustrated by Joe Maneely, who was Stan Lee's pal and favourite artist when the two worked together back in the '50s. Unfortunately Joe was killed in an accident while still relatively young (32), and we therefore never got to see what he might've done with the Marvel Age of heroes. Had there even been one that is, as Jack Kirby was a major force in what was yet to come, and had Joe Maneely lived, it might never have seen the light of day.
Stan was under instructions from Martin Goodman to create a superhero group in the wake of DC's hit mag, Justice League Of America, so The Fantastic Four in some form or other would probably still have appeared, but who the members were, what they were called, and a whole host of other factors, may have been entirely different and not quite the success of the Lee & Kirby version. If it hadn't been, it's entirely doubtful that there would've been The Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, etc.
Stan Lee is quoted as saying that had Maneely not died, he (Stan) would most likely have given the FF to him to draw, but I think Stan is going overboard in trying to honour his pal's memory and artistic talent. That's a common trait of Stan's - to bestow credit on his collaborators to the 'nth' degree. (Ironic then, that he's accused of not giving enough by his often rabid band of detractors.)
Joe was reputedly an extremely fast artist (probably faster than Jack according to Stan, but there's no way to confirm that at this late stage) who had a nice, intricate and ornate yet easy-on-the-eye illustrative style that told the story perfectly adequately. However, he didn't possess the dynamism or the raw power that Jack did in bringing a page to life, and looking at this reprint of The Black Knight, his shortcomings are all too obvious when considering him as a possible alternative co-creator of the mighty Marvel Universe.
His layouts are rather 'staid' and repetitive, and - were you to equate his storytelling abilities to that of a movie - give the impression that everything was shot from the same eyelevel as the 'actors', performing directly in front of the camera. There isn't the variety of panel composition, or figure foreshortening that Kirby was capable of, and while nicely drawn, Maneely's art is more like the equivalent of a measured trot (occasionally rising to a canter) as opposed to Kirby's frenetic gallop.
Look at the first splash page. There's almost an extra foot of body in the waist area of the Black Knight's figure, and I see that Joe repeats this tendency to elongate torsos throughout the mag. A lot of his panels have a 'flatness' to them, and don't possess that almost 3D effect that Jack's panels have. Often, Jack's figures appeared to be jumping off the page at the reader, whereas Joe's figures are all too clearly confined within the panel borders. A Lee/Maneely FF would've been an entirely different animal to the Lee/Kirby one we're familiar with, and I suspect it would've pretty soon faded into limbo and not been the precursor of the avalanche of Marvel heroes back in the '60s.
So, summing up, Joe Maneely was a competent, professional artist who drew nice pictures that served their purpose, but his art just didn't have the raw, raging power required to kickstart and maintain the momentum of the Marvel Comics Group. You may disagree, but if so, then I suspect that you're seeing something that I don't - something that isn't actually there in fact.
However, Maneely certainly wasn't a bad artist, and I heartily recommend this comic to those who'd like to see what Marvel might've been like had Jack Kirby not been part of the equation that helped birth the 'House Of Ideas'. And also just on its own merits, as an entry into a vanished age when comics were exciting fun. Grab it while you can.