Monique Pryor returns with an article that looks back fondly at the career of William Blake Everett, the artist best known for his work with the classic Marvel comic book character, Prince Namor AKA the Sub-Mariner.
The holidays have been keeping me very busy as well as the fact that my husband has once again decided to clean out his storage unit in preparation for our move into our new house which is still being built. Unfortunately, every time he goes down to his storage unit, he ends up opening up a box or two and reading some of the hidden treasures he forgot he had.
I can't blame him because he brought home some comics with artwork by Bill Everett and I fell in love with it. In high school, I had some pretensions that I might be a comic book artist and if nothing else, it gave me a great appreciation for those artists who were truly talented. Maybe it is a "girl thing" but Everett's Prince Namor really appeals to me so thanks to Richard's library and some e-mail exchanges and long phone conversations with Comic Book Historian Jim Korkis who seems to know everything about comics (or at least where to find the information), I decided to put together this tribute to an amazing comic book artist. No one captured the beauty and power of water better than Bill Everett. In his long comic book career he illustrated many characters but it is his water heroes that are most fondly remembered by his readers.
"I suppose I've always liked water," stated Everett at the 1970 Comic Art Convention, "If anything started it, I suppose it was when I got interested in Admiral Byrd's expedition to the South Pole I read a lot about that the more I read, the more intrigued I became, so when the opportunity came to create a character I naturally thought of water. Jack London's adventures at sea were influential, too. I used to read a lot of sea stories."
William Blake Everett was born on May 18, 1917 in Newton, Massachusetts. His family soon moved to Arizona where, under the guidance of his father, Everett developed an interest in cartooning.
"I was sort of led into cartooning by my father's wish. He always wanted me to be a cartoonist and he died, unfortunately, before he saw that come true But that was probably in back of the whole thing." In later years, Everett admitted that as a child he especially admired the work of Milton Caniff and this also influenced him to explore the possibility of working on comics. When he was fifteen, Everett spent two years in the merchant marine and supposedly even his earliest cartoons began to reflect a fascination with water.
Everett's artwork was distinct; it was unlike anything being done in comics at the time. Perhaps the reason for this was the fact that he had little formal training. In fact, he only spent a term at the Vesper George School of Art.
"My formal art training was never complete. I have to say I was born with the talent. I can take no credit for it. If I take any credit at all, it's just having been able to do so much with it. I've had a pencil in my hand almost all my life. I actually have only two years of art training. I didn't really have that. I was credited with three years of training because I went through three years in about a year and a half. This was only due to the inborn talent and drive that I had to get somewhere fast. That's about the size of my formal art training. I think that anything else was talent, and the desire to put something on paper.
That ambition "to put something on paper" led Everett into many art jobs before he settled down creating comics. His first job was with the Boston Herald Traveler's retail advertising art staff. Later, he worked for some civil engineers, became art editor for Radio News Magazine and worked for Teck Publications which became Ziff-Davis. Everett didn't get along with his final boss, Herm Bollin, and was fired.
Fortunately, Everett ran into a former co-worker from Teck Publications, Walter Holze, who talked Everett into taking his first comic book-related job at John Harley Publications. Harley Publications produced the Centaur line of comics. Centaur was a fairly minor company, producing such forgettable heroes as The Sentinel, The Ferret, "TNT" Todd, Vapo-Man, Minimidget and Ritty and several others. However, the company did provide Everett with the opportunity to work on an adventure character that many people feel features his best comic book work, even superior to his later work on the famous Sub-Mariner.
Amazing Man was not Everett's first assignment at the new company. At first he worked on an outer space character known as Skyrocket Steele. However, shortly afterwards, he did the first issue of Amazing Man comics. Amazing Man was John Aman. The Elders of Tibet "selected an orphan of superb physical structure, and each did his part to develop in the child all the qualities of one who would dominate the world of men." Aman stayed with this mysterious Council of Seven until he was twenty-five years old. At that time, he had to pass a series of tests to earn his freedom. He was given the ability to produce a green mist which would completely envelop him and enable him to fly. In the early adventures drawn by Everett, the Amazing Man was not a traditional costumed hero. After Everett left the strip, the character not only became a typical costumed hero, he also obtained a sidekick named Tommy. At the 1970 Comic Art Convention, Gil Kane remarked about Everett's work on A-Man that "you could follow the action from panel to panel and because of the dynamics, the tension built up, and the continuity of motion, you didn't realize you were looking at single frame panels."
