Despite being the creator of the Sub-Mariner, one of the co-creators of Daredevil, and having participated in the birth of Marvel Comics, Bill Everett isn’t a name that gets bandied about in many comic book fan circles, the way that, say, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby do.
Hopefully that will change, at least somewhat, with the release of “Fire & Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics,” a new biography of the artist and his work. Written by Blake Bell, formerly known for the 2008 book “Strange & Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko,” “Fire” unearths a wealth of material about the artist, much of it previously unknown or distorted due to Everett’s own penchant for telling tall tales, and provides a new appreciation of the artist and his considerable talents.
Bell spoke with CBR over the phone from his home in Toronto about the new book, how it came together, and what Ditko fans can look forward to in the second collection of pre-Marvel Ditko material, “Unexplored Worlds,” which should be out in stores any day now.
CBR News: What is it about Bill Everett that drove you to put together a project of this magnitude?
Blake Bell: I think Everett is as unique a stylist as Ditko is. When you see Everett’s work, you automatically know who it is if you have any inkling about any of the Silver or Golden Age artists. Secondly, in his own way he’s as influential as Ditko. Without question, Everett created the antihero in superhero comics back in 1939 when he introduced the Sub-Mariner. There was no other comic book character like him. Superman, Batman – all these guys were do-gooders and here was this antihero who had no interest in being a hero at all. In fact, he wanted to wipe out the human race. That has been a thread all the way through comic book history, the notion of heroes with feet of clay that Stan Lee brought into Marvel Comics, the advent of Wolverine and those who always walked a fine line between hero and villain – all that can be traced back to Bill Everett.
Also, he’s just an amazing artist. When you take a look at his breadth of work from the early Sub-Mariner issues that are so much more polished than some of the crude artwork that was going around in the late ’30s, all the way through his exemplary horror work that he did in the 1950s – that was right up there with EC Comics. Even in the last couple years of his life, in the early ’70s, he was regaining the peak of his powers. Perhaps because of the untimeliness of his death in 1973, when fandom was really starting to roar and the fact that he wasn’t producing work into the ’90s when the internet age took hold, not a lot of people make these connections to understand the influence he had.
What was your history with Everett? When did you discover his work?
[My friends and I] were about 12 years old and in our school library. I believe we were looking through Crawford’s “Encyclopedia of Comic Books” and in there is that image from Jim Sterenko’s “History of Comics,” that famous black and white image of the Sub-Mariner punching out the Human Torch in mid-flight. We were just in awe of the raw vitality of it – the image, but the polish as well. Very few artists can maintain that balance. We found that fascinating. We were also able to dig up another reprint volume in our library that showed his Hydro-Man. From there we got into his Golden Age work through various places like George Olshevsky’s “Marvel Comics Index” and pursued any reprints we could find. We were classic comic book nerds in our teenage years, because we would go to conventions and these middle aged dealers would look at us in shock that we were asking for the Ditko and Everett books they had hidden behind the table instead of all the John Byrne and Frank Miller stuff they had laid out in the front.
How would you describe Everett’s art? What is the quintessential Bill Everett trait?
I think it’s symbolic in the way he renders water. He gives such energy and electricity to the scene he’s creating, to the figures, not too different from Jack Kirby, who jumped off the page at you. The way they both were able to make you think there was movement in a scene, in the environment as well. [Everett] always had the wind, the water, the trees, the environment was always moving, to give you a sense that there was something organic about his work. He would juxtapose that quite well, just as Kirby could, in those quiet, reflective moments. Ditko did that as well. Peter Parker would be sullen or in shadow and bam, out would jump these amazing action scenes. All these artists had this ability to really make their work crackle on the page.
Tell us a little bit about the research involved in this book. There hasn’t been a lot written about Everett and, from what I gather in your book, a lot of what does exist is faulty. So what was involved in researching his biography?
You’re right, until the ’60s came along and the Maggie Thompsons and Jerry Bails really started to light the flames for fandom, there was no one interviewing these people, because there was no perspective that this would last. Other than a couple of letters he wrote, and Roy Thomas’ seminal interview in “Alter Ego,” there’s very limited work out there in terms of interviews or pieces written on Everett. It wasn’t until the late ’90s and the early part of this millennium that comic book artists and other magazines like “Alter Ego” would start to delve a little deeper.
