The Full Run: the Legacy of 'Thriller' by Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden (Issues #9-12)A column article, The Full Run by: Jason Sacks
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.
"The whole book is on the very edge of what's being done in comics."
Robert Loren Fleming, Amazing Heroes #30, 1983
Thriller started with the highest possible expectations, only for the series to crash and burn very quickly. The very unique comic book that had creators with the loftiest possible expectations instead ended up being remembered as an offbeat anomaly. Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden embraced new storytelling techniques and tried cutting-edge methods in 1983 to deliver a comic book unlike everything else on the stands. But Von Eeden and Fleming's tenure on the series barely lasted half a year. What is the legacy of Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden's Thriller?
Your opinion on that question will depend on if you're a positive or negative thinker, on whether you celebrate successes or complain about failures. Because, as we've seen in the previous eight chapters of this column, Thriller's legacy is surprisingly complex. That should be no surprise, because the book itself was so surprisingly complex.
Perhaps most importantly, Thriller can be viewed as a milestone in the world of creator-owned comics. In 1983 the idea of creator-owned comics was just beginning to gain wide acceptance at the Big Two publishers. Both had dipped toes in the creator-owned waters by the time that Thriller hit the comic shop shelves but they hadn't really started to swim much in that water.
Marvel had an oddball abortive flirtation with creator-owned material in 1974 and 1975 with Comix Book, an attempt by the House of Ideas to publish an ongoing collection of underground comics (the story of Comix Book is fascinating, by the way -- and the only time that people like Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson, Howard Cruise and Kim Deitch ever produced pages that were published by Marvel).
Marvel next published creator-owned material in Epic Illustrated and the subsequent Epic line of comics. Jim Starlin owned Dreadstar and Steve Englehart owned Coyote at Epic, but very few writers or artists published by Marvel at that time had ownership of the characters they created. For instance, even though John Byrne originated the entire team, he has no control over Alpha Flight.
The situation was worse for creators at DC in the mid-1980s. Few DC creators owned even the most creator-driven material that DC published. Thus Camelot 3000, instigated and specifically designed to be created by Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland, is trademarked and copyrighted by DC Comics. Don McGregor and Gene Colan's Nathaniel Dusk, arguably as personal a series as DC ever published, is still a DC property, as is Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's Night Force, Roy Thomas's Arak Son of Thunder and Captain Carrot, Doug Moench and Jan Duursema's Arion Lord of Atlantis. Under DC's contracts from that era, creators has a stake in the success of the characters they created -- for instance, Thomas received money from an action figure of Arak, and Jack Kirby received royalties from the inclusion of the New Gods in the Super Powers action figure line. But few creators had actual control of their characters.
Only Frank Miller's Ronin, a unique limited series specifically driven by a superstar creator, gave the creator a copyright: though Ronin is trademarked DC, it is copyrighted by Frank Miller Inc.
Thus it's not surprising that every word and pencil line on every page of Thriller was copyright © 1983 (or 1984) by DC Comics Inc. That's right: even though Thriller was as unique, quirky and idiosyncratic a creation as any Image comic in 2013, Thriller's creators, the two men whose distinctive visions produced this thoroughly distinctive series, didn't own one iota of their own passionate creation.
As we saw in last week's column, that meant that Fleming and Von Eeden were in the frustrating position of having their creation continue on without them. Bill DuBay assumed the writing chores while the great Alex Niño drew Thriller's final four issues. But the DuBay-Niño tenure was an absolute, abject failure on almost every level.
In the image above you can observe everything that immediately went wrong when creators other than Fleming and Von Eeden assumed the chores on this extremely unusual comic book. Just look how amazingly wordy that first page reads! When Thriller #9 -- the first issue by the dreaded new team -- appeared, Alan Moore was rapidly becoming the era's most celebrated comics writer. His Marvelman and V for Vendetta were tremendously influential imports in the UK's Warrior magazine, and his Swamp Thing run was earning massive critical accolades.
It seems obvious that DuBay strongly embraced Moore's influence. If Alan Moore, a relative newcomer to comics, could create long, poetic captions, why couldn't the much more experienced DuBay do the same? Never mind that Robert Loren Fleming didn't use a single caption in any issues of Thriller that he wrote; this was DuBay's comic now. He could do whatever he wanted.
