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.
Last week, Thriller #3 left readers onboard a rushing train on which the evil Scabbard kidnapped the President of the United States. But never fear, because the Seven Seconds are on the case. Most of the agents on the train as this issue starts — and with the astounding Salvo is plunging at an incredibly high speed onto that train with Angie’s disembodied face helping him with the wind shears as he fires himself off the helicopter. Can the Seven Seconds save the world?
If you’ve read the previous three installments of this column and/or have read Thriller, you’ve undoubtedly observed a few patterns pop up in previous issues of this comic: there’s been a deep focus on the concepts of family, loyalty and love by writer Robert Loren Fleming and artist Trevor Von Eeden. There’s also been a parallel focus on keeping the reader confused, on his or her toes, forcing the reader to spend time on each page trying to get a strong sense of what’s actually going on. We’ve discussed those patterns before in this comic series and we’ll discuss them again.
But as I watched Salvo and Beaker plunge from a helicopter onto a moving train in Thriller #4, I realized that I’d seen a similar scene before. In fact, I’d noticed a similar scene in all three previous issues, including the closing segment of Thriller #3: every issue of this series so far had shown a person jumping from dizzying heights at a terrifying high swiftness. In fact, a fall also happens in Thriller #6, the penultimate issue written by the comic’s co-creator, Robert Loren Fleming. And to top it off, the descent at the beginning of Thriller #4 is rather ironically referenced again in Thriller #8, the first issue written by Fleming’s successor, veteran comics writer Bill DuBay.
Clearly the idea of falling from a great height was an important theme for Fleming. It’s possible that the look of a man falling simply represented a vision that Fleming thought was extremely dramatic. I mean, that would be the simplest explanation of that theme, right? It’s awfully damn intense to jump from a helicopter onto a train that’s hurtling across America at high velocity. But hey, I’m doing criticism of this series. I can throw out my own bizarre, harebrained ideas in this column and ask if they make sense to any of you. So please tell me in comments if any of what follows sounds insane.
The theme of falls is resonant to me, as it probably is to you, because I occasionally dream of falling. I don’t usually keep a log of my dreams, but I think everyone has dreams sometimes in which they tumble down from great heights. In mine I usually fall and fall and fall and I never hit the ground; in yours, do you ever splatter into a pool of goo upon smashing into the pavement?
As any armchair psychologist can tell you, dreams of falling are often associated with a feeling of loss of control. I had recurring dreams of falling when I was in a shitty job that I hated, in which my insecurities and worries were raging out of control. They were worst when I had a job in which I felt like I could never keep up with my work, that I had way too much to handle, without any way to gain a handhold or foothold to climb out of the enormous pit of work that I had created for myself.
Falling dreams can also be associated with a fear of failure, especially when a person takes on a new task. We all are well aware of the phrase “working without a net.” The dream of falling can be seen as someone plunging into new work without knowing what will actually happen when they do the work.
You gotta wonder if all characters falling in Thriller are a reflection of Fleming’s state of mind as he began work on his very first comic book series. Any of us would be filled with some amount of fear as we took on our dream job; with Fleming’s work on this comic it’s easy to psychoanalyze him from a distance. We can claim that the image of fear came in some way from the fact that Fleming’s first comic book was a highly unique, highly priced comic on which DC was taking a huge chance.
Simply said, did Robert Loren Fleming have his characters tumble from great heights as a symbol of the stresses that he was feeling in writing Thriller?
And if he did, what do we make of the fact that all his characters not only survive their falls but actually are ready and able to fight evil-doers when they land? In issue #2, we watched Salvo jump off a tall building, and with the impossible help from his magical sister, he doesn’t just survive the fall but is able to defeat the bad guys when he lands. And in this very same issue, Beaker Parish jumps from the same helicopter several pages after Salvo’s plunge, on Page 11.
We watch a similar exciting scene in this issue — Salvo looks like a kid at a waterpark as he plunges from the Seven Seconds helicopter, Angie Thriller controlling the wind currents, literally shooting his way onto a moving train.
It’s an audacious scene, but does Salvo’s fall stand alone as a single thrilling moment or represent something more?
