Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Golden Age comics: Wellesian chiaroscuro with "Reg'lar Fellers" Mort Meskin and Bill Everett

"Citizen Kane influenced us a great deal, all of us. We were very excited about it and spent quite a bit of time discussing it, employing its elements in our work. There was a contest as to who saw it the most times." —Mort Meskin quoted in History of Comics  
"In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon's character Joseph Kavalier bears a marked resemblance to Mort Meskin, sharing not only an Eastern European birthplace but a past as a gymnast. A turning point for the fictional Joseph Kavalier is the release of the 24-year-old Orson Welles's Citizen Kane in 1941. Chabon writes, 'It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had ever seen, the total blending of narration and image that was ... the fundamental principle of comic book storytelling." As quoted in From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin, one of several great Fantagraphics comics collections we have on hand. (Samples of Meskin's work appear above and below.)
I do love me some old pulp comics. The cheesier the better. Which is why I'm also bringing you some doozies from Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives, Vol. 1, edited by Blake Bell. As the review below from Comics Bulletin implies, Everett's work would get a whole lot more sophisticated, but these nascent efforts are still loads of fun.
"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….
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….
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."
Don't you just love the name of Hydroman's comics series, "Reg'lar Fellers"? Below, more rootin' tootin', razzle dazzle comic book art from Everett.
From the origin story of Hydroman.
Using his "green mist" and other powers, Amazing-Man does his bit for the war effort!
Don't miss the thrilling adventures of Skyrocket Steele, Dirk the Demon, The Conqueror and the rest of the colorful heroes Everett created!
For your further superhero viewing pleasure: Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989–1997 contains four double-CD special editions of the first four Dark Knight movies.
And don't forget to check out another comics pioneer, Fletcher Hanks, whose work I find mesmerizing and sui generis.
UPDATE: Ask and Ye Shall Receive! I was just musing in the comments that it would be great to have a master list of Superpowers. And Lo: Pop Chart Lab hath done it for us, with their Giant Size Omnibus of Superpowers!!


  1. The idea of water as a yielding but overpowering force is very Taoist--bravo Hydroman!
    It is amazing how many imaginative forms could be given the idea of superhero. Through it all runs the yearning of the innocent for justice, and there's nothing silly about that.

    1. Everett had another hero who froze things. It would be quite interesting if someone has compiled a compendium of all the powers of the various superheroes. A chart or some such with images would be quite fascinating. I would go for a poster of that!
      It's also relevant to what you say that many of the early comic book creators (such as they guys who created Superman) were pushed around as kids.