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Trouble with Comics

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.

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.