Everett himself remembered the character fondly: "I would love to see something like Amazing Man again," he explained, "I would like to see it done in a simple style, instead of going into all kinds of semantics. I would reinstate some of the original ideas and try to create the writing so that anyone at any level of intelligence could enjoy it. People are entertained whether or not they get the message, and I think the best way to entertain someone is to put it in a way that he can readily and easily understand without becoming too complicated. A creative person should be allowed to express himself but in a way that everyone can understand."
Unfortunately, Everett never had the chance to revive the character and the simple, straight-forward storytelling that made the character so memorable. Like too many other great Golden Age heroes, the Amazing Man is merely a vague name from the past. Fortunately, Everett's reputation didn't rest with this minor character because within a year he would create a character who has become one of the best known comic book heroes of all times.
"I had been with Centaur Publications and Lloyd Jacquet was their editor. He felt the need to break loose and form his own company of some sort so a few of us banded together with him. Carl Burgos, Paul Gustafson, P7en Thompson and a few others were in on forming our own informal art service, to supply a package deal to the publisher. In other words, we would write the story, do the complete artwork as part of a complete 32 page or 48 page book. We started very, very small but rapidly built."
Christened Funnies Inc., the artists started to work. Their first project was a giveaway that introduced Everett's most famous character. Motion Picture Funnies Weekly was a comic that was supposed to be distributed weekly through movie theatres as a gimmick to attract customers. Only one issue of the comic was published, although five other issues were planned, and whether that issue was actually distributed produced heated controversy in the comic book marketplace several years ago. That first issue featured an eight page origin-adventure of the one and only Sub-Mariner, written and illustrated by Bill Everett. If the comic was actually given away, then it is the first appearance of the Sub-Mariner and since under a half dozen copies exist, its value is great. Whatever the case, the magazine didn't survive beyond the first issue and neither might have Prince Namor if it wasn't for Frank Torpey.
Frank Torpey, the sales manager for Funnies Inc., was able to convince pulp publisher Martin Goodman to go into publishing comics. Goodman called the new company Timely Publications and the first comic he published was Man7el Comics #1 done entirely by the Funnies Inc. staff. That first issue contained the origin of the Human Torch by Carl Burgos, the first Angel by Paul Gustafson, the first Ka-Zar comic strip and the first Masked Raider story. Of course that famous first issue also included Everett's Sub-Mariner strip from Motion Picture Funnies Weekly. This time the strip was printed in color and an additional four pages had been added. The cover of that first issue featured the Human Torch and Everett did a rough cover for issue #2 that was to spotlight the Sub-Mariner. Goodman, however, rejected that cover concept and instead decided to spotlight the Angel.
The origin of the Sub-Mariner has been recounted many times. It is a powerful but simple story. Over the years, like the origins of Batman and Superman, the story has been embellished with new characters and further refinement of some of the situations. However, it is the basic original story that seems to be the most unforgettable. In 1920, Leonard McKenzie, commander of the ship Oracle, was exploring the Antarctic. There he discovered the long lost race of Atlantis that lived beneath the sea. Unknowingly, the ship had set off some explosives that proved devastating to the undersea community. Emperor Tha-Korr needed volunteers to scout the enemy before Atlantis launched their counter-attack. The emperor's daughter, Princess Fen, convinced Tha-Korr to let just her find the needed information. Once aboard the ship, she fell in love with McKenzie and shortly thereafter they were married in a shipboard ceremony. The war between the two peoples finally separated the two lovers. Later, Prince Namor was born to Princess Fen. A half-breed, he has characteristics of both races but is never fully accepted by either race. He was taught to hate the surface dwellers and eventually journeyed to New York to wreck vengeance. After many battles with New York's Finest (as well as the Human Torch), he met Betty Dean who convinced him that the real threat was Nazism. For the remainder of his Golden Age career, Namor tackled the Nazis and the Communists with the same fervor he would demonstrate battling the Fantastic Four many, many years later.
