I doubt you’ll remember much of Thriller. Indeed, if you weren’t around in comics thirty years ago, it’s unlikely you’d even know of it. It was published by DC, in twelve issues, between 1983/4: the ideal length for a Graphic Novel – and DC have published much less likely collections – but that’s not going to happen.
Thriller arrived on a cloud of publicity and ballyhoo, a Direct Market only series (i.e., sold only to Comics shops, not newsstands) on Baxter paper (a new, higher grade paper stock, thicker and whiter, used only for prestige projects) but it failed to sell, and its cancellation came several months after it was obvious the series was a commercial bust. It was sustained until issue 12 to enable it to be wrapped up decently, with an ending.
So why do I include it in a series about Uncompleted Stories? Because this is comics. Because Thriller was created and written by hitherto unknown writer Robert Loren Fleming, who was working as a proofreader at DC, with artist Trevor von Eeden.
And because the last four issues of the series were written by Bill DuBay and drawn by Alex Nino.
So Thriller was completed, but only in that special sense whereby someone who had no hand in its creation, its inspiration, its purpose and its theme came in to write something alien beyond measure over what Robert Loren Fleming had conceived and might have created. Fleming’s Thriller never ended, and it never will.
Fleming was working as a proofreader at DC. He had sold one (unpublished) war comics script when he approached Managing Editor, Dick Giordano with an idea for a series. Fleming loved the old pulp magazines, their energy and ideas, and in particular characters such as the Shadow: mysterious figures heading an organisation of operatives, each with a specialised talent. His idea fed off that impulse, projected ‘fifty years into the future’ and given a twist of the fantastic.
His leader was originally conceived as a kind of animistic force, with operatives possessing skills that bordered upon the superhuman without being superheroes or wearing costumes. As Thriller developed, this figure became less abstract, more human, more personalised: ‘a cross between Jesus Christ and my Mom.’
Angie Thriller. Angeline Marietta Salvatini Thriller, to be more formal. Daughter of a clown, wife of a scientist, mother of an apparently entirely normal baby, and yet someone who, in a material form, could not be said to actually exist.
We are ‘fifty years into the future’ (dates would not be introduced by Fleming, though DuBay specified that events were taking place in 2035, and whilst we’ll see below just how horrendous DuBay’s work was, there’s no reason to reject this detail).
To operate in the material world, Angie needed assistants, or Seconds: the Seven Seconds. These would be: Salvo, alias Tony Salvotini, Angie’s brother, a preternatural marksman, a surly man with a code against killing: only flesh-wounds, only out-patients was his creed: Proxy, or former actor Robert Furillo, Tony’s boyhood friend: after burning most of his face off freebasing cocaine, Bob’s features were reconstituted with synthetic flesh which, lacking enough real flesh to cling to, melts every 24 hours, making him a master of disguise: White Satin, or Janet ‘Jet’ Valentine, airline pilot possessed of a nerve touch that can do all sorts of things to a man, none of which he would particularly want: Beaker Parish: a nine feet tall Roman Catholic priest who flies around in a helicopter (aha, you’re sitting up now, aren’t you?): an artificial man, priest of St Jude, patron saint of the impossible: Data, aka Freddie Martin, the world’s smartest man and grossly obese, who lives in a car that is a supercomputer run (and driven) by his mind, also son of the President: and Crackerjack, a 14 year old illegal Honduran immigrant, super-pickpocket and ward to Edward Thriller, the afore-mentioned scientist to whom Angie is/was married (there is some confusion of tenses about this).
But these add up to six. Thriller began with the unlikely figure who would become the Seventh Second, against his will, with no apparent aptitude, our entry-level character who would have to learn for the reader all the things that Angie and her little band knew. This figure was Dan Groves, ‘third-rate cameraman’ as he describes himself.
Thriller‘s first arc, though we didn’t have that word in our vocabulary then, covered the first four issues. It began, conventionally enough, by setting up Dan. He and his elder twin Ken were a TV News War Correspondent team, reporter and cameraman, Ken out front, Dan following as he’d done all his life. The Groves were following the tradition of their late father, Gardner Groves, who’d been killed on the job. This was going to happen to Ken too.
