By Charles EP Murphy
The year is 1961 and comics are about to change forever. Fantastic Four #1 is out, birthing the Marvel Age of Comics under the pens of Stan Lee and… Joe Maneely?
Joe Maneely was a young artist out of Pennsylvania, known for a dynamic art style, an ability to pull off multiple genres, and for his astonishing drawing speed. In the 1950s, he became a staff artist at Atlas Comics, Marvel’s predecessor, and remained one of its on-call freelance artists when laid off. He co-created western Ringo Kid, the Fu Manchu pastiche The Yellow Claw, and the medieval hero The Black Knight (the last one with a young Stan Lee). In an interview for Adelaide Comics and Books, his contemporary Stan Goldberg remembered him as “a guy who could draw rings around anyone in the world he wanted to … 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.”
He wasn’t just a favoured artist for Stan Lee, he was a close friend. Maneely was a regular guest at the Lees’ house and the two had been working on a syndicated comic strip, Mrs Lyon’s Cub, away from Atlas. Unfortunately, in 1958 and at the young age of 32, Maneely was killed in a train accident.
After his death, the distraught Lee would have to find new artists for the company – and two of those approached were Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Three years later, Marvel’s owner Martin Goodman would demand a ripoff of DC’s Justice League and this would lead to Lee and Kirby creating the Fantastic Four. (It’s not true that a DC executive had bragged about the League’s sales during a golf game with Goodman, but it’s a nice story.) That would lead to hordes of Lee/Kirby comics, Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man, and others that would sell hundreds of thousands and forever change the superhero genre.
But what if Maneely had lived and been the artist instead?
We know Fantastic Four was created as Stan Lee was getting despondent about his career and his wife challenged him to write the way he wanted, if he felt the company was going to die anyway – this is what led to Marvel’s soapy melodrama and heroes with feet of clay. Beyond that, we can’t say for certain who out of Lee and Kirby did what on Fantastic Four, or even who came up with it. What we can do is make an educated guess: the Four’s visuals and origin story are similar to Kirby’s earlier Challengers of the Unknown, that the Thing is greatly associated with Kirby, and the Human Torch, a revamp of a 1930s character, was likely a decision to boost sales.
So while it might still be called the Fantastic Four, a Lee/Maneely production will be something quite different. They may never wear uniforms (a later development), the Thing likely won’t be there, they will probably still be a family and maybe given powers by a zeitgeist-grabbing space launch but they won’t have the spaceship-crash origin and be a team of adventureers. What this Fantastic Four will be is a well-drawn superhero comic that’s not written at all like DC’s offerings.
What next? Well:
Without the Thing being a popular monster hero, we don’t get the Hulk.
Iron Man will still be created, fulfilling Lee’s interest in creating a superhero businessman to needle the readers, and still be a mix of corporate soap opera and battles against the fiendish Eastern Block powers. Possibly the Yellow Claw is revived here, in place of the Mandarin. (We’re not going to show you a picture of Yellow Claw for illustrative purposes, oh lord no)
Thor may or may not happen, as both Lee and Kirby claim they had the idea, but would lack much of the mythical splendour Kirby brought to it.
Lee and Maneely’s The Black Knight could be revived in a new superheroic form: Sir Percy, the Knight’s secret identity, pretended to be a useless fop and this sort of conflict between his real self and how he’s seen would work well for Marvel melodrama.
Captain America would likely remain unpublished without his original artist around, but the Sub-Mariner would be as Bill Everett was still taking Marvel jobs.
The X-Men’s origin as ‘I’m running out of origins, let’s make them mutants’ comes from Lee, but the school angle is from Kirby, and the possible (and likely unintentional) Jewish subtext of feared and hated minorities ‘passing’ may not be the same if Maneely, a catholic, is co-creator.
Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, with its cigar-chomping New York tough lead, likely doesn’t exist at all without Kirby. Thus when Marvel want to rip off The Man From UNCLE, someone else becomes Agent of SHIELD (maybe the Yellow Claw’s nemesis, FBI agent Jimmy Woo)
Spider-Man will still be a teenager, as Lee wanted to tap that market and have a character that would grow. However, it was Ditko who codified the visuals of Spider-Man’s oft-creepy poses and grotesque villains, and Ditko helped make the young Peter Parker into a bitter, isolated young man in a hostile and ungrateful world.
Lee may create a magician character called Dr Strange but he definitely won’t be a character associated with mind-bending trippy art without Ditko around.
Daredevil was co-created by Lee and Bill Everett, so this one remains much the same.
Similarly, Ant-Man was the result of a one-off scifi strip being turned into a superhero comic and likely exists much the same.
In general, Maneely’s work lacked the two-fisted pulp bombast and mad visuals of Kirby or the weirdness and isolation of Ditko. It would lend itself well to Lee’s soap opera plots just as John Romita Snr’s did in OTL’s mid-60s Spider-Man, and so that would be the primary draw: violent melodrama, lacking the blasts of weird energy that would give you a Galactus. It would also be an issue for Lee eventually that Maneely likely won’t have the same skill at plotting that Kirby and Ditko had – the “Marvel method”, where writers draft a plot outline for the artist to draw from rather than a full script, was invented by Lee so he could put out more comics but meant he would increasingly let Kirby & Ditko do the plotting. If he can never do this, he would be forced to write (and ‘write’) less and hire extra writers to work in the ‘Marvel style’.
This version of Marvel will still be heady ‘mature’ stuff for older fans, and Lee was directly targeting early fanzine fandom with his editorials and “Stan the Man” patter. Marvel will be a comfortable selling set of comics that gets attention from people who write fanzines, not the same threat to DC as in OTL but still a rival.
But what does all this mean for Jack Kirby?
Kirby was flush with work when Stan Lee approached him in 1958 but was always happy to take on more. Shortly after he first started taking Atlas jobs again, he had a major falling out with DC editor Jack Schiff (over royalties from a syndicated strip https://www.twomorrows.com/kirby/articles/15skymasters.html ) and was unable to get work at that company anymore. He was lucky to get some work at Archie Comics through his old partner Joe Simon, co-creating The Fly but this only lasted a few months. According to Simon in several interviews, Richard Goldwater, son of Archie boss John Goldwater, felt the art wasn’t as good as the polished stuff from DC Comics. Around the same time, Harvey Comics were cancelled their adventure line. By the decade’s end, Kirby was dependent on Stan Lee and romance comic work from Prize Comics (a genre he’d co-invented).
In this timeline, there’s no work from Lee. There’s a depressing possibility that Kirby is working on random freelance jobs for years, grasping what he can, steadily losing contacts and prominence.
However, this won’t be the case for long. The success of DC and Marvel’s superheroes (and later, Batman on TV) meant other publishers wanted their own superheroes too: Charlton Comics, Tower Comics, Gold Key, and Harvey Comics once more. Kirby would eventually be hired by one of them, needing all the experienced artists they can get. (Ditko would already be at Charlton, who’d be his primary employer without steady Marvel work)
Both Tower Comics and mid-60s Charlton under editor Dick Giordano gave artists greater freedom than elsewhere – exactly the sort of thing that will allow Kirby to excel. Arguably there weren’t yet enough fans in the mood for that sort of experimentation, but we know from OTL those fans were in the mood for a fully unleashed Kirby, and so were young boys. And Kirby could produce several titles, so once he’s selling he’ll be asked to come up with all-new comics; his uncut voice as seen on The New Gods would be unleashed years before OTL, and during what’s still a growth market.
By the late 60s, it won’t be just DC’s ornate tales VS Marvel’s soapier take – there’d be a third way of doing superheroes at a publisher like Charlton. Who’s going to win the battle for fans? And who is still standing when the market slumps in the 1970s?
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.