If you weren’t there at the time, you won’t know what I’m talking about. And even if you were there’s a better than even chance that you still won’t know what I’m talking about or that, at best, you’ve completely forgotten. Thriller was an unsuccessful comic book series published by DC Comics between 1983 and 1984, running for twelve issues and never to be revived. It was a sales failure, only making it to twelve issues in order to have it wrapped up as a complete series although, as I will explain due course, it might have been better if it were not. It retains a loyal fanbase to this day, who hold it in higher esteem than its co-creator does. I’m amongst the fans. Thriller had its moments, good ones as well as bad. It was both cliched and original, but what it had of the latter was vivid enough to wish that it had had a better chance. The writer who originated it all but will never go back to it, remains convinced it would have stood a better chance if it had all happened five years later. Let me tell you its story.
In 1983, Robert Loren Fleming was working for DC as a proofreader. He had an idea for a series that would contain pulp elements, terrorism, quasi-superheroes, an idealistic leader who he described as ‘a cross between Jesus Christ and my Mom’ (Fleming came from a Catholic family: it showed) and a setting that was generally said to be ‘fifty years into the future’. Having worked his idea out, he took it to Dick Giordano, DC’s then-Managing Editor. This was the DC that was rebounding from the still recent ‘Implosion’, that was settling for second place to Marvel in commercial terms but which was aiming to outdo its rival artistically, by broadening the boundaries, taking chances, doing things differently. This was the DC that had recently hired an anarchist from Northampton to completely transform one of their established if never, until then, commercially successful properties: you know, Swamp Thing.
So, at that time, it was almost inevitable that Giordano would take a chance of a fresh take, a new direction brought to him by someone with no writing credit or experience (prior to Thriller, Fleming had sold only one story, to a late issue of House of Mystery). And Fleming was to team up with new hotshot artist, Trevor von Eeden, to create this new series. Which was to be printed in the ‘Baxter Paper’ format, signalling better paper stock, whiter and thicker, with brighter colours, not to mention being sold in the direct market only. In short, prestige.
Thriller was advertised under the intriguing tag-line, ‘She has seven seconds to save the World’ (also ‘You cannot read this fast enough’, though I never saw that). First question: who was ‘She’?
She was Angie Thriller, Angeline Marietta Salvotini Thriller. We were introduced to her in issue 1 as a face filling the sky, though that was all we got of Mrs Thriller in the introductory episode, which was about throwing in the whole cast at high speed, creating impressions. Which was fitting because von Eeden’s art was all about the same thing, subjective experience, experimental layouts intended to evoke the feeling of the action depicted instead of merely depict it for you.
So who, what and why? We saw the opening of the story, and most of its first act, through the least member of the cast, self-proclaimed ‘third rate newsreel cameraman’ Dan Grove. Dan is son to and twin brother to War Correspondents, heroes who got in there where it was dangerous and brought the story back. Dan, by his own admission, is nothing but a nobody, a tag-along. His Dad is dead and at the start of the series he and brother Ken are on a mission to Mecca, threatened by Molluskan terrorists, under a leader code-named Scabbard, because he carries a double-edged sword sheathed in the flesh of his back, which he uses to cut off Ken’s head.
Two other characters also briefly appear, Malocchia Lusk, a woman with hypnotic eyes, and a shadowy, unseen figure who distracts Dan’s attention at the moment of decapitation, thus saving his life. All we know of this person is that he is known as Quo, though we’ll eventually learn that his full name is Richard Quorum.
So here we have Dan, a weakling, a nothing, a nobody, all alone in the world and standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, about to throw himself off when he looks up to see the night sky full of a woman’s face: Thriller. She has seven Seconds now, only her Seconds are not increments of time but assistants, specialised, one might almost say super-powered family and friends, and that now includes Dan Groves, though one might well ask, the hell why? Certainly Dan wouldn’t disagree with you.
The rest of the issue is about introducing, succinctly, each of the other six. These are, in the order in which they appear, Data, White Satin, Salvo, Beaker Parish, Proxy and Crackerjack. Edward Thriller, scientist and husband to Angie in a manner not entirely conventional, provides a base for the Seven Seconds at a tower/laboratory known as the Trinity (nothing to do with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but rather a pertinent religious joke: remember your Bible). Why Dan? Because Angie sees pieces of the future and he is in hers: it is time for him to grow up.
So who are these mysterious strangers? Data is Freddy Martin, an enormously corpulent black man, who lives in and operates by computer interface to his mind, a massive Rolls Royce connected to what we would now call the internet: he is the Information Specialist. He’s also the son of the President, William Martin. White Satin is Janet ‘Jet’ Valentine, daughter of a massive Charitable foundation, airline pilot, a beautiful blonde possessed of a kind of nerve touch that can make people sick or drunk: all she needs is bare skin. She’s also the girlfriend of Salvo, or Tony Salvotini, dishonourably discharged Special Service Soldier, brother to Angie. Tony’s an almost supernaturally brilliant marksman, but he won’t kill: ‘Only flesh wounds, only out-patients, I won’t kill a fly so don’t ask me’.
