Welcome back to our look at one of the best-remembered and most innovative comics of the 1980s, Trevor Von Eeden’s Thriller.
What’s that you notice directly above this paragraph? There’s a name missing from the credits list above? Yes, as we saw last week, Robert Loren Fleming left the comic that was his brainchild “in order to pursue other interests,” as they say when bands split up in giant screaming temper tantrums.
With Thriller #8, Bill DuBay took over the writing on the series. Immediately the quality of Thriller took a nose dive. It’s fair to say that everything that made this comic so special — its focus on family and deep emotional passion, along with its unhurried pace, Fleming’s interesting writing ticks, and Von Eeden’s wonderfully oblique storytelling — pretty much disappeared when DuBay succeeded Fleming at the writing helm on Thriller.
It’s easy to see why DuBay was given control over Thriller. He had just left a longstanding job at Warren Magazines as Jim Warren struggled to stave off bankruptcy. DuBay emerged from the Warren cocoon in order to do work for other publishers. He toiled briefly as an editor for Archie Comics’ short-lived superhero revival in the early ’80s, writing a brutally dark mini-series featuring their hero the Comet as a wife beating asshole, among other comics.
Around the same time, DuBay also created a comic called Bold Adventure, published by then-powerhouse Pacific Comics. In Bold Adventure, DuBay wrote a two-part sci-fi adventure strip called “The Weirdling,” which was illustrated by one Trevor Von Eeden. Bold Adventure #1 was released in the same month as Thriller #1, and featured Von Eeden’s intense new art style.
It’s easy to imagine DC editor Alan Gold thinking that the combination of DuBay and Von Eeden would help elevate Thriller to new towering heights of success — particularly since Gold had groused publicly in the comic’s letters page about the oblique storytelling and frustrating pace of Fleming’s stories. Gold undoubtedly figured he could couple Von Eeden’s bold storytelling with DuBay’s more straightforward story to deliver something that wasn’t quite as obscure as the previous issues of this series.
But the team of Bill DuBay and Trevor Von Eeden on Thriller was a creative disaster.
Part of the problem with the team was that DuBay was unsuitable for Thriller for the exact reasons that Gold probably thought he would be a good fit for the comic. DuBay didn’t know the characters, didn’t have an affinity for the plot — obscure and tangled as the plot was — and felt the need to plothammer his story rather than allow the plot to take its own pace.
Part of the problem, too, was that Trevor Von Eeden was mostly emotionally distant from his artwork at DC by the time he started drawing Thriller #8. The breaking chair incident was playing hard and deep on Von Eeden’s emotions by this point, and his rushed and seemingly disinterested art on his last three issues — issues 6, 7 and 8 — reflected that disinterest.
I’ll talk in next week’s column about this comic’s legacy and how important Thriller is as a sign of the importance of creator-owned material, but now let’s do a quick run-through of this issue so you can get an idea of why Thriller #8 mainly failed. Yes, I say “mainly” on purpose; as is true with every comic that Von Eeden drew in this period, there are places when he produces spectacular comics pages — seemingly almost despite his own wishes.
The Grand Comics Database credits this cover to Von Eeden, but I had to double-check to make sure because this piece looks heavily touched-up to me. This also may be the worst cover of the entire run of Thriller, a jumbled, muddled mess of an image that makes this comic look like a horrible grade-Z Punisher rip-off.
Worse, the cover falls apart the more you look at it. What are those slashing white, orange and yellow lines that cross the cover image? Are they supposed to represent the trajectories of bullets across the page? If so, why are they white, orange and yellow , and what the hell is Salvo shooting out of his gun, and why are the Russians shooting at Salvo when their own men are climbing on our hero’s back?
This horrible piece of work is intended to be a direct quote from page 20 of the interior story, but page 20 is a much simpler piece — rotten in its own way but nowhere near the travesty that this cover is. Page 20 is a sketchy, unfocused, boring image that resembles a refugee from the 1960s Batman TV show with its jumbled, garish noise balloons.
Maybe the worst element of the cover is the strange explosive border around the cover image. I’ve never seen something like that on a comic book cover and I hope I never see it again. That burst around the border makes the book look ridiculously amateurish and hokey. The cover is a pathetic catastrophe.
