What makes the best comic book covers? It’s a great topic for debate. For us as individuals there is no wrong answer, of course. It’s purely subjective. But with a little thought it is frequently possible to explain what it is about a particular image that grabs you. The best ones are the ones that make you stop and check out something you weren’t previously going to purchase – and in some cases, you even end up picking up a title you’ve never even heard of before.
No matter what era in which one is living, the entertainment media tends to reflect – even if unconsciously so – the standards and prejudices of that time.
That was definitely true of comic books, and many ethnic, racial and other identifying characteristics that were once acceptable now make us cringe. This doesn’t mean one should ignore them or become completely obsessed with them, but rather that any evaluation should be taken with that in mind.
Yellow Claw #1, the 1956 Atlas (Marvel before it was Marvel and after it was Timely) production, is one such book.
The Yellow Claw, while a brilliant, uncanny foe, is definitely a product of the time. That said, there’s so much more there. For starters, having a script by EC veteran Al Feldstein guaranteed that however misguided, it wasn’t going to be fully immersed in stereotypes.
Second, and far more importantly, in as much as the Yellow Claw himself played to the inscrutable Asian stereotypes of the era, the hero of the piece did not. Jimmy Woo, himself Asian-American, only appears briefly in the first story, but just stop and think about that for a moment. Stan Lee and company, in 1956, launched a series in which the lead good guy was a Chinese-American FBI agent.
That should count for something.
We’re not going to get too immersed in the tale itself, though, because the name of this column is, after all, Cover Story.
And the cover is a gem! It's a dynamic piece by Joe Maneely that makes the prospective reader stop and take note.
It depicted the Yellow Claw, Agent Jimmy Woo, Suwann (who was the Claw’s grand-niece and became Jimmy’s romantic interest), and some Communist Chinese soldiers. The luxurious burnt orange-brown background really makes the figures leap off the page.
And here’s a little bit of comic book heresy for you: If Maneely had lived rather than passing away in an accident at age 32, it could very well be him we remember instead of Jack Kirby. No question, Kirby was an idea man of unparalleled creativity, but Maneely’s art from the same period was more sophisticated. Of course we’ll never know.
Note: If you’re interested in the first Yellow Claw story but don’t want to plunk down the big bucks for the real thing, it’s been reprinted several times. The best version is in the hardcover collection of the first Agents of ATLAS mini-series from Marvel. It’s thoroughly cleaned up and beautiful to look at.