But as you pointed out, Everett could tell as good a story in person as he could on the page. He tended to embellish a lot of his activities, mainly because he didn’t want to admit that he got fired from a lot of jobs because of his alcoholism and difficulty dealing with authority. So the whole book really turned on my connection and interaction with his family, his children [and] Wendy Everett specifically, his daughter, her generosity at going through with me the definitive biography in terms of details. We went through his entire life: when did he go to Arizona, when did he take his first drink, when did he come back and go to the Vesper School of Art before he went to Centaur Comics and Timely Comics? That was so amazingly helpful, not just fleshing out all of the details but also correcting a lot of the myths that Bill had amusingly perpetuated over the years. [Also, there were] letters Bill’s sister wrote her mother to help corroborate some of those details. Also Bill, in the last years of his life, once he’d sobered up, wrote some journals about his life. All of this helped to bring for the first time a well-rounded picture of not only his career, but the man himself and how he became who he became.
How did you manage to track down and meet Everett’s children?
It just goes back to the connections to the Two Morrows books. Wendy Everett had been interviewed by Mike Friedrich in an early issue of “Comic Book Artist.” I had my first piece published in “Comic Book Artist” and I contributed to “Alter Ego.” The original connection may have been through an email to Roy Thomas to hook Wendy and I up. We proceeded from there. She’s a very articulate woman, very objective about her dad – loved his greatness and flaws, but wasn’t blind to them. She was very generous and honest about her father’s flaws, but also very determined to celebrate the great parts of his personality and his career.
And she had saved all of this material that you found?
Yeah, absolutely. All of that artwork that you see in the book. It was such a gold mine in terms of unpublished art. There were tons of examples of pre-superhero work, like his sketchbooks from 1937, that Lucille Ball portrait that you see in the first chapter. All of that was kept by his daughter and the family.
What surprises did you come across while working on this book? Were there any discoveries or revelations that challenged your perception of Everett?
I think just the fact that we were able to get behind some of the stories that he perpetuated about himself. I think we were really able to understand the impact his alcoholism had on his life and career. He did such an amazing volume of work when you look back on it, but in the ’60s, [his drinking] had much more of an impact on his family and career, so I think you really start to see the tragic side of him, which was more in-depth. Obviously, it was surprising to hear that he was an alcoholic from the time he was 12. I didn’t know it had stuck with him for that long.
That he had such a redemption at the end that at his funeral, the comics people were outweighed 10 to 1 by all the people he had helped by taking such a leading role in Alcoholics Anonymous. That was an amazing legacy, how many people he helped. Gary Friedrich (no relation to Mike) who created Ghost Rider, said Bill “saved my life. I would have gone down the tank without his assistance.”
And also, the role [Everett] played in the history of the medium, in terms of what he did at Centaur Publications, and, as we uncover in the book, the real birth of Marvel Comics – the Funnies Inc. studio, and how that was the driving force behind what you would see on the page in Marvel Comics. Most people thought Martin Goodman the owner and Stan Lee the editor hired Everett and Everett worked just for them. There was a lot of story behind there that speaks to what actually happened in the late ’30s and early ’40s.
Getting into the depth of his contributions in the creation of Daredevil, he did that first issue and didn’t even quite finish it in terms of backgrounds and inks, but the book talks a lot about the contributions of his family to that particular story. With his daughter Wendy being legally blind [at the time], it doesn’t take too much of a wizard to think, “Oh, Daredevil, blind,” with the enhanced senses that she had at the time, making those connections and realizing how important he was to that book as well.
That did surprise me, because, not to denigrate Stan Lee, but fans tend to be sold the Marvel version of events and it never occurs to us how much input Everett had in the creation of the character.
This industry is still to some degree in its infancy. It’s been a painful process to come to maturity. We saw that in the ’80s with the legacy of Kirby and his artwork and other artists. We saw it with Siegel & Shuster and Bill Finger with Batman and then Kirby and it moved on to Ditko and Spider-Man. We’re still seeing the entrails of that now. Everett’s a perfect example of that. I’ve had contact from lawyers saying, “We want the Everett family to be part of the Kirby lawsuit. The more the merrier. Let’s get some ownership of Daredevil.” I think one thing different is that the family is not poor, so there’s not the usual leaping onto that bandwagon one’s come to expect. What is there to gain for all the work that one would have to put into that?
