Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month: Blake Bell on Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Volume 1 (Or, “Why Bill Everett is the most important comic-book creator that you don’t know about.”)

Guest Reviewer Month: Blake Bell on Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Volume 1 (Or, “Why Bill Everett is the most important comic-book creator that you don’t know about.”)

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

—William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Everything you don’t know (and should) about why Bill Everett made the single most important contribution to superhero comic-book history can be found in Marvel’s Oct’ 09 massive hardcover release - Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Volume 1 – $125 and 70 years in the making.

Reprinting Marvel Comics #1 and the subsequent eleven issues of (the renamed) Marvel Mystery Comics, the volume is more than a historical touchstone for the company that would become known as Marvel. Featured within all twelve issues is Bill Everett’s seminal creation, the Sub-Mariner – resetting the superhero archetype barely a year after it had been set – setting in four color a template for all comic-book creators to pillage: the modern anti-hero.

2009 set the table, and now 2010 will be the year fans dine out on a massive helping of Everett’s legendary Golden Age superhero work, his Grade A 1950 Horror material, his hand in the creation of Daredevil, and the beauty of his 1960/70s inks and pencils, illustrating how Bill Everett was peaking (again) just as he left us. 

Who is Bill Everett? William Blake “Bill” Everett was born May 18th, 1917 to an upper-middle class Massachusetts family. Everett (a descendant of poet William Blake) navigated the murky waters of New York and Chicago advertising before near-poverty forced him to take up residence at Centaur Publications in 1938, a year before Superman would make his debut in Action Comics. Noted for a comparatively long run on his creation, Amazing Man, Centaur editor Lloyd Jacquet would take Everett and others with him to form “Funnies Inc.” that became established as a comic-book packager for publishers looking to quickly capitalize on the burgeoning comic-book market in the late 1930s.

The first client for Funnies Inc. was Martin Goodman, owner of Timely Publications, who wanted to incorporate comic books into his pulp publishing empire. The product of the collaboration was Marvel Comics #1, highlighted by Everett’s Sub-Mariner twelve-page strip. Although watered down by the end of the 1940s (and in many present-day incarnations) – his raison d’être circumcised, left to fight generic thugs on the streets of Manhattan – the Sub-Mariner present in this volume defines for 70 years worth of comics the template for the anti-hero, setting the course for a long lineage of other writers who would create popular half-hero/half-villains, often misunderstood, a product of circumstances who would have to come to peace with straddling the line between social mores and their own alienation. The most popular example of this was unveiled in the 1970s; the X-Men’s Wolverine, still as popular today as ever, now the star of his own movie franchise.

In Marvel Comics #1, Everett quickly moves to set the Sub-Mariner apart from any comic-book hero present on the market. The character’s origins are unveiled in his murderous first appearance, the character unwittingly killing two surface dwellers that get too close for comfort to what remains of the Sub-Mariner’s race of underwater fish-like humanoids nestled in the South Antarctica. Even his birth was a product of savage death – a plot to prevent the genocide of his race from the “white people” who had started performing thunderously explosive scientific experiments on the seas over their kingdom. His mother had then been sent to glean information from the ship’s captain, Leonard McKenzie, but fell in love and married him. She did this all the while giving information back to her people to mount an attack, but before they could, the humans unleashed their latest barrage, all but wiping it the underwater city. Now, this half-breed, this “Sub-Mariner,” was to venture forth and wreak vengeance on the earth dwellers and lead his people to victory. For the year of 1940, the Sub-Mariner was no superhero, instead fighting humanity as much as the character fought within him to justify his actions as he began to see humanity through his own eyes not as villains but as a misguided and misunderstood people.

On top of Everett creating the first anti-hero in comics, he also set the table for what became the norm in storytelling from the 1960s onward. The first twelve issues of Marvel Comics/Marvel Mystery Comics reads as the industry’s first graphic novel, each issue leading into this next with a definite conclusion to the story in issue twelve. Everett’s contribution as a creator should not overshadow his designation as comics’ best writer-artist of the Golden Age. The narrative pacing in these twelve issues is phenomenal, a whirlwind of the Sub-Mariner’s frustration and angst over being half-human, half-amphibian, belonging nowhere to no one. Issue six is a particular highlight, featuring the Sub-Mariner tied to the electric chair for his crimes against humanity, receiving all the voltage New York City has to offer, setting up the epic battle two issues later between the Sub-Mariner and his elemental opposite, the Human Torch.

And while many artists of the day sped through their artwork, caring little for the medium, waiting only for the call to a big advertising company or life as a syndicated artist, these twelve issues represent Everett at his early 1940s peak. The first two issues border on elegant, the rendering incredibly polished. Done before the influx of clients at the Funnies Inc. shop and the other books they’d put out for Timely, the evidence is clear that Everett slaved over these pages longer than any others that he produced during this period.

As well, Everett—always the innovator—decided to see if he could elevate comics beyond their four-color palette. He wanted a third-dimensional, or a painting-type effect to capture the feeling of being underwater, and used a Craftint Board in which chemicals bring out cross-hatching for tonal value. But these were primitive days in the industry, and with the printer’s acumen being far below Everett’s artistic vision, the experiment was abandoned after two issues. The majestic quality that Everett imbues in the Sub-Mariner in issue one gives way in issue two to a less regal and more fierce-looking Sub-Mariner that comes out of the watery depths to attack humanity with years of pent up rage.

Bill Everett passed away too early, in 1973 at the age of 55 – his body paying the price for too much hard living that only ceased in the last few years of his life. As such, the Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Volume 1 – the only reprinting of its kind – stands as an important reminder of why he will always be remembered, with a little prodding, as an industry trailblazer, the first “five-tool” creator (a respected letterer and colorist as well) in comic-book history, the man who brought the anti-hero to comics, and the man with enough narrative vision to foster the first continuing narrative in superhero comics.

Blake Bell is the author of Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and editor of Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1. Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics, his latest book, will debut at this July’s San Diego Comicon and will (as part biography, part coffee-table art book, made in co-operation with the Everett family) detail the rise and fall and rise again of the only artist in the Golden Age of comics that truly swam upstream in a sea of imitators and hacks.

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