Molluskan terrorists have occupied Mecca. Their leader, a masked fanatic known as Scabbard, denounces US President William Martin as the Great Satan (trash talk that was very familiar less than five years after the Ayatollah’s takeover of Iran). The Groves steal in and find Scabbard, with his woman, the mysterious Malocchia, who possesses hypnotic eyes. Ken endures a beating, filmed by Dan, who he instructs to film, not intervene.
Then Scabbard withdraws a six foot long incredibly broad sword that he sheathes in the flesh of his naked back and raises above Ken. Before Dan can act, he is distracted by a man with Oriental features: the blade falls, and Dan has filmed his brother’s decapitation.
We switch scenes to the Brooklyn Bridge, where Dan, left behind by everyone who has ever meant anything to him, is trying to work up the courage to throw himself into the river. Until the sky is filled with the face of a woman, stretching from horizon to horizon…
Thriller sees pieces of the future. Dan is part of her future. There will be no time for tantrums or cowardly acts of self-destruction: it is time Dan grew up.
A lot of exposition is delivered over the rest of the issue and pretty much all of the next: some of it in a mad rush, introducing the other six Seconds, some of it stretched out as Dan winds up being taken in at the Trinity, home to Edward Thriller and the team. (The Trinity’s an in-joke: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and we’ll soon enough see how the last part fits, but you should perhaps get the idea that Fleming takes his Catholicism rather seriously).
Dan wanders around in a daze, not knowing what the hell is happening to him. At the breakfast table he encounters the mysterious Malocchia – only here she’s Molly Lusk, daughter of Ed Thriller’s lab-partner and she’s Scotty Thriller’s nursemaid – who hypnotises him to forget he’s seen her before.
But Angie’s ‘origin’ is explored in the second issue. It’s two tales in one, the second reflecting upon the other. Angie’s father Peter died saving her from a house-fire, in which her mother Marietta was blinded: but the fire was set by Tony. Edward Thriller is a brilliant scientist who has isolated and cured the cancer-gene but who, with his geneticist partner Moses Lusk (Moses Lusk, Moses Lusk, Molluskan?) went in search of a kind of unitary cell that may be the source of the collective unconsciousness and race memory, but just as her father intervened to save her, Angie intervened to save Edward from an experiment going wrong, only to lose her own life, in a corporeal sense at least: The Thriller’s exist as one, as in Edward having the body and Angie the soul. She can manifest herself to anyone except Edward, can merge flesh with Tony (and Beaker because he’s synthetic), can see parts of the future. One of those parts concerns her mother…
Things hot up when Scabbard, wanting Salvo to assassinate President Martin, kidnaps Marietta to force Tony’s hand. The Seven Seconds gear up to prevent things going wrong. Dan’s importance is emphasised when Scabbard, commandeering a cross-country train and demanding the President surrender himself to spare the hostages, insists on Dan as the media representative.
It’s all done, and the day is saved, and its flashy and splashy and completely implausible.Scabbard is killed, by Dan, no less, knocking him from the roof of the train into decapitation via Beaker’s helicopter blades. He’s prompted to this by the same oriental gentleman, who makes a more direct intervention, to somehow exchange the hypnotic eyes of Malocchia for the blind ones of Marietta (a dangerous thing to do, to give an Italian mother hypnotic eyes when she think her children are too thin…).
And by now, we know that the oriental gentleman is Quo, and we will shortly learn that Quo was once Richard Quorum, formerly a martial artist guru, who studied kundalini yoga until he achieved Total Knowledge and ceased to, well, exist. Quo is the balancer. He’s also Janet Valentine’s husband.
Let’s just stop for a moment and assess those opening four issues. They’re far from perfect: Fleming has a lot of exposition to get over, and hasn’t yet learnt how to structure his story-telling to do so painlessly. We have a lot of strange, wonderful, intriguing characters thrown at us in a hurry, and two fairly heavy info-dumps about Angie, and Dan, that slow things down to the point of almost inertia. The story-structure is almost forgotten between the seemingly conventional (small t) thriller opening and the slam-bang issue 4.
