A Visual History of Flatting from the Pages of Modern Scientific Comix

Written by guest contributor Brian Roe

In the history of modern comic book production there are many heroes who have slipped through the cracks of time and corporate greed. Although some of these unkind omissions have begun to be redressed, such as credit being given to Bill Finger, Shuster and Seigel, and “The King” Jack Kirby, there are still hundreds if not thousands of comic book workers who will never be given the proper credit, or royalties, that they deserve.

Consider for example, the humble flatter, nowadays simply someone who traces black and white artwork to create color “flats” to make the job of coloring a comic faster and more efficient. And although colorists have started to become more recognized, actually putting their names on the covers is a great start, their beleaguered flatters are often left alone with only the silent knowledge that they too helped to create the funny book that Hollywood is now milking for cash-butter. But like a talented stage crew that never gets to take a bow, flatters are left alone in their dank apartments, eating microwave burritos with hot-dogs inside them and dreaming of the day that their blood, seat, toil, and tears might somehow earn them a miniscule pat on the back.

I am, myself, a flatter who works with the genius comic colorist Ronda Pattison (no “H” in the first name and no “ER” in the second). I have worked with some of the great comic book artists, John Byrne, Sam Kieth, Kevin Eastman, Ryan Howe, and I’m sure that if we ever met in person that they wouldn’t push me into a gutter and laugh as they walked off to their next steakhouse. But I doubt if a flatter will ever be honored with an Eisner Award, a Shuster, or hell even one of those crappy satin ribbons you get in school that have the gold ink on them and you get for like showing up to gym class or something. So yeah, being a flatter means toiling in solitude and hurting in silence.

So imagine my surprise when I recently uncovered a box of Modern Scientific Comix Magazines from an old garden shed that I’m thinking of moving into. MSC was only published for four years immediately after World War 2, but it had a huge impact on the way that comics were made. It highlighted early attempts to create comics merely by thinking real hard via the Houck Brain-Drawer and even a self inking page called the Eazy-Ink, but the real star of Modern Scientific Comix were the ads. People from Bakersfield to Deer Isle could read through MSC and dream of the fantastic inventions for sale there that they themselves would never be able to afford. They would dream these dreams until they were forced to boil the magazine into a tasty broth or burn it for heat.

And the thing I was most amazed by were the numbers of ads about flatting comics. Apparently all the trained flatters in The US and Canada had been killed or injured during the war and the booming comics industry was desperately in need of skilled flatters. So come with me now as we explore a time when not only were flatters necessary but people actually talked to them.

flatsmanOne of the first ads in Modern Scientific Comix in regards to flatting was this doozy by The South Bend Flatting Academy. Notice the early term, flatsman, to denote one who flats. Later this would be changed to flatterer, which was confusing, and flatsperson during the 1970s until finally changing to flatter for good.

Flat this girlA classic that many young people tried to complete, the “Flat Me” girl was an attempt of the Gas City Flatting Technical School to drum up business. Although many people were more than capable of flatting the girl they were incapable of paying the $64.95 required for the course.

corkys bibleChester “Corky” McDongle was a pioneer of flatting and flatting scholarship. He created the “McDongle piton” which replaced the earlier, and much bulkier, “Zimmerman stave”. McDongle is still flatting although he requires a secretary to flat from his dictation.

good-pay-jobPaul “The Professor” Gallicuddy was arch-rival and greatest annoyance to “Corky“ McDongle. Although his promise of a “GOOD PAY JOB” was a great attraction to hungry young people his desire to teach at their homes while eating their food and selling their possessions to pawn shops was not well received. After attempting to pass off bamboo chopsticks as his “Gallicuddy cudgel” he was never heard from again. He is assumed to have died or been killed.

flat-stickThe Cabeal Flat-Stik Plus was one of many attempts to tame the mysteries and physical exertion of flatting by mechanical means. Although it did have speed it lacked finesse and most starting flatters were unable to afford the $7.50 price tag. Augustus Aquilius Cabeal replaced a few parts and started Cabeal Tattoo Equipment. He now owns the island of Catalina. 

flat o matic

Another attempt to use science to make flatting more efficient was the Trace-Co Flat-O-Matic. Many flatters loved the device and since it was able to be rented instead of having to be bought outright it was very popular. However, it was soon discovered to contain large amounts of radium and strontium and all models were quickly buried in a salt mine in North Dakota.

thrilling work2And finally one of the only examples of an advertisement featuring a woman flatting a comic page. Women had been used extensively during the war years but quit their flatting jobs to pick curtains, colors of paint for babies rooms, and to drink vast quantities of gin and down valium like popcorn. Eventually it was realized that women make far superior flatters than men and also writers, artists, pencillers, inkers, letterers, and of course colorists. But the secret is still pretty quiet and most women have yet to discover that they could take over the industry tomorrow if they wanted to.

Thank you for joining me on this nostalgic trip through yesteryear. If you’re at a con and come across a flatter, don’t flinch away. Buy them a beer or a sandwich, or better yet throw some money on the ground in front of them, and remember that the comic books you love were created in part by the poor despicable monstrosity lurching around in front of you, eagerly trying to capture your attention and to, for a brief moment at least, be given some recognition of a job well done.