When last we talked about Thriller, things seemed to be going great with this brand new series. The first issue of this ambitious new series had finished on an extremely high note, the series seemed to be flowing along with a strong sense of forward momentum, and the creative team seemed very happy with the way that things were going.
Remember, too, that the creative team on this ambitious new title was a unique pairing of youth and experience. Thriller was the first professional comics work by Robert Loren Fleming, who had stepped up from his job as a proofreader on DC’s staff to the helm of an ongoing series. Artist Trevor Von Eeden was a rising comics star at the time this series premiered, and this series offered him a chance to break through with even more readers than had seen his work.
But as is true with all good books, the plot started thickening with chapter two of the saga of Thriller. And the complicated plot wasn’t just the storyline on the printed page — fascinating, intriguing and often infuriating as that storyline was. No, the plot also started thickening behind the scenes on Thriller at around the time that issue #2 was released, with tensions starting to appear that would soon cause fractures that would eventually result in the premature end of an incredibly intriguing saga.
The cover of Thriller #2 is far more conventional than the very unconventional cover to Thriller #1. Perhaps in a nod to the need to ground a comics reader in a familiar comics trope, this issue’s cover promises nothing stranger than the story of a horrible house fire, as Von Eeden shows a comfortable home all consumed in flames, as seen through the broken slats of a picket fence. A woman’s body is silhouetted against the fire while the words “SPECIAL ORIGIN ISSUE” is displayed in bold letters at the bottom. How could you get more conventional than a SPECIAL ORGIN ISSUE?
But wait — look closer and you immediately see something much more surprising and odd and, yes, more Thriller, because what is that above the fire but the disembodied shape of a face in massive, all-consuming pain. An empathetic reader might be wondering if this woman is the same woman whose face was displayed in all its rainbow splendor above the Brooklyn Bridge on the cover of Thriller #1. Of course in retrospect all of us readers know that this had to be the same woman, the godlike Angie Thriller.
Oh, and unlike the first issue, the second issue proudly displays the names of the creators on the cover.
“Down Time” Part Two begins with a bank robbery, though of course since Trevor Von Eeden is the one drawing the robbery scene, the robbery scene is created with a strange sort of shifting perspective that I found as confusing as it is intriguing.
See, Von Eeden messes with the reader’s expectations starting with the very first page of this sequence. The top left panel of most pages is most commonly used as an establishing shot. But Von Eeden doesn’t create an establishing shot on this page to ground the reader in subsequent events. Instead he delivers a shot in the first panel that seems distant and which lacks perspective, even including a man in silhouette at the center of the scene. It turns out that panel four is the establishing shot for this page, though it doesn’t seem to be that scene when the reader first encounters it.
Before that establishing shot we see two scenes of dialogue between two criminals and their respective victims — a scene and process that feels confusing and odd.
That scene should feel odd because it seems deliberately constructed to distance the reader from the story being told. All shots on this page are shown in either a strange perspective or in extreme close-up in a way that seems well designed to make the reader wonder what in the world is going on. The reader is presented a familiar moment that feels shown fresh, confusing and new. A reader has to really pay attention to this scene to see what is going on — and that seems to be exactly the point of this page.
As the criminals complete their robbery and try to escape their pursuers, the hero Salvo, one of Angie Thriller’s Seven Seconds, jumps from a roof to try to capture the criminals.
Salvo’s jump on the bottom half of the page is fascinating from a storytelling standpoint because it’s so perfectly executed from a technical standpoint. The principles of good storytelling move the reader from left to right and from top to bottom, emphasizing diagonal images as a way of adding drama and giving the reader a sense of excitement. So notice Salvo’s jump: the leap that he takes perfectly tracks the reader’s eye and the ways that we watch someone jump. Von Eeden delivers that jump perfectly — which is, of course, an interesting contrast to the confusion of page one.
The hero is on his way, riding on his metaphorical white horse, ready to change the reader’s confusion into clarity.
But the problem for our hero is that he’s on a roof and the criminals are in their van way down on the street. So Salvo jumps from his building in an attempt to catch these criminals. Yes, once again the series features a rooftop jump, after a similar scene in the previous issue. Is this an intentional recurring motif with the series or simply a just a coincidence? Either way it’s hard to not read a bit of a double meaning: creators jumping into the unknown, taking chances, creating something very unique and different.
