04 October 2009

She had Seven Seconds to save the world. Part One.

ETA 10/6/09: There were a few factual errors made while writing this, and I've corrected them below. I'll try to do mo' better in parts 2 and up.

Trevor Von Eeden's recent interview in the Comics Journal, along with Michael Fiffe's excellent series of blog posts spotlighting his art over the years (scroll down, they're not tagged), has caused a bit of buzz in some circles about the artist and his work, and one of those works just happens to be an obscure 12-issue mid-80's title called Thriller, created and written by Robert Loren Fleming, and illustrated by Von Eeden, which just happens to be one of my all-time favorite comics series. When I first started an online presence back in the late '90s, it always bothered me that there was nothing much at all to be found online about this comic, and decided I wanted to create a website to spotlight this book which had captivated me for almost 20 years by then. Finally, in 2002, after working on it for almost a year, I launched the site and have had a lot of positive feedback- seems like the book had a lot of fans, just not as many as one would like to keep a series going. I've also been fortunate enough to become online-acquainted with both men, who have shared a lot of information (as well as copies of scripts, and original art) about the series and what it was, what it was intended to be, and what happened to make it fall apart. Anyway, it was suggested to me that I should perhaps write something about the book, since I seem to know a little about it.

So what exactly was this series about, you may wonder, and why has it inspired such a small, but fervent, cult? What happened to Fleming and Von Eeden? What have they done since? Why has Thriller not been revived and revisited like so many other concepts and characters? I'll try to answer most of these questions as best I can in the course of this post, which is looking more and more like part one in a series...

From the comments section, here's Robert Fleming in his own words about the book's genesis:

I first pitched the idea to Dick Giordano on my lonesome, long before Trevor became involved. In fact, my proposal called for the artwork on the series to be in the style of the Steranko-influenced MASTER OF KUNG FU series that Marvel had done, with artists like Gulacy, Zeck and Gene Day! Dick and Paul Levitz liked my proposal and agreed to buy it, and it was Paul who suggested Trevor as the artist, based on the strength of his recent BATMAN ANNUAL. I was extremely receptive to this idea and had already met Trevor in my capacity as DC's proofreader, since one of my duties was to return original art to the artists. The next time that Trevor came in to my office, I started telling him about THRILLER. He became so excited that he raced away to see Dick and nail down the assignment before I was even halfway through my pitch! It was only after we were already a team on THRILLER (but before we'd started work on the series) that Karen Berger thought to give Trevor my House of Mystery script ("Strung-Out!"), which had been sitting in her drawer for some months.

Many thanks to Mr. Fleming and Mr. Von Eeden for their input in the comments!

At some point, it was decided that this new Thriller comic would be one of a small group of titles that DC would print on whiter, superior (to the crappy newsprint paper comics were normally printed on in those days) paper, and even more, be one of a select few that would be distributed to the spankin' new direct market only, not to newsstands and spinner racks. Bob and Trevor's new project was going to be given a high-profile spotlight.

In late summer of 1983, Thriller (cover dated November 1983) hit the stands with more than a little fanfare. Ads (see above, click to see bigger) depicting the cast of the comic in silhouette accompanied with clever taglines like "She had Seven Seconds to save the world" and "Thriller: You can't read it fast enough", appeared in comics-related publications of the day including Amazing Heroes (in an issue which also included a preview and interview with Fleming) and the Comics Buyers Guide. Of course, we're also talking about the ancient days pre-Internet, and the level of buzz that brings...so it took a little while for the reaction to be known. And it wasn't positive. Seems that readers of the day found Fleming's characters hard to put a finger on, and Von Eeden's experimental storytelling mystified them more than it excited them...and many shrugged their shoulders, scratched their heads, and went back to their Claremont/Byrne X-Mens. Then it all really started to unravel. Von Eeden went through some personal difficulties and trials, many of which were outlined in his recent Journal interview, and his interest and enthusiasm waned. He never did less than his best, but he did become somewhat incommunicado with Fleming, who was writing away and getting little, if any, feedback from anyone- especially that of the positive nature. Dick Giordano edited the first few issues, and gave way to new editor Alan Gold; Gold just didn't "get" the book, and Fleming grew more and more frustrated until after writing the script for #7, he had decided he had had enough and walked away from his brainchild. When Von Eeden heard that Fleming had decided to move on, he drew one more issue, by former Warren writer/editor Bill DuBay (at DC by then and looking for work), and then left himself. DuBay wrote four more issues, with art provided by the legendary Filipino artist Alex Nino, but the book did not improve sales-wise, and finally, it was put down after 12 issues. I won't concern myself with the DuBay/Nino issues; they were game, but neither really seemed to get the characters or concepts and did not have the jene sais quoi that Fleming and Von Eeden brought. Nino especially seemed lost, although to his credit he turned in some fine work on its own terms. That was twenty-five years ago, and other than a five-page Ambush Bug story, co-written by Fleming (which starred issue #'s 1-4's villain Scabbard), and a page in one of the Who's Who in the DC Universe series, nothing from Thriller- none of the characters or storylines anyway- have seen print in a DC comic since. Not even a tiny panel in the big Hypertime thing that they tried to introduce several years ago.

