Welcome back to our look at one of the best-remembered and most innovative comics of the 1980s, Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden’s Thriller.
When last we left the adventures of Angie Thriller’s Seven Seconds crew, the evil Scabbard had emerged into the house of the house of the mother of two of our lead characters, ready to wreak havoc. Scabbard showed his face literally in the final panel of issue #2, but a lot has happened since we last picked up this comic; as we’ll soon find out, the plot has already moved forward between issues.
Yes, a tremendous number of events have happened offstage in between issues of Thriller. We’re all used to plot points happening out of sight of the reader, but those plot points are seldom as important as the ones that happen offstage here. It seems that arch-villain Scabbard had beaten the crap out of our gun-toting hero Salvo, has kidnapped Salvo’s mom, and has implanted an explosive under her skin with a hair-trigger detonator permanently grafted to his skin — all as a way of engineering the kidnapping of the President of the United States.
Now I don’t know about you, but the missing moments seem like an awfully exciting set of scenes to me, full of action and thrills and more than a little bit of suspense. But Fleming shifts that scene offstage, because really he has other ground that he wants to cover in this issue.
We’ll get to that other ground in just a minute, dear reader — as always, this column may ramble a bit in order to really be able to take in all the ground that our beloved creators cover — but I have to ask a question that I think is pertinent.
Why did Fleming shift a major action scene and set of crucial plot points offscreen for the reader?
Did that decision have something to do with the intentionally subjective nature of this comic, where some story elements were not spelled out for readers and where we readers only saw the events that we needed to see? That makes sense and certainly fits the whole ethos of the book — but at the same time it is also emblematic of the book’s biggest problem for many readers: the fact that very little of the actual story content in this book was ever directly spelled out for readers.
Readers were forced to pick and pull their way through the book, to follow pathways that were not immediately obvious, to embrace different storytelling techniques and approaches as a way of delivering a thoroughly unique reading experience. And Von Eeden and Fleming certainly do deliver a unique reading experience, one that people like me are still talking about thirty years after this comic first appeared.
But the question really has to be asked whether the creators of this comic really sowed the seeds of their own destruction. The sequence in question is emblematic of Thriller. This series of scenes of Scabbard escaping are — well, they’re not crucial to the plot but they’re important for readers to get an idea of what’s going on in the story. By having these events happen offstage, it leaves the reader intentionally off-balance, intentionally confused and forced to puzzle out everything that has happened to these characters.
I guess I’m mainly struggling with the question of whether Fleming and Von Eeden’s ambitions were larger than their execution. Did these young creators simply lack the professional experience to be able to do what they wanted to do in the ways that they wanted to do it? We saw last issue how Von Eeden’s art for me went from being spectacular and innovative to confusing and difficult in the space of just one page, and there is a strong sense in reading the story in these first three issues that Fleming isn’t quite sure how to move all his characters around in a storyline.
But that very weakness is exactly what has made this comic so memorable for so many readers. That striving and innovating and passion to make every page different from the page before informs every moment in this comic series that Fleming and Von Eeden create. That weakness what makes Thriller worth exploring 30 years after it was published, when other comics of that era are virtually forgotten — and as we’ll see in a minute, that weakness is also a strength in this very issue. That’s the paradox of this alternatively brilliant and exasperating comic book series: is the series too confusing or is it the confusion that makes it so great?
So is it a mistake to have a major scene in this issue happen offscreen? Like so much else with Thriller, the work in this comic defies easy answers. If you were to pull out the rulebook for scripting comics that you might find at the Kubert School, the answer would likely be that an important scene should always be center stage. But this is not in any way a traditional comic book. And in the strange and unique world of Angie Thriller and her Seven Seconds, subjectivity trumps objectivity.
I don’t know the answer to that question, dear reader, but isn’t it a fun thing to think about?
Oh, but we also have a lot more comic here at hand, don’t we? And it’s quite a wonderful comic, too. There were tensions starting to build behind the scenes as the creators simply didn’t get along with new editor Alan Gold as well as they did with previous editor Dick Giordano, but it’s hard to see that fact on display in this issue. That tension will become more obvious in an issue or two.
Robert Loren Fleming’s work on Thriller #3 might be his most ambitious of the entire series. We begin with a flashback to the death of Gardner Grove, father of Ken and Dan Grove — the two brothers who were attacked by Scabbard in Thriller #1. Of course Ken was killed by Scabbard and Dan fled the scene and became one of the lead characters of this comic, so it’s intriguing to find that the boys have followed in their father’s footsteps as journalists in war-torn areas of the world, fighting desperately to help others.
The connection also fits one of Fleming’s key themes in this comic: the role and importance of family. The Thriller family is the central family to the plot, literally living in each other’s’ hearts and organizing a cocoon of connection around themselves. The Thriller family, of course, also brings together the Seven Seconds, a surrogate family of specialized adventurers who help the Thrillers. So to add the Grove family to the story so explicitly, to quickly expand on events in Thriller #1 to add context and depth to the comic, shows a real commitment to that theme.
In fact, in maybe the strangest and most awesomely confusing sequence so far in a comic that is full of strange and awesomely confusing sequences, Dan finds himself transported back to the war-torn country that his father reported from, through the strange machinations of Beaker Parish. In a storyline that parallels his father’s experiences, Dan literally walks in the footsteps of his father in an effort to come to terms with the reasons why his father was brutally killed.
And, even more ambitiously, the flashback sequence is placed in contrast with the story’s “A” plot, the thrilling story of Scabbard hijacking a cross-country train while the Seven Seconds frantically pursued the villain.
The chase on the train is an extremely ambitious sequence, and it’s managed really wonderfully — full of dynamic storytelling, resonant facial expressions, and extremely empathetic storytelling by Von Eeden. Some of the images in this sequence are really breathtakingly lovely. Just look at that beautiful image above of Angie Thriller’s face projected in a stained glass window. Isn’t that attractive and special, and isn’t it something you haven’t seen before?
Earlier in this essay I was talking about problems with the way that Von Eeden and Fleming manage the story in Thriller #3, but here we see the interior/exterior dichotomy on wonderful display in this comic. All the elements of this wonderful sequence work beautifully together — the scenes and story elements have a wonderful call and response to each other, with moments reoccurring and resonating next to each other in ways that elevate the story in ways that are thoroughly unique to comics.
It’s — forgive the pun — thrilling. This kind of parallel story construction is uniquely powerful on the comic page, and certainly very uncommon for the average comic that came out in 1983. Remember, Watchmen received rave reviews in 1986, in great part, because of the amazing work that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created with a storyline that is built with callbacks and repeated images and the creation of complex story resonances.
There’s your proof — Thriller really was ahead of its time.
And there’s one more way that Thriller was ahead of its time — a way that’s maybe a little more frustrating.
Okay, so look at the cover above. Now look at the page below from Sin City: Silent Night.
Isn’t there a remarkable resemblance between the image that Von Eeden created and the image that Frank Miller created? We know that Miller read Thriller, that he was extremely familiar with the artwork in this series, so is this just a case where there’s a remarkable coincidence or something more? We’ll explore that question a bit more in the next chapter of this column.