Monday, 30 April 2018

Meet the Kid: Marvel's First Cowboy Hero (almost)

THE EARLY 1960S WAS A WEIRD TIME for kids. The effects of the Second World War were all around us. Rationing had only ended a few years earlier, and life wasn't easy growing up in a single-parent family on a south-east London council estate. That said, Woolwich was a great playground, and I had plenty of other kids to play with. Our games were inspired by what we saw on television and at our beloved Saturday Morning Pictures. Chief among our pastimes were playing war, and cowboys and indians (we didn't call them "native Americans" back then).

Marvel Comics got into Westerns as the post-war superhero crash began to take hold. Stan Lee's characters, Two-Gun Kid, Kid Colt and the later Rawhide Kid would go on to be the longest running comic book cowboys of all.
That said, I was never much of a fan of the screen cowboys. A uniquely American institution (I can't think of a single British-made cowboy tv show or movie - Carry on Cowboy doesn't count!) the western drama - also known as "oaters" or "horse operas" - was a massively popular genre for much of the 20th century, with its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. I know that our Saturday Morning matinees would have regularly shown Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy movies, but I can't remember any of them. Neither do I remember seeing any of the huge number of comics that featured these stars during the 1960s, though Dell Comics published hundreds of them.

Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy were staples of the Saturday Morning Matinees when I was a kid. But I couldn't for the life of me name one of their films that I saw at the time.
And the tv shows of my youth that featured cowboys - like Rawhide, Wagon Train and Bonanza - just weren't on my radar. Incredibly, these and other cowboy shows would dominate the airwaves until the end of the 1960s, including:
  • Cheyenne 1955 - 1962
  • Gunsmoke 1955 - 1975
  • Wagon Train 1957 - 1965
  • Maverick 1957 - 1962
  • Have Gun Will Travel 1957 - 1963
  • Rawhide 1959 - 1965
  • Bonanza 1959 - 1972
Just about all of Dell/Gold Key's line of comics were based on existing tv or film properties in just about every conceivable genre. They especially focussed on tv shows they thought would appeal to younger readers, with varying degrees of success.
Just as I wasn't interested in the wall-to-wall cowboy tv shows, neither was I much interested in the comics that they spun off. Dell, who built their entire business around licensing tv and movie properties, were probably the biggest purveyors of western titles. Curiously, DC Comics seemed little interested in cowboys, though they maintained two long-running western comics - All Star Western (1951 - 1961) and Western Comics (1948 - 1961) as though just keeping a toe in the water.

I didn't care much for Charlton Comics in general - apart from the few superhero books drawn by Steve Ditko. Much of the Charlton art was by stalwarts like Rocke Mastroserio and Sal Trapani. Quite why a talented guy like Dick Giordano stayed with this poverty row comics producer for so long is a bit of a mystery.
On the other hand, Charlton produced masses of cowboy comics, their longest-running titles being Billy the Kid (1957–1983), Cheyenne Kid (1957–1973), Outlaws of the West (1957–1980) and Texas Rangers in Action (1956–1970).

But by far the biggest booster of western titles was Marvel Comics in all its guises ...


Marvel's first cowboy hero was Two-Gun Kid, aka Clay Harder, who first appeared in his self-titled comic, cover-dated March 1948. There was an earlier Marvel cowboy, the Masked Raider (Jim Gardley), who appeared in Marvel Mystery Comics 1-12 (1939-1940), but I'm not really counting him as his series was so short-lived.

Two-Gun Kid appeared full-blown in his own title in 1948, but the run only lasted 10 issues. When the character got his own title again five years later starting with issue 11 (Dec 1953), readers had to wait until Two-Gun Kid 36 (Apr 1957) to find out how he became an outlaw.
Clay Harder grew up the son of a former sheriff turned farmer in Kansas. One day, young Clay found his father's old Colt and proved to be a natural marksman. But his father caught him and made his swear never to pick up a gun again. A few years later, Harder senior took a job as sheriff in the sleepy town where he lived. When the outlaw family, The Corbetts, start trouble in town, Sheriff Harder is shot. In the melee, Mrs Harder is thrown from a wagon, and also dies. The orphaned Clay promises his father that he will takes up the guns and "use them to bring peace to this troubled land". He gained his nickname because of his skill with the two Colts he carried. At least that was the origin given in the much later Two-Gun Kid 36 (Apr 1957). There'd be another, different, origin a year later in issue 41 (Apr 1958).