The creation of the Sub-Mariner, according to Everett, was inspired by the eleventh stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
"The Sun Came up upon the left
Out of the Sea came he;
And he shone bright and on the right
Went down into the sea."
So the "mariner" part of the name was a tribute to the Coleridge poem. Many people have supposed that the "sub" came from "submarine". Everett mentioned in an interview that he remembered the "sub" part coming from his readings about the Antarctic where they talked about the "sub polar zones". Everett often complained that people pronounced Namor's name as if an "r" had been added to the word "submarine" rather than the proper pronunciation. In fact, that's why "Sub-Mariner" has a hyphen; it's to encourage the proper pronunciation.
"I'm only recently beginning to learn that there was more to my writing the Sub-Mariner than I actually thought of at the time. He was an angry character. He was probably expressing some of my own personality. With the origin of the Sub-Mariner, I was allowed full expression. There were no limitations set by the editors or publishers or anyone. This was a case where the artist writing could freely express himself and if he had something to tell, this was an outlet for it."
This freedom allowed Everett to create Timely's most enduring character. The Sub-Mariner was given the first issue of his own comic in Spring 1941, just about the same time that the first issue of Captain America was published. The Sub-Mariner was the Timely character who appeared in the largest number of published stories and those stories appeared in a dozen different Timely titles. In fact, the last issue of a Timely comic book was the forty-second issue of Sub-Mariner Comics published in 1955. (Later the character would be rediscovered in Fantastic Four #4, May 1962, for the newly named Marvel Comics.)
The familiar triangle face, arched eyebrows, elfin ears and ankle wings made the Sub-Mariner stand out in an era known for its strange looking heroes and villains. But it wasn't just the distinctive Everett artwork that made the character special. The plots and the characters propelled the story along at breakneck speed. There was great power and nobility in the charact2r who ruled the oceans, and Everett's early writing so firmly established these traits that it would be difficult to imagine a different interpretation of the Sub-Mariner. Namor fought everyone, including himself. Torn between two races, he would never know peace. Everett's writing illuminated this aspect without sinking into unnecessary verbosity.
"As far as storytelling is concerned, I read a great deal when I was very young. I read what was then considered the deeper novels, the high class literature. I didn't go much for pulp material. I didn't even read the daily comics much. My background as far as education was kind of poor. I dropped out of high school and art school. I had to make up for this in reading. I wanted to be a writer and if I had any idol at all it would be Jack London. I liked the way he told a story and I figured that rather than probably be the great novelist of all time, I would attempt merely to tell the story in the simplest terms that I could summon. I think that this shows up in my early writings."
With the success of the Sub-Mariner, it was natural that the company would try to cash in on the situation as it did with other characters. Two Sub-Mariner inspired characters deserve at least brief mention despite the fact that neither was created by Everett. Kid Komics #1 and #2 featured Subbie, a kid with all the powers of Sub-Mariner, except the ability to fly, who fought Nazis. His connection with the original Sub-Mariner was never made clear. Marvel Mystery Comics #82 introduced Namora. Although not created by Everett, he made her an important supporting character in several Sub-Mariner stories and it is Everett's version of this character that is best remembered by fans of today.
Namora was from the same race of Sub-Mariners as Namor. Her home was destroyed by surface men in diving gear who looted the city and killed all the inhabitants. Namora was the sole survivor and with the help of Namor brought the criminals to justice. In every way, she was the counterpart of Namor and became quite a popular character. Later, she would spawn a daughter, Namorita, who accompanied Namor on some of his early 1970s adventures.
Lloyd Jacquet came up to Everett and told him they needed a filler, just a few pages of story, for Daring Mystery #7 (April 1941) and told him to do whatever he wanted. What Everett wanted was to still explore the possibilities of man and the sea but he needed a totally different concept than just another clone of the Sub-Mariner. So Everett created The Fin.
