The 1950s have a lot of questionable comics, but they did give us our first undeniably Asian lead character… Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Yellow Claw #1 awaits!
Content Warning: Today’s Retro Review contains racially stereotypical portrayals that may be offensive, so please proceed with care and caution.
Writer: Al Feldstein
Penciler: Joe Maneely/John Severin/Werner Roth
Inker: Joe Maneely/John Severin/Werner Roth
Colorist: Stan Goldberg (?)
Editor: Stan Lee
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $1400.00
Previously in Yellow Claw: Debuting in 1913 in the novle ‘The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu’, the wicked man Yellow Peril stereotype that launched a thousand similar characters was created by an Englishman who admitted to having little or no knowledge of Chinese people, history or culture. (Reputedly, Rohmer asked a Ouija board how he could make his fortune in the world, and the resulting answer spelled out “C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N”, a story which is difficult to swallow and problematic in multiple ways.) Though Manchu himself would later become a major Marvel character in the 1970s as the primary antagonist of ‘Master of Kung-Fu’, his equally-offensive literary cousin beat him into comics by nearly 20 years.
Interestingly, ‘The Yellow Claw’ is, in fact, the title of a Sax Rohmer novel, though not one that featured Fu Manchu himself. This Yellow Claw starts out being petitioned by the communist Chinese government to use his mystic skills to divine the future and allow their regime to reign supreme across the world. Of course, when he predicts “one rule” over the whole world, he doesn’t mean Communisth China, he means his own goal of conquest. The Claw’s wicked plan starts in America (an involves him blackmailing former N*zis about their activities during the war, including a Fritz Voltzmann who is identified as the former commander of the real concentration camp at Auschwitz) but quickly gets the attention of FBI Agent Jimmy Woo. Though not the title character of the book, JImmy is definitely Marvel’s first Asian or Asian-American lead character, and it’s doubly nice that he’s just another agent being sent on a mission. Making his way to the Claw’s requisitie curio shop hideout, he encounters The Claw’s grand-niece, Suwan.
Jimmy quickly tracks The Claw’s activities, following his courier to a the drop-off of a mysterious packet, but ends up being outmaneuvered and captured by agents of the Claw. Jimmy manages to convince the otherwise red-blooded American idiot that he’s about to sell American secrets to forces allied with Communist China (it is 1956, after all), thinking his way out of danger while providing the requisite fighty-fighty action.
The Yellow Claw realizes that Jimmy is a genuine threat, but Suwan argues for the young FBI agent’s survival, and tries to convince her forebear to spare him and trade him as a hostage in return for the chemical formulas that he was trying to buy from the American. But when they arrive at the drop-off, things are not as they seem!
In truth, Suwan had fallen in love with Woo and agreed to help him escape and foil The Yellow Claw’s plans for domination. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure when Jimmy is wearing a silk robe in those final panels and I’m pretty sure that the answer is “a lack of cultural research”, but on the whole, the issue gives us a much more respectful portrayal of a Chinese-American than books of the same vintage. Compare Chop-Chop of The Blackhawks, for instance, or even Wonder Woman’s mentor, I-Ching a few years later. In fact, the coloring used for Jimmy’s skin, while not ideal, is much more subtle than the bright orange that became Marvel’s go-to for all Asian characters after Shang-Chi’s debut in the 1970s. Joe Maneely handles the art on the two chapters of Claw/Jimmy adventures in this issue, but there’s also work by others, including a suspense tale drawn by Werner Roth, best known for work in the eary days of X-Men.
It’s a really beautiful issue of comics from top to bottom, with Maneely delivering on dark alleys, mysterious curio shops and other necessary spycraft elements with great aplomb. Eveen though the title character of Yellow Claw #1 is another evil-doctor-something-something Yellow Peril type, this book provides a strong main character (who is still active in the Marvel U 70 years later, as seen in ‘Agents of Atlas’), an exciting plot and some lovely art, making for mixed emotions and an overall positive 3 out of 5 stars overall. If nothing else, it sets the stage for some unreservedly excellent ‘Agents of Atlas’ tales fifty years down the line.
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YELLOW CLAW #1
It's definitely awkward for 21st century sensitibilities, but it's more sensitive than contemporary titles, looks great and reads quite well.