As if to show his distance from Fleming’s writing, DuBay starts this issue with a reprise of one of Fleming’s favorite recurring motifs: a hero falling from a towering height in order to help save the day. But here that image is shown as a visual flashback played back by people who could never have captured that video.
This moment feels wrong somehow, like a young girl putting on her mother’s makeup and wearing a slinky dress to a fancy dinner party. It’s an uncomfortable fit, a reminder of other peoples’ glories. And the scene is made worse by the forced exposition that DuBay gives the scene: he gives readers details about Salvo that we’ve never even thought to care about.
This is as decisive a declaration as possible, as clear a statement as DuBay could make that his version of Thriller will be as different as possible from the previous version of these characters. Fleming would never state anything directly that he could state indirectly, but here DuBay makes a point of inverting Fleming’s equation.
In fact, as if to one-up Fleming (or maybe to mock his predecessor), DuBay reprises the falling scene on page 13 of this issue.
On that page, Seven Seconds member Crackerjack (you remember him: Crackerjack’s dad is a big shot who sells shit from Honduras) tumbles from a great height into… a dumpster filled with feathers. I’ll grant you that creating feathers out of thin air is no stranger a feat that conjuring up magic flagpoles to break Salvo’s fall in previous issues, but doesn’t the idea of falling into feathers strike you as a bit of assholish commentary on Robert Loren Fleming’s writing?
Von Eeden’s impressionistic image of Crackerjack falling is pretty slick and interesting, don’t you think? The slashing lines of the ground hurtling at our young hero in panel one are thrilling, and it’s clever how the embarrassed kid has his face half-hidden in the final panel.
Page three of this issue clearly also represents the new boss in charge. Notice above how boring the layout is here, and how little innovation there is shown. In fact, the one set of clever panel arrangements that Von Eeden includes on this page — that curious jutting out on the left side– make no sense from a storytelling or plot standpoint. That element seems flashy just to be flashy.
Moreover, Von Eeden stages those panels in ways that diminish the excitement of the moment rather than add to it. Whereas before Von Eeden would have found techniques to convey both the interior excitement of the characters and the exterior thrills of the moment itself, here he chooses to depict the scene as dully as possible. The men in panel four are basically unfinished, indistinct shapes while the plane in panel six looks like it was drawn in a way that allowed the artist to avoid having to do any research.
And of course, most unlike the rest of Thriller to this point, the events in this scene are told in a very straightforward manner. Our heroine’s sarcasm in panel 8 is plain stupid, a completely vain attempt at making us feel fond of her — but instead her sarcasm just gets her killed. This reads like early 1980s senseless storytelling fashion gone mindlessly wrong — better to sound cool than stay alive, right?
Honestly, Thriller #8 isn’t worth a complex panel-by-panel analysis. That would be painful as hell for me to write and probably boring as hell for you to read. This is a desultory comic book, a book that’s far removed from what made previous issues so wonderful and compelling.
Most pages in this issue are arranged similarly to page 19 above — as square panels filled with sketchily drawn figures with indistinct backgrounds taking unexciting — and sometimes almost silly — actions. There’s an overemphasis on sound effects and dialogue that moves the story ahead in ways that feel completely wrong and artificial, especially compared with what had come before with this series.
Even the dénouement of this issue feels a bit off of its center. This issue’s plot centers around a Soviet Russian boy nicknamed Infant, the first sentient, biological computer. Remember, 1984 was the height of the Cold War, when the Russians and their allies boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics and tensions between the two countries were the highest they had been in decades. Infant was created by the Soviets as some kind of ultimate weapon (honestly, the exact reason Infant was a threat are too stupid to even repeat).
Thankfully Angie Thriller, our disembodied combination of your girlfriend and your mother, was able to bring Infant over to the good side and show him the love that he so badly needed. That’s shown in a scene that makes no sense, has no basis in the reality of Thriller as it was originally conceived or executed, and doesn’t have a lick of visual impact. Umm, yay?
That wrapped up Trevor Von Eeden’s run on Thriller. The cartoonist who was going to be a star from his artwork on this comic instead found himself on the edges of the comics industry. Unlike Bob Fleming with Thriller #7, Von Eeden didn’t get an appropriate send-off with Thriller #8. He didn’t produce his best material for his final issue of this series; rather, he produced his worst art.
The comic that was going to make Von Eeden a star ended up souring him on comics for many years. We’ll talk about his legacy and this comic’s legacy next time.