Manny Stallman

by Mark Evanier

Comics Buyer's Guide

One of the best things about comic books is the people you meet. I've met hundreds of people who have written comics, drawn comics, lettered them, colored them, even (shudder) edited them. If I started to list the ones I didn't like, I couldn't fill out a square inch of this magazine, even in a very large font. We're talking five, maybe six names…

I think I can explain why this is. Until recently, comics were not the kind of field of which a person said, "Hey, I think I'll get into that line of work. It looks like an easy way to get rich." Sane people still do not say such things.

Comics were something you did because you loved the form, or the chance to output creativity at the brisk clip that the field required, and didn't mind the long hours and shaky money. Creative people who are doing something they love are usually going to be nice people.

In the seventies, marvelling at how nice the people in comics were, some friends of mine and I started a silly, unofficial listing of "The Ten Nicest People In Comics." The list was always verbal and approximate; at times, it had twelve or fifteen names on it, most notably Joe Sinnott, Dan Spiegle, Marie Severin, Archie Goodwin, Pat Boyette and, of course, me. But the day I met Manny Stallman, I instantly thought, "We have a winner."

Manny Stallman, who passed away last June 6, was a kind soul with an angelic smile…and yet, there was something odd about Manny. I mean "odd" in a nice way, I think. As a comic book artist (and occasional writer), Manny was truly an individual. To the extent that there are "rules" for drawing comics, he seems not to have ever heard them, or felt they applied to him.

He lived his life in much the same way. Just when I was sitting here, trying to think how to tell you about Manny Stallman, a super-hero came to my rescue. His name is Gil Kane. (Okay, so maybe Gil isn't quite a super-hero. But he's sure drawn more of them than anyone else…)

Gil just phoned to talk about Manny. We had a nice chat, which he was nice enough to permit me to tape and to excerpt here. Here's Gil…

When I was 16, I got my first job. I worked in production for MLJ, which became Archie Comics. I got hired for $12 a week as a production man, doing borders and white-outs, but I wanted to pencil. Harry Shorten was the editor and he became irritated at me. He fired me, then he re-hired me, and after a while, they gave me pencilling. When I finally got so much pencilling  that I could no longer do the production work, they hired someone else in my  place, and that was Manny Stallman.

This is M.E. again. Historians peg Manny's earliest published work as a strip called Young Robin Hood that was published by Lev Gleason in 1943, but it would not surprise me if other stories predated that one. He was like many a kid of that era who read comics, thought he could draw comics, and wandered about from office to office until he found someone whose standards were sufficiently low. That's how everyone got into comics back then, including Gil Kane. He continues…

Manny was my age. I was 17, or just short of 17, and he was always a very ambitious guy. He loved doing comics but what he really wanted to do, and what he eventually managed, was to get into advertising. Before that, he linked up with John Giunta and became Giunta's partner. Giunta was a sickly but brilliant artist who, in effect,  gave Dan Barry his style…

(Evanier Aside: Giunta also gave a lot of artists their first job and/or big break, including some kid named Frazetta. Stallman and Giunta were close friends until the latter's death. Years later, when DC was returning original art from their vaults, they had pages from Giunta's last job, a Witching Hour tale, and nowhere to send them. Unable to locate any Giunta family members, they finally sent them to Manny, who was almost family, and Manny — being the nice guy he was — shared them with me. Back to Mr. Kane…)

Giunta and Stallman teamed up and did a lot of work together, much  of it for Harvey. I used to see his work, the work Manny was doing, and it  was becoming very, very competent.

Throughout the forties, he could often be found in Lev Gleason's crime comics — on the original Daredevil, as well as in other books by Prize Comics and Holyoke. Sometimes, he worked with Giunta, sometimes alone. For a few years there, Manny was as an occasional assistant to Will Eisner on The Spirit — a credit he often cited with great pride.

In the fifties, he drew crime and horror stories for Atlas, Avon and Harvey, and drew Big Town for DC, along with occasional stories for Strange Adventures, All-American Men of War, Mystery In Space, Our Army At War, Phantom Stranger and the romance titles. Back to you, Gil…

Finally, Johnny Giunta and Manny made it over to DC, where they did Big Town.  Manny did most of it and his work at first was really quite terrible. But  they kept him on it, and something happened. During this time, he was  working in advertising, or trying to work in advertising, and I think that had  some impact on his comic work. His work became so much better. He  really developed an individual approach. His layouts were exciting.  His inking, when he inked himself, was very crude but it worked.

Gil is, as always, right. In the sixties, Manny did several short romance stories for DC that are arresting in how little they look like DC romance stories. At the time, the company was quite rigid about its page layouts. A six-panel page was comprised of six identical-sized square panels, and exceptions to this were few.

But in Manny's stories, panels were all different shapes — occasionally even rectangular — and zig-zagged all over the page. This is what I meant about not listening to the rules. If Curt Swan had tried this in Superman, or even Gil over on The Atom, they'd have been hauled out back to be flogged. For some reason, they allowed Manny Stallman to get away with it. (I'm not sure there's ever been an editor who was sufficiently steel-hearted that he could bring himself to tell Manny his work was not right.) Says Gil of those stories…

There was a perception about it that just knocked me out. It was like a combination of Bob Oksner and Harvey Kurtzman  — absolutely sensational stuff, with these beautiful figure groupings. He  was the only guy there who was making an effort to just break out and be  different. I myself had a very slow evolution — it was painful, it was  laborious. I still question what it is that I really know with any  authority. But Manny had a way of instantly grasping certain fundamentals.  His work had a flavor that absolutely got me.