No matter what the psychological impact of the image of falling, the kickoff of Thriller #4 is tremendously exciting. Salvo’s plunge from the helicopter performs the delightful trick of moving the reader directly into the heart of the adventure. Thriller #4 is the first issue in which we get to see all the members of the Seven Seconds in action against their enemies. The energy of the opening scenes flows into this entire issue. By the time we get into the vibrant Page 4, readers are finally able to really see why the Seven Seconds are true heroes. It’s exciting to watch the ways that those peculiar heroes thwart the efforts of the evil-doers.
Page 4, for instance, feels like it’s suffused with energy. Von Eeden gives readers a smart establishing shot as this page opens, immediately showing readers where Malocchia and her henchmen are located in the train car before Salvo immediately starts fighting his way through its roof. Even Molly’s powers to confuse have no power over Salvo because he’s too determined or strong or angry or just plain annoyed by Malocchia to allow her to have power over him. When he punches her right across her face, the reader feels a touch of excitement as this action hero takes control of the situation. Pane
l two has an especially attractive use of chiaroscuro that reminds me of the work of the great Milton Caniff.
Notice also how much the characters are in perpetual, intense motion. Von Eeden suffuses nearly every panel with slashing lines that imply intense forward momentum. By the time we get to Page 6 and witness Dan hanging on for dear life off of the side of the onrushing train, the speed lines nearly dominate the entire panel. We can practically feel the sharp, cutting wind rushing past our face like needles as we watch Dan desperately fight to find the strength to jump aboard the roof of the train.
Again — as we’ve observed throughout these four issues — we watch Von Eeden use storytelling tricks that only could work in comics, using slashing lines and blurred figures to show a train hurtling onwards, oblivious to the action happening upon it.
As Thriller #4 careens forward, more and more members of the Seven Seconds team get directly involved in the Fleming’s grand adventure. On Page 7, we finally get to witness Crackerjack and Data in action, along with Beaker Parish (who’s been a big part of the dramatic events of Thriller #3) and the hero introduced in Thriller #1, Dan Grove. And all the Seconds are in frantic motion, each working at their highest possible level of intensity to be able to prevent the evil Scabbard from killing several members of the extended Thriller family. The final panel is virtually nothing but speed lines; however, that panel works wonderfully in this comic because it emphasizes the spectacular power of this dynamic moment.
Similarly, Panel 1 of Page 12 of this issue is tremendously intense because Von Eeden’s artwork shows Salvo as the only semi-solid shape against an enormous block of speed lines that blaze to an virtually surrealistic life behind our lead character as he fights Scabbard. Salvo looks like a man trapped in a hurricane, desperate to escape the winds but also facing his own vital responsibilities. It’s hard not to get caught up in the energy of the tale that Von Eeden and Fleming are telling. As the train continues hurtling along with spectacular onward momentum, our interest in what happens in this story increases as well.
By Page 14, Von Eeden’s breathtaking artwork has become a symphony of separate speed lines, clashing against each other cacophonously with dynamic effect. Readers watch Dan smashing himself into Scabbard in panel one. We watch speed lines from the rushing train in Panel 3, see the helicopter blades spinning extremely quickly in panel four, and thrill in the dramatic forced perspective of Beaker Parish reaching for Dan in the final panel of this page. Von Eeden presents movement, movement and more movement, piled one moment on top of the next, all rendered on clean geometric shapes. That is, aside from Scabbard’s head, cut off by the helicopter blades, which tumbles down the page carelessly. Now that Scabbard is defeated, he’s no longer part of the dynamic momentum of the story.
As this issue reaches its intense climax, Fleming reminds us of the key theme of family that runs through every issue of this comic book, as Salvo howls to the decapitated Scabbard as he casually kicks the evil man’s head off of the train. Scabbard had kidnapped Salvo’s mother, but our hero has had the final word. “Nobody messes with my mother. Glad that’s understood.” (Oh notice, dear reader, how Malocchia starts a sentence with “If only I could see–“? on that page? That’s foreshadowing for an event that will soon happen.)