Trevor von Eeden’s art could be more helpful. Von Eeden, a rising star, was capable of a very clean, very precise line, but chose to forsake this for a thick-lined, impressionistic, heavy-inked style, an impressionistic approach. It was a very subjective way of working in a primarily objective artform, enhanced by von Eeden’s experimental approach to layouts, trying to convey in the placement of panels the subjective experience of the events: Beaker’s helicopter blades slash the page into angled ribbons, the breakfast scene meanders back and round across a two-page spread, the half-asleep not fully compos mentis.
It was different, it was intriguing, it prompted questions to which you wanted answers. And it was rough, shaky, over-ambitious. Things that were short in the growingly-slick early Eighties comics.
After the opening four part arc, Fleming then tried to slow things a little. He actually did that too well for, by issue 7, he was only just building into another story, one that would not start until issue 8. Far too much of what filling the intervening pages was dull, since it concerned an Elvis Presley look-alike by the name of Kane Creole.
It turned out that the Kane we met in issue 5, robbing banks with a two-neck guitar that shot sedative bullets, was actually a clone. But, in an essentially unnecessary repeat the very next issue, this Kane Creole was a clone of a clone, the elder of which hade ben in jail for years for murdering his promoters after discovering that he was a clone of the original.
As the story went, and these two issues were being billed as parts 5 and 6 of ‘Down Time’, it was little more than spinning wheels. What lay at the heart of these two stories was not the ultimately repetitive and redundant action, but what lay around and about it. The older clone’s motives for killing his promoters was defined not as anger at being replaced, being cloned, but at the realisation that, as a clone to begin with, he was Kane Creole, and that his promoters had robbed his grave.
The greater story came in the earlier issue, though, probably the best moment in the entire series. Fleming had defined Thriller as a cross between Jesus Christ and his Mom. Thus far, we had primarily seen Angie in her role as the former, but Fleming turned things round. For Angie was not just Mom, but wife. She had not been the only one to lose something in the accident. She had lost her body, but Edward had lost his soul. He had lost his wife more totally than anyone before him, unable to perceive her in any way, dependant on others to know that she still existed.
And, in a shadow or parallel, we were aware of Dan Groves. Dan had lost father and brother, but he had also lost his mother, at an early stage. She’d died when he was three and his father,unable to bear the memories, had torn her out of all their photos, effectively destroying her in Dan’s memory.
So Edward wrote a letter to his wife, asking for a sign. And Angie answered, in words of love, but with more: a second heartbeat in Edward’s chest. And a redemption for Dan too, as all the photos in the album were repaired, as his mother was given back to him.
Kane Creole was still hanging around in issue 7, invited to tea and singing a sad lament for his supper. We learned about Quo, White Satin jetted off on a flight to deliver a Boeing to Hong Kong, travelling just outside Russian airspace, the Soviets still being exceedingly touchy. A computer in the START Corporation, seemingly acting independently, alters her flight-path. And Robert Loren Fleming left.
The series had never captured the numbers it needed. Each month, there were pleas for more letters. Fleming and von Eeden were disagreeing (a fist fight was rumoured). Both writer and artist had experimental ideas, but Thriller was under the control of editor Alan Gold, a very conventionally minded editor and the man responsible for seeing that profits were made.
Fleming left of his own accord, no-one has ever suggested anything different. In an article in Fantasy Advertiser, I queried whether he would have had any alternative: if he’d forced DC to choose between a novice writer, still raw at his craft, and one of their hot fan-favourite artists, who would they have chosen?
The problem was that Thriller was all too personal a work. Yes, Fleming was naïve, made many mistakes, was nowhere near reaching the audience DC needed. On the other hand, the Direct Market was starting to flourish, and it was supporting independent publishers, who could operate comfortably on smaller margins and sales. Could Thriller have been viable at somewhere like Eclipse, or First? I’ve no access to sales figures, so I’ve no idea, but given that DC intended to continue Thriller without its creator, I am very confident that it would have survived outside the Big Two.