The stories in these early issues are nothing special - just standard cowboy adventures with a Two-Gun Kid that seems to be able to outdraw anyone he comes up against. There's no sense that the writers - city boys to a man - had any knowledge of what life in the old West might have looked like. It seems certain that their experience of Western life was informed almost exclusively by the movies they saw in New York's picture houses. And there's no sense of continuity from story to story, no suggestion of any ongoing development of the character.

Two identical plots from TGK 3 & 11 - the artist on the first is Syd Shores, who'd earned his stripes at Timely inking Jack Kirby's pencils on Captain America. The artist in the second is Fred Kida, later penciller on Captain Britain in the 1970s. The unidentified writer on both, likely the same person, was saving themselves some effort by "recycling" the storyline.
The character couldn't have been a massive hit with readers, as his first series, Two-Gun Kid 1 - 10 (Mar 1948 - Nov 1949) lasted just over a year. Despite Stan's best efforts, featuring The Kid in just about every other Marvel western comic during that period, including:
  • Wild West 1 - 2 (Spr - Jul 1948), becomes
  • Wild Western 3 - 12, 32 - 37, 39 (Sep 1948 - Sep 1950, Feb 1954 - Dec 1954)
  • All-Western Winners 2 - 4 (Win 1948 - Apr 1949), becomes
  • Western Winners 5 - 6 (Jun 1949 - Aug 1949)
  • Blaze Carson 4  (Mar 1949)
  • Best Western 58 - 59  (Jun - Aug 1949)
... TGK was cancelled as of its tenth issue. The guest slots in the other titles ceased around the same time.

As I was reading through some of the early Two-Gun Kid stories, I found that certain plots would be re-used. For example, the old chestnut of someone impersonating the hero to frame him for a crime he didn't commit. Another curious example had Two-Gun Kid stepping into a boxing ring to substitute for a wounded boxer, which was the basis for the story "Death in the Ring" in Two Gun Kid 3 (Aug 1948) and the untitled but very similar tale in the revived Two Gun Kid title, issue 11 (Nov 1953).

Much of the art for the first run of Two-Gun Kid was by Syd Shores, with a few drawn by Russ Heath. For some reason, the whole of issue 9 (Aug 1949) was drawn by John Severin, which looks a lot like some kind of deadline foul-up. The identities of the writers have long been lost to history.

Atlas continued to publish cowboy comics through the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, yet there was no sign of the Two-Gun Kid. Then, with little fanfare, the character turned up in the Nov 1953 issue of The Black Rider, in a five-page story drawn by George Tuska. The following month, Two-Gun Kid's own title was restored to the Atlas schedule, with issue 11 (Dec 1953) and would continue for a further eight years until its second cancellation.

Though it's likely Stan would have been contributing scripts to the western titles long before this, Two-Gun Kid 40 has the earliest official credit I could find for Stan on the title. These earliest script is thankfully free of the terrible fake western slang that would litter the Marvel cowboy comics in the early 1960s.
Though Stan Lee had been signing the occasional back-up story in Two-Gun Kid, it wasn't until issue 40 (Feb 1958) that he began taking credit the Two-Gun Kid scripts. This would coincide with the first Marvel stories commissioned in the wake of the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, when Martin Goodman had ordered Stan to get rid of pretty much the entire Atlas staff. In issue 41 (Apr 1958), Stan gave us a new, revised origin of the Two-Gun Kid, drawn by Joe Maneely. This time, The Kid returns to his hometown to visit his father. But the town's been taken over by rancher and thug Bull Yaeger. Harder Senior is killed when Yaeger tries to take over the Harder ranch. Released from his pacifist vow by his father's death, The Kid is freed to defeat Yaeger and turn him over to the sheriff. 

From this issue on it looked as though it would be pretty much Lee and his favoured artist Joe Maneely cranking out the Two-Gun Kid stories. But the untimely death of Maneely in June 1958 cut this plan short, and issue 44 was the last drawn by the artist.

In one of the last comics drawn before his tragic death, Joe Maneely's art for Two-Gun Kid looks a good deal looser than his earlier style. Did Stan have him stretched a bit thin, or was this a deliberate moved towards a more Alex Toth-like style? Included here is a scan of Maneely's 1955 Black Knight, for comparison.


Joe Maneely was born in Philadelphia, PA on 18 Feb 1926, to Robert and Gertrude Maneely. While at Northeast Catholic High School he created the school's mascot, The Red Falcon, and featured the character in a strip he drew for the school's newspaper. He dropped out of high school before graduating to join the US Navy. He served three years as a specialist, contributing cartoons to ships' newspapers.