Plus, as we discuss it in the book, in the late ’60s, there was a deal between Martin Goodman and Everett – Joe Simon was suing for the rights to Captain America – and Goodman basically kept Everett effectively quiet by saying “I’ll pay off any debts you have as long as you don’t join forces and pursue this type of legal action.”
It is a sad legacy overall. Fandom has at least been responsible for asking questions, if not always asking them properly or getting to the answers or assuming a little too much sometimes. This [book] will be another piece of evidence where you can say, “Wait a minute, it wasn’t just the corporate story you hear.” There’s something under the surface, and it had to do with these wonderful artists who had no conception of anything related to intellectual property and the benefits that would have in the future.
Outside of the family, was there anyone you had to contact as far as finding out what he had done?
A lot of the stuff was known to me, the comic book work, so that wasn’t too difficult. I either pulled it out of my own hat or, if it was something significant missing, kept in touch with individuals with similar interests. I think it was in 1999, I started a Timely/Atlas mailing list, which has now moved over to Yahoo Groups. There were 500 people on that list, all with a shared interest. A lot of good research and testing back and forth can come out of those connections. That’s where some of the stuff from the early ’40s came out. A lot of original artwork. A lot of [artwork] came out of Lloyd Jacquet’s estate that was uncovered in the early ’70s. That was a great find.
I really wanted to talk to people who had been there in the later part of his life, that had been roommates with him – Roy Thomas, Mike Friedrich, individuals like that, so they could give a perception on that crucial time in his life where he was headed off a cliff at a dramatic pace and then turned it around after a really bad bender. It was good to get their sense of things.
The other surprising thing, to get back to one of your other points, was that I found was he did not travel in the same social circles as 99 percent of the comic book artists that would have been his peers. When I was at the San Diego convention in 2008, I had the opportunity to speak with Al Jaffee, Jerry Robinson, even people like Al Feldstein, who were around but not necessarily together, and they all said the same thing. Even Stan Lee said it to me: “I loved his work, I worked with him, but I didn’t really know him, the person.” We see that again in the very early stages at Marvel, he was working in the Jacquet’s group at Funnies Inc, and they would send the work back and forth to Marvel. He wasn’t working at the alleged Marvel Bullpen until the mid-50s for a couple of years. He did not run in the same social circles, so there’s nobody really left alive to go and interview anyone who could say anything other than “Yeah, I really loved his work.” So those people from the late ’60s were pretty crucial. Even people like Kim Deitch, who you wouldn’t connect as a lover of Bill Everett’s work, even he had some interactions with him because of his love for the work. It was important to get a sense of the time where he turned around his life.
Did that make it difficult for you? You had the family, but not a lot of peers to talk to. Were there periods in his life that you found difficult to write about because, for whatever reason, you didn’t have the information you needed?
I think whenever there was that type of period, there were enough biographical details left behind by himself and the family that could speak to his life. I’m speaking specifically about the jobs he did when Marvel imploded in ’57 and everybody got dismissed. There was no one connection in his life that the family could say, “Oh, he was friends with these people who are still alive, go and talk to them.” The biographical details carried it through in that particular story.
Also, the story is of the internal battle and getting to the heart of who he saw himself as inside and how that drove his alcoholism and affected his career and family. Really, they were a very close knit [family] from that perspective. The journals he wrote about his life that the family could share are the key of this person’s inner struggle. Whereas [someone saying,] “Oh we knew him and he was a nice guy and could draw” – there’s only so many times you can hear that before you want to get down to what was it about this person that made him who he was.
I was happier with this book than with the Steve Ditko book that I did because we had the ability to flesh out the man. I focused more on that in this book than I did the Ditko book because of a lack of access to any [of Ditko’s] family or the artist himself, but also just because you could get in there and trace who [Everett] was from day one all the way up. Ditko was more about the work. You could talk to people that might have had interactions with him, but there were still gaps in trying to get down to who Ditko was. With Everett, we didn’t have any problems doing that.
What was the family’s reaction to the book?
Wendy Everett came to San Diego in July and there’s a picture on my site of me handing her the book for the first time. I was very transparent with her about the whole process over the last year of what my thoughts were. She wrote back saying, “I think you did a great job balancing the flaws of his life with the amazing work he did and the great personality he was.” While alcoholism did have a hold on him throughout most of his life, he’s not remembered by family predominately for that. That’s why I made the Peter Pan metaphor in the introduction to the book. It was the mother who was the disciplinarian. He was more of their friend, this figure who was filled with adventures and fun. That famous story of him getting home after being paid by Stan Lee and throwing the money in the air, and the kids dancing around trying to pick it up. Those are the types of stories they focus on and remember more than anything.
