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Batom Comics – The Untold History Part 5

posted on May 30, 2015

Amazing Mr. Sponge

With Starbuck Jones successfully launched, the Martin brothers immediately began thinking about a follow-up title. Starbuck Jones alone wasn’t enough on its own to keep their presses running full time and press time was money. They took their head (and only) writer Flash Freeman and artist Phil Holt to lunch at the Silver Grill in the Higbee building on Public Square where they broached the idea of creating a new superhero book. Ideas were tossed around and discarded until at one point Phil, waving his arms around to describe something, accidentally knocked a glass of water onto the hard terrazzo floor. As a waiter brought a sponge and a bucket to mop things up, Flash Freeman (as legend has it) suddenly had his eureka moment exclaiming, “That’s it! Our new super hero is the Amazing Mr. Sponge!”

At that, lunch was over as Flash and Phil rushed the three blocks back to the Batom offices in the Eaton Building to begin fleshing out their idea. When they showed the completed sketches to the Martin brothers, his first comment was, “Shouldn’t The Amazing Mr. Sponge have a kid sidekick?’’ Again, Flash and Phil went back to the drawing board and returned a short time later with a sketch of Absorbing Junior. After giving the new superhero duo his imprimatur, Barry sent them off with instructions to get a book together as fast as they could and reminded them that the next issue of Starbuck was due shortly as well. As the creative pair suddenly realized what a gigantic hole they’d just dug for themselves, they began casting about for ways to pull it off.

The long July Fourth weekend was coming up so Phil drafted some of his buddies from the Cleveland Art Institute to set up camp in his apartment to knock out the first issue of The Amazing Mr. Sponge. Lured with pizza and beer, Phil and four friends and Flash and his typewriter got to work on Friday night for a comic book creating marathon. As soon as Flash would finish a page it would be passed to Phil to lay it out. Phil would pencil and ink the heads and then do a rough layout of the rest of the page. It would then be passed to the nearest free penciler to tighten the figures, and to someone else to finish the backgrounds. Between the smoking, loss of sleep, the heat and lack of air conditioning, and the cramped quarters for the six young men, the apartment soon began to mimic conditions of life on a German U-boat. But youthful energy and exuberance and carried the day and, as the fireworks were going off over Public Square on the Fourth of July, they were nearing the finish line on the inaugural issue of The Amazing Mr. Sponge. They continued through the night and the next morning, bleary and unkempt, Flash and Phil took the finished pages to the Batom Comics offices. What greeted them there was a surprise.

Realizing that he was going to need someone to ride herd on Batom’s now growing line of books, Barry Martin had hired Brady Wentworth to be the managing editor. His introduction to the company’s two-man bullpen was not the most propitious. Before him stood two unkempt, unshaven and sleep deprived young men. As first impressions go, it wasn’t exactly starting off on the right foot. But, as Brady puffed on his first cigar of the day and examined the finished pages, he got quite a different impression. As he turned back to the two weary artists he said, “You two stink… but your work is terrific!” And, with that, Batom Comics began writing its page in comics history.

Batom Comics – The Untold History Chapter 4

posted on April 11, 2015

Starbuck Jones_col #7-small

The results were in and Starbuck Jones, the first comic book published by the fledging Batom Comics and the brainchild of writer Flash Freeman, was an astoundingly modest success – which was more than the publishers Barry and Thomas Martin had dared hope. Breaking even is generally not the goal that a new enterprise is shooting for, but in the summer of 1954, the entire comic book industry was barely breaking even so, all in all, the opening of of a bottle of champaign was not totally inappropriate.

The upstart company had scored with a superhero comic when superheroes were waning, and with science fiction which was never a big genre in comic books. And they did it with a stern faced Starbuck Jones on the cover firing a ray gun at the unseen foes who had shot his faithful right hand robot, Issac, thus defying two of Martin Goodman’s dictums against rockets, ray guns and robots. The rockets would come on the next cover because there would actually be a next cover thanks to the sales success of the first issue. In an interesting side note, the first issue of Starbuck Jones was actually numbered No.7. The Martin brothers feared that their audience of twelve-year-olds might not want to risk their dimes on an untested commodity, so the numbering began with number 7 to make it appear that the book had been around for awhile. However helpful this move may have been at the time, it created havoc with future collectors.

They also did it with a distribution system that was stacked against them. DC National, Dell, Archie and to a lesser extent Atlas and Charlton Comics all ruled the distribution roost. The distributors knew them as familiar commodities and were loath to give an upstart company from the midwest much if any attention at all. The first issues of Starbuck Jones could have been doomed to mold in their Third Street warehouse without a posthumous break from the publisher’s father.

Their father’s publishing business in Cleveland had been a good one, and the lynchpin client was without a doubt the local weekly Cleveland Catholic Diocese paper the Kingdom Come Gazette. It was the firm’s biggest client and it brought with it clout in the community including clout with the manager and devout Catholic who ran the midwest’s largest distributor of periodicals. When the first Batom Comic showed up he was at first inclined to consign it to the lowest circle of distributor hell, but, upon recognizing the publisher’s name, decided to do what he could to honor the memory of a departed friend and former client and helped to position the premier Starbuck Jones issue along side the better known brands like Superman and Archie. The east coast distributors seeing what he had done simply followed suit out of fear of being left out on the next big thing. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Still, Batom Comics were far from out of the woods. Down time on their presses cost them money and they were going to need more than one comic book to stay afloat. Once again, it would be the creative mind of Flash Freeman that would come to the rescue.