Notice also how odd Niño's art looks on that page. Niño was well known for his often abstract and surreal style, but on this page he appears to be aiming for something in between his own style and those of both Jack Kirby and Wally Wood. The giant wall of technology on this page is a terribly unfocused, indistinct mess for readers. There's no place for the reader's eye to settle onto, nowhere on the page that acts like a focal point for the eye. All the noodling takes away from the effects that Niño is trying to create.
And lastly, do you notice that odd lizard-like creature on the bottom right of the page? That's some sort of bizarre genetic creation that the future Soviet Russians have concocted for some crazy obscure reason that has nothing at all to do with what came before.
There's really nothing to be gained by dwelling on the really terrible rump end of the Thriller series. To be fair to DuBay, he does seem to try hard to make this comic his own and do the best with the very unfair hand that DC Editorial dealt him. But really his five issues on this comic may be the nadir of Bill DuBay's long career. He plays with some interesting ideas here but never seems to be able to deliver on any of them.
For instance, in the double-sized Thriller #10, the world is destroyed in a nuclear explosion but then is quickly reconstructed by Angie Thriller and the godlike Iskariot. There's a crazy visionary intensity to the way that the team destroys and then recreates the Earth, and the way that mankind's rebirth helps to move humanity to a new level of peace and enlightenment.
In more skilled hands, that could have been an intriguing plotline. There was a pervasive worldwide fear of nuclear holocaust in the 1980s during the pre-Gorbachev era in Russia, so DuBay was channeling a bit of the era's global zeitgeist while providing an optimistic ending to the events. But the whole approach feels so ridiculously ham-handed that the storyline just doesn't pay off in a satisfying manner.
Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman would explore that same theme in Gaiman's abortive Miracleman run several years later, with much more success. Ironically, as we'll see in a moment, Moore figures into Thriller's story as well.
One mystery about the DuBay era has to do with Thriller #11. As you can observe from the caption box in the this issue's title page, DuBay's name is excluded from the credits despite the fact that editor Alan Gold notes in this issue's letter's page that DuBay actually did write the Thriller #11. Perhaps these comments from editor Gold (quoted on Michel Fiffe's blog -- yes, the same Michel Fiffe of Copra fame!) shed some light on that topic.
"I might be to blame for DC's lack of interest in reviving Thriller. Fleming left right after you [Von Eeden -- the timeline seems distorted here] did. He realized that DC could not offer a satisfactory replacement. In fact, Dick suggested someone completely wrong for the job, [Alex Niño]. He was a good draftsman, but his art lacked the style -- even poetry -- and mystery of yours. If I had been more confident as an editor, I would have demanded someone appropriate -- but I wasn't, and I didn't.
"Many people warned me that the writer Dick recommended to replace Fleming was no good for the job. Looking back on it, I don't think I understood what you and Bob were doing, how it was different from generic comics. Again, I wish I had listened. Every issue was a fight. In fact, I didn't get what you and Bob were doing either until after you'd both left. I couldn't get [the new writer, Dubay] to write anything interesting. I even rewrote scripts, but that just led to 'negotiations' that satisfied no one. I had commented that I wanted better plots than Fleming had delivered (I believe I used Mission Impossible as an example -- maybe Dick put that idea in my head?), and he took that to mean dumbheaded action-and-nothing-but-action.
"Here's a fun aside. Alan Moore volunteered to take over as writer, but I stupidly stuck with the writer Dick gave me. I saw it as a matter of loyalty. Having been a freelancer for about 10 years (moonlighting as a copy editor when I worked in book publishing), I couldn't warm up to the idea of firing a freelancer. As a result, Karen Berger got her big break with Swamp Thing and I went nowhere (as I deserved, having turned Thriller, among others, into a mediocre bore)."
I think Gold is being too tough on himself because he's looking at the past with 20/20 hindsight. There's no way Gold could have known that DuBay would mostly be a failure in the role as Thriller's writer. The man had written many consistently fine comics over the previous decade and had recently collaborated with the great Von Eeden with a very intriguing story in Pacific Comics's Bold Adventure. Since Von Eeden was still on board Thriller with DuBay's first issue, it could be seen as logical to assume that the DuBay/Von Eeden team could catch lightning in a bottle again and create something special.