Whatever the subliminal meaning of the jump, the active meaning of the jump is a thrilling drop from 30 stories down to the street. Salvo continues talking to Angie Thriller as he plu nges down the side of the office tower, accelerating to a deathly speed. But despite their distance from each other, Angie can help Salvo. “I need a flagpole soon, Ange,” he says and miraculously a flagpole appears on the side of the building, Salvo flips around the pole like a gymnast. “Let me have another…” Salvo says and before he can finish his thought, another pole appears. Angie’s delighted eye appears behind Salvo’s body as he continues his plunge.
One more flagpole, and then the real excitement starts. Salvo fires eight bullets, in a perfect circle, into the roof of the van as it hurtles through the streets of a futuristic New York City. In a thrilling series of long vertical panels we see Salvo plunge feet first into the gang’s van.
It’s a thrilling scene that echoes a classic storytelling motif from Frank Miller’s then-recent and incredibly influential Daredevil (and remember, Miller will be important soon in this story so keep him in the back of your head for another week or two) but it’s also a scene that’s spectacularly well-realized. I love how the small panels of the van at the bottom of this page become increasingly larger as Salvo gets closer and begins his attack. As the van becomes more important, its depiction in the panels becomes more central to the story.
And just as importantly, Von Eeden has now embraced a new and emerging storytelling trope. He’s quickly jumped from intentionally creating a scene “wrong”, to creating a scene with perfect traditional storytelling, to creating a scene in a completely new way. To this point in the issue, Von Eeden is presenting virtuoso work, a creator showing his chops and proving his mastery of the medium.
…and yet, Von Eeden still capable of mistakes. Page 8 is, frankly, a mess. In panel one, the van has crashed through… something… but it’s not at all clear what the van has crashed through. There was no establishing shot on the previous page setting up a crash for the van, so this scene — though a dramatic image — seems divorced from anything that came before. What the heck is going on? And maybe more importantly, who are those two bodies that we see moving as the van crashes?
Panel 2 just makes things worse. In Panel 1 we’d seen the van crashing with its front-end pointed dramatically up, then in panel two the front end is pointed downward. Maybe that’s because the van has settled into its place at the window, but the feeling of transition is really confusing — made worse by the fact that one of the criminals seems to have been able to walk about ten feet away from the van across a completely empty room, so he can threaten a room full of bystanders who don’t appear anywhere in the panel.
Yes, the criminal is shaking — we can practically feel his legs wobble with Von Eeden’s linework and the sparkles around his head — but the whole scene just feels a bit rushed and incoherent. So much of the thrill of reading Thriller comes from the excitement of figuring out what’s happening in a scene — but in this one, everything feels just a bit of a cheat.
Anyway, Salvo corrals the criminal; after shooting off the man’s finger, our hero turns the criminal over to the police and walks away, down to the coffee shop that his blind mother owns. You might remember that Tony/Salvo is the brother to the supernatural spirit Angie Thriller, who is the title character of this series and the woman that Robert Loren Fleming referred to as being like his mom and Trevor Von Eeden referred to as “like a girlfriend, someone you’d like to settle down with.”
So Salvo’s visit with his mom is therefore freighted with real emotional weight in this story, most especially after Tony allows his face to be taken over by his sister in the gorgeous page shown above. This page presents a lovely sequence by Von Eeden, with his smart placement of the characters’ eyes effectively showing the smooth transition. Colorist Tom Ziuko’s chooses a rather lurid color scheme for the transition, though — perhaps he wasn’t used to the heavier Baxter paper that was used in this issue or perhaps one of the creators asked for something very bright like the sun.
After a center spread ad that highlights the presence of Mr. T, the Smurfs and He-Man on the NBC Saturday Morning Lineup, the story transitions back to Dan, our hero from issue one, and how he settles in to life in the Seven Seconds’ offices in the Trinity Building. Here Von Eeden creates another disorienting page, in which the panels are arranged in a loop around a two-page spread. Once again, Von Eeden creates a sequence in which Dan feels completely confused as our hero confronts fellow Seven Second Crackerjack (who has eaten Dan’s breakfast) and then meets the beautiful Thriller baby Scotty Thriller.
Oddly, Scotty is being cared for by Malocchia, who apparently had helped Scabbard murder Dan’s brother in the previous issue. Something tells me that some real weirdness is happening here.
But that’s a story for another issue, as the comic shifts back to Tony/Angie’s visit with their mother. Mom thinks that Tony and Angie are separate kids, which means Tony ends up eating a double portion — funny hijinks ensue from that moment — and Tony quickly meets up with Jet, a woman who may be his girlfriend (judging by the little inset panel superimposed over Tony’s brain) or may be his imaginary girlfriend (judging by the little inset panel superimposed over Tony’s brain).
