Batom Comics: The Untold History

Note: excerpted from http://www.funkywinkerbean.com/blogs.html

Chapter 1
May 31, 2014

Prologue

In the spring of 1972, federal agents entered the converted warehouse on West Third Street in Cleveland that housed the editorial offices of Batom Comics. They were looking for Barry Martin, Batom’s publisher and they found him busy at work in a small corner office just off a large open room with creaking wooden floors and tall mullioned windows.

Hung high on the opposite wall and running the length of the room were giant panels featuring the comic book heroes from Batom Comics glory days. They were all there: The Lunar Cadets, Charlie & Chuck, The Black Ghost, The Arizona Ranger, Tank Thompson, The Amazing Mr. Sponge and Absorbing Junior, The Cockroach, the majestic Blue Astra and of course Batom’s stellar hero Starbuck Jones.

It was The Cockroach, the company’s last creation, who had proved Batom’s undoing. Its long legal battle with its aptly named rival Mega Comics had finally ended in the Fall of the previous year with a Federal Court upholding a lower court ruling that The Cockroach substantially violated Mega Comics copyright on Arachnid-Man. To fulfill the damages awarded by the court, Batom Comics, which had always run on a paper thin profit margin as it hung on against the industry giants, now essentially belonged to Mega-Comics.

The star crossed history of Batom Comics had finally come to an end although its comics would continued to be fondly remembered and collected by the comic book cognoscente. Though Batom had always been a hole in the wall company operating in the Mid-West far from the New York City spotlight, to a certain faithful and fanatic following, it loomed as large as any of the other comic book publishing giants. It was the little comic book company that could and this is its story. Stay tuned for more of the history of Batom Comics on upcoming Starbuck Saturdays.

Chapter 2
July 18, 2014

Seduction Of the Innocent

The fifties were a really star crossed time to start a comic book company, and 1954 in particular was the hands down worst year in the decade. The industry was reeling from attacks by parents groups, state and local legislatures, and, in April of that year, from a Senate subcommittee. Chief architect of this war on comics was Dr. Frederich Wertham who had made it his personal crusade to banish comic books from the face of the Earth.

No single individual was more responsible the downfall of a number of comic book companies, the destruction of the careers of many fine artists, and the stigmatization of an entire art form. His articles in popular magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal lit the fuse with the American public, but it was his book Seduction of the Innocent that was the biggest bombshell. In his book, Wertham tried to tie the rise in juvenile delinquency in the country to the influence of comic books. It led to the aforementioned public outrage, a Senate investigation, and eventually to a self imposed censoring by the publishers themselves.

The establishment of The Comics Code Authority effectively handcuffed the efforts of the industry’s artists and writers. It was into this world that batom Comics was born, the brainchild of brothers Barry and Thomas Martin. Their father ran a small printing firm in Cleveland. Chief among the varied clients of the company was the Catholic Diocese newspaper. When he passed away, along with the printing company, part of the legacy he left to his sons was a newsprint allotment contract. The brothers had no interest in running a printing company, but what they did see was an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream, that of running a comic book company.

So in spite of the toxic atmosphere surrounding the comic book industry, they rented some space for editorial offices in an abandoned warehouse on West Third Street in Cleveland. The first thing their company needed was a name, and, by combining parts of both of their names, they came up with Batom Comics. The next thing they would need would be characters, artists and writers. An ad was placed in the Cleveland Press and in short order the man who would create their star character walked through the door. And so in the city where two young men had made comics history, history was about to be made again by a new pair of young men whose love for comics blinded them to the mine field that lay in their path. A true seduction of the innocent.

Chapter 3
October 18, 2014

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.

Chapter 4
The results were in and Starbuck Jones, the first comic book published by the fledgling 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 champagne 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.

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.

Chapter 5
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.

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