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.
Now we come to the beginning of the end.
The saga of Thriller shows the power of entropy, the impact of stress and complications, the ways that youthful joy can collide with hard, cold betrayal and lead to a result that nobody could possibly want. That loss of trust would result in a massive creative loss for everybody involved with this series.
The events behind the scenes and on the page for Thriller #5 are a perfect illustration of the power of entropy. This is the issue where we can begin to see the tensions and pain and stress and complicated lives of the creators hitting the metaphorical wall. We can see the beginning of the end with Thriller #5. Within a few short months, the thoroughly distinctive work that writer Robert Loren Fleming and artist Trevor Von Eeden created would come to a sudden and shocking end. Comics fans never were able to see this unique series achieve its lofty goals. Thriller seemed filled with potential in its early issues. Like a great band that just released one great album, or a TV show with just one incredible season, the sudden end to Thriller led to fans just wondering “what if?” Some of us former readers still hold that frustration after 30-some years.
We can start to see the first steps along this comic’s road to its end with the material presented in Thriller #5.
I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with Trevor Von Eeden as I’ve moved along with this project, and Trevor has been kind enough to share some background information with me that he’s consented to include in this column. He’s also discussed these topics publicly in the pages of The Comics Journal #298, in an interview conducted several years ago by Trevor’s friend Michel Fiffe, so they are a matter of public record.
It’s time to introduce a new character into the behind-the-scenes story of Thriller: Lynn Varley. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because Varley is one of the greatest colorists to work in the comics industry over the last few decades. She’s worked on any number of famous works, including Frank Miller’s Ronin, Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, Elektra Lives Again, 300 and…. Batman Annual #8 and Thriller #5.
Yes, as you might notice from the list in the paragraph above this one, the vast majority of coloring work that Varley has done in comics has been done over artwork by Frank Miller, with only a handful of exceptions. One of those exceptions is the only issue of Trevor Von Eeden’s run on Thriller that was not colored by Tom Zuiko, which happens the chapter that we’re looking at this week. Another exception was the Batman Annual that drove Trevor Von Eeden’s career briefly into the stratosphere and premiered his new style of artwork.
Von Eeden and Varley became romantically involved while Von Eeden was working in the comics industry, and things hit another level while he was working on his Batman Annual. But things changed.
If you think I’m leading to something here, dear reader, you’re absolutely right. Let me quote Trevor directly from his Comics Journal interview…
After many years, I created the Batman Annual #8 in 1982, which I’d managed to have colored by my girlfriend at the time, whom I’d met at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios. It was her first job in comics. Her name’s Lynn Varley. She ended up doing pretty well in the biz. That was when this “dream job” became a happy reality to me! I still lived and worked in a racist society, but was never again in doubt as to my own self-worth. The Batman Annual was the culmination of many years of intense effort and serious dedication.
But Frank Miller entered Varley’s life about a year after she and Von Eeden had progressed deeply into their relationship, and things changed.
Lynn had colored (or was about to) a Daredevil book [likely Daredevil #191, cover dated February 1983] for Frank Miller, whom she’d met at Upstarts, along with Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin. I suspected her of seeing Frank behind my back and confronted her about it. She admitted that it was so — “she loved him but didn’t know if she was in love with him…” Oy! As soon as I heard this, I left. I’m not stupid … and I had a lot of other things on my mind.
Happily, I saw that Frank really loved her. She was speaking to me once and I happened to glance over at Frank — and I saw such a look of joy, wonderment and pure love on his face as he looked at her that I remember it to this day. I almost got jealous.
So I gave ’em my blessing and went back to my own problems, my heart much lighter than it’d been before. Things worked out well for all three of us, as far as I’m concerned. Lynn’s happiness is my own.
As Trevor reflected to me recently, his emotional maturity at the time of the dissolution of his relationship with Varley didn’t just show class and emotional intelligence, but it also led to a wonderful sort of happy ending years later.
(Comments reprinted with his permission.)
Thriller was all about Love — and the very last issue I drew that I liked, was #5 — the only one that Lynn ever colored. That was at my request. The Batman Annual was all about our relationship, and Thriller had started out as my own personal Valentine to her — one that ended up being a Goodbye–but with a happy ending for all concerned, ultimately. Frank got Lynn, Lynn became famous, and I wrote The Original Johnson, after she came back to me, 20 years later. I have absolutely no complaints, nor regrets, when it comes to how it all turned out — absolutely none!
I mention this back story for a few reasons. First, to show the depth of the emotional intelligence that Von Eeden has (and, frankly, that I wish I had at times). He showed his love for the Varley by doing the most respectful and honorable thing a person could do: allowing her to be free to follow her heart. I still have regrets about the loss of old girlfriends from decades ago, but Von Eeden moved on from his losses.