Beaker Parish is a 25 year old Roman Catholic priest who’s nine feet tall, an artificial man created by two renegade scientists and raised by an entire parish. He provides spiritual comfort and pilots a helicopter, a literal deus ex machina. Proxy is ex-actor Robert Furillo, Tony’s best friend, who burned his flesh off free-basing cocaine and, thanks to the synthetic flesh created by Edward Thriller, can look like anyone in the world for 24 hours. Lastly, Crackerjack is Jack, no other name given, Edward’s 14 year old Honduran ward and a genius pickpocket, safecracker and escape artist.
You might think I’m going into much more detail than is necessary for a failed 12 issue story, but there’s a lot to tell, and I want you to understand the ways in which Thriller differed from everything else around it at DC, and the potential it held to be absolutely fascinating.
For the rest of which, see issue 2, labelled Special Origin Issue. It was a beautifully told, intimate, multiple-level story, about life and death and sacrifice across two generations but above all about family. Remember Fleming’s line about a cross between Jesus Christ and my Mom? We learned that Angie was dead, in a way, that she had stumbled into an experiment by Edward that seemed to be about to kill him, that just as her father Peter, a clown, had hurled himself into a burning building to save her as a girl, losing his life out of his love, she sought to save Edward only for both of them to be changed. The two incidents were correlated symbolically: Marietta Salvotini had been blinded and so too was Edward in the one area most important to him. He and Angie merged into one, his the body, hers the soul. He cannot touch her.
And to pile Pelion on top of Ossa, the fire had been started by Tony, the only one to get out unscathed. Angie can merge into his flesh, can alter things around him to assist him.
One more thing. Edward Thriller was renowned for curing cancer. He had a partner who shared equal credit, Moses Lusk (Molluskan?), who had a daughter, Molly, who’s nanny to Edward and Angie’s baby Scottie. She’s also Malocchia. And Scabbard’s about to kidnap Marietta.
Which is where and how we learn why Dan? Scabbard wants Tony to assassinate President Martin and takes Marietta hostage to force him. He also wants Dan as the sole media representative: that’s why. But Dan’s scared and won’t do it, until he goes to confession and learns the true circumstances of his father’s death, through reliving it and learning from it. There’s also a telling moment, when von Eeden’s deliberately crude and blocky style suddenly cuts through. The Seven Seconds are preparing, their plan is detailed and dovetailed, they are all professionals. But what of Dan? Can he cut it? And Tony says, ‘He has to,’ and you feel every fear crowding in on him just from how tightly he is wound around himself.
Which brought everything together to complete the first arc in issue 4, as the plan is carried out, ‘Down Time Part 4, Happiness (bang bang, shoot shoot)’ one of my favourite titles ever. The plan worked, but it also didn’t work, because of that random thing called chance that stopped the train. Marietta suffered a fractured skull. Angie merged with Beaker to melt part of his artificial flesh to seal the fracture. Quo appeared to confront Malocchia/Molly, and to force her eyes from her head, into Beaker where, as natural flesh and unbearable to Angie, she flung them from her, into her mother. Who gained hypnotists’ eyes. And you know how dangerous that can be in the, uh, hands of an Italian mother…
It was good, but unfortunately that was about as good as it was going to get.
At this point, let us step back. Fleming had sold his story whilst a proofreader, leapfrogging several much more experienced writers to do so. He had sold it to Dick Giordano, who was Managing Editor and who thus would not have any direct editorial responsibility for the series. Though issue 1 credits Karen Berger as ‘Editorial Co-Ordinator’, the series would actually be edited by Alan Gold, newly-hired by DC and with no experience of the comics industry.
Fleming didn’t know what he was doing and neither did Gold. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when it means you don’t know what you’re supposed not to be able to do but that wasn’t what was happening here. Fleming now admits he simply wasn’t ready to write a full-time series. As for Gold, he was just another among many editors to have passed through DC’s doors and move on have done nothing to distinguish their stay. He was simply wrong for Thriller in the first place, wanting the books under his control to be simple, commercial and clear, almost the exact opposite of what Fleming was aiming for.
Nor did DC’s office culture of the era assist. There seems to have been little collegiate structure and a lot of hazing went on. Someone who could be seen as having got above his station was an obvious target. Fleming has spoken of von Eeden being scheduled to begin drawing the series once he’d completed his existing series, and then being assigned to draw Batwoman (not that one) instead of Thriller, whilst Fleming himself was told that an entire script was unacceptable and would have to be re-written before it could be drawn, then receiving von Eeden’s completed art and having to re-work his new script to fit it to the art.
Bear this interference in mind whilst I go over the next phrase. And if you’re tempted to