And if it had been published at an independent company, Fleming could have kept hold of Thriller. He would have had the copyright on Angie, Edward, Tony, Dan et all. But he didn’t. DC owned, still owns, these characters. It has the right, at any time, to do anything it wants with them. It exercised that right in 1984 by bringing in Bill DuBay – best known as a prolific writer of horror stories for Warren Magazines – as writer, charged with giving the series more of what Alan Gold wanted to see. And when von Eeden followed Fleming out the door after one final issue (reasons never given but I can’t help thinking that DuBay’s story for issue 8 had an awful lot to do with it), Filipino artist Alex Nino was chosen to take over.
Part of me wants to leave it at that. The DuBay/Nino issues are an horrific, incoherent mess. DuBay instantly introduces a crude streak of virulent Commie-bashing, whilst Nino, a very divisive artist, with an ornate, decorative line that, for me and many others, he took way too far, beyond the limits of coherent imagery and recognisable human form, makes most of the characters look barely recognisable, and horribly ape-like in form and feature.
But it’s not just a mess, and a confused, sloppy, convoluted, illogical mess as well. DuBay sets out to undermine and debase everything that Fleming has established, in a way that is sickening to contemplate, that is so comprehensive that it can only be entirely deliberate.
DuBay picks up on the threads that Fleming left. Janet Valentine’s plane does trespass on Soviet space and is shot out of the sky, though of course she survives unscathed, to be told tha she is bait to tempt the Seven Seconds to Russia, before being shot. The Seven Seconds do indeed arrive and walk into the trap, set by the Soviets to draw Angie Thriller to them and dispose of her team before she tries to do anything about Infant, their artificial-intelligence supercomputer in the form of a small boy, their Angie-quivalent. And yes, Angie has sent her team – her brother, childhood friends, priest etc. into a trap without them being warned.
And she makes Tony, against his creed, kill Infant, who only wants to be like a normal boy and who has colluded with Angie to effectively commit suicide, not to mention destroy the entire economy of Russia. As for White Satin, she’s only been shot with a sedative bullet and dumped at the airport for anyone to find her, which defies all plot logic. Not to worry, since DuBay has no idea or plans for her for the rest of the series, where she is less than a cypher.
Angie does virtually the same thing all over again next issue, diverting her team to another danger spot in Russia without any warning, so that Tony can kill again, this time an entire race of genetic monstrosities.
And if you hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that this is all about the Perversion of Angie Thriller, you should read, or preferably not read, the double-sized issue 10, which is an incomprehensible splurge from start to finish as a story, is dreadfully slowed down by turgid back-stories for Tony and Beaker which, even as they conform to Fleming’s background notes, still manage to be inconsistent and, in Tony’s case, contradictory of even stuff DuBay has already written.
But Angie Thriller, oh, Angie. DuBay debases her. In walks Moses Lusk, complete with a sight-restored Malocchia, to reveal that he, not Edward, is father to Scotty, that he, not Peter Salvotini, is father to Angie, that he, not Edward, is responsible for the accident and her transformation. Angie is stolen from Edward, rendered powerless, rendered meaningless when DuBay introduces his own pre-Angie Angie in Faith Verity, United Nations Secretary-General, virtual mute and boss of the first Seven Seconds, in which Angie was but a foot-soldier.
And in case you think Tony’s getting off lightly this month, Mr Only Flesh-Wounds, Only Out-Patients is set up to assassinate President Martin, willingly. Incidentally, the said President Martin, according to DuBay, has been President from 2019 to 2035, which means he’s won at least five Presidential elections in a country where you can stand for, at most, two.
It’s a shitty, nasty, dump over all of Fleming’s ideas, the like of which I’ve rarely seen in comics (with the possible exception of when John Byrne bombed Philadelphia into rubble, just because it was where Jim Shooter came from), and I’m going to stop here and not relate any more of it because I think you’ve already heard enough.
Although perhaps special mention should be made of DuBay and Nino getting the seriously obese Data out of his car, which he never leaves, not once but twice, to actually try to get into the action: you really do not want to look at what Nino makes of him.
Robert Loren Fleming made a lot of mistakes and made a lot less of Thriller than he could have. But he came up with an idea, and a set of characters, that were distinctive and original in the times in which they appeared. Thriller was full of potential, even if Fleming’s approach made far too little of that. Despite the existence of issues 8-12, it was and forever will be Uncompleted.