It’s worth emphasizing: this woman literally appears out of nowhere in this story, a half-face against a bland pink background, with no rhyme or reason for her presence. Who is she and what does she mean for this story or is she literally just there to get readers moving on to the house fire that was shown on the cover? The text page of Thriller #3 reveals that Jet is a nickname for Seven Second member White Satin, but there’s literally no way that a reader can actually figure out that fact from the information presented in this issue.
A flip of the page and we’re witness to a fateful house fire; fateful because this fire is very important in Thriller lore and explains the connection between Tony and Angie.
Ma and Pa Thriller are coming home from dinner and a show when they discover that their house is fully engulfed in flames. The father, Peter, somehow knows that Angie is still inside the house and plunges into the flames to save her without any hesitation — as any father might do.
Peter finds young Angie in the house, with abstract flames blazing all around him. The flames are colored in blazing oranges, reds and yellows that this time really do light up in the expected way on this paper stock. On the Baxter paper the flames are blazing, and the brightness of the colors provide a dramatic and effective contrast with the tremendous fear of the mother in the large panel on page 19. She’s silhouetted in dynamic black and red, isolated and alone, while father and daughter battle desperately to escape both the flames and their fear.
Interestingly, Von Eeden chooses to draw the most dramatic moments of the scene in the smallest panels on the page. The father’s engulfment in the flames is depicted in just a small slice of a panel, which get even smaller and more opaque in style in the next tier down. Most cartoonists would choose to show the loss of the father in grand, almost operatic intensity (which would match the overall feel of the larger scene that’s shown here), but Von Eeden goes the opposite way, showing the loss in small panels — with the collapsing roof — which we assume blinded the mother – shown as an absolutely minuscule sequence at the bottom right of the page.
That page is everything that’s great about the early issues of Thriller and everything that’s frustrating about these comics, all in one place. The sequence is dramatic but also dauntingly confusing, often feeling like the storytelling pyrotechnics are getting in the way of telling an interesting story.
Adding to the mystery, we find out on the next page that Tony had set the fire himself. “Soon as the drapes caught, I threw down the book of matches and ran like hell.” But why would he do that? We soon may find out a motivation, and it’s something that I guarantee you would never consider.
Back in the Trinity Building, Dan’s having a dialogue with Edward Thriller, the father from the previous scene who — it turns out – is not dead after all. It turns out that Edward was a scientist working to cure cancer with the help of his colleague Moses Lusk. Seems there’s a rogue cell that causes cancer and that Moses had broken that cell’s genetic code.
After the pair won the Nobel Prize, Thriller stumbled upon another piece of DNA, both indestructible and capable of reincarnating men. So, as you might imagine, at the moment of his seeming death in the fire, Edward manages to keep himself alive through magical mystical powers that seem to come from the pages of Doctor Strange…
…and Edward is brought to life.
Then as the comic winds down to its final breathtaking page, one final major moment happens: the evil Scabbard makes his way to Mama Thriller’s home, with who knows what plans on his mind?
It’s fair to say that issue #2 is a bit of a mixed bag of an issue. The comic has more than its share of fascinating, innovative and thrilling scenes, but it also has its share of awkwardness and unnecessary confusion. It seems clear, for instance, that Fleming didn’t know how to bring Jet into the story, so the character just appears all of a sudden without any context or foreshadowing. It’s also not clear that the opening sequence was meant to be confusing or simply ended up being confusing that way, or exactly where the confrontation with the criminals was supposed to happen.
There’s also an awful lot of comic book physics in this issue — with the magical flagpole, the mixed up bodies for the members of the Thriller family, and the way that the Thriller family fire seems to have not really affected anybody in the family. Readers are continually being asked to suspend our disbelief as we work our way through this comic. And though this is just comics and we’re all trained to ignore strange events, readers were asked to accept an awful lot of odd and inexplicable moments in this issue.
Finally, there’s also the rather frustrating concept that death is essentially a trivial issue in the world that Fleming and Von Eeden create. Nobody ever seems to be able to die in this comic, which takes an awful lot of the drama away from a comic like this. Readers are asked to follow characters who are at least nominally like real people, but all these people seem to have super-powers that prevent them from ever getting hurt by anything horrible that comes their way.
Still, the comic is remarkable for its complexity and its insight. This truly felt like a revolutionary creation — Von Eeden often refers to the book as being “profound” — and the first two issues represent the high water mark of the book, at least for Von Eeden. The comic feels fresh and intriguing and very exciting, even 30 years later. There never has been another series quite like Thriller in the three decades since it appeared, though, as we’ll see soon, its influence has felt almost immediately.
We’ll dig deeper into all the complexities of this very unique series next week.