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 we started to see everything fall apart with this book. This week we watch the inertia accelerate. We feel the momentum of this comic start to fray around the edges.
Appropriately for a series that has such a strong focus on its artwork, the cover of Thriller #6 shows an angry Salvo, framed on the side of the cover, half of his face shown and half off the side, as our hero yells “DRAW!” Behind Salvo is a half-hidden image of Kane Creole, the Elvis Presley type figure from Thriller #5 who had been robbing banks while thrilling women’s souls.
It’s a dramatic cover, well-conceived and well-executed, intriguing despite the fact that Salvo’s gun disappears a bit into the background of the cover — a fact that robs the cover of a bit of its intensity. Like so much in this series, the key focal point of this cover is hidden in the shadows, forcing the reader to put in a bit more work to try to discern exactly what is going on with this cover.
For that matter, the cover is lovely as a symbolic scene, but the cover does also bury the lede. As we’ll see in a moment, the heart of the story in this chapter isn’t with Salvo and his anger; the heart of this chapter is in the multitude of Kane Creole lookalikes who wander through the futuristic city of Thriller‘s world, playing havoc with everything around them. Artist Trevor Von Eeden might have better been served if he’d created an image that implied the madcap, manic action featuring multiple Elvises chasing each other.
But possibly Von Eeden simply didn’t care all that much.
In fact, the cover of Thriller #6 has an intriguing second meaning, one that may seem obvious to anyone who read the last chapter of our saga or even to someone who came to the cover fresh.
Could Salvo be ordering Trevor Von Eeden to DRAW!?
There’s a lot of evidence, both inside this particular story and in his comments over the years, that show that Von Eeden was feeling real pain as he created the art for Thriller. As we saw last week, Von Eeden was in great emotional stress from the “collapsing chair” incident initiated by a malicious DC Comics executive. Von Eeden has spoken movingly of how that incident helped to drive him away from working on mainstream comics due to the betrayal he felt from people who were nominally his superiors. Who of us could say that we wouldn’t react the same way if we were confronted with similar behavior?
It’s clear immediately upon opening this cover that Von Eeden lost his enthusiasm quickly after the incident. You can watch the decline of his passion in great swathes of material in this book, from the often rough linework to the less-than-attentive layouts to a very odd aspect of the art that Thriller writer Robert Loren Fleming alludes to in his comments in this issue’s letters page:
By the way, it might interest you to know that the artwork on this particular issue was drawn on paper the same size as you are seeing now. Normally the penciller and inker use boards that are almost twice the width and height of a printed comic book page. Not so in this case.
I’ve been reading comics for years. I’ve seen hundreds of pages of original art close up. I literally can’t think of a single mainstream cartoonist who has ever drawn his pages at the same size as they are printed. Not a single one. But Von Eeden chose to draw at the same size as the comic. It’s a very unusual choice, one that clearly doesn’t work well from an aesthetic standpoint.
It’s unusual enough to make an attentive reader wonder if that choice was a manifestation of his depression, the equivalent of phoning in a job in order to collect a paycheck.
But what’s tantalizing about Thriller #5, and tantalizing about Thriller in general, is this feeling that despite his feeling conflicted at best with his work on despite Von Eeden’s obvious lack of passion for the work he’s producing, there’s still a tremendous amount of interesting material inside this issue for readers to chew on. But at this point the question is: how much of the decisions are intentional and how many are accidental?
Readers flip open the cover and immediately are confronted with one of those odd touches I mention above. I don’t know about you, but when I make hash marks to count my progress through something, I usually do that in combinations of five. But as this issue opens, we watch Kane doing his hashes in groups of six — an Eisneresque touch that obliquely alludes to this being “Down Time Chapter Six.” But it’s also a decision that is oddly frustrating and strangely off-kilter. It’s a touch that pulled me out of this story very early on in my reading — at a moment when I expected to become engrossed, I was pulled out of the moment.
Is this simply cleverness that misses its mark? An odd attempt at sabotage for a book that Von Eeden didn’t care about? Or is that moment a kind of sideways allusion to the odd world that these characters live in?