Thriller, as Fleming conceived it, was to chronicle the adventures of an extended Italian Catholic family, named the Salvotinis. Remember that word: family- it is very important to the big picture. Inspiration was drawn from the pulps, especially the Shadow and Doc Savage, who both had groups of agents, led by an omniscient, almost supernatural figure, and which assisted them in the battle against evil. It was supposed to take place fifty years in the future, although little effort was spent towards making this future look very futuristic. The core group of characters were referred to as the Seven Seconds, "seconds" as in "assistants", and the nominal leader was Angelina Salvotini Thriller, who, thanks to a genetics experiment conducted by her Nobel Prize-winning genetic scientist and multimillionaire husband Edward Thriller, had become a supernatural ghost-like being, capable of seeing the future, and only able to manifest herself as such phenomena as splinters of glass, bandages, mist, reflections of light, and only physically by merging with her blood relative, brother Tony (more on him later) or with another member of the Seconds, nine-foot tall test-tube baby "Beaker" Parish. Did I mention he was a priest? Who had been taken in by the Salvotini family? Fleming cheekily described Angie as a "cross between Jesus Christ and his Mom". One drawback to Angie's omnipotence was that she was merged with Edward, literally sharing bodies; when he was present, she disappeared and vice versa.

This is where I should stop for a minute and say that this, in a nutshell, was the beauty and yet the undoing of Thriller: it was such a huge pile of odd ideas and characters, and I suppose many who tried to embrace what it had to offer were simply overwhelmed by all the...stuff...that Fleming had cooked up. I would imagine that sometimes it seemed like just too much. Indeed, that was my reaction, as I recall, after I had finished issue #1. But I was more intrigued than off-put. I think I was in the minority.

The other Seconds were the aforementioned Tony "Salvo" Salvotini, Angie's brother and a black leather-clad superhuman marksman who, to be frank (pun intended), looked very much like a somewhat more benign version of Marvel's increasingly-popular Punisher. Tony could shoot a fly off of yonder mesa, as the saying goes, but he absolutely would not, under any circumstances, shoot to kill. He had a motto: "Only out-patients! Only flesh wounds! I won't kill a fly- so don't ask me!". Not exactly "It's Clobberin' Time", but hey- it worked in context. His girlfriend was jet pilot Janet Valentine, who, when not in her pilot outfit, had a "costume" made of white silks, knew how to manipulate bodily sensations (laughing, crying, nausea, etc.) with her fingertips, and was called "White Satin". She looked like Stevie Nicks- TVE admitted using her for inspiration. Edward (not an official Second) had a ward- a young pickpocket and safecracker from the Honduras that he had adopted, named Crackerjack. He was best buds with another Second, Freddie Martin, codenamed Data. Data was a hugely obese man who essentially lived in a Rolls Royce which he controlled via computer circuitry in his brain. This same wetwiring made him super-intelligent. His father was the President of the United States. Robert Furrillo, aka "Proxy", was an actor who had badly burned his skin while freebasing cocaine; he was the test subject for a newly developed synthetic flesh, which enabled him to make himself look like anybody he chose. He had a crush on Satin. I mentioned Beaker Parish earlier, who also served as a helicopter pilot (making him, literally, "help from above") for the team, and finally, the seventh Second: Dan Grove, a cameraman for SNN, Thriller's CNN analogue. He had no extraordinary abilities, unless self-doubt and an inferiority complex qualify. But he turned out to be the focus of the first four issues, in which he served as not only a point-of-view character for the reader to experience the strangeness through, but also as a coming-of-age story of sorts. He's the axis of the book, the Alice through which we visit Wonderland, at least for the first four issues.

And those are just the Seconds. More importantly, you'll notice that no one besides Angie had any sort of extranormal powers; no blasts emitting from fingertips, nobody flew or ran at super-speed or had wings. This was another hallmark of the book, which set it way apart from other titles the Big Two were publishing then. Thriller boasted a fairly large cast, for a brand-new title; other group books, like X-Men or the Justice League, were stuffed full of characters too but the new characters were mixed in with a lot of familiar ones as well. Thriller didn't allow that luxury, and RLF introduced them to us with very little setup, instead letting us get to know them as events unfolded. As someone who had grown accustomed to the spoon-fed scripting style of the Thomases and Claremonts of the comics world, this was fresh and bracing to me, as if I was experiencing these dizzying, heady events along with the book's protagonists (and antagonists), like entering a room full of strangers and trying to organize a group activity.

And that's where I'll finish part one. Next, I'll get into the first four issues, which comprised an arc of sorts. Below, the memorable spread page from #1:

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10 Comments:

Blogger Ralph Mathieu said...

One of my favorites also. Looking forward to the rest of your entries on this series.

October 5, 2009 12:43 PM  
Blogger Garth said...

I sort of enjoyed it at the time, but remember being completely befuddled by the first issues. And there was something that "felt" different about the book, but I couldn't put my finger on it, until Fleming and Eden left and the next issue had Captions and Thought Ballons all over the place! I went back and realized the Fleming issues had no (or exceedingly few) caption boxes. Before Warren Ellis ever wrote the words "wide screen comic", Thriller was presented like a movie - it just unfurled in front of you. I didn't follow the series to the end, because the shock of the change was just too much for a series that had been hard to follow and now artistically became impenetrable. At least that's how I remember it.

