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Flash Fridays – Showcase # 8

posted on October 24, 2014

Showcase no.8

The cover to Showcase number eight featured the second appearance of the Silver Age Flash (henceforth I will eschew the use of the appellation Silver Age since for my money this is the Flash… period). It’s an Infantino/Giella cover and, if I didn’t already know who had drawn the cover, I’d have sworn it was by Gil Kane. Which, of course is why Heritage Auctions has never asked me to moonlight as one of their art experts. Still looks like Gil Kane though. This only serves to underline the fact that everyone is still working to get a handle on the character’s look (and anatomy, it sorta looks like he just broke his right leg). The thing I find most interesting about the cover is that it has absolutely nothing to do with either of the stories inside. At no point in either story does a villain or anyone else for that matter point a finger at the Flash and say that he can beat him with one finger. Kind of odd for a Julie Schwartz edited book but there you have it anyway sports fans.

Moving on from the mysterious cover to nowhere, we come to The Secret of the Empty Box which follows a pretty typical pattern for the super hero stories of this era. It’s a four beat piece with beat one being the set-up, beats two and three showing the villain best the hero and beat four when the hero figures things out and captures the bad guy, with the ends being wrapped by the B story which in this case is the relationship of Barry Allen and Iris West. Bob Kanigher, the story’s writer, does a nice job using the front part of the B story to humanize Barry’s character and show off some speed tricks at the same time as he helps a young girl who has dropped her ring in a grate in the sidewalk. It’s a nice establishing bit that walks Barry right up to his meeting with Iris and the problem posed by the villain. A mysterious box has shown up in the Central City Square with apparently no way to get inside. Iris has phoned Barry to meet her there and because he helped the little girl recover her ring he predictably arrives late. He immediately deduces that that box is a ruse to distract from a crime being committed elsewhere and rushes off to find it. Again Kanigher demonstrates the Flash’s speed by having him change to his Flash garb in an arcade photo booth so fast that he can’t be captured in a photo. Also again proving that the Flash is faster than film.

The Flash captures the villain who as we learn later is merely one of two henchmen working for the main villain. The best thing about the villains are their costumes which consist of top hats, tails and a mask, but there’s no emotional investment in the character. Actually, there’s no character in the character. We’re not given a name, a backstory or even a motive (other than greed) for the showy thefts. As a result, the character became a one-off never to be seen again.

Contrast that with the villain in the second story The Coldest Man on Earth and the difference and the difference is pretty dramatic. Here we have the first appearance of Captain Cold who not only has a cool name but an equally cool Infantino designed costume and even cooler backstory. In it, Len Snart, a small time crook looks for a way to up his game by developing a weapon to defeat the Flash. Just a slight digression here… science and technology ruled the 1950s and to someone growing up in that era they were the magical answer to the world’s problems. That could also be flipped to science and technology proving the world’s undoing if used badly. So any skinny premise that involved science, even bad science, was granted plausibility by the comic book readers of the day. We, of course knew better, but if the writer involved science, sometimes just the word science, the audience would immediately buy-in for the sake of the story. Science and technology just provided a reasonable jumping off point. So when Len Snart bones up on cyclotrons, breaks into an actual cyclotron and jiggers it to turn his homemade gun into a weapon that can among other things freeze people into a block of ice, we were pretty much okay with that (my dad, other the other hand who was an engineer, didn’t think very much of the book in part because he knew way better. More on this later on down the line.) Unlike the villain in the first story whose feats go unexplained, Len Snart aka Captain Cold now has a raison d’être. The story then follows the almost catch, almost catch, finally gotcha pattern, but it’s done with a villain we can believe in and for whom we can feel something, and, most importantly, would like to see again. With this story, writer John Broome starts writing the bible for future Flash stories to follow.

One thing I found interesting is that in the last two panels we find that Barry Allen has a lab partner named Stan. This is the first and last time we’ll ever see Stan, but I’ve often felt that there was a story there, narrated by Stan, just begging to be told. Maybe someday.