In the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comics of the sixties, he wrote and drew several stories of the Raven in a style so alien that readers had no idea what to make of it. He concurrently did some stories for Archie Goodwin at Creepy Magazine, and the reaction was the same: "I didn't like them at the time but now, as I look back at them, I think they're terrific."

This is not only a quote from me, it's a quote from everyone who recalls his work. Manny held the world's indoor record for deferred recognition as a comic book artist. Nobody liked his work when they first saw it; darn near everyone did when they recalled it later.

No, I take that back. There was one person who liked the work at the time — the guy who had to follow him on the Raven strip, Gil Kane…

In the mid-sixties, Harry Shorten was putting together this comic line [for Tower Comics] and he brought in artists like Wally Wood and Mike Sekowsky and myself and Manny to do these T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. And all of a sudden, Manny was pencilling and inking like Harvey Kurtzman! I mean, I just couldn't get over it. It was sensational stuff…what Kurtzman might have done if he'd done super-heroes, instantly grasping the essentials of the action. It had a quality of absolute ease that I would envy when I sweated over my pages.

Manny always tended to enlarge on things when you talked to him. He exaggerated. I asked him how long it was taking him to do that work and he said, 'Oh, I do seven pages a day.' I couldn't believe that but, even if it wasn't true, just the work itself was tremendous enough to be intimidating. At the same time, he showed me some of the advertising work he was doing at the time, which was done in a kind of cartoony style, and it was so professional, so assured, that I couldn't get over it.

Manny was always into a million things. He rented a big office in mid-town Manhattan to do his advertising work out of. It never really worked for him, but he kept it up for a while by sub-leasing rooms to various artists and operations, and living off the rent they paid. The thing was, he knew all these different people, and he helped me to get into what I wanted to attempt at that time, which was self-publishing. He introduced me to printers and sales representatives, and it was through Manny that I met the people who ultimately allowed me to turn out His Name is Savage.

Basky & Robin, a little comic booklet you could get free at your local Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor, but mostly he did Big Boy.

For more than a decade, Manny Stallman was the writer-artist-editor of the comic book with the widest circulation of any comic in America. Each month, somewhere between two and three million copies of Big Boy were disseminated in hamburger emporiums across the land. (To give you something to gauge that against: At the time, a top-selling DC or Marvel might have been selling 250,000 per issue. Today, 3,000,000 comic books is more than the entire British comic industry moves in a month.)

Manny's Big Boy stories were just like Manny: sweet and utterly bizarre. They were drawn in an odd style which Gil describes thusly:

I was astounded when I saw what he was doing in those comics. He was working in what I can only describe as a childlike scrawl. I couldn't believe it was the same artist.

It was. And if he hadn't managed seven pages a day on those Raven stories, he sure did here. Manny drew most of them sitting in front of the TV, working with a small board on his lap. He drew them printed size, working in markers, batting out whole stories with one eye on a Dodgers game.

The work was crude and, as Gil says, childlike and I have no idea what I think of it. Manny would send me the books and, when he asked me my opinion, I couldn't bring myself to say anything negative. Manny was so polite, and Manny was so gentle, I usually wound up muttering "Nice work," and hesitantly suggesting he spend a wee bit more time on his lettering.

One time, the Big Boy executive office received a letter from some comic fan complaining about the art on the comic books. It was forwarded to Manny with a memo that said, "Attend to this," as if a customer had complained about a bad waitress. The letter simply destroyed Manny. He phoned me in tears, wanting to know if I knew the fan (I didn't) and theorizing that maybe some rival ad agency had sent it to try and get him fired so they could steal the account. Later, he told me it had so upset him that he hadn't been able to draw for weeks, and had seriously considered retiring from comics. This was because of one letter.

But even before that, I found myself wanting to like the work, because I liked Manny. A case can be made that it had a simplicity and spontaneity that is absent from more polished books, and he sometimes did something so wonderfully bizarre that you had to admire the freshness — like one in which Big Boy, confronted with some formidable problem, went out on a balcony, looked up at the heavens and prayed to God for guidance. This is a very odd thing for a character who was created to push burgers to be doing in a comic book, but Manny felt strongly about the scene and it was printed just the way he drew it. No one could ever say no to Manny.

The last five or so years, he was semi-retired, working intermittently on a graphic novel that he hoped would be sold in religious bookstores. I don't think he got very far into it before a stroke ended his career as an artist.

Unable to draw, Manny redirected his creative energies to something else — a stand-up comedy act, which he used to entertain patients at hospitals and nursing homes. I never had the chance to see a performance, but I cherish hearing this 70+ year old man, whose speech was still slurred from illness, telling me on the phone excitedly how he'd "killed" the day before. His rhetoric was identical to any beginning comedian who'd just scored big on The Tonight Show — and that, I found adorable.

This is getting sappy, I know, but I was saddened to hear that there will be no more cheery phone calls from my pal Manny Stallman. His was not a well-known name to comic fans…but he had a long, full life, most of it spent doing work that was highly original and always sincere. Would that we had more like him.

Gil Kane, of course, gets the last word:

Manny had an incredible capacity, reaching a level at one point  that was more than commendable. His work, when he was at his peak, was  just first rate. When I heard he'd died, I had a tremendous sense of loss.  He really was a remarkable man.

Bye, Manny.