October 5, 2009 1:43 PM  
Blogger Peter Bangs said...

I adored this series, especially the art, and Salvo's "you can go home again, home is where the heart is" speech actually helped get me through some very rough times. I'd love to see this back by the original team and let them finish it properly. Saying Dubay and Nino didn't get the characters is an understatement of titanic proportions. TVE's work on this made everything else look like a nine panel grid.

October 5, 2009 5:21 PM  
Blogger Trevor Von Eeden said...

Thanks, 'Mr. B!'

I wanted to take this opportunity to mention how much I've appreciated the effect this series has had on some readers--those I like to think of as "the intelligent few."

I'd also like to mention something about THRILLER that I've noticed, that actually pleases me a bit. Namely, the obvious Salvo influence on the Keanu Reeves' all-black, all-guns, supernatural, shoot-em-up sequence in "The Matrix"--not to mention the flying between the skyscrapers while dangling from the back of a helicopter bit--that Clone Creole had also done before. But I think that THRILLER's version of "body morphing"--as in the 2nd issue, where Tony transforms into Angie, to fool their mother--seems a helluva lot less painful than when the Men in Black sunglasses do it in the movie..!!

So, anyway--kudos to Bob Fleming--who was prescient enough to have those ideas first! I was just lucky enough to get to draw them...

-Trevor.

October 6, 2009 1:49 AM  
Blogger James said...

ah hell the 80s were a great time to be growing up... count me among the ranks of the thrilled! a TPB reprint would only make sense if it was accompanied by a sequel. plus the dubay/ nino "conclusion" would have to be excised. the other way would be to get the original creators to reboot the series. tell pretty much the same opening story [while clearing up some narrative muddiness or problems with some characters drawn too similarly], then take off in new directions. i'm sure a lot of other creators are fans. they can chip in with short riffs on angie and her seconds. can someone take this to DC? [more importantly are RLE and TVE willing and able to pick up the strands?] i suggest an online petition for new tales of thriller...

October 6, 2009 3:40 AM  
Blogger bobfleming said...

Fleming here, to correct David's timeline on the selling of THRILLER to DC Comics. I first pitched the idea to Dick Giordano on my lonesome, long before Trevor became involved. In fact, my proposal called for the artwork on the series to be in the style of the Steranko-influenced MASTER OF KUNG FU series that Marvel had done, with artists like Gulacy, Zeck and Gene Day! Dick and Paul Levitz liked my proposal and agreed to buy it, and it was Paul who suggested Trevor as the artist, based on the strength of his recent BATMAN ANNUAL. I was extremely receptive to this idea and had already met Trevor in my capacity as DC's proofreader, since one of my duties was to return original art to the artists. The next time that Trevor came in to my office, I started telling him about THRILLER. He became so excited that he raced away to see Dick and nail down the assignment before I was even halfway through my pitch! It was only after we were already a team on THRILLER (but before we'd started work on the series) that Karen Berger thought to give Trevor my House of Mystery script ("String-Out!"), which had been sitting in her drawer for some months.

That's how it went down, folks.

Robert Loren Fleming

October 6, 2009 6:52 AM  
Blogger bobfleming said...

Oh yeah, and word didn't reach us that Michael Jackson was going to name his new album THRILLER until we were a few months away from our first ship date. Neal Pozner, DC's Design Director, read about it in VARIETY and suggested that maybe we should change the name of our series. And here's how much I knew about pop music: I actually said to Neal, "That Jackson Five kid is doing a solo album? How big a deal could that possibly be?"

Answer: the best-selling album of All Freakin' Time.

--RLF

October 6, 2009 7:08 AM  
Blogger bobfleming said...

And the proofreader in me from back in 1982 compels me to point out two typos in David's text:
1. The Salvotinis were an Italian family, not Irish.
2. Salvo is, of course, Angie's brother, not her sister.

Keep that flame burning, Johnny B!
-RLF

October 6, 2009 7:19 AM  
Blogger Johnny B said...

Oh, I will!

You see, this is what happens when one writes in a hurry. Bob, your old email address doesn't seem to be working anymore, so I couldn't run the facts by you to verify...all I had to go on, especially the creation timeline, was my ever-foggier memory of our conversations a few years ago. I will make corrections, and thanks very much, Bob and Trevor!

October 6, 2009 8:12 AM  
Blogger Trevor Von Eeden said...

You said "That Jackson 5 kid is doing a solo ablum...?" --HILARIOUS!!!-- Bob, I gotta say--I love ya, man! It's no wonder we made such beautiful music together!

Speaking of which, I hear the J5Kid's coming out with yet another CD--sort of an After Death release. That was the original theme behind "Thriller", too, wasn't it?

Maybe the book'll come back from the dead as well, and start dancing around.

Long's we get to choreograph the steps, I won't mind.

-Trev.

October 27, 2009 6:02 PM  

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