We'll never know if Alan Moore would have been more successful with this strip than DuBay was; the real point, in fact, is that nobody -- no creators on Earth -- could take the place of the two men who had originated this comic. That's the whole point of a creator-driven comic.
A whole ethos has developed these days around the idea of creator-owned comics. Some of the finest and most popular comics these days -- Walking Dead, Saga, The Massive, the list goes on and on -- have emerged from the same creative hothouse that Thriller emerged from -- the world inside two very fertile creators' brains.
We can see Thriller through that lens as both a trailblazing comic book and almost as a martyr to the cause of creator-owned comics. If Thriller had come around a decade later, the comic likely would have been treated very differently in the marketplace and by DC in general. Ten years after Thriller first appeared, the golden era of Vertigo Comics was dawning. The emergence of the rock star artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s showed that creative talent wasn't interchangeable. Creators mattered.
For all their many flaws, the original seven Image Founders showed that comics lived and died based on the people who created them rather than the characters themselves. And the talented writers and artists who emerged after the Image explosion embraced that idea as a simple fact of creative life rather than a proposition to be fought for. Creators like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Colleen Doran, Peter Milligan and Bill Willingham embraced the ability to create creator owned and driven material that couldn't be taken away from them due to editorial fiat or an angry collaborator.
The idea of creator-owned comics was floating around the edges of the comics industry in 1983 and 1984 with well-regarded creator-owned comics such as Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers's Coyote, Mike Grell's Jon Sable Freelance, Matt Wagner's Mage and of course Dave Sim's Cerebus on the stands the same months as Thriller. But the Big Two publishers took a long time to embrace the idea of publishing some level of creator-owned comics.
Von Eeden and Fleming, like McGregor and Colan or Barr and Bolland, were caught in a tough dilemma. DC had the marketing muscle and promotional power to do justice to the creators' more sophisticated visions of new comics art, not to mention the ability to write a hefty paycheck for those men and women every month that didn't bounce. But DC also seized a metaphorical pound of flesh in the form of a loss of control by the creators over the books and their properties. There's no better example of that double-edged sword than the way that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons will receive back the rights to Watchmen if the comic ever falls out of print -- which it likely never will.
Above, from Trevor's comments: Taken in '83, in California on vacation with the family--tried sneaking in a bit of work in the hotel room, while waiting for the women to get dressed--and got busted by somebody (I forget who.)
"I usually wear my reading glasses when I work, though--and apparently back then I went on vacation dressed as Black Lightning... I wonder if I did that all the time?... Ah, youth. I do remember some of it on occasion, though…
And in this particular case, there's one more reason this comic was published at DC -- and maybe a clue as to why it ultimately failed. As we saw in the first chapter of this column series, Thriller was, in large part, sponsored by DC Vice President/Executive Editor Dick Giordano. If you remember, Fleming was working as a staffer at DC when he persuaded Giordano to look at his proposal for this series. Giordano's excited interest in the comic helped greenlight the project.
If not for Giordano, Thriller likely never would have been approved by any of the managers at DC. For that matter, without Giordano, Von Eeden likely never would have been attached to the project even if it was greenlit. And suddenly the whole fabric of space-time starts to unravel!
Thankfully we still have our handful of sensational issues of Thriller on hand, like the one season of Firefly that fans celebrate so much. As with Firefly, you can make a strong case that Thriller was influential far beyond its initial publication.
For one thing, as we saw a few chapters ago, there was a direct influence on the artwork of Frank Miller, maybe the most important comics creator of the 1980s. There are moments in Sin City that look very much like pastiches of artwork created by Von Eeden in Thriller, as well as at least one moment in his 1990 graphic novel Elektra Lives Again that can be read to mention Von Eeden.
As mentioned in previous chapters, Von Eeden was dating Lynn Varley before she became involved with Miller, so there's no doubt that the couple frequently discussed Varley's former squeeze and likely saw some of his artwork. As you may remember, Varley colored Thriller #5, maybe Von Eeden's last outstanding issue from the run. Thus his art had to be around her apartment at the very least.
