Friday, May 27, 2011

CBR III #5: Blake Bell's Fire & Water: Bill Everett, the Sub-mariner, & the Birth of Marvel Comics

Part of me wants to adopt the voice of Stan Lee: Because you demanded it, the bio; Excelsior. But that’s just not true. In Bill Everett’s twilight years of creating comics and superheroes for generations, Stan Lee came to power and created what we now know as comics. Stan Lee is a household name. Bill Everett is not. Yet Bill Everett had laid down all the right notes before Stan was even a gofer.

Bill Everett was an alcoholic who struggled with the bottle as much as his chosen profession. He constantly missed deadlines and let people down. But such was his personality and his work that someone would always keep hum employed.

He created the Sub-Mariner. He created the Human Torch. He introduced a bold muscular violence to comics that never existed before him. Today, we thrive on action and heroics in the movies. Bill Everett made that happen. He died of a broken liver with little fame. And he bequeathed soaring action to the comics.

This book is not a biography, isn’t painstakingly researched, and doesn’t profess to be so. It’s a big coffee table art book filled with anecdotes, and legend and endless pages of really good art. It is exactly what it purports to be.

I am myself not an expert in the history of comics, and I sometimes do not see what is described in the book. There was much better draftsmanship to come. Better stories. Better ideas. But when people first started to think about stapling together comic drawings and selling them, Bill Everett was THE maverick.

I don’t even like his drawing style. But I did see his motion and narrative and learned a lot about the art form. That is why you want this book.

Yes, the stories of comics in the forties are memorable and nostalgic. But that isn’t the focus here. It’s a big book. It is filled with his art. You get your money’s worth just for that. The text is secondary.

What it does do is give a portrait of a just born art, and the way one man shaped graphic narrative for decades to come. I will never love his drawings; they really do seem cheap and empty to me. I have not eyes to see that part of history. What I did learn, though, was the birth of motion through panels, of suspense, of trepidation. The kinds of layouts that Bill Everett produced from his imagination allowed all future generations of comics to be. He had no history to draw upon. And no one paid him enough to care. He, in fact, professed not to care. And yet here we are, basking in the wealth that he helped form.

If you ever loved comics, this book is for you. If you want a critical biography, keep on truckin’, but you won’t find a better one of Bill Everett. The book tells three stories: The birth of comics, the growth of an artist, and an artist’s downfall. It does so with love and reverence, between the mighty pages of art. What else can I say?

If he had come on the scene 20 years later, someone might have said excelsior. He might command better respect and be better known. But that didn’t happen. At least we have this book today. Thank god for that.

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