Thriller is quite possibly one of the most underrated and forgotten gems from modern comics. It was a critical and commercial failure by the standards of the day, but it still holds up as a sharp and compelling comic book series. Robert Loren Fleming gave life to a great cast of odd and inviting characters without giving in to cliché and Trevor Von Eeden is the one who shaped the idea with a wildly imaginative vision. Perhaps what made Thriller unique is what killed it. How Thriller was ever released in the first place by DC Comics seems like a fluke, but the proof is in the short lived run: there was no comic out there like it and there never will be.
To get to the heart of Thriller’s release into the comics world, a brief history of the Direct Market is in order. American mainstream comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics have always had an itch to produce and promote more adult material through some of their comics. Granted, “mature” oftentimes equals nothing more than harsher violence and bigger boobs, but indulge me on this one. Although the level of maturity varies, the attempt to upgrade cannot be ignored. Marvel Comics published Bizarre Adventures, Epic Magazine (their very own version of Heavy Metal), and a few other magazines without newsstand friendly content. DC Comics never quite made it to be Marvel’s thematic counterpart in this arena until the industry’s sleeper phenomenon became prevalent… the Direct Market.
While smarting from declining newsstand sales in the early to mid 80s, Marvel and DC Comics decided to tap into the growing Direct Market. The Direct Market, in short, were comic book stores that catered to older fans and connoisseurs, offered subscriptions, had a “non-return” policy, sold related memorabilia and back issues, and ultimately saved the comic book companies in the short term (current wisdom dictates that it has since become an inbred counterproductive anathema to the comics world). Independent publishers like First, Eclipse, and Pacific were already making headway in this corner of the industry, a corner that seemed to be geared towards maximizing the power of a creator.
Marvel began releasing material specifically for this new “Direct Market” with Dazzler (#1 only), Moon Knight, Ka-Zar, Micronauts, Marvel Fanfare and X-Men/Teen Titans (Aug. ’82) by stripping the covers of their Comics Code of Authority seals, reducing their advertisements to nil, increasing their page count and cover price, and printing them on better paper. DC followed suit not only by producing titles with the same standards that the direct market demanded but by also letting creators run free, or as free as a company of its size would allow.
Amazing Heroes #30, September 1983.
Titles such as Camelot 3000 (Sept. ’82), Omega Men (Jan. ’83), Ronin (April ’83), and Vigilante (July ’83) found a home and an audience in the breeding ground of rallied fandom. Making its debut in August of 1983, Thriller was one of those titles. Unlike Ronin, Thriller thankfully didn’t have the superstar name power to commercially back it up, giving it less pressure to meet corporate expectations. Makes you wonder what editor Dick Giordano was thinking when he signed this ongoing series spearheaded by a newcomer and a rising talent. Was DC wholeheartedly supporting as off-beat a comic as this, or did it slip under the radar, or was editorial expecting something more user friendly but received a completely different product instead? I don’t mean to overhype Thriller’s weirdness; it’s too deep rooted in genre to be part of something like Raw Magazine, but it’s way too outré to be anywhere near a mainstream, or even groundlevel company. Thriller never really fit comfortably within any specific comic book school approach, which is part of its long lasting appeal for me.
Right before the debut of Thriller, writer Robert Loren Fleming (straight out of DC’s mail room) and Trevor Von Eeden (straight out of the Green Arrow mini series) first collaborated on a seven page horror story, “String-Out” (above) in the pages of The House Of Mystery #316, May 1983. Already a potent combination, Fleming and Von Eeden created an atmosphere unlike any other.
“Thriller was originally conceived as a cross between the Shadow, Doc Savage, and The X-Men.”, wrote Robert Loren Fleming in the letters page of the third issue, “In a compromise to the nature of the medium, I’ve cloaked my characters in a wardrobe of almost preposterous powers and pretenses, hopefully keeping one foot planted in the hard-edged, realistic world of the pulps.”
Thriller had enough of the basic team book concepts to give it the semblance of something familiar: family, adventure, humor, violence, romance, quirky characters and exotic locales . These components were filtered through the artistic heights that Von Eeden had previously set and was surpassing with every successive project (such as his Batman and Green Arrow material).
Von Eeden put his unmistakable stamp on this comic through inspired page designs and a variation of dark, moody figure work and solid cartoonishness. The scenes above and below are all from Thriller #1.
Thriller gave Von Eeden the opportunity to really show what he can do as a storyteller. For the first two issues, I imagine that fans felt a genuine excitement from the creators, even if it left them scratching their heads.
At this point, not everybody had been won over by Thriller. R. Fiore reviewed the second issue for the Comics Journal #88, January ’84. Fiore gave it 2 ½ Aunt Mays, deeming it “a little more than mediocre but a little less than good.”
Months later, the series eventually scored a positive review in TCJ #93, September ’84, written by Heidi MacDonald. Heidi deconstructs Thriller for several pages, raving about the art and storytelling. She concludes that the series “is an experiment that doesn’t quite succeed, but it’s an experiment that should be made. Rarely has a comic taken so many chances. Rarely has failure been so thorough and yet so superb.”