Flash Fridays – The Flash #107

posted on April 10, 2015

 

The cover to The Flash No. 107 shows the Flash being beaten by a runner who is running backwards. It’s somewhat interesting as an attention grabber, but not as interesting as it could have been. That’s because the first story in the book features the return of Grodd the super gorilla, and that, kids, is who we should have seen on the cover. Carmine Infantino, who also drew the Detective Chimp feature in Rex the Wonder Dog, had his gorillas down and then some, and a cover featuring Grodd would have jumped off the comics spinner rack. What I suspect was going on here was that the editor Julie Schwartz had given John Broome a cover idea to turn into a story and Broome did yeoman’s work in delivering one. But, left to his own devices, Broome returned to the terrific villain he had created from the previous issue for the second story in the book.

As I mentioned in my previous post, (go ahead and read it if you haven’t, I can wait) villains appearing in back to back issues just wasn’t the norm back then. Each Superman or Batman book essentially started over from scratch with each succeeding issue. That fact alone marked Grodd’s back to back appearances as something significantly different. It also marked Grodd’s comeback as something very very cool. The story, The Return of the Super Gorilla, opens with strange metal borers popping up in a farmer’s field, a New England forest. I’ve always been a sucker for stories that start small and end big. Gandalf coming to Bilbo Baggins door in The Hobbit, the stowaway sneaking aboard the ship headed for Skull Island in King Kong, that sort of stuff. Innocuous beginnings that grow into great set pieces of bravura story telling.

The scene then shifts to Gorilla City where the head scientist Solovar is receiving a message from another gorilla. Infantino’s art is just gorgeous here with striking shots of gorillas set against futuristic scientific machinery. It was enough to make a twelve-year-old’s head spin, which, of course, was the entire point. Solovar is told that the villainous Grodd has escaped confinement and he immediately gets on the gamma frequency horn to Barry Allen in his lab in Central City. In typing the words Central City, I’ve suddenly realized that it might have subconsciously been the precursor of Centerville, the town in which Crankshaft lives. I kind of hope it was. As the Flash, Barry immediately heads off to the “isolated part of Africa wherein resides Gorilla City (I guess I’m lucky I didn’t call Crankshaft’s town Gorillaville… dodged one there). As the Flash and Solovar pow wow, we switch to a scene “many miles below the Earth’s crust” where we see Grodd holding a pow wow of his own with a winged creature from an underground civilization. This is the first of a number of underground civilizations that will be discovered in the pages of The Flash. Just as with the villains who shoot the Flash into space, I’ll try to keep a running count of how often this happens. Katmos from issue #105 doesn’t count because he only lived in a cave. And, of course, the humanoidish creature from the underground world is bald. I’ve seen pictures of Carmine Infantino from around this time and he was well on his way to going bald so maybe that has something to do with all of the baldness that’s so rampant among the humanoid-like aliens that that the Flash encounters.

Grodd and the winged guy seem to have bonded somewhat, and, as new friends will do, they plan to conquer the Earth together (the borers are explained away as merely a distraction as in “Hey, let’s go conquer the Earth from the underground here, but first let’s distract them with borers from the underground!” Huh?). Grodd has also developed a devolutionizer ray to reducer to reduce the Flash and his gorilla buddies to primitive primates. Once again, scientific theories like evolution are presented and taken for granted, which made their twelve-year-old reader accept them and take them for granted as well, thus putting us ever so slightly ahead of the real world curve. Meanwhile (I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to type that), Solivar tells the Flash that Grodd appears to be hiding underground and so the Flash shows up at the underground civilization. In his first encounter with Grodd, the underground air, the mola, solidifies around the Flash as he moves at high speed (I never claimed all the science was great) which is a break for Grodd. Unfortunately for Grodd, the Flash’s solidified form crashes into the devolutionizer damaging it. The Flash is put on display on a pedestal in the town and Grodd goes back to the drawing board. The Flash escapes by rocking the pedestal until he falls off and it breaks the solidified mola around him. He then stops Grodd just as he’s about to get down to business with the repaired devoultionizer. Upon returning Grodd to Gorilla City, the Flash is assured by Grodd that they’ll be more careful about watching him this time (yeah, right) and all ends well.

All in all, the story continues to build on cool twin concepts of both Grodd and Gorilla City, and despite a couple of fallacies you could drive a Humvee through, is a nice solid mind-expanding adventure that makes you eager for more of this gorilla saga.

I wish the same could be said for The Amazing Race Against Time!, the second story. Unfortunately, the story stretches credulity a bit too much (I know… I just raved about a story with super scientific gorillas, but a guy’s got to have his standards). In it, an artificial humanoid is sent by the Masters of the Galaxy to repair a dimensional rift using super speed to do it. On his way he crashes on Earth, gets amnesia, races the Flash and beats him, gets some electric shock treatments, loses his artificial amnesia, takes the Flash to repair the rift, and goes home leaving the Flash happy that at least he’s still the fastest human. Somehow it just didn’t work for me. It didn’t add to the mythos and stretched things a bit too much. As a writer, you need to play within the boundaries you’ve defined even as you’re defining them if that makes any sense ( You may want to keep a count of your own on just how often I contradict myself on this as we go along). Whatever it was, the story just didn’t feel right. It went a little too far too fast, but, when your character is called the Flash, I suppose that sort of thing is bound to happen.

Two last thoughts – first, the Masters of the Galaxy were bald, but who didn’t see that coming? Second, the scene with the Masters all looking down from a long curved dais seemed just a bit familiar, and it makes you wonder if they were the precursors for the blue skinned Guardians that Broome would later create in the pages of Green Lantern. As they say at the end of every Science Channel show I’ve ever watched, we may never know the real answer.