Lt. Peter Noble was the only survivor of a submarine wreck. As he was escaping from the doomed submarine, he discovered that he had been mysteriously endowed with the ability to live under the sea as well as on the land. He soon came upon an undersea cavern filled with green sea monsters and was forced into combat with the leader. After he defeated the leader, he became the new leader and adopted a costume which included a shark's fin headpiece. Thus he became the Fin. In his last adventure, he stumbled upon a sword that only he could use, that could cut through any metal and that gave him the strength of twenty men. No one else could hold the sword or a wave of extreme disgust would over-power them. The Fin had a very short career. He only appeared in Daring Mystery #7 and #8 as well as Comedy #9. At the time, Everett was still too busy with his work on the Sub-Mariner to really concentrate on developing the character any further.
Another Everett water based hero was more successful and totally different from the humorless Namor. Hydroman was not truly created by Everett, although he did the refinements and development before the character first appeared in print. Steve Douglas, editor at Eastern Color's Famous Funnies asked Everett to create a water hero for him. A brother of a friend Everett had grown up with was intensely interested in Everett's work and it was he who originated the concept of Hydroman. (Hydroman's alter ego was Bob Blake. Bob was the name of the young man who came up with the idea and Blake was Everett's middle name.) Everett thought the concept too ridiculous but Douglas liked it and so the first issue of Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics (1940) told the story of Harry Thurston who was a chemical engineer who had developed a formula to convert human flesh and blood into water. A huge container of this stuff spilled over Harry's best friend, Bob Blake, who promptly became a small puddle of water on the floor. Thurston was able to develop an antidote and Bob was returned to his natural form. Bob soon discovered that he could control this change merely by thinking about it. In the second issue, Thurston created a uniform for Bob made out of the new wonder fabric, Translite. It was transparent and not even bullets could penetrate it. Hydroman was handled in a humorous manner, often appearing out of water taps, puddles of water or the sewer. The hero was so popular that he still continued for several years although Everett left the strip after about a year.
Everett was not limited to aquatic heroes. He also worked on The Patriot, Venus and Marvel Boy for Timely. He developed The Chameleon, Sub-Zero, White Streak and Bull's-eye Bill for Novelty. (Everett spent part of his early childhood in Arizona and Montana and this probably gave him some background for the western character, Bull's-eye Bill, who looks suspiciously like the Sub-Mariner in a cowboy hat.) He also worked on Music Master for Eastern Color and The Conqueror for Hillman and Dirk the Demon for Centaur. And it has been aimed by at least one source that he did some pre-war work for Quality.
At the height of his Golden Age comic book career in 1942, he joined the army. Four years later he was discharged and once again took up pen and pencil during the final years of the Golden Age. Although still working on the Sub-Mariner, he began to do more and more horror stories as well as working for the various humor magazines such as Loco and Snafu that popped up during this period of comic history. Later he became a staff artist at Cracked.
Everett left the field-of comics and worked as an art director for a greeting card firm, among other art related activities. With the renewed interest in superheroes in the 1960s, Everett once again rejoined the field he loved. One of his first jobs was drawing the first issue of the new Marvel character Daredevil. Shortly afterwards, he returned to illustrating the adventures of the Sub-Mariner.
After a series of heart attacks, Bill Everett passed away on February 27, 1973. Like too many artists, Everett never recognized his own greatness nor the influence his work would have on future readers. The work he produced, as far as he was concerned, was merely the best work he could do in the amount of time he was given to produce it. The classic first battle between Namor and the Human Torch in a 64 page book was churned out in its entirety in just five days. Everett insisted that all he did with the stories was to try to come up with workable plots and keep the cast in character during the situations. He never saw that as any great achievement and in the last published interview with him, he even questioned why the character of Sub-Mariner had lasted so long because he felt the character lacked depth.
Everett was one-of-a-kind. No one has been truly able to duplicate his work, neither his unique art style nor his innate understanding of man's relationship to the elements. He was able to infuse his work with his love of adventure and his appreciation of good, strong storytelling. Despite personal problems, he was able to produce interesting comic art right up until his death. However, it will be his early work in the Golden Age of Comics that will be best remembered and cherished by readers. It is that work that has earned him an honored spot in the history of comics, and that achievement will survive as long as the oceans that Everett loved.