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Trouble with Comics, Christopher Allen Reviews Fire & Water

Christopher Allen Reviews Fire & Water

Fire & Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics
Writer - Blake Bell
Publisher - Fantagraphics Books. $39.99 USD

During his time in comics, from the start of the Golden Age to the end of 1972, Bill Everett had the respect of many of his peers for his gifts as a an artist and storyteller. His penciling in the boom time for the industry of the late ’30s through the end of World War II showed a sure, almost cocky hand, the compositions dynamic with depth and potency and an easy glide of the eyes across the page. He created Namor the Sub-Mariner, comics’ first anti-hero and still a mainstay of Marvel Comics, and frequently set his creation against Carl Burgos’ Human Torch in co-authored battles legendary for their time and still recalled fondly today. So why isn’t Everett better known?

As it turns out, Everett’s story is not one of cruel fate, the fickleness of the public, or corporate injustice, at least not more than what many other comics writers and artists went through. It’s the story of what appears to be a naturally gifted man who happened into the comics industry and stayed in it as best he could, despite not making the most of his gifts and opportunities. Yes, the Sub-Mariner’s longevity didn’t lead to fortune for him or his family, although his heirs are disinclined to take the now common legal action for the return of ownership of characters and the profits they’ve made. But Everett is more of an obscure figure than his clear talent would seem to have deserved due to chronic alcoholism by the time he was just fifteen years old, as well as problems with authority figures that would see him bounced out of many a lucrative, stable job. As well, he came from a moneyed family and often had inheritances to fall back on, so he was rarely scraping and thus enabled, could afford to be sidelined when his disease got the better of him. Also, aside from one mysterious story for editor Robert Kanigher at DC Comics, Everett did almost all his comics work for Timely/Atlas/Marvel over his career. His drinking caused him to miss deadlines or sometimes turn in inferior work, and by the early ’60s “Marvel Age,” he would often be lost in the shuffle behind the prolific Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others who could get their pages done and sometimes were in the office to help out others, like John Romita, Sr., Marie Severin and the rest of the Bullpen. Everett worked from home and would mail his pages in most times.

One of the striking revelations to Everett’s story is the pains both Stan Lee, and later, Roy Thomas, made to keep giving Everett work, despite his unreliability and—shocking—the fact that Lee never even met the man. Lee was just always a fan of his work. If anyone wondered why Everett only drew the first issue of Daredevil, it’s because he couldn’t meet the deadlines on it and needed help to get it done, so he was replaced, despite creating the look of the character and his blindness (based on Everett’s daughter being born legally blind). Still, although much of Everett’s ’60s work was journeyman and lacking his earlier panache, he did finish on a strong note in ‘72, having given up drinking and finding his old verve, only to be felled by a heart attack brought on by his other lifelong vice, a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. 

Author Bell has carved a niche in biographies of cartoonists obscure or reclusive. Although Steve Ditko differs greatly from Everett in having no apparent vices, is productive in his 80s, and has long created work born of moral and philosophical concerns, he and Everett are similar in one way: there isn’t a whole lot known about them. Not a ton of interviews, especially about their craft. Not to be crass, but this ends up working very well for Bell, because there is little on record to compare and contrast with his work, and the rather skimpy biographical details and the remembrances of family and colleagues leaves plenty of room for examples of Everett’s comics covers and storytelling, much of which makes a better argument for Everett’s importance than Bell does.

One can argue that comics analysis doesn’t really belong in a biography-cum-coffee-table-art-book, but this writer would have appreciated more in this area. Poring over the pages, one wonders why Bell doesn’t delve more into the “fire & water” of his title, such as where Everett’s early fury came from, if it ever dissipated and when, and why so many of his early characters were more at home in water or as vapor or smoke than standing with their feet on the ground. It might also have been worth exploring how in creating comics’ first anti-hero in Namor, Everett unfortunately created a character few would want to imitate, as anti-heros didn’t get long-running books, cartoons and toys until the ’70s and ’80s with Wolverine, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, etc. I would have loved to see examples of Everett’s antiauthoritarian streak playing itself out in his comics, or to learn if he had been upset about the start of the Comics Code Authority and the defanging of horror comics, since the examples shown in here are evidence he was right up there with the EC greats. Obviously, Bell can’t ask someone no longer with us, and perhaps his children just didn’t know much of their father’s feelings about his work and the changes to the industry, but it’s kind of a shame at least some of these threads aren’t explored or that there isn’t a more thorough analysis of Everett’s body of work for common themes, highlights, stylistic innovations or even shortcomings (his style seems out of place with swinging ’60s Marvel). It’s a good and valuable book, but one wonders what Bell could do with a better documented figure, if he can find an angle or provide insights not seen before. But enjoy it for what it is, a portrait and gallery of a talented, troubled artist whose work should be better known today.

— Christopher Allen

Buy Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics from Amazon.com.

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