Batom Comics – The Untold History Chapter 3

posted on October 18, 2014

Starbuck Trade Dress

It was July of 1954. Elvis Presley had just made his radio debut in Memphis with “That’s All Right [Mama]”, DC Comics launched a new Superman-family book with Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, and Batom Comics published its first comic book with what can only be described as a nervous pride. Their comic was born at the nadir of a shattered comic book industry, and featured a genre that would have been a tough sell even in the comics heyday. The book was Starbuck Jones featuring the exploits of the star spanning space opera hero. The character was the brainchild of Batom Comic’s first official writer Flash Freeman. It was a witness to Freeman’s belief that science fiction deserved a home in the comics.

Answering an ad in the Cleveland Press, Freeman showed up on Batom Comics doorstep to find the brothers Barry and Thomas Martin high on enthusiasm to begin publishing comic books, short on experience in how to produce them, and desperately in need of stories to fill them. Freeman had been a stringer for the Press as well as a freelance writer for various publications around town, but his dream was to be a writer of short stories and novels. And not just any short stories and novels. Freeman was fan of science fiction, a field still in its youth and brimming with a nascent energy and excitement. Heinlein, Asimov, Clark – these were the stars that Flash Freeman saw when he looked up to the heavens. For some reason, however, SF had never fully transitioned into the comic books and sales of the genre remained low. Martin Goodman the publisher of Marvel Comics had once famously proclaimed that he never wanted to see a comic book that had rockets, ray guns or robots on the cover. Still, Flash Freeman’s enthusiasm for stories set in the cosmos convinced the Martin brothers to make Freeman’s stellar hero, Starbuck Jones, the star of their first published comic book. Freeman’s belief in his character was contagious. In Freeman, Thomas and Barry had found the writer who knew how to make a successful science fiction comic book.

They were going to need someone to illustrate the stories and once again luck was with them. Freeman had reached out to Phil Holt an artist he had worked with from time to time on his various freelance jobs. Part illustrator, part cartoonist, Phil was the perfect artist for the job. His clean exciting style set the tone for the series right out of the gate. He worked up a character sheet for Starbuck Jones and as soon as the Martin brothers saw it they were sold.

The first issue laid out Starbuck’s origin. He had once been a member of a group called the Lunar Cadets, but his issues with regimentation and his tendency to freelance on missions led to his becoming a freebooter of sorts. A Lone Ranger of Space as Flash Freeman referred to him. A mercenary for hire for the right cause. Flash poured all of his pent-up pulpish energy into that first issue, and Phil Holt ably brought the characters to life and breathed life into the characters. That first issue also introduced the Xaxians the alien race destined to become Starbuck’s arch enemies. But all of it would be nothing but space dust if that inaugural issue wasn’t a success.

Flash Fridays – Showcase # 4

posted on October 17, 2014

Showcase no.4

When I was participating in Tony Isabella’s driveway panel back in the summer, one of the questions I was asked was who my favorite superhero was. Without a moment’s hesitation I said The Flash (as did fellow panelist Mike Barr). Back when the time came to sell of the bulk of my comics collection, the books I kept were my Flash comics, and, in fact as part of the deal, I had the dealer fill out some of the holes in that hallowed run. I think the response would be pretty much the same for any other comic reader whose golden age (12) came when the Silver Age Flash exploded onto the scene. It was a special book for a whole host of reasons, and a seminal book for me personally.

I’ve decided to take a comics page from my buddy Tony and try to institute something I’m calling Flash Fridays. Starting with the character’s first Showcase appearance, every Friday (kinda sorta) I plan to write about each successive issue until I’ve made my way through the entire Silver Age run. A task of biblical proportions for sure. These comments and observations will be completely free ranging and not a strict critical analysis. There are many sources out there that can provide much more detailed and analytical insights. What this is going to represent is my personal journey with these comics as much as anything else. Where I encountered them, what they meant at the time, and how they affected my artistic and career choices along with what I thought about them using a set of standards purely of my own invention.