Joe Maneely began at Street & Smith by drawing the feature "Tao Anwar" in Red Dragon Comics 5 (Oct 1948). Very soon after, Maneely joined Timely and began on western titles, drawing "The Kansas Massacre of 1864" in Western Outlaws and Sheriffs 60 (Dec 1949).
Once out of the Navy he trained at Hussain School of Art under a G.I. ticket, then entered the advertising department of the Philadelphia Bulletin. In 1948, he began freelancing for Street and Smith on the features Mario Nette and Red Dragon in Red Dragon Comics.

Towards the end of 1948, Maneely began freelancing for Timely, drawing the story "The Kansas Massacre of 1864" for Western Outlaws and Sheriffs 60 (Dec 1949).

Maneely's second job for Timely was in the first issue of Black Rider (Mar 1950). By 1958, he was drawing just about every kind of feature for Atlas, and he was Stan Lee's go-to artist for reviving the fortunes of Two-Gun Kid, drawing the revised origin of the character in issue 41 (Apr 1958).
Over the next couple of years, Maneely became a favourite of editor Stan Lee, because he could turn his hand to any style and deliver quality work very quickly - he was rumoured to be able to pencil and ink seven pages in a day - war, horror, romance, science fiction, Maneely could draw it all.

A sample of Joe Maneely's prodigious output of art - pencils and inks - created for the June 1955 cover-dated Atlas comics alone. Not pictured, a further 42 pages of comic strip material for Cowboy Action, Navy Action and Wild Western. Click on image to enlarge.
The same month that Maneely was drawing Black Knight 1 (Jun 1955), which contained three stories running to 23 comic strip pages, plus the cover, he also drew:

  • Annie Oakley 5 - cover
  • Apache Kid 14 - cover
  • Battle Action 17 - cover
  • Cowboy Action 6 - "No Law in Durado" (7pgs) + cover
  • Jungle Action 5 - cover
  • Lorna the Jungle Girl 13 - cover
  • Marines in Action 1 - cover
  • Navy Action 6 - "Battleship Burke" (6pgs) + cover
  • Navy Combat 1 "Hit and Run" + cover
  • Outlaw Kid 5 - cover
  • Rawhide Kid 2 - cover
  • Ringo Kid Western 6 - cover
  • Rugged Action 4 - cover
  • Strange Tales 36 - cover
  • Western Kid 4 - cover
  • Western Outlaws 4 - cover
  • Wild Western 43 - Ringo Kid in "Hutch Hammer" (6pgs)

That's 18 covers, plus the 23 pages in Black Knight 1 and a further 19 pages of comic strip art for war and western titles - a total of 60 pages of drawing, surely some kind of record for comic art.

John Romita told Roy Thomas a story in an interview for Alter Ego magazine that indicates Stan Lee was getting Maneely to help other Atlas artists the way he would with Jack Kirby ten years later on the Marvel books. "Stan calls up Joe Maneely and tells him, 'I'm going to send this guy out to spend a day with you. Give him as many pointers as possible.' And the next day, I went out to Flushing, probably from 10:30 in the morning until about 4:30 in the afternoon. I watched Maneely; and while he's talking to me, giving me pointers, he turned out like two or three pages, one double-spread with an entire pioneer fort in Indian country with Indians attacking from the outside, and guys shooting from the inside.

An example of Maneely's finely detailed inking work, for Battle Action 23 (Jun 1956). Hard to believe he worked from the simplest of pencils. Click on the image to enlarge.
"Maneely is the first guy I realised could put in bone structure with a pen line," Romita continued. "In other words, he didn't make everything round. He had these nice bone structure prominences on people's faces and clothing. The word 'crisp' immediately popped into my mind. He would do the whole thing with a thin pen line; then he would take a big, bold brush and do all the blacks. And for years after that I worked that way. I was a brush man at heart, but I couldn't stop working the way he did for a while.

Marvel artist Herb Trimpe also reported that Marie Severin had described Maneely's pencil work as, "almost nonexistent; they were like rough, lightly done layouts with no features on the faces ... It was just like ovals and sticks and stuff, and he inked from that. He drew when he inked. That's when he did the work, in the inking!"

The Black Knight, co-created by Stan Lee and Maneely, took superhero tropes and transferred them to medieval England. Maneely's art had a classical quality, making it look like etchings rather than ink drawings. It was an interesting experiment, even though the title only lasted five issues.
Maneely is chiefly remembered for co-creating The Black Knight, with Stan Lee and The Yellow Claw, with writer Al Feldstein. He also created The Ringo Kid, and drew every issue from 1-21 (Aug 1954 - Sep 1957).

