It's rare for the webcomic portion of this column to really be the stand out but if you, like me, have never heard of Golden Age artist Joe Maneely and his tragic end before now, I encourage you to read beyond this week's feature book, my rambling review of which we shall get to right now.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : THE MARQUIS OF ANAON: THE CHAMBER OF CHEOPS
By Fabien Vehlmann & Matthieu Bonhomme
Published By Cinebook
A perennial favourite of this column, The Marquis of Anaon series returns with Jean-Baptiste Poulain's fifth and sadly final adventure, "The Chamber of Cheops."
I've made much of the excellent character development writer Fabien Vehlmann and artist Matthieu Bonhomme have given their protagonist over the course of Poulain's previous adventures. From the opening page of "The Chamber of Cheops," Poulain has really stepped into his skin, completing the journey from children's tutor thrust into a possibly supernatural murder plot ("The Isle of Brac"), to almost reluctant, bumbling mystery solver surviving on an unearned near-mythical reputation and a nickname given as insult ("The Black Virgin" ), to anti-aristocratic, self-educated healer and journeyman ("The Providence"), to actual hands-on proactive adventurer walking into a harrowing do-or-die survivalist struggle ( "The Beast").
And it's not just the clever story structure Vehlmann gave each subsequent volume, pushing the reluctant, frequently bumbling hero further and further out on a limb. Visually, Poulain is a different man from the first time we met him. Gone is the slightly portly, soft, would-be gentleman wide-eyed and naive to the ways of the greater world and the cruelty that lies behind the smiles of the pampered aristocrats of the "civilised" world. Volume after volume, Bonhomme has slowly shorn this man down to lean sinew and bone, metamorphosing Poulain into a rumpled, dishevelled gypsy, a man happily shunned by the polite society he was always on the outskirts of. The pretence, the "mask" is gone, revealing, finally, the authentic Poulain. Poulain, now relaxed in his own skin, acts with confidence and smiles more in the first ten pages of "The Chamber of Cheops" than in the previous four volumes combined. There's a swagger to his step. The hero's journey is now complete.
"The Chamber of Cheops" opens with Poulain discovering that he has mysteriously inherited a large sum of money from man he never met, one Umberto Leone. Leone met his end chewed between the jaws of three crocodiles in Egypt. It's this kind of tall-tale demise that's perfect to pique Poulain's curiosity and he begins investigating his new mysterious benefactor. Leone was a man who made his fortune in beaver pelts but who had a passion for Egypt. Believing The Chamber of Cheops held a great treasure, Leone headed off to Cairo to find it.
Clearly a man after Poulain's own heart, its only natural that our hero should follow suit. Driven to learn of Leone's fate, Poulain goes to Cairo to mingle with Leone's fellow French ex-pats, tangle with local militias, find a surprising new love interest and, finally, make his way into Cheops' Chamber, where something other than fame and fortune awaits.
Bonhomme's work is once again masterful. From crowded Egyptian streets, to images of hands emerging from back alley darkness to snatch at our hero, to the sun setting beautifully over Cairo, the world in which Poulain inhabits feels authentically 18th century, simultaneously as romantic as a fable from The Arabian Nights and as grubby as it really was. Vehlmann, of course, gives his artist so much to work with, from fascinating characters - the lovely Dieneba, the seedy Delambre - to again giving Bonhomme room to make the most out of his scenery. "The Chamber of Cheops" does lack the intense intrigue of previous volumes but it is still a ripping adventure.
The only problem, and it's one I've only just managed to put my finger on in writing this, is that "The Chamber of Cheops" does not feel like the epilogue to the series that the book inevitably is. If anything it almost feels like prelude, the beginning of a new cycle of adventures with a newly confident protagonist at the helm. However, it's been ten years since this volume came out in France and "The Chamber of Cheops" remains Vehlmann and Bonhomme's unfortunate farewell to the series. It's unfair of me to be slightly disappointed in such a well-constructed and lovely piece of comics but in the wider context of the series as whole, a series that has built so exceptionally on each preceding volume, it's a bit of a misfire. However, as a stand-alone, "The Chamber of Cheops" is absolutely terrific and, really, that's probably the most important thing.
All in all, perhaps it's actually fitting we don't get that final swan song, that epic goodbye. We end with a strong story by exceptional creators and our mysterious protagonist simply disappears into comic book limbo, his future and final fate as mysterious as that of someone he would investigate. If you haven't picked these books up yet, do so. "The Chamber of Cheops" functions as a bonus adventure, the cherry on top of a cycle of four near-perfect comics that do not get anywhere near the admiration they so deserve.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : THE UGLY MAN
By Stan Lee & Joe Maneely
Who are you, Joe Maneely and where have you been all my life?
From 1952's Atlas Comics release, Suspense #23 comes this short shocker written by none other than Stan Lee (surprisingly making his debut, I believe, in this column after all this time). "The Ugly Man" sees a kind of prototypical mad scientist character that Lee would later litter dozens of early Marvel scripts with but gives him a way more stripped back motivation than any Fantastic Four baddie.
Ignatz is the titular Ugly Man, a crazed genius capable of creating all manner of unholy monsters but who is unable to interact with the normal world because of the disgust his physical appearance causes in those who meets him. Things come to a head when a beautiful woman spurns his advances. She suggests that she wouldn't be with Ignatz if he were the last man on Earth.
This is not the kind of challenge one lays down to a mad scientist.
Lee's script is really great but the draw here is the aforementioned Maneely, who I had somehow never heard of before stumbling upon this strip. Creating work that looks like all your favourite EC artists rolled into one, there's even a hint of what would become Underground/Alternative Comics here as well. From the deep furrows on Ignatz's brow to his basement-cooked monsters, to his lighting, Maneely's work is just terrific.
A quick Wikipedia check has this quote from Lee on his "The Ugly Man" collaborator, "Joe Maneely to me would have been the next Jack Kirby. He also could draw anything, make anything look exciting, and I actually think he was even faster than Jack."
What happened here? Where did Maneely disappear to? Tragically, he died in 1958 not too long before Atlas became Marvel and the rest became history. Maneely lost his glasses and, apparently struggling to see properly, fell between the cars of a moving train. He was only 32 when he died. He was found still clutching his portfolio.
If you're somehow not convinced by Maneely's work on "The Ugly Man," do a quick image search with his name. It's really not that hard to imagine an Early sixties Marvel with not just Kirby and Ditko at the forefront, but Joe Maneely as well. A tragedy.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : THOR RAGNAROK OFFICAL TRAILER
The Kirby Krackle abounds in the titles for this, the third and surely greatest of the solo Thor films. You've all seen it by now, I'm sure, but let's just think about what this appears to be: a pretty seamless mix of Kirby with Walt Simonson's unmatched run (Skurge!!) with Greg Pak's Planet Hulk story with the ever-unfolding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Director Taika Waititi's comedic fingerprints are all over this, welcomely so, and how about Cate Blanchett as Hela? Good lord. Breaking viewing records, the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok proves the comic book movie craze is a loooooong way from dead. Can't wait.
See you next week. Love your comics.