Sunday Review: Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics

It’s no surprise that I’m a big fan of classic comic books and thanks to the Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives for their Golden Age reprints, I got to enjoy these rarely seen comic books of the past. It’s no surprise why, these days, they are largely forgotten, the writing was simplistic and the art is sometimes a mis-mash, so it takes a different level of appreciation. Today, we the reader, expect more, but that’s due in large part of the evolution of the comic.

Image my surprise when I first came across the Masterworks Atlas Era Heroes books. Here I thought I was getting the greatness that I came to expect from guys like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the Silver Age, but no, it was just a rehash of Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. But today, I have come to repent from my sins and bad reviews, thanks in large part to, the 2011 Eisner nominated (Best Comics-Related Book), Blake Bell’s Fire & Water: Bill Everett and the Birth of Marvel Comics. My view, just a few sort years ago, was skewed on the way I saw “classic” Cap, Torch and Namor because I didn’t understand the era, the 50′s revival and the creators. As I said, comics are ever changing; influences from current events, politics, war, science, and a whole host of other subjects. Comic books are a reflection of our lives and Bill Everett took us through time with his signature character, The Sub-Mariner.

Everett created the Sub-Mariner for Timely Comics in Motion Picture Funnies Weekly (April, 1939) and later in Marvel Comics #1 (October, 1939), two years before his National (DC Comics) counterpart Aquaman. Namor, along side Human Torch by Carl Burgos, Angel by Paul Gustavson and Ka-Zar by Ben Thompson fought crime, corruption and later Nazi’s in their own tales of heroism. Looking back on it now, it was who’s who of talent! Namor would go on to have a wonderful Golden Age run including 80 issues of Marvel Mystery Comics, 32 in his own Sub-Mariner Comics and be featured in The Human Torch (40 issues) and All-Winners (20 issues). But like all things the demise of superhero books came the end of Namor. Or so we thought!

Bell is our guide into this rich history of Bill Everett; good times and in bad, out of work and overloaded with deadlines even on the brink of death at a young age thanks to tuberculosis. He not only created Namor at age 22, but also is one of the few men to begin at Timely, survive Atlas and prosper at Marvel Comics. That’s right, The Sub-Mariner would be revived along with Captain America and Human Torch in 1953′s Young Men. Namor would go on to head his own title, Sub-Mariner Comics #33-42 (April 1954 – Oct. 1955), with Everett at every step of the way. A good thing, too, because of all the Atlas Heroes work, the Sub-Mariner is the best of the lot! Namor would return yet again in the Silver Age pages of Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962), getting saved by Johnny Storm’s Human Torch and then just a two years later Namor would help revive the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, in Avengers #4 (March, 1964). Everett at this time co-created and worked on Daredevil #1, but would do pencils, writing and even inking his signature character in Tales To Astonish and Sub-Mariner in the 1970′s. Bill Everett passed away at age 55 on February 27, 1973.

Bell includes several pieces of artwork and comics that has rarely been seen. A true testament to a man who lived comics throughout his entire life and loved it with a passion, especially when it comes to Sub-Mariner. The book is split up in to five chapters and includes an introduction, art gallery and endnotes. One fascinating piece of information is, that only once did Everett do pencils and inks for DC Comics: the six-page, “Diary Of An Ace!” written by Bob Haney in All American Men of War #77 (1966).

As I look back on the Golden Age and Atlas Era, yes it was a more simple time with more simple comics, perhaps not with horror, but definitely with superheros. The guys who were drawing and writing were young and inexperienced, but they paved the way for the Brian Michael Bendis’ and Geoff Johns’ of today. This includes the greats like Lee, Kirby, Joe Simon, John Romita, and Russ Heath all of whom helped shape Marvel Comics into the company and characters that we love. I reiterate, it’s important not only to remember the characters, but the men behind them. Bell’s book here on the life and times of Bill Everett, and his other biographical material on Steve Ditko, is a testament to that. More Everett is on the way from Bell in Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives Volume 1, which will collect work from Amazing Mystery Funnies, Amazing-Man Comics, Target Comics, Heroic Comics and Blue Bolt Comics. I believe it will debut at Comic Con in July so dust off your shelf and save a place next to your Steve Ditko Archives.

Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics
By Blake Bell
216 pages, $39.99, Fantgraphics

Recommended reading:
Golden and Silver Age Sub-Mariner
Atlas Era Sub-Mariner

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