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Heroic Tales: The Bill Everett Archives Volume Two
posted October 10, 2013
 

imageCreators: Edited By Blake Bell; Bill Everett, Various Others Including Gardner Fox
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, hardcover, 240 pages, October 2013, $39.99
Ordering Numbers: 1606996002 (ISBN10); 9781606996003 (ISBN13)

I love that there are multiple volumes of home library-ready collection of Bill Everett's work. Everett was one of the foundational talents of North American comic books, working in a variety of genres but making a special contribution to the dominant superhero genre through his creation Namor, The Sub-Mariner and a variety of similar, aggressively hot-headed heroes. The first volume of the Blake Bell-edited series Heroic Tales documented Everett's contribution to the great swirl and mass and pulpy verve that was the onset of the American comic book as a delivery system for cheap, violent thrills and slightly more lofty acts of imagination. The comics in this second volume are more accomplished, and skip like a stone on water out of that initial superhero craze through the artist's shift into horror comics, including a burst of re-publishable work he did near the end of his life. It's not exactly a biography through comics -- there are too many missing periods, too many works important to Everett that are left out -- but it is a biographical study of certain elements in the comics-maker's life, and through him the industry in which he intermittently toiled.

The reprints here seem attractive and well-presented, at least to my unsophisticated eye. The biographical material reads as measured and confident. Neither things seems to me a slam dunk. Reproduce-able art varies, and in terms of getting his story across not only has Everett been dead for more than 40 years -- and thus can't be asked a thing -- most of his peers have passed on as well. This had to be a challenge when it came to finding corroboration and context. Where I'm less convinced on an initial reading is in some of the more unabashed critical claims made on Everett's behalf. I have no doubt they're meant affectionately and forcefully, and in the case of artists simply expressing love and enthusiasm, such plaudits are unimpeachable. The heart loves what it loves. The rest of us might need to think these things over a while. I think the comics here evince any number of specific strengths, particularly in the context of their times. Everett's version of the heroic impulse allowed for overlapping interest, gray areas and flat-out unpleasant people on the side of the angels; it's a nice tonic to what we perceive of as the simplistic, overbearing morality of a lot of early comic books. Everett also puts on display an admirable disdain for easy storytelling solutions His continuing stories -- he had continuing stories! -- careened from one series of obstacles to the next, rarely stopping to tie anything in a bow.

Everett's storytelling and occasional stabs at theme remain crude, even awkward. A lot of the panel to panel storytelling reprinted here feels clumsy: for one thing, a great deal of information is repeated in text and image. Everett could occasionally summon up a lovely figure or a demented moment frozen in time but he wasn't a great, remarkable, reliable visual talent. I don't think of him that way, at least; nothing visceral and alarming comes to mind when I think of his contributions to comics as an art form the way it does for a dozen of his peers. My favorite-looking works of Everett all seem one-offs and surprises; my favorites from talents like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and the prominent EC regulars all come from the heart of their output. The most accomplished work reprinted here is the brief section of horror material and few early 1970s odds and ends. Those comics are tethered by craft and thus only fleetingly flicker into the bizarre. They are affecting for the sweep of Everett's line, his growing visual ambition. One can imagine Everett having gone on to enjoy a late-period renaissance, had he lived. As it is, the comics remain, and now we've seen more of them than ever. We should be grateful.