Are there any plans on your part to do a collection of his comic book work, similar to the Ditko books you’ve been doing with Fantagraphics?
[There] could be. There could be plans in the works that could be announced in the next month or so. Hypothetically speaking, I can’t verify anything, but in the next month it’s humanly possible that somebody could announce that there are efforts afoot to do exactly what you said. But I can’t confirm or deny.
I wanted ask you about “Unexplored Worlds,” the second collection of Ditko stories you edited that will be in stores soon. What will this new volume collect?
Well, “Strange Suspense” [the first collection of early Ditko work] was all his pre-code work, ’53 and ’54, before he got tuberculosis and had to go home back to Pennsylvania. This book starts when he comes back to New York and realizes, whoops, Charlton is under tons of water because of the hurricane they experienced in late 1955. So he branches out to do stories in 1956 for Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. The first story that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko ever have a signature on was created in that time frame, so that’s where that relationship begins.
But then we move very quickly into 1957 and he rejoins Charlton Comics. This is where you really start to see his work take off. The pre-code stuff was fun and interesting to see him unleashed like that, but his style and refinements that you see in how he’s going to begin the sequential storytelling he became famous for. Also, some of the motifs you start to see. We make the comparison in the book where we blow up some panel where he shows someone punching a guy out that looks like Spider-Man punching a guy out. You see lot of the motifs in this volume that you see in Spider Man or Dr. Strange. There’s an episode, a story we reprint in the book, where a guy goes off into another dimension and you start to see the beginnings of Dr. Strange’s alternate dimensions. We’re starting at the high point of his work in that era.
How many volumes are you guys planning to release?
What’s amazing about this period now is, as he’s getting better, he’s becoming more voluminous in the work he’s producing. I think there’s about an average of over 400 pages of his, pencils and inks, in each year, ’57, ’58 and ’59. So, you think about 210 pages of pure story every volume, and you do the math and you could be there for a while. And it’s all great work. At the end of this volume, we’re just starting to touch upon the “Tales of the Mysterious Traveler” and “This Magazine is Haunted” stuff that’s really brilliant work, so we’ve got a ways to go before we run out of great material.
Will you collect some of the later copyright-free work?
He did all that great Gorgo and Konga stuff while he was still at Marvel in the ’60s, and then he stopped for two or three years to focus on Dr. Strange and the Spider-Man stuff, Then he comes back with the Blue Beetle and Captain Atom, and all that’s too tied up in ownership by DC. I did the introduction for the first Charlton action heroes. Anything from the 70s on, that’s an era that’s too far off in the distance to even think about at this point. Ditko himself along with his co-publisher did reprint a lot of that stuff in the late 90s or early 2000s. So we’re not even focused on that yet. As you can tell, the next long while is making sure the stuff that’s not readily available, the late 50s material that’s just gorgeous and leads up to Spider Man, gets its due.
Have you heard any sort of reaction from Ditko about these books? Has he come out to say anything positive or negative?
Not about the reprint volumes. Greg Theakson, whose business is reprinting Golden Age and Silver Age stuff, he told me that Ditko said, “I don’t have any interest in this material and I don’t know why anyone else has any interest in this material.” Dikto has always been about the next work. He’s always been about the next story. In “World of Steve Dikto,” we have stories where people have asked him to do commissions or recreations. He could have made millions off of that, but he’s always refused because he’s only interested in new work and his own personal work that he can create moving forward.
