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.
Some stories have one ending; some stories have several.
Thriller #7 is one of several endings to the story of the Seven Seconds as created by writer Robert Loren Fleming and artist Trevor Von Eeden. We’ve already observed part of that ending last week when we looked at Thriller #6 and saw the extremely unusual way Von Eeden drew that comic, at the same ratio as the comics page, while fighting a massive depression brought on by the abuse he received when an executive at DC pulled the old collapsing chair trick on him.
Though we didn’t know that at the time, we also saw an ending happen with Thriller #4, when Fleming and Von Eeden were perfectly in sync for the last time, fully engaged with each other to produce some thrillingly innovative comics that are still well remembered 30 years later.
The conclusiveness of Thriller #7 is on display both on the cover of the comic and on the last page of the comic.
First, do you notice anything strange about that cover? If your first thought is that cover doesn’t look strange at all, that the illustration above looks as ordinary as every other cover that might have appeared on the newsstand back in 1984, then you’re absolutely right. The cover to this issue is odd precisely because it isn’t odd. This cover isn’t weird or quirky or provocative or intriguing. Instead, it’s a perfectly typical drawing of the Seven Seconds as a kind of movie poster style image heads floating in space against a nearly abstract background.
You might also notice that the cover is signed by people named Beachum and Giordano. The Giordano in question is obviously Dick Giordano, who inked the two previous chapters of this series. The Beachum in question is apparently a guy named Mark Beachum, who was a complete newcomer to comics in 1984 — such a newcomer that his major credits for that year include a three-part tale in something called New Talent Showcase.
The Grand Comics Database tells me that Beachum’s story in New Talent Showcase #8, from August 1984, was titled “Starting Over,” which seems appropriate somehow for the man who drew the cover for this comic that represents an ending.
It’s weird to not see Von Eeden artwork on this cover because his art has been such a hallmark of the series. Von Eeden’s covers were interesting scene setters for each issue, setting the pace and the themes of the subsequent chapter in intriguing, subtle ways. It seems completely wrong to observe a cover by artists not named Trevor Von Eeden. Von Eeden may have lost much of his ardor for this book as he dealt with his depression, but even on smaller pages, readers could watch Von Eeden’s passion come through.
The cover appears to be a conclusion. The cover implies that a short era of innovation is reaching its unwanted conclusion, replaced by corporate mediocrity from people who don’t really understand these extremely quirky characters.
But if the cover feels like a conclusion, then the final page of this comic truly is an ending. This note on the letters page, written by Alan Gold, tells us why that page represents an era is wrapping up:
It’s my sad duty to inform you Fleming-Von Eeden loyalists that this is the last issue of their Thriller collaboration. … It’s my pleasure to report that, starting with issue #8, a new collaboration starts to make history. Bill DuBay joins us as writer, picking up the tale where Bob last wagged it (sorry).
Yes, bizarre as it seems to us now, creators would leave their creator-directed comics and be replaced by people who had no connection to the series. It’s inconceivable to imagine any modern series living on after a singular creator walks off the book, but that’s exactly what happened with thirty years ago Fleming with Thriller #7.
At least Robert Loren Fleming got to leave the title with an absolutely wonderful sense of conclusion.
As Thriller #7 wraps up, Kane Creole, the ersatz Elvis Presley, is singing a ballad to his friends while they sit around in their plush offices in the Trinity Tower. He sings:
Girl… you left me… empty
I’m lonely for your love…
I thought you’d always stand by me…
I thanked the stars above…
But now I stand alone and pray
My memories will never fade away.
I miss you girl…
I’ll always miss you girl…
I know someday you’ll come back to me…
Flowers growing ’round your door…
Wherever you may be, my love
Please bring one back to me.
And now I am alone, my love
And yet I pray…
Please never let these memories…
All fade and fade…
Yes, it’s a breakup song about a girl who left our singer. It’s a song of great loss and great disappointment. It’s a song that mourns the loss of an intimate relationship that once seemed to have potential. He still dreams of his girl coming back to him, but the singer knows that his love will never return. All he will have left is his memories, which will all fade and fade away.
It’s an exquisite moment of real closure. Fleming may have left Thriller due to artistic differences between himself and the other people who worked on the series (Fleming was unavailable for this series of articles. It would be the height of rudeness for me to speculate about what was happening in his life at this time), but he left with his head held high.
You can read Fleming’s passion for this series in every word that Fleming has Kane sing. And you can observe the continuing importance of family in the way that Fleming has Von Eeden draw images of so many of the Seven Seconds, all drawn virtually abstractly with their emotions seemingly hidden deep in shadows. All the characters’ eyes are hidden. Their faces look to be downturned in pain, as if the characters are commenting on their creators’ lives as they live their lives on the printed pages. This is not quite a postmodern scene, but Fleming and Von Eeden clearly intend this scene to comment on the end of Fleming’s time on the series.