Second, I mention this to tell a few interesting little stories — like how Von Eeden’s respect and friendship for Miller and Varley led to a deep level of trust than most of us have with many of our friends. The truly good people end up having good things come their ways. Von Eeden ended up being offered the art job on Batman: Year One (which he declined) and being invited to a private screening of Sin City for Miller and Varley’s fellow professionals before the movie premiered in theatres.
Finally, I mention the breakup to say that at the same time that Von Eeden had a much worse experience at the same time he grew past his grief about the loss of his romance. That experience can be called the collapsing chair incident. Yeah, there’s a really painful story around Von Eeden’s treatment at the DC offices, an event that really affected Von Eeden for years.
You might recall that DC’s Managing Editor, Dick Giordano, edited the first two issues of Thriller. By all accounts everyone who wor
ked on the book was excited by Giordano’s support for this extremely unconventional comic. But Giordano’s schedule was extremely busy, so he handed this series off to the new DC editor Alan Gold (not to be confused with DC and First Comics editor Mike Gold). And as part of the transition, a DC editor — Von Eeden doesn’t remember who they were — invited the team on Thriller in for a meeting.
Unfortunately, that editor saw the opportunity of the meeting as a chance to haze Von Eeden with a collapsing chair. That DC team member was sitting behind the office desk as Von Eeden entered the office. Gold was standing as Von Eeden entered the office, and gestured for Von Eeden to sit down in the only available chair. Since he felt it would be rude to have Gold stand while he was sitting — for one thing, Gold was at least a decade older than he was — Von Eeden declined the offer of the chair.
Twice more Gold offered Von Eeden the chair, but Von Eeden declined. As Von Eeden said in his Comics Journal interview, “After my third refusal to sit, [Gold] took the chair, to avoid a confrontation. He ended up with a pain in his ass. I ended up with a useful bit of information about the people I worked for.” The chair collapsed under Gold as he sat down in it. Von Eeden continued:
No, the chair incident was no prank. It was a corporate effort to embarrass me, and “bring me down to Earth,” so to speak. Partly because I was an artist/employee on the rise, mostly because I was a “black” artist/man on the rise. No prank, but a power play, designed to humiliate. I wasn’t humiliated — I was infuriated, and that was my mistake, because in the end, it was my career that suffered, not DC Comics.
What’s important in this story isn’t the fact of the chair itself; what’s important is Von Eeden’s reaction. This intelligent and passionate artist was enraged by this horrible treatment of him. He felt the incident represented a fundamental betrayal of trust by a man acting as a proxy for DC’s management structure. Von Eeden was angry at DC’s betrayal of him, and that deeply damaged his passion to work in the comics industry. Racism seemed at work again in America, and that fact caused Von Eeden great frustration.
And that frustration led to the beginning of the end. Though this issue is very well drawn — and contains a wonderful and very typical script from Fleming — Von Eeden’s anger would deepen as this series moved ahead.
There’s no sign of decline on this issue’s cover, though. Look at that gorgeously dynamic piece of work by Trevor. Every touch of work on that cover is just perfect. The composition drags the reader’s eye into it. Not only is the cover spectacularly dynamic, but Von Eeden’s composition is just about perfect. It’s such a simple and elegant illustration, smartly breaking the rules that the artists seem to set for themselves.
Notice how Von Eeden constrains the image within a box and then immediately breaks out of the box — with the figure in dark, dynamically constrained shadows jumping out of the box on the top and the hurtling car smashing through the box on the right. No wonder Von Eeden’s said that this was one of his favorite covers of the whole run. Thriller #5 might have the most purely comic book cover of the entire run. In fact, the cover reminds this longtime reader of many of Gil Kane’s greatest Marvel covers of the 1970s.
After the awesome inside front cover that makes me desperately want to Frogger on my Colecovision console (seriously, how old does this ad seem to those of us anxiously waiting for the unveiling of the PS4?!), we find that another very odd element has been added to this very odd comic book. Suddenly Elvis is appearing in the pages of Thriller. Now, Elvis may be everywhere…
…but what in the world is he doing in the pages of Thriller?
In a comic that is already extremely eccentric, in which the creators have been working hard to get the readers comfortable with the Seven Seconds, and in which the readers have been struggling to really enjoy Von Eeden’s storytelling innovations, why introduce an Elvis analogue? Is the presence of Elvis playful silliness or a strange play for readership, or is it genuine curiosity on Fleming’s part to introduce another odd random element to the story?