But Von Eeden influenced more artists than just Frank Miller. I've been amazed by how many artists remember Thriller quite fondly. Matthew Southworth of Stumptown fame drew the two illustrations that accompany this article completely from memory. Michel Fiffe was obviously a big fan of the title, while cartoonist Phil Hester noted, "Count me as an unabashed Thriller fan. I ate up every last issue. Even as a Von Eeden worshipper, I found the Niño issues beautiful. I wish all 'failures' failed so well."
Trevor Von Eeden's art style was very much ahead of its time. Other than Frank Miller on Ronin (funny how Miller seems to shadow this book), few artists delivered such hyper-stylized artwork that represented characters' interior/exterior dichotomies. Von Eeden's artwork was extremely expressive and deeply emotional, often displaying the remarkable ability to show both the way that characters looked and the way that they felt.
Some recurring art motifs became much more ubiquitous over the coming years: the idea of an eye on the palm of someone's hand, startling when Von Eeden created the image, has become powerfully iconic -- though of course the idea of a symbol in a character's hand far predates this comic. Like all good ideas, the ideas in this comic were a combination of other great ideas. And the idea of Salvo, the super gunman, assumed a radically different direction when the Punisher and other gun-toting heroes became popular in the latter half of the 1980s.
Likewise Fleming's writing was so far ahead of its time. It feels quite contemporary to a reader in the 2010s. Fleming wrote comics without captions or thought balloons -- a fairly radical idea in that era, often the subject of comments from lettercol writers and a representation of the outrageous approach that the team took to the material; as Fleming says in Amazing Heroes #30:
Frank [Miller]'s work on Daredevil inspired me because it showed that there was someone doing something out there that was radically different. More than anything else that gave me the inspiration to put myself on the line, not to imitate what he'd done, but to create for myself. We've got to remember that Thriller's a comic book; we can't get too pretentious about it. But at the same time we've got to find out how far we can push those established standards.
The scripts were also exemplars of what we now know as "decompressed storytelling." In the days when comics narratives flied ahead at near lightspeed, Fleming took his sweet time telling his stories. He always seemed to have a longer view for the tales he was telling, giving his characters room to breathe and reveal themselves to readers organically. If the "Downtime" storyline never appeared to really get moving, if the Seven Seconds seldom actually came together to save the world, well, that was all part of the master plan. Either that, or Fleming was simply too inexperienced to know exactly what he was doing. No matter the reason, Fleming's approach to his writing made the comic quite unique for its era.
In the end, then, the obvious question we're left with is determining if Thriller was a success. As I said above, much of your opinion on that topic will depend on if you're a positive or negative thinker, on whether you celebrate successes or complain about failures.
Using most conventional metrics, Thriller was a failure. The comic only lasted a year, the creative team left roughly halfway through the run, and the comic was one of DC's the lowest-selling comics while it was running.
But posterity isn't about the immediate commercial success of a work of art. After all, Citizen Kane and The Shawshank Redemption were both box office flops. By any aesthetic standard, despite the frustrations and depressions and terrible grinds of creating Thriller, despite the behind-the-scenes heartache of the collapsing chair and love disappearing, despite the apathy of DC's management and the immaturity of the comic's editor, despite all the pain that it making Thriller caused its creators…
Despite all that, many readers still dearly remember this comic. We celebrate its success. We still sometimes daydream about its return.
Thirty years later, everyone has moved on with their lives. Fleming moved out of comics while Von Eeden wrote and drew an often-brilliant graphic novel called The Original Johnson and is collaborating with the legendary Don McGregor on a new OGN featuring McGregor's Sabre.
But the memory of Thriller is still burned into the minds of those who read the book back in the day, or pick up an old copy in a quarter bin, or check out the series based on this series of articles. The power of two young men with piss and vinegar running through their veins was incredibly powerful. Like all outstanding creative works, the power of Thriller still lives on in the hearts and minds of those who loved the series. I hope I've helped you get a deeper perspective on this remarkable work of comics art.