It must have been heartbreaking to leave your baby just as she was starting to walk, but Fleming at least was able to leave with his dignity
intact, with a conclusion that truly was categorical.
Von Eeden’s artwork is deeply sketchy on the final page, as his art is in the entire issue. I’m not sure if Von Eeden drew Thriller #7 on the same size paper as the comic was printed on, but it definitely seems that way. His linework is bold and slashing, often almost sketchy. In that bold sketchiness we readers can notice the loss of Dick Giordano from the creative team. We can observe now how effectively Giordano’s inks on Thriller #5 and especially #6 softened Von Eeden’s lines, making Von Eeden’s style less jarring for many readers; here, Von Eeden’s art is on its full, intense display.
One ironic touch is that Thriller #7 is titled “Valentine’s Day.” You might remember that Von Eeden mentioned that “Thriller had started out as my own personal Valentine to [Lynn Varley],” and that Fleming wanted Thriller to show his deep affection for his mother and his family. Both facts add a painful irony to the choice of “Valentine’s Day” as this issue’s title. Couples fall in love on Valentine’s Day, but they also break up on Valentine’s Day. Love begins on Valentine’s Day, but love also ends on Valentine’s Day.
After the nearly abstract first page, Von Eeden draws a beautiful, almost silent page two. On this page his bold, often minimalistic linework is perfectly suited for the scene he depicts. You can practically feel the emotion between Salvo and White Satin on this page, with tier three bringing us a deeply intimate look at the love that these people feel for each other.
This is Thriller at its most wonderful, an nearly emblematic moment that shows why many people still remember this comic so fervently even after so many years. The scene is sweet and loving and extremely comic-booky. Plain and simple, the scene works.
The first half of this issue is filled with scene after scene of characters smiling at each other.
The two smiles above illuminate familial love, the deep thankfulness that we all feel for the people who mean the most to us. Is there more sweetly innocent than the love for a baby who pulls on your nose, or something more than busting a gut laughing when your mom gives you a hard time?
Again, this chapter in the storyline feels intimate, intensely personal. Fleming seems to rise to some of his most important themes as he meanders through his narrative, apparently not caring much about plot because of his emphasis on deep familial connections. (Editor Gold calls out Fleming’s slow storytelling in a comment on the letter’s page: “I’ll admit, Thriller has been a rather leisurely outing so far — possibly developing too slowly for its own good. Starting with issue #8, things really pick up.“)
Even Data, the most outlandish to us of all the Seven Seconds because he lives his entire life in the car that he controls with his brain, has his family ties explored in this climactic issue. We are reminded that Data’s father is U.S. President William Martin. Dad’s job has caused some secrets about Data to be revealed — Data’s real name was Freddie, and in his younger years Freddie was a bespectacled overweight geek in an Atari t-shirt.
Though President Martin is unhappy with his son: “My father disapproves of my life-style. Can you imagine?” Data still has his best friend, Crackerjack, to spend time with. Crackerjack and Data have a deeply intimate relationship — I don’t think it’s reading too much between the lines to interpret that this was one of comics’ first gay relationships. The men act as each other’s substitute families in the absence of their parents. Data’s father has rejected him while Crackerjack’s father is an important man many miles away in Honduras. But as long as the men have each other, they have family.
This story even has a kind of disembodied ghost looking down on his family member, as we learn the possibly tall tale of Quo, the man who achieved total knowledge and stopped living. As we find out about White Satin’s husband, he’s used the Kundalini spirit to transcend life. “He’s a concept now.“
Wow. What’s an episode of Thriller without a lot of family and at least a little bit of completely bonkers comic book science? The story of Quo makes no sense whatsoever, but neither does the idea of magical flagpoles or disembodied angelic heads watching over their families.
In all seven issues that Fleming scripts, this comic walks a unique ground all its own: somewhere between completely ridiculous implausibility and deeply emotional realty. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this fascinating mix between reality and complete absurdity in one place before. Maybe this kind of crackpot wonderfully insane philosophy could only emerge from the young mind of one Robert Loren Fleming.
The story takes a radical right turn as this chapter moves ahead. Fleming seems to have been forced to add an ac
tual narrative to this wonderful trip that had been all about the journey. There’s a lot of worried foreshadowing devoted to the journey of an American airliner traveling to Korea that might fly over Soviet airspace. White Satin will be on that plane. All this passion and love shared between our characters may be a kind of foreshadowing of Jet’s horrible fate.
“Jet… I’ve got this feeling. Call it a premonition,” Salvo shared with his love in another wonderfully intimate moment. “I’ll think of you the whole time I’m gone. And you think of me.“
This scene appears to be climactic detail. White Satin is going to die. The comic book is going to take a radical turn with Bill DuBay at the helm. The creative family will break up. The family of the Seven Seconds will take a hit as well.
We have reached another ending. As Bill DuBay assumes the writing chores with Thriller #8, we will observe several more climaxes. The end is near.