Terrified by the death of Scabbard, Malocchia pulls the emergency brake for the train. At she pulls the brake, the forward momentum of Thriller #4 seems almost ready to come to a full stop. But it doesn’t stop until after yet another set of nearly surreal panels filled with speed lines show the train reaches a sudden stop. I love the simple outlined image of Malocchia’s hand emphasizes the way that a small accidental move can have major consequences on the story. Her rock like a rock compared to the sharp wind of the train’s momentum.
But even though the train has stopped, the motion rushes onward in this comic. Mama Thriller may have a skull fracture. Her surrogate child Beaker must save Mama’s life, with the help of Angie Thriller. So Beaker calls Angie to rise up like the deus ex machina that she is, as she stirs up an almost hurricane wind to save her mother’s life. Again, family is at the center of this book — intimate family, extended family and surrogate family desperate to save the life of a woman whom they love with desperate passion.
Beaker allows himself to be consumed by the fire of Angie’s power in order to save his mother. As we close out Page 19, Beaker may
have to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the life of a woman he loves incredibly deeply. It all feels very operatic. It all reinforced the central power of family in Fleming’s script.
As Beaker and Angie fight to save mom, Malocchia steps to the forefront. On the marvelously rendered Page 20 we watch the anger in Malocchia contrast with the love everyone feels for Mama Thriller. The evil woman clambers from the train, dagger in hand (dynamically ready to throw that dagger in the final panel of the second tier), until the mysterious Quo appears to face Malocchia down. The confrontation at the middle of the page in which Quo and Malocchia stare each other down is filled to the brim once again with speed lines, but this time they’re speed lines that show the dynamism of the contrast between the two figures. This time it’s not physical space that hurtles and tumbles at an astonishing swiftness. Instead, it’s the battle between the two characters that happens quickly.
It’s a battle that Malocchia is fated to lose. In a close-up of “Molly’s” face in a tiny panel set off from the key action of the main scene, Malocchia appears hopeless and fearful as we watch her eyes go from dark green to light green to black and then, finally, to white. This evil woman has suffered a tremendous loss for her crimes as she’s blinded by Quo in a marvelous sequence of panels.
Readers witness Malocchia’s pain on Page 21 as Quo’s energy goes directly to her face and Angie Thriller’s energy goes to her mother. The contrast between the two characters here couldn’t be clearer: Malocchia screams “Sweet Satan, help me!” as Angie screams “God in Heaven.” Our villain is working the wrong side of the street, while hero is fighting for divine goodness. The villain loved Satan and hated families, while the hero loves God and loves families.
Again family is at the center of Fleming’s opus, a theme that suffuses every beat in his writing, a love so intense it’s primal. Angie is in deep, deep pain as she fights to save her mother, but every bit of the sacrifice is worth it.
Page 23 gives us the deeply emotional payoff for the incredible moment that we just witnessed. Salvo’s face emerges from out of the shadows, with a profound smile as he gazes once again upon the face of his beloved mother as she once again shows her beloved befuddlement. The family is back together and once again all is right with the world.
Ironically, though the Thriller family was reunited at the end of Thriller #4, the comic family was beginning to fall apart as this issue concluded. Issue #5 would bring the first changes to the creative team, as Dick Giordano took over the inking of both issues 5 and 6. Giordano would give the book a slightly different feel than it had when Von Eeden was inking the comic solo.
More important is the fact that Lynn Varley assumed the coloring chores from the very able Tom Ziuko for issue #5, at the request of Trevor Von Eeden. The tale of Von Eeden, Varley and Frank Miller is an integral part of the back story of this fascinating comic book. That relationship will be an important aspect of the background of why this comic ultimately fell apart.
While Thriller #4 appeared to show that all the elements were in place for this series to finally start running on all cylinders, the story behind the scenes was precisely the opposite. This comic was actually in major trouble, as Von Eeden and Fleming were feeling increasingly dissatisfied. Which means I’ve put the topic off long enough: next week, we’ll be forced to deal with some thirty-year-old gossip that shows why Thriller ended up being cut short before fans could really fall in love with it.