Once upon a time, comics were boring and staid affairs, by and large. There were a handful of innovative and special comics on the market, but they were few and far between. Most comics trod predictable, quiet, traditional lines. But shockingly innovative comics began popping up more and more frequently in the early 1980s. Books with mysterious names like Ronin and Nexus and American Flagg! and Thriller were beginning to enter the market in force. These comics were still commercial and full of adventure, but they seemed to fit a new zeitgeist, a new sense that comics had a nearly infinite potential for brilliance.
I remember 17-year-old Jason, high on the brilliance of Chaykin’s American Flagg!, Alex Toth drawing Black Hood and Frank Miller’s Ronin (that latter mention is foreshadowing — Miller will play a major part in our story in a few chapters, so keep him in the back of your mind for the moment) loving Thriller. I was fascinated by the book’s thoroughly odd cover, intrigued by the comic’s great tag line from the advance advertising (“She has seven seconds to save the world.“) and spellbound by the storytelling inside the comic.
For the next nine weeks, this column will tell the story of Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden’s Thriller. The book itself is an amazing work of comic art, but it is also an equally fascinating story behind the scenes, with the selfsame intriguing tangents and side-tales, and — yes –frankly breathtaking comics — that raise this cult classic to high art.
Because — and this isn’t hype — the storytelling in Thriller is way ahead of its time.
If you’ve read Thriller — whether you picked it up off the stands back in the day or from the back issue bins more recently, the comic probably haunts you in its intriguing, bizarre, fascinating and sometimes labyrinthine ways. And if you’ve never read it, I hope this series of articles will make you interested in reading this series. Because for all its strangeness — and this is an incredibly strange comic book — Thrlller is also a remarkable piece of comics art that is fully worth rediscovering. It’s fair to say that there’s been nothing in the comics shops quite like Thriller and there probably never will be.
I’ll get to the amazing and innovative storytelling in this comic in just a bit, but I have to share with you the behind-the-scenes story of how 1983’s Thriller came about. Because that’s just as interesting as the comic itself.
First, I’d like to introduce you to the artist on this series, Trevor Von Eeden. Von Eeden was an up-and-coming star at DC Comics in the early 1980s. He broke into comics as the original artist on Black Lightning in 1977 — and there’s a great story in how Von Eeden got that job, an amazing tale about ordinary racism in the 1970s, but that’s a bit too much of a tangent for the moment — and by ’82 he had become one of DC’s more prominent artists.
Von Eeden’s ’82 Batman Annual #8 was a tour de force of thrilling storytelling at the service of an exhilarating 41-page story written by the much-beloved Mike W. Barr. That story led to follow-up work illustrating a Green Arrow miniseries — Oliver Queen’s first ever solo title at a time when new miniseries were a very big deal in the comics world.
From that work came Von Eeden’s chance to work on Thriller with a new comics writer named Robert Loren Fleming. Unlike Von Eeden, Fleming had never worked as a comics professional before he started work on this project. Thriller was Fleming’s dream job, a chance to create a latter-day version of Doc Savage and his “Fabulous Five” who would fight against some mysterious menaces. All the members of the team would be broken in some way and their battles would be intense.
Fleming was on DC’s staff as a proofreader when he took the ballsy move of creating a two and a half page outline and offering it to five people at DC who were in key positions at the company. None read the treatment so, facing failure, Fleming showed the outline to DC publisher Dick Giordano. Fifteen minutes after reading the treatment, Giordano returned to Fleming’s office and said, “I have to tell you that I’m a little bit disappointed in you.” Fleming’s heart sank. Then Giordano said, “I’m a little disappointed in you because I’m going to have to find another proofreader soon.”
Giordano showed the series to DC Publisher Jenette Kahn the next day and Kahn and Giordano agreed that DC should publish the book. Remarkably, at that time, Fleming had only been on staff as a proofreader for seven weeks. Soon after Fleming turned into the proposal, DC Editor Paul Levitz recommended Von Eeden for the comic. Fresh off of the Batman Annual, DC was looking for a project for Von Eeden and this seemed like an ideal venue for his very unique style of storytelling.
And from there the team was off and running…
Fans who went to their local comic shop in the summer of 1983 probably had no idea what to make of Thriller when they were confronted with the cover of issue #1. Like so many other aspects of this series, this gorgeous, lovely, lurid, bizarre and unusual piece of art simply defied easy analysis. Viewers of this cover at the time had to be baffled by the image they found there. Who was the woman whose colorful face was projected into the sky, and what was her relationship to the very small man standing atop what appeared to be a high bridge?
