I picked up three new books from Fantagraphics this year. Two of them are artist biographies and the other is a collection of horror comics from the rollicking 1950s.
Bill Everett and Mort Meskin have more in common than being the subjects of two new books. Both are almost-forgotten visionary artists whose careers started in the Golden Age of Comics. While Everett's star will always be tied to Sub-Mariner, the Marvel character he created way back in 1939, Meskin is lesser-known, but just as respected as that illusive term, an "artist's artist." And sadly both of their work is marred by battles with their own personal demons: In Everett's case alcoholism and in Meskin's case mental illness.
Both of these books--Blake Bell's Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics and Steven Brower's From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin--do fine jobs of chronicling the artists' lives and careers. And both prosper respectively from the official participation of the Everett and Meskin children. Everett worked almost solely in comics for over 30 years, with some side-trips--never long-lasting due to his drinking problem--into the field of greeting cards. Meskin, after a long career in comics, mainly at DC (National), found a second life in story-boarding and became one of the top conceptual artists in New York City's advertising industry.
The Everett book held the most initial interest to me. Author Blake Bell did a fine job on his first book for Fantagraphics, Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, and his return to chronicle an artist so associated with Marvel piqued my interest from the moment I first heard of the project. Everett is a tragic figure, redeeming himself late in life--almost too late to have any impact. The book itself is beautifully designed by Adam Grano and as much an art book as biography. Filled with great examples of Everett art--some of which is from the Everett family's own archives--this book opens up a whole new arena for appreciation of this almost lost seminal artist.
The Mort Meskin book is fascinating, too. Brower and the Meskin sons do a great job in capturing what the artist was really like, both in his career and his home life. Meskin had a series of breakdowns that stalled his comics career, but artists as famous as Joe Kubert, Jack Kirby, and Steranko all swear by his talent and storytelling ability. This book showcases that and then some. Again, it's an impressive package (something I think Fantagraphics has become famous for) and a welcome addition to any comics fan's library. The term "artist's artist" is often used too liberally. For once, it's true: Meskin mastered comics. It's a shame he isn't better known.
The third FB book is a collection of horrifying 1950s horror comics, before the Comics Code Authority--with the help of Dr. Frederic Wertham, Congress, and the media--put all of that to rest. Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s is edited by Greg Sadowski with annotations from comics historian John Benson. It's a cool collection of stories that definitely would have given me nightmares if I read them as a kid. It's redeeming quality--besides being a chronicle of an era of comics long gone--is its great collection of artists, including Jack Cole, Steve Ditko, George Evans, Frank Frazetta, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, Basil Wolverton, and Wallace Wood. A special cover section mimics the cover stock of the times to all its gruesome glory. Sadowski has become Fantagraphics go-to guy on this kind of public domain material and he puts together a wonderful package once again. Some of these stories are almost unreadable, but all of them are enjoyable and strange and wonderful in their own way.