No matter the reason, we soon see the real Kane Creole released from prison by the cadaverous Emil Postman and Seven Second team member Robert Furrillo, aka Proxy, who wears a gold lamé suit, just like Elvis was famous for. Proxy leaps out of a moving car…
…in order to stop another Kane Creole from committing a fake bank robbery. In the panel above we observe the same sort of hyper-exciting Von Eeden speed lines that made Thriller #4 so exciting. Look how lovely the abstract shapes are in that panel, and notice how nicely Tom Ziuko’s colors give readers a sense of Proxy in motion. It’s too bad there aren’t more scenes as well executed in this issue. We’ll watch a few of those frustrating scenes before we’re done with Thriller #6, dear reader.
Now you might shrug your shoulders and scratch your head trying to figure out what in the hell is going on at this point. An Elvis impersonator is trying to stop another Elvis impersonator from pretending to rob a bank. But wait. This whole mess gets weirder.
After a nice two-panel bit of storytelling — dig the use of negative space in the way Von Eeden draws the phone booth above, and isn’t the small inset panel of Proxy walking away from the booth dramatic and attractive? — things really start to lose momentum.
Flipping the page, readers are greeted with the splash page, a scene that would have probably been well executed in previous issues but which plain doesn’t work in this comic. For one thing, I’m completely baffled by the fact that the story’s title is displayed twice on one page. What is the point of the white letters against a blue background? If they’re meant to be a marquee sign, that feature doesn’t work. The sign just makes the image look extremely awkward.
Worse, the image of Kane hanging out on a flagpole in this image (again with the flagpoles! Was Fleming obsessed with flagpoles?) is kind of hidden and camouflaged in this image. The composition is created in the wrong way to create real drama. The man on the flagpole is too hidden by the completely unnecessary title logo to his right. Rather than having the black image stand out on the page, the man just fades into the background.
Worse, the crowd in the bottom area of the page looks dreadful. The depiction of the crowd completely sucks the life out of this seemingly dramatic splash. Here we can begin to notice the effects of Von Eeden drawing the comic at the same size as it was printed. The crowd looks indistinct, unconvincing. We get no sense of who these people are, or how many of them are waiting for Kane, or what they’re doing. They look like a quick sketch of a crowd rather than a completed drawing — a first draft rather than a finished work.
After a nice page that establishes the placement of several members of the Seven Seconds in and around that concert hall and a bank that apparently is nearby, the real strangeness of this issue starts to happen. As we soon see, there’s more than one Elvis/Kane present at this performance. On page seven, Von Eeden presents three Elvises — an Elvis in green, an Elvis in pink, and our Elvis in gold lamé.
And while this setup is vaguely intriguing — I like “our” Elvis’s meta-commentary about melodrama on page two above — this comic quickly — almost immediately — starts to spiral out of control.
There hasn’t been enough setup to help us readers understand why there are so many Elvises running around in this chapter. Why does there have to be three Elvises, what is their relationship to each other, and what is the reader’s stake in the outcome of their interaction with each other?
And for that matter, what in the world is happening in the bottom tier of this page? I think there’s a car crashing through a wall to smash into our heroic Elvis (we’ve seen cars crashing through walls in this series before), but I’m not totally sure — much less sure about who’s jumping away from the car. We never see that car again in this comic, so its presence feels like a big non-sequitur. Or am I missing something? In panel one of the bottom tier it looks like Proxy is jumping away, but then we watch what looks like green-suited Elvis jumping, then finally it appears to be Crackerjack jumping away before we watch Proxy jump again.
I think Von Eeden and Fleming are trying to do something subtle here, but the storytelling doesn’t work or pay off in any way — typical for Thriller #6. Did I miss something here?
But the team doesn’t make an attempt to ease the reader’s confusion. Instead we immediately switch to a bank (wait, a bank? Isn’t there a concert hall where Elvis is playing? There was an allusion to a bank earlier in this issue, but Von Eeden did nothing to establish the setting for this scene and I’m just plain confused as to what is going on where).
Pink Elvis is at the bank, a place where there are no backgrounds drawn — a testament to the size of the paper that Von Eeden used — where our old friend Marjorie the teller (seen at least twice before in this series) is working.
The heist quickly goes wrong, in a series of panels that make no storytelling sense to me. Quickly Elvis goes from what appeared to be a ground-floor bank to the middle of a very tall, nondescript tower.