Maybe more importantly for the book’s eventual success, the reader had to be wondering: where are the lurid costumes that were part of the “DC Deluxe” line of comics at that time? What the hell was going on here? And why was this comic worth taking a chance on at $1.25 per copy at a time when most comics sold for a mere 60¢? Yes, like so much with this series, the cover intrigues at the same time it pushes away. The cover offers no easy answers, demands attention from its readers, intrigues with a cryptic energy that likely repelled many readers who were just looking for a new deluxe comic book like the now long-forgotten Vigilante and Omega Men.
Look at Page 1, for instance. Notice how contemporary the scene-setting feels nowadays, how the idea of presenting a TV report framing a scene now feels like a cliché — three years before the aforementioned Frank Miller made TV news an inescapable meme in his epochal Batman: the Dark Knight Returns? Notice how Von Eeden’s “camera” zooms slowly into an intense action scene, ending finally in a close-up of a rather frightened eye looking at something scary?
Flip the page and the reader gets the payoff from the panel before with a spectacularly dramatic scene — guns firing, our hero ducking nearly out of the panel to escape them, a thrilling and dramatic reaction page that both builds and defuses tension at the same time.
The characters run from the attack, faces hidden from the action, all furtive energy and frightened intensity. The lack of resolution in the way that the characters are drawn — honestly they’re just inkblots as they run from the people pursuing them — emphasizes the fear that the characters feel. And more than that, as the story proceeds through its opening sequence and we get great panel progressions like his one:
And this one:
Five pages in, and we can tell already that this comic is going to be special. We can tell that this comic is going to be a bravura display of comics storytelling, a perfect distillation of the interior/exterior dichotomy of comics that helps to make it such an amazing artform. Notice how the reader’s eye moves cleanly through page five despite the unique layout and the oddly slashing lines. Notice how the close-ups on the characters and the perfect placement of small but significant lines help to bring readers inside the heads of the characters who are portrayed. By the time that the evil Scabbard looms huge in the final panel, readers have already been thrown directly into the rough-and-tumble world that our characters live in. In its Bourne Identity type “camerawork” (and notice again how I’m forced to bring in an anachronism to explain this storytelling that was way ahead of its time?), the story that Von Eeden and Fleming tell on this page is felt viscerally and intensely.
The beautiful intensity of the sequence leads to a wonderful payoff. First we get the breathtaking Page 7:
With its spectacular scene transition from past to present, gorgeously portrayed in a series of close-ups that perfectly show the passage of time and the pain of memories on our lead character. Again the top tier of panels on this page feel familiar to a reader today, but that just shows what a clinic for storytelling this comic book really is. When the innovation becomes ordinary, we lose sight of the innovation. And as we see despair pass over our hero’s face, and he begins to confront the ultimate fate of those who have lost everything, a bright light appears on his face…
And then… Salvation. Or something approximating salvation. Who is this woman, and what in the world is going on?
Finally we see the image from the cover manifested on to the page, but again we have no idea of what is going on. Who is this woman whose face is shimmering in the night air above the Brooklyn Bridge and wow isn’t that a breathtakingly intriguing scene? Von Eeden’s art gives the scene real energy and heft, while Tom Ziuko’s colors really bring a sense of mystery and elegance to the scene.
That light, that mysterious force, offers redemption. And as we plunge onto page ten we once again see Von Eeden’s storytelling mastery on display on the first tier, as the “camera angle” zooms in on Daniel’s face, emphasizing the dialogue and passion of the conversation but also seemingly offering a chance for enlightenment, of one literally getting exposed to the light of their problems.
Fleming introduces the title character of this book: she is Angie Thriller and she sees the future. Angie may be disembodied but she seems omniscient or at least motherly, as she tells Dan “there will be no time for tantrums or for cowardly acts of self-destruction. It’s time you grew up.“
Dan assents to help Thriller. She declares “I have seven seconds now,” and as my fellow critic David Jones put it so eloquently, Dan tumbles down Angie’s rabbit hole.
An Amazing Heroes article from 1982 that previewed this comic reveals that Angie is short for Angeline, which is the name of Robert Fleming’s mother. Coincidence, tribute, or something more? It’s clear from the interview that Fleming dearly loves and respects his mother, so my guess, 30 years later, is that the name is a mix of tribute and wish-fulfillment; a kind of projection of the powers Fleming wishes his mother had.
Von Eeden described Angie Thriller slightly differently in the same AH article:
“Thriller to Bob is like his mother, [but] to me [Thriller] is more like an idealized vision of a woman. To me, Thriller is like a girlfriend, someone you’d like to settle down with.“
As the disembodied woman and the cowardly man talk, a Rolls Royce pulls up. Dan jumps down from the bridge, climbs into the car and finds that the car is being “driven” by Data, a very large black man whose thoughts help drive the car. We find out that Data lives in his car and that he has “open access to all information retrieval systems and the storage capacity of several 647 k-byte computers — in my head!” (Your phone probably has more memory than that these days, incidentally). Data then drops Dan off at a seedy seeming brownstone in a bad area of Brooklyn, w
here Dan meets some more of his new friends.