In 2003, when the book had its original cover and title, “Steve Dikto: The Mysterious Traveler,” it had that “who am I?” image of the guy in the fog, he came out and just lacerated Gary Groth and I, making all sorts of assumptions that we were going to create an anti-Ditko book and we were anti-Ditko, Over time, as the book developed, we changed the title and the cover image, Then in 2008 when it was completed, I took the book to Ditko’s studio, in that summer, in August, and spoke to him and said, “Different cover, different title. Do you want to read it for yourself so you can say for certain?” And again, he said, “No, I have no interest in that, it’s too late for that now.” That shocked me! What do you mean it’s too late for that now? Do you mean there was a time when it wouldn’t have been too late? ‘Cause he’s always shot down any book or exploration of that. I did write him a letter when I was producing “Strange Suspense.” I made an offer saying I’d be wiling to give him X percent of the royalties on these volumes and I never heard back from him. I can’t confirm that he ever even received the letter or not, but I did not hear back from him. You know, objectivists are very large on not sanctioning something by acknowledging its existence. If he takes the book, well, perhaps he is saying that he is interested in seeing it and therefore there is value in it. If he comments on the book, gives it a review, or denigrates it or gives his commentary on what’s in there, you’re sanctioning a discussion on a piece of work that you don’t think has any value. That notion of the sanction is something objectivists are very keen to avoid.
I wonder if I can get you to comment on this Golden Age of reprints that we currently live in. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen your book, plus one on Mort Meskin and another on Jerry Robinson arrive in stores. It seems like just about every artist from the past is being rediscovered in some fashion. What’s your reaction to that?
I think it’s symbolized in Everett himself. There’s a goldmine of unexplored material from the work itself that’s not tapped and should be, just to add more to the value that comic books provide. From the historical standpoint, you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from. There’s been a lot of hard lessons learned on the backs of a lot of these artists about this industry and how it’s grown and the benefits the artists today enjoy comparatively compared to their predecessors. I think it’s very valuable that this industry, if it’s going to keep going and keep growing, in terms of the new material that comes out, that there is a continuing discussion on where it came from and the lessons learned about that. So every new book that comes out is another piece of the puzzle, from an artistic standpoint to the value of the medium and what it has to offer, but also adds, perhaps more importantly, the bigger pieces to the historical puzzle, so that you can look back on the industry and say, “This is how it actually came to be.”
It’s great to see all of these books. I think in an older industry, all of this would have come out over a prolonged period of time. The internet really helped to mobilize a lot of these like-minded people get together and say, “We can do this, we can make this happen, there’s an audience for it because the generation of people who grew up loving these artists hasn’t passed on yet and also, we can go and research this stuff and we can find it.” I remember the artist Seth once saying whatever book he might have been collecting, he might find one or two a year, but now because of eBay and the Internet, it’s almost lost its luster, its thrill. But that’s just from a historical standpoint, because I can go out and get in touch with Wendy Everett. I don’t have to hire a detective. I can find this material, I can find like-minded collectors who can share their material and knowledge, and we can centralize all of that in books like this. It makes for a more well-rounded picture than what we had before. That’s symbolized in Everett – we really didn’t have anything near the complete picture of the man, in fact we had a distorted picture, due to his own tall tales. Now, because of all this interconnectivity, we can do all this kind of work.
That being the case, who, after Everett, do you feel is the undiscovered artist that someone needs to write a book about next? Who would you like to see rediscovered?
I’m going to take that question in a slightly different direction and it speaks to what we just talked about, the newness of the industry. My ideal next book would be to do one called “Dave Sim and the Rise of the Independents.” You could go back a bit and start tracing fandom and the undergrounds and that would be your prologue but then, bam, [you have] “StarReach” and “Cerebus” and “ElfQuest” and then “Love and Rockets” and we link it to here’s where we are today. We haven’t really told that part of the history. I realize you need some time to pass before you get context and some perspective, but I would like to see that type of history documented thoroughly. That would be great.
I proposed the idea of a Lou Fine book, and that would be fun to see, because when I was in San Diego, there were examples of his art that were so fantastic in terms of the lifework and detail that you don’t always get in the comic books themselves. The problem is, are there enough people to buy a Lou Fine book? Who knows? If there’s enough people to buy a Mort Meskin book. It’s tough when they’re not connected to a famous superhero. At least Everett’s got a connection to the Sub-Mariner and Daredevil. But the more you get away from those types of recognizable connections, the more difficult it is to sell a publisher that someone’s going to come out and buy this particular book.
Lou Fine is a great artist. It’d be great to see him rediscovered in that sense, but you’d have to convince somebody pretty hard that that would work. I thought the same thing of Mort Meskin. Great artist, but beyond Johnny Quick and the Vigilante, the DC characters, does he have enough of a pull? Hopefully we’ve fostered enough of an environment now that people can put that aside, that they have to be connected to a famous character and really take a chance on a great artist and learning about the medium and its history and seeing the work itself and rely on that versus the popular characters they drew.