So let’s, as they say, start at the beginning which would be with the first Flash tryout in Showcase number 4. The problem with this beginning is that it wasn’t my beginning. I came on board with The Flash number 115 (which isn’t as far down the road as it sounds and will be a story for a future Flash Friday.) But that means that this issue will always remain a bit distant to me because it wasn’t the one I first fell in love with. I didn’t encounter it until the first Silver Age Flash annuals came out and it was just different enough to always seem a little alien to me. Which is strange because it was drawn by my favorite artist at the time, Carmine Infantino and inked by an equally amazing artist, Joe Kubert. It should have been a match made in heaven, but Kubert’s inks lent a much darker tone to my favorite hero turning it into more of a noir piece which on hindsight wasn’t totally inappropriate. He just didn’t look like my Flash. All of the signature elements are here, the fact that Barry Allen was a fan of the old Flash comics, the lightning strike that bathes him with various chemicals, the slow discovery of his powers and the unfolding of his relationship with Iris West.

Here’s where it gets a little personal. I don’t get the cover. Never have. The cover shows the Flash bursting forth from a roll of (I’m just guessing here) movie film. The question that begs for an answer is… Why? Is he supposed to be faster than film? Film isn’t very fast. I never got the connection. Plus, the figure of The Flash is running straight at the reader which makes it that much tougher to illustrate and convey the feeling of speed. For my money, the picture that should have been the cover is the splash page from the first story, Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt!. Here we see The Flash symbolically bursting forth from a comic book… his comic book actually, and the symbolism makes much more sense (I learned what a symbolic splash was from Julie Schwartz in the Flash letter column in number 115). Plus the figure of The Flash is running at a three quarter angle which allows for a much more dynamic depiction of foreshortened speed. The splash beautifully says it all.

Then there’s the scene in the diner when Barry the waitress drops a tray full of food and Barry snatches it out of the air. We see it as if it’s happening in slow motion and the conceit is brilliant. The POV switches to Barry and we see it as it would appear to him. To a man moving very fast, the world around him would seem to be moving much slower. This concept would be little used (I think) moving foreword where The Flash would mostly be shown from the reader’s POV as multiple figures moving through the panel. That’s my impression anyway, but we’ll see if it holds-up as we move along on this little journey. It wouldn’t be used again as effectively until the movie X-Men:Days of Future Past when Qucksilver’s speed is displayed in a similar manner.

The fact that Barry is inspired to become the Flash from reading Flash comics is a great touch. Whether Bob Kanigher the writer or Julie Schwartz the editor had in mind what it would eventually become is sadly left to the ages to debate, but, for my money, I’d be willing to bet the pharmacy that Julie had that one in his back pocket all along. Flash’s foe the Turtle Man is a nice counterpoint, and the turtleneck sweater is cute, but I was already used to the Flashy (pun intended – just for the record, from here on out, they’re all intended, kids) costumed foes I’d already encountered by the time I’d read this so he came off as a little quiet to me. As an origin story, though, it did a near perfect job of introducing the new iteration of The Flash.

The second story The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier comes off as, well, a second story. John Broome’s initial take on a time travel story would soon evolve into a more sophisticated approach. The villain is a bald headed guy from the future which would become (trust me on this) an unfortunate Infantino trope when it came to representing people from the future as well as human identities for Grodd the super gorilla. What is fun to observe art wise is Infantino’s early attempts to show the new Flash running. While traditional running poses were fine for the older Flash, the sleeker Silver Age model called for more streamlined poses, and, while Carmine would eventually own those looks, these early attempts were still a little awkward. The actual story is rather pedestrian and, had things continued in this vein, the long term outcome for the new character might not have been as rosy. Fortunately changes in the approach were in the offing, but let’s save that story for another Flash Friday.