« There’s no need for some of the language that’s been thrown at some of the artists and writers. These men are highly skilled craftsmen and deserve a lot of respect. » — editorial comment in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 14 (July, 1967, Tower)
This post has been inspired by sundry signs and omens I’ve encountered these past few days: first, a casual mention dropped by Bizarro ink stud Wayno on his blog; then a fond-but-hazy recollection by a graphic designer colleague… and so this week, the agents of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.* make the scene. Well, one of them does.
As with many other choice cultural items of the era, I was first tantalised by a little volume entitled Dynamo, Man of High Camp from the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, devoted to its in-house Captain Company catalogue: Warren magazine back issues, rubber masks and hands, posters, LPs, Super 8 reels, paperbacks, novelties… a veritable trove of wonders. And unlike many a mail-order house, these goodies were the real deal, solid classics avidly sought after and treasured to this day.
Since much has been written about the history of Tower Comics (1965-1969), I’ll skip that part. Here’s the gist of it.
Of course, I adore the Wally Wood material, all the more the unfailingly delicious Steve Ditko-Wood combo. A fine surprise was George Tuska‘s nimble comedic touch on the misadventures of ‘Weed’. But my very favourite flavour in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. cocktail is ‘Raven’ as written and illustrated by Manny Stallman (1927-97), a quintessentially eccentric delight.
Introduced by Steve Skeates and George Tuska in Enter the Raven (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 8, Sept. 1966), the character’s sole point of interest was that he was a mercenary who, originally intending to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R., had a change of heart.
Along came Manny. He took over the character, redesigned him from stem to stern, and gave him a memorable arch-nemesis in Mayven, the Poet. But enough of this prattle, let’s have a look!
After a mere five Raven episodes, Stallman was gone. Judging from the letters columns, reader reaction had overwhelming been of this nature:
“In issue #9 the art on the Raven was awful“
“You’re using a lot of grade D artists… as for whoever draws the Raven, his art is utterly atrocious.”
“How about having Chic Stone draw Raven in addition to Lightning?“
Here I’ll quote editor-historian Tom Brevoort, from his own appreciation of Stallman’s Raven:
« Unsurprisingly, many of the fans of the era hated Stallman’s work and mocked it openly in their letters and in fanzines. Comic book fans have often had very narrow boundaries for what they consider an appropriate style for a super hero strip. And Stallman was coloring way outside of those lines with his work. »
After an issue’s hiatus, the Raven returned, once more reimagined (minus the imagination) this time by Gil Kane. Just another run-of-the-mill flying dude. I’ve always held that Kane should never be allowed to ink himself, but he also makes an excellent case, in his sole Raven outing (and Raven’s final flight), that he shouldn’t be allowed to write, either. Here’s a sample:
Ahem. All these walking child-shaped time bombs reminded me of a rather fine comic book from a couple of decades later.
It could all be coincidence, but I like to imagine that the exploding kids idea is a sharp hybrid of notions from two Mario Bava flicks from 1966: the murderous little girl from Operazione paura aka Kill, Baby… Kill, and the booby-trap beauties from Le spie vengono dal semifreddo aka Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.
In closing, I’m happy to report that Mr. Stallman landed on his feet after his fall from the Tower. Honestly, the comics industry, and its fans, didn’t deserve the likes of him. He would go on to recount the Adventures of the Big Boy (published by the Bob’s Big Boy chain of restaurants) for a whopping seventeen years, among other fine assignments. And if ever there was a mensch, he surely was the one. Here’s a telling passage from his obituary:
« When a 1991 stroke caused cartoonist Manny Stallman’s right hand to intermittently go numb, he didn’t let it stop him. He simply took it upon himself to learn to draw with his left hand.
After making that switch, he had trouble drawing the tightly controlled figures he had created for years as a leading artist in what has been called the Golden Age of Comics. So he took advantage of the larger figures he could draw, transposing them onto a blackboard to help teach English and citizenship classes to Russian immigrants at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.
Despite additional health problems that included diabetes and congestive heart failure, he also led classes for Chinese immigrants and taught computer-aided drawing to disabled children. “Manny decided to stop focusing on what he had been able to do before his strokes,” says his wife, Jane Stallman.
“He decided to start ‘where I am‘ and do whatever he could with whatever capacity he had. His life goal was to make someone smile each day.” »
[ source ]
Thanks for the example and the inspiration, Mr. Stallman!
*an acronym for The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves
Thanks for this remarkable essay. I’ve never heard of Stallman, but I guess he and Tower comics were a little before my time.
What an artist! There’s a bit of Alex Toth, there, even Kurtzman in that whip-sharp speedy line. With the exception of EC Comics, I’d say that Stallman was ahead of his time, and would have been fully at home in the DC comics line of the early 70s, from their horror titles (think of artists like Alex Nino) to their experimental efforts like ‘Prez’…
What idiots his little art critics were in 1966. It’s hard to believe, and I can’t help but wonder if there was a different comics culture around Tower, one which was very staid, dull and conformist? I suppose the drawing at DC at the time was pretty dull (to my taste anyway), though certainly not at Marvel.
Somehow I feel he really missed his moment and drawing ad-comics for Bob’s Big Boy is a pretty big disappointment. I’m very curious why he couldn’t have worked his connections to get into DC or Marvel a few years later. A missed chance for all of us, I suspect.
Very intriguing, if a bit depressing.
Thanks again for the kind words, sb!
Once more, your keen eyes do not deceive you: at any rate, *I* also clearly discern Kurtzman and Toth in the mix (and I like it!)
I agree that Stallman would have been a good fit for the DC horror titles; he certainly did some stellar work for Warren’s early days (‘The Invitation’, in Eerie no. 1 — reprinted in Creepy no. 8… was a tour de force). Archie Goodwin must have thought so, since Manny was evidently among his very first draft picks.
As to what happened… hard to say. I think Manny probably wasn’t thick-skinned enough for the callous comics industry. I can’t help but be thankful that he got the Big Boy account (and the Pee Wee Harris strip in Boys’ Life at some point); for the working cartoonist, survival and stability are not to be dismissed lightly, even if not everything is a dream project. I suspect we’re fortunate to have gotten whatever we did get — art out of commerce? It’s nearly always a miracle!
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I did not write one of the letters to Tower in 1966 calling Stallman’s art “atrocious” … but I could have. I still don’t like his art but it’s more arresting than Mazzucchelli and Bulanadi’s bland Daredevil.
While Mazzucchelli had yet to achieve his full potential, the decision to pair him up with Bulanadi was a bafflingly bone-headed one. Bulanadi’s inks just flatten and smother his pencils.
And well, Stallman’s not everyone’s cup of tea, that’s an established fact. 😉
I don’t know much about the above-ground comic book creators of the past forty years. That may have been the first time I had seen Mazzucchelli’s name, let alone any of his art.
Because of your comment above, I looked him up, found the Cartoonist Kayfabe video on YouTube about DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN ARTIST EDITION, and thought his art looked “not bad.” So I ordered the standard color edition of the book from my library, so I will be reading it in the next few weeks.
Is there a book collection of Stallman’s work?