Most bewitching is another beautiful woman, White Satin by name, who intrigues Dan at the same time that she reminds him of his mother. That’s an odd moment and a strange juxtaposition. What strong man worth his salt would compare a gorgeous woman to his mother? But as this intriguing page shows, perhaps Satin has more levels of complexity to her than first appears.
Just as interestingly, Fleming and Von Eeden introduce us to the characters in this book in much the same way that we might meet them in real life under similar circumstances. Rather than have everything be clear and well explained the first time we meet these characters, as was the case in most contemporary comics, instead things seem a bit chaotic and strange.
Von Eeden’s art perfectly captures the feeling of confusion on a page like the one above — notice the zoom onto Dan’s face in the left three vertical panels, interrupted by Satin’s unchanging face in the second stack of vertical panels, which help to trigger unexpected reactions in the right two stacks of panels. The page has a clever design of a type that we don’t generally find in comics, and because of that design we’re forced to slow down, take everything in and try to make sense of it all, in much the same way that Dan tries to make sense of the strange events happening around him.
We then meet one more of Angie Thriller’s agents: a gun-toting man named Salvo, in an equally unique and confusing set-piece. Again, the objective/subjective dichotomy is on display here, as we learn Salvo’s techniques while we are also confused by them. Salvo is a handsome and very quirky gun-toting hero, as we can tell from the above page. If he wasn’t so weird, Salvo might have been the breakout hero of the comic, but as portrayed here and on the next page (ranting “Only flesh wounds! Only out-patients! I won’t kill a fly — so don’t ask me“), especially when he shows the image of his sister Angie (the woman in the sky) embedded in his palm after she had previously shown herself in his eye.
Salvo throws Dan off a building, which leads to the panel that was often cited by critics at the time as being the most confusing in the book.
Page 22 is meant to convey the slashing rotor blades of a helicopter as it hovers in the sky. Von Eeden said in the Amazing Heroes interview that the concept for this page came to him in a dream. While this is an intriguing page, it might be the least successful of the “new style” pages in this comic. The thoroughly odd style of this page successfully shows Dan’s confusion, but the page also doesn’t tell its story well — certainly not in the way that Von Eeden’s other great techniques do.
But in the midst of a tremendously intriguing story, we can appreciate the effort in this one page. Von Eeden confesses in Amazing Heroes that he wasn’t crazy about that page either:
“I designed the page that way to accentuate the nightmarish effect of falling. But it’s too subjective. I can look at it and see what I wanted [but] this isn’t close to what I saw inside. The whole idea behind it was to create this surreal thing where the buildings are twisted and distorted, [so] the whole thing is a very nightmarish blend of scene.”
Inside the helicopter we meet Beaker Parish. We learn:
“Parish was the first artificial man, product of two renegade Harvard medical students. They didn’t know what they were doing. At the age of eight, already seven feet tall, he was taken in by the families of St. Jude’s. Now he’s nine feet tall, 26 years old, and an ordained priest. And he’s flying me to the Trinity Building.“
Landing at the tower, we finally meet the rest of our cast. Robert Furrillo, ex-actor who nearly killed himself freebasing cocaine until the doctors managed to save him. As Proxy, Furillo has a synthetic flesh to change his appearance. Furrillo looks nothing like Richard Pryor (who had brilliantly produced an incredible comedy bit about his near-death experience freebasing cocaine, immortalized in the classic concert film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip), but Crackerjack, the next agent, looks a lot like Hadji from Jonny Quest.
As the story nears its end, Dan reflects on the group he’s met. “Data, White Satin, Salvo, Beaker Parish, Proxy, Crackerjack… and me! That’s what she meant by Seven Seconds!” And as Dan stares at leaves fluttering outside the tower window, Dan’s thoughts return to his mother — only for the leaves to form into the body of yet one more central character. Extending his hand, the man introduces himself as “Edward Thriller, Dan. Welcome to our family.“
Yes, the family is all together, in ways that resemble the early days of characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow, who gathered agents all around them to help them battle evil. The Seven Seconds echo Doc Savage’s “Fabulous Five,” though Fleming in Amazing Heroes also refers to the characters (tongue planted in cheek, we might assume) as a typical extended Italian family. But just like another avant-garde and much-loved DC comic from the 1980s, The Shadow, nothing about this comic is typical in any way. This comic can go almost anywhere from its spectacular first issue and that’s a big part of what makes it so intriguing.
I hope I persuaded you that this comic is worth reading. Come back next week when we start to see the Seven Seconds on their first mission.