Thriller #3 attempts to sustain the manic atmosphere the first two issues created while moving the story along. Von Eeden’s art remains top notch here. Thriller #4 rounds out the story quite nicely, even though we’re left with a few questions as to who these characters really are and why they do what they do. I assume that the initial pitch had a thematic and commercial objective that was set in motion early on, but it just got out of control somewhere along the way. These first four issues, however, are very much worth the time to hunt down and enjoy, study or revisit.
Thriller #5 and #6 took the book in a weird direction. Dick Giordano stopped editing the book after the second issue but returned to ink the two issues in question. Kane Creole, an Elvis-type character, was introduced, which seemed to make the book take a turn for the cheeky. Von Eeden’s art at this point was a little less inspired, which can be attributed to the different inker, but even the layouts suffer from a lack of interest. A few well designed sequences can still be found.
Below is a nice, quiet page from Thriller #7. The plot trudged forward and the art got sketchier and thicker. What once started as a bright, almost playful narrative turned into a borderline depressed piece of work. Did editorial start cracking down for a different direction? Were the creators left dissatisfied with their personal results? The feel of the book hints at a sort of build up, which is funny considering Fleming left the book after this issue.
Although Thriller lasted until issue #12, this eighth issue marks Von Eeden’s final contribution to something he helped create. The writing chores were taken over by Bill Dubay and the art chores were later taken over by Alex Niño, but the story never recovered from whatever happened to the creators of the series. Speculations abound, especially in the letters page, Thriller had found a fiercely loyal following wondering what had happened to their favorite new book. The book was eventually canceled due to poor sales and despite a brief spoof/homage in the pages of Ambush Bug, Thriller was never heard from again.
The great blogger, Johnny Bacardi, set up the Unofficial Thriller site many years ago. It’s a fantastic overview of the entire cast, plot, and history of the series. Mr. Bacardi recalled that he had his letter printed in Thriller #12, the final issue (which you can see here, along with other related Thriller posts):
“I was just bitching about how poor the DuBay/Niño team was, and I offered to buy [Fleming and Von Eeden] a beer if they’d get back together and work out whatever creative differences there might have been. The offer still stands, by the way! This was back before the Internet and comics news sites and so forth, and when they left Thriller it was without warning, pretty much, and very little explanation. It bugged me for YEARS, and finally when I created that site and was able to talk to both of them, I was able to get the whole story. I wouldn’t count on a reunion, though- when I first made their acquaintance in 2002, they hadn’t spoken to each other since they first got together to plan out the first few issues of Thriller. Not that there were hard feelings, they just didn’t get the opportunity.”
In regards to the possibility of a Thriller reunion, Mr. Bacardi remains realistically unenthusiastic, and offers some information on the missed opportunities at reviving the series.
“To be honest, I dread some well-meaning (or not-so well meaning) editor getting it in his head to revive the book with some other creators…god knows, especially in the current climate, what kind of revisions and ‘improvements’ they’d make. I do know for a fact that Brian Wood told me that when he first was negotiating with DC, Thriller was one of the inactive titles they pitched to him to gauge his interest. I told him I was happy that he didn’t pursue it- not because he’s not a good writer, and wouldn’t do good things with it, but because Thriller is Fleming’s baby first and foremost and it just wouldn’t be the same with anyone else. And if they did revive it, and if I had to choose between RLF and TVE, I’d hope they’d keep it with the writer. You know, there was also talk of bringing it back in the late 80’s, with Keith Giffen on art- first as a Salvo miniseries, then if that did well, an ongoing series. Of course, that didn’t pan out.”
From Who’s Who #23, January 1987.
Recently, ex-Thriller editor, Alan Gold, contacted Trevor Von Eeden and shared some of his thoughts on the frustrations surrounding Thriller‘s demise, as well as the direction it could’ve taken:
“I might be to blame for DC’s lack of interest in reviving Thriller. Fleming left right after you 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 eventually got the chance of a lifetime to interview Von Eeden himself, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Bacardi (many thanks for that, JB)! The resulting interview appeared in The Comics Journal #298 (the interview outtakes and extra art pages can be found in the “Columns” section of this site). Trevor was kind enough to go into detail about the origin of the series, as well as its unfortunate end.
Now that both Thriller creators have been in the comics arena once again, could a Thriller reunion really be that far behind anyway? The market doesn’t necessarily demand such an event, and it would be a bit awkward and a little unrealistic to expect Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden to pick up exactly where they left off. Instead of trying to live up to a 25 plus year old project, a brand new creation would probably be best. Still, a part of me wants to see the Thriller family and cast back in the funnybook spotlight for at least one last adventure in all their off beat glory. As it stands, all one really needs is the material that already exists, a handful of issues where a personal and ambitious vision had the potential to be fully realized… and for a brief period, it actually was.