Yes, in a dramatic moment of defenestration, yet another character in Thriller drops out of a very tall building and is ready to plunge at a great height. By my calculations, that’s at least five times in the first six issues of this series that we’ve seen a moment like this. This scene is pretty much the least convincing and exciting of that collection. Look at the sketchiness of the artwork in this scene; notice how the tower feels thoroughly indistinct, almost like an abstract geometric shape. Consider that there’s no authentic sense of depth, power or energy here.
Previously before Von Eeden had conveyed falling with a raw thrilling intensity that carried real power. There was an energy to those falls, but this fall feels desultory, phoned in. Even the shards of broken glass falling at the reader — a cliché in 1983 as in 2013 — fail to keep the reader excited in what
is going on.
Instead we scratch our heads at all the implausibility. Wait, how could we possibly know that the bank was on the middle floor of a tower? How does Elvis crash through bulletproof glass strongly enough to shatter the glass? Is this all simply a Michael Bay-style spectacle for spectacle’s sake? After all, we readers haven’t been given a reason to care about what happens to Pink Elvis.
And of course Pink Elvis stops his fall with a conveniently placed flagpole (seriously, this comic starts to breed its own clichés after a while), then our old preacher friend Beaker Parish saves him before Pink Elvis falls from the copter. He falls right into that indistinct crowd of fans that we saw on page five, now made slightly more distinctive thanks to Dick Giordano’s empathetic inks.
Again none of this makes sense. None of this flows together. Wait, is the bank in a tower above the concert hall? How were we supposed to know that fact? How does Elvis jump many feet high in the air in the final panel? Why are the fans so rabid? Why do we have a stake in this moment at all?
At least the center panel has real energy — a clever piece of storytelling undercut a bit by the lettering beneath the panel and the indistinct blue background.
We’re clearly intended to think this chase scene is exciting — witness Elvis vigorously jumping away from Data’s Rolls Royce in panel one above and dropping under the car in panel three. But also note the lack of backgrounds on any panel on this page. Notice the desultory sketchiness of Panel 5. Think about how Von Eeden’s seeming apathy helps make you feel apathetic.
But again, what makes Thriller so frustrating is the juxtaposition between good and bad. After a dreadful sideways panel that utterly takes the reader out of the scene, the quick meeting between gold lamé Elvis and pink Elvis is actually kind of fun. The top panel above looks ugly, rushed and imprecise but has real energy. And the middle panel on the bottom tier has charm despite — or maybe because of — its awkwardness.
The best storytelling comes almost at the end of the comic, when Pink Elvis confronts our heroic gunman Salvo. Again Von Eeden shortchanges readers with the paucity of backgrounds, with the page above happening in a thoroughly indistinct space in which nothing is placed in precise time and location. But there’s an energetic cleverness to the top tier that almost makes up for Von Eeden’s unexcited approach. It’s almost like he can’t help himself from doing interesting work, even while drawing too small and perhaps too quickly.
The speed lines don’t quite work on this page, the energy of the scene feels almost abstract, but there’s still some sort of raw energy that almost makes the storytelling work.
As this issue wraps up, we get a climax in which Fleming tries hard to wrap up the story satisfactorily but fails pretty completely. As is the case over and over again with this comic, everything ends up looping back to family. Family is at the heart of this story; by god Fleming will shoehorn family into every possible segment of the storyline, no matter how ill-fitting that connection might be.
So as the story ends, one of the Elvises — I’m not totally sure which one it is because he’s so embedded in the shadows but I think in context this is the Green Elvis who is a clone of the real Elvis. As he talks to Beaker Parish (I think) Green Elvis confesses to killing the promoters who are robbing his grave.
I have no idea what that means or how this ending connects to the rest of the story or how any of this is supposed to hang together.
In previous chapters of Thriller there was always a sense that the story was playing fair with the readers, that all of the puzzles could be answered if we only spent the time to really look deeply into the material we were presented. A lot of the joy of the first five issues of Thriller came from the oblique ways that these talented creators counted on the readers to fill in the blanks in order to gain a deeper understanding of story elements.
But with Thriller #6, there’s a feeling that everything just happens arbitrarily. There’s a feeling that the oblique storytelling is weird, off-putting, arbitrary for its own sake. I said that last issue we began to watch things fall apart in Thriller. This week we observed that this comic started to fall apart more and more rapidly as it progressed. With Thriller #7, things begin to accelerate even more as the end suddenly feels very near.