Truth be told, the Elvis sequences are pretty dang fun. It’s a treat to get to see the members of the Seven Seconds react to Elvis’s actions in their own unique ways. In fact, I’d go so far to say that page three of Thriller #5 is one of my favorite moments in the whole series so far, with its wonderfully kinetic, loose, almost improvisational style.
I adore how that page shows the Elvis character as being kind of by himself — alone in a crowd, as was often said about Elvis, but also on a stage, performing a high-energy, highly entertaining song that makes the bank tellers swoon and lulls the guards to sleep. The force lines in panels one and two are just wonderful, emphasizing the powerful energy of the performance while also implying that Elvis is transcendent. In those two panels there’s a feeling that Elvis is breaking out of the box that he could be placed in. He’s too brilliantly bold to be constrained in the small boxes that try to hold him.
Those two panels combined with the middle panel of this page do an interesting job of trying to convey the feeling of music on the page. Of course, even the most skilled of artists could give readers a sense of the sound of music on a comics page (though notable artists like Alex Toth, Mike Allred and Brandon Graham have all tried), but here as usual Von Eeden chooses to give readers the feeling of music — the interior sense of what music does to us as listeners. The middle panel on this page shows the energy, spirit and enthusiasm of the music that’s created.
Von Eeden delivers some wonderful storytelling for the “Kane Creole.”
One more note should be considered as I talk about the use of speed lines and other inking techniques
on Von Eeden’s art in this issue: this is the first chapter of this series that Trevor Von Eeden didn’t ink himself. Previously, including the tremendously exciting Thriller #4, Von Eeden provided his own ink work over his pencils. In Thriller #5 and #6, Dick Giordano steps in to provide inking chores. You may remember that Giordano was the man who gave the green light to launch this series in the first place. As I mentioned, Giordano also served as the editor of the first two issues of Thriller, so was his decision to step in as inker a vote of confidence on the series, or was it an observation that Von Eeden was losing his spark for this book. Was it an idea that Giordano thought would be helpful to move the comic ahead, or was he motivated by something else?
Regardless, I have trouble telling the difference between Von Eeden’s and Giordano’s inks in most places. Occasonally faces seem softened up a bit as the pages go on, or backgrounds are more fleshed out, but generally the artwork in this issue looks a lot like the artwork in other issues.
For instance, look at the wonderful page nine. You can see touches of Giordano’s softening in the image of the baby in panel one on this page, or in the background of panel seven, but mostly it looks that Giordano is channeling Von Eeden’s pencils, delivering inks that are a clear reflection of the artist’s intent.
It’s interesting that both Giordano and Varley step in to provide work on this issue, because the theme of family is extremely strong in Thriller #5. Scene after scene dives deeply into the topic of family — family lost, family found, family finally seen, family nearly lost. Family in all its permutations has always been an important theme in Thriller, but by this issue, we are presented with scene after scene that works as a variation on the theme of familial love.
On the page above we see Angie Thriller visiting her baby, a literal light from the window shining down on the child she loves.
There’s the wonderful scene of Salvo visiting his mom at her greasy spoon restaurant, hypnotizing her beloved son Tony to eat until he’s stuffed (that reminds me so much of my own mother!)
There’s chatter about family throughout the issue, even in the quieter moments. Seven Seconds team members White Satin, Data and Crackerjack discuss their fathers’ jobs and connections (I giggled over Crackerjack’s boasting that his father owns the “Largest owned poop farm in all hispanish nations! My pop!“) because those connections ground the characters, make them feel part of the world in which they live.
There’s a whole lot of action based around the idea that the members of the Seven Seconds are an extended family. When it looks like the Elvis character has killed Crackerjack, Data is filled with furious anger, ready to kill Elvis because the singer had shot his friend. (It turned out that Elvis only shot mild sedative tablets out of his combination gun/rifle).
Repeatedly, family abides no matter the circumstances. Even death can’t stop familial love — in fact, the power of love literally resurrects beloved family members in Thriller. As the wonderful sequence on pages nineteen and twenty shows us, deep, true, romantic love may be the most intense love that there is; romantic love may be the hardest love to forget and move away from.
It’s hard to imagine a more passionate page than page 21 — depicting two hearts in syncopation, beating literally as one — but this “valentine” of a comic book was also at the core of the breakup of real romance, of the very problems that were causing its own downfall. Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes the hardest thing to get to last forever is romantic love. Sometimes romantic love has to go through some pain and stress and battles and worry before everything can be perfect.
Despite all the anguish behind the scenes, Thriller #5 is another astonishingly unique comic book in a long line of unique comic books. It was odd seeing Elvis in the pages of a futuristic action comic, but the presence of the King helped to bring out some of Fleming’s most important themes and Von Eeden’s most wonderful art.
Von Eeden may have been drawing through his rage, but he still was illustrating some world-class comics.