Interviewed in 2002, longtime Marvel colourist Stan Goldberg remembered Joe Maneely as, "the best artist that ever drew comics. Joe wasn't just a great craftsman; he worked so fast and he was one of the few artists who could go from drawing the Black Knight to drawing Petey the Pest, or a war story. He had an unbelievable knack and he was just one sweet, nice guy."

The Yellow Claw was created by Maneely and writer Al Feldstein of EC and Mad fame. A knock-off of Fu Manchu, the character was drawn by Maneely for just the first issue. Subsequent issues were pencilled by Jack Kirby and the title was cancelled with issue 4 (Apr 1957).
When the Great Atlas Crash of 1957 came along, Maneely along with the rest of the Atlas staff was let go. He'd continue to draw Mrs Lyons' Cubs for the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate strip, along with some work for DC's House of Secrets and Tales of the Unexpected, as well as Charlton and Crestwood.

The original art for the 23 Mar 1958 Sunday page of Mrs Lyons' Cubs, a newspaper strip written by Stan Lee and drawn by Joe Maneely. After Maneely's death, the strip limped on with Al Hartley art, but without Maneely, the strip lasted only three more months.
On the night of 7 June 1958, Maneely had supper with fellow Atlas alumni John Severin and George Ward in Manhattan. Somewhere along the way, he'd lost his glasses and, while trying to move between moving railway carriages, slipped, fell and was killed on the tracks. 

"Joe [told] me that he'd been in the city the week before and had lost his glasses," recalled Stan Goldberg. "He didn't even know how he'd gotten home that day. So this day came and he went out drinking and went out to get some air between the trains, and he fell off the train. When they found him, he was still clutching his portfolio. I remember Danny Crespi calling me on Saturday morning to break the news. The family had a rough time after he died. The Maneelys had daughters and a lot of bills. They had just bought a big house, too, and didn't have any money put away."

His last published story was a five-page Ringo Kid story for Gunsmoke Western 53 (Jul 1959).

Joe Maneely: 18 Feb 1926 - 7 Jun 1958
Stan has been quoted many times as saying, "he would have been another Jack Kirby. He would have been the best you could imagine." I don't think it's too big a stretch to say that if Maneely hadn't died in 1958, there's every likelihood that Stan wouldn't have needed to hire Jack Kirby to take up the slack. And the course of Marvel Comics might have looked very different indeed.


After Maneely's last issue, Two-Gun Kid 44 (Oct 1958), there were a couple of fill-in issues by Jack Davis, one by Matt Baker and another by Al Hartley, then John Severin took over as the regular penciller on the Two-Gun Kid stories, from issues 49 - 57 (Aug 1959 - Dec 1960), working from Stan Lee scripts.

John Severin, brother of famed EC colourist Marie, had enjoyed a stellar career in the mid-1950s as one of Harvey Kurtzman's go-to artists for his historical war comics Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. With the collapse of EC, Severin found himself toiling for much lower page-rates at Atlas
There's no published sales figures for Two-Gun Kid, but I suspect readers were finding the title a bit stale, compared to stablemate Kid Colt Outlaw. Severin's art was very slick, if not quite up to the standard of his EC work. That Stan paid a good deal less than Bill Gaines might have been a factor. So, in an effort to goose the sales, Stan first took John Severin off the cover art chores and assigned Jack Kirby instead. And when this didn't seem to have the desired effect, Stan took the unprecedented step of firing Severin from the title entirely and replacing him with Kirby on the interior art as well. Severin wouldn't work for Marvel again for five years.

"Hey, Stan," said Marty Goodman. "Monsters are selling real well. Have Kirby do a monster story for Two-Gun Kid ... see if we can get that puppy back up on its feet." No wonder Stan was getting frustrated and dejected at Marvel by mid-1961 ...
Kirby had been providing covers for many of the fledgling Marvel's titles since he'd arrived at the company at the end of 1958, a couple of months after the death of Joe Maneely. Because of Marvel's lower rates, Kirby was drawing everything Stan offered him, sometimes just knocking out the art for the money. But not even Jack Kirby could save the title and Two-Gun Kid was cancelled just two issues later, with issue 59 (Apr 1961).

But that wasn't the end of The Two-Gun Kid, at least not of that nom-de-guerre. A year and a half later, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would revive the character, though not the Clay Harder version, in the all-new Two-Gun Kid. But that's a story for next time ...

Next: The Return of the Two-Gun Kid