Heroic Tales: The Bill Everett Archives volume 2

By Bill Everett and others, edited and complied by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-600-3

Thanks to modern technology there is a superabundance of collections featuring the works of too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books. A magnificent case in point is this second superb chronicle revisiting the incredible gifts of one of the greatest draughtsmen and yarn-spinners the industry has ever seen.

You could save some time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m keen to carp on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to join the books on your “favourites” shelf.

He was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake. His tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work – Bill was possibly the most technically accomplished artist in US comicbook industry – reveals how a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree was wracked by illness, an addictive personality (especially alcoholism) and sheer bad luck, nevertheless shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, saved many broken lives saved by becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous in his later years.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious, he contracted Tuberculosis when he was twelve and was dispatched to arid Arizona to recuperate.

Thus began a life-long affair with the cowboy lifestyle: a hard-drinking, smoking, tall-tale telling breed locked in a war against self-destruction, described in the fact-filled, picture-packed Introduction by Blake Bell which covers ‘The Early Years of Comics: 1938-1942’, ‘The Birth of Marvel Comics’ and ‘The Comic Book Production System’, before ‘The Heroes’ precedes a full-colour selection of incredible prototypical adventure champions with a brief essay on the set-up of Centaur Comics, Novelty Press, Eastern Color Printing, Hillman and Lev Gleason Publications…

Accompanied by the covers for Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 2 #3, 5 and 6 (March, May & June 1939, Centaur) are three outer space exploits of futuristic trouble shooter Skyrocket Steele, whilst Tibetan-trained superhero Amazing-Man offers a transformative triptych of titanic tales spanning war-torn Europe, augmented by the covers to Amazing-Man Comics #9-11 February-April 1940.

Everett’s deeply held western dreams are covered next with a brace of rootin’ tootin’ yarns starring Bull’s-Eye Bill from Novelty Press’ Target Comics #3-4 (April & May 1940) whilst from #7-9 (August-October 1940), the author smoothly switched to sophisticated suspense with master of disguise The Chameleon crushing contemporary criminals in scintillating escapades from Target Comics’ answer to The Saint, the Falcon and the Lone Wolf.

Thanks to his breakthrough Sub-Mariner sagas Everett was inextricably linked to water-based action, and Eastern Comics hired him to create human waterspout Bob Blake, Hydroman for the bimonthly Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics. Here, spanning issues # 6-9 (May-November 1941, with the covers for #6 and 7), are four spectacular, eerie, offbeat exploits, covering an extended battle against foreign spies and American Fifth Columnists, after which Red Reed in the Americas! (created by Bob Davis & Fitz) offers the first two chapters in a political thriller wherein a college student and his pals head South of the Border to fight Nazi-backed sedition and tyranny in a stunning tour de force first seen in Lev Gleason’s Silver Streak Comics #20 & 21 (April & May 1942).

A section of Miscellaneous and text illustrations follows, blending Western spot drawings with the eye-catching covers from Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 2 #18, Target Comics #5 and 6, Blue Bolt (vol. 1 #11, vol. 2 #1, 2 and 3) and Famous Funnies #85.

The Humorous and More describes Everett’s forays into other markets: niche sectors such as licensed comics, comedy and romance, and even returns to pulp and magazine illustration as he strove to stay one step ahead of a constantly shifting market and his own growing reputation for binges and unreliability.

‘What’s With the Crosbys?’ is a superbly rendered gossip strip from Famous Stars #2 (1950, Ziff-Davis) whilst a stunning monochrome girly-pin-up of ‘Snafu’s Lovely Ladies’ (from Snafu #3 Marvel, March 1956), and the cover of Adventures of the Big Boy #1 (also Marvel, from the same month) lead into the Back Cover of Cracked #6 (December 1958, Major Magazines) and other visual features from the Mad imitator as well as the colour cover to less successful rip-off Zany (#3, from March 1959).

Everett’s staggering ability to draw beautiful women plays well in the complete romance strip ‘Love Knows No Rules’ (Personal Love #24, November 1953 Eastern Color), and this section concludes with a gritty black and white title page piece from combat pulp War Stories #1, courtesy of Marvel’s parent company Magazine Management, September 1952.

The Horror concentrates on the post-superhero passion for scary stories: an arena where Bill Everett absolutely shone like a diamond. For over a decade he brought a sheen of irresistible quality to the generally second-rate chillers Timely/Atlas/Marvel generated in competition with genre front-runners EC Comics. It’s easy to see how they could compete and even outlive their gritty, gore-soaked competitor, with such lush and lurid examples of covers and chillingly beautiful interior pages…

Following a third informative background essay detailing his life until its cruelly early end in 1973, a choice selection of his least known and celebrated efforts opens with tale of terror ‘Hangman’s House’ (Suspense #5, November, 1950): a grim confrontation with Satanic evil, followed by futuristic Cold War shocker ‘I Deal With Murder!’ and a visit to a dark carnival of purely human wickedness in ‘Felix the Great’ (both culled from Suspense #6, January 1951).

Adventures into Weird Worlds #4 (Spring 1952) offered a laconic, sardonic glimpse into ‘The Face of Death’, whilst from the next issue (April 1952) ‘Don’t Bury Me Deep’ tapped untold depths of tension in a moodily mordant exploration of fear and premature burial. Hard on the heels of the cover to Journey Into Unknown Worlds #14 (December 1952) comes one of its interior shockers as ‘The Scarecrow’ helped an aged couple solve their mortgage problems in a most unusual manner.

The Marvel madness then concludes with a cautionary tale of ‘That Crazy Car’ from Journey into Mystery #20, December 1954, concluding a far too brief sojourn amidst arguably Everest’s most accomplished works and most professionally adept period.

This magnificent collection ends with a gallery of pages and one complete tale from the end of his career; selected from an even more uninhibited publisher attempting to cash in on the adult horror market opened by Warren Publishing with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella.

Skywald was formed by industry veteran Israel Waldman and Everett’s old friend Sol Brodsky, tapping into the burgeoning black and white market with mature-reader and supernatural magazines Hell-Rider, Crime Machine, Nightmare, Psycho and Scream. Offered an “in” Everett produced incredible pin-ups (included here are three from Nightmare (#1, 2 & 4, December 1970-June 1971), ‘A Psycho Scene’ (Psycho #5, November, 1971) a stunning werewolf pin-up from Psycho #6 and one of revived Golden Age monstrosity ‘The Heap’ from Psycho #4.

Most welcome, however, is a magnificent 10-page monochrome masterpiece of gothic mystery ‘The Man Who Stole Eternity’ from Psycho #3, May, 1971.

Although telling, even revelatory and concluding in a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding versatility of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller with the unparalleled ability to make all his imaginary worlds hyper-real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories enthralled and enchanted everybody lucky enough to read them.

© 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2013 Blake Bell. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for art lovers, Marvel Zombies and addicts of pure comics magic… 9/10