ADVANCE REVIEW! Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives Vol. 1 will go on sale Wednesday, February 27, 2012.
Continuing their devotion to re-presenting classic comics material, Fantagraphics has begun a new reprint library to join their wonderful Steve Ditko reprint library. Blake Bell, the editor of Fantagraphics's Ditko reprints and author of their spectacular recent biography of the great Bill Everett, has begun a series of books that will reprint all of Everett's non-Marvel material in chronological order. That means that since Everett was one of the founding creators of Marvel Comics — his Sub-Mariner story appeared in Marvel Comics #1 and in every subsequent issue for over a dozen years — Bell is presenting material by Everett from literally the dawn of comic books. The age and primitiveness of that material is both its strong and weak points.
In one way, this material is must-read content. Bell presents over two dozen comics stories that span the era from 1938 to 1942. This is some of the oldest and most obscure comics that one can find, comics that would cost obscene amounts of money to collect if you had any chance in the world of actually finding them. If you have a deep interest in the early Golden Age, this book is exactly what you're looking for because it contains a slew of comics that haven't seen the light of day for over 75 years.
But that is also the weakness of this material. Though it's intense and silly and fun and full of action, this stuff is also awfully crude. These comics are wonderfully silly, yes, but they're also off-puttingly silly, full of inexplicable events, cardboard characters and often primitive art. It's not that the stories of "Bulls-Eye Bill" and "Sub-Zero" and the garishly-costumed "Conqueror" are bad stories for their time, it's just that Everett's skills in writing and art end up becoming vastly better in just a few years.
The most beloved stories in this book are those featuring "Aman" the Amazing-Man, who's a man trained by the Tibetan Council of Seven to become a truly amazing man, with remarkable abilities in speed, strength, intelligence and invulnerability. Oh, and Aman also has the uncanny ability to become a cloud of green mist that can kind of float around semi-invisibly and fight evil. Master cartoonist Gil Kane often cited Amazing-Man as one of his favorite series of all time. It's both easy and hard to see why Kane loved the series so much.
"Amazing-Man" is a pure adventure serial, with never-ending action sequences. It's two-fisted intensity, the kind of stories where even the cars in the stories can't touch the ground because the action is so tremendously breakneck. I can see why Kane loved these stories so much — his own style embraced the kinetic feel of these Everett comics — but looking at them today, they're all so silly and bereft of backgrounds and so absurdly packed with words that they're a bit hard to plow through. Plus, the green mist power is just weird!
The sublimely surreal Hydro-Man, also featured in this book, is a hero who can change himself to water because of a horrible accident that happens in his lab one day. As you can see from the page presented below, Harry Thurston's reaction to his land becoming liquid is hilariously deadpan. It's obvious that Everett loved this character, continually placing him in situations — attacking a Nazi yacht or attacking a villain from inside a glass of water — that would fit his character well. It's all very silly, but we really start to see Everett's style firm up in these stories and can tell that Everett really loved this wacky hero.
Literally within two or three years of the appearance of these stories, Everett's cartooning and the general craft of the comics industry would explode to a much higher level of professionalism. With the Sub-Mariner, Everett would create one of comics' great antiheroes, a character on par with Wolverine for complexity and fascination. And Everett's art would take on a really majestic sort of grace, a unique combination of beauty and intensity that made him one of the finest artists of his era — a case that Bell makes persuasively in his biography of Everett.
If you get a sense of my ambivalence about these stories, you're exactly right. I'm a fan of great comics from any era, but I found these comics to be a bit cruder than I had ever dreamed of them being. I love Everett's art from the mid-'40s onward, but here we really get a feeling that Everett is still learning his craft and laying the groundwork to become the world-class artist he would soon become. You can sometimes see flashes of that greatness come through in this book, but those moments are, unfortunately, rare.
In the end this is a book for completists only. For fans of comics from the dawn of the comic book era, this book is an indispensable gift from Blake Bell and Fantagraphics. For those who love to read great stories from the Golden Age, however, this volume isn't as great as the ones that will follow. Kudos to Fantagraphics for re-presenting these stories after all these years, but this book does prove the truism that when reading archival reprints, the first volume will often be the hardest to get through. I give this book three and a half stars for the fact that it exists, for the exhaustive research by Bell and his friends, and because some people will find this material fascinating. As for the comics themselves in this book, well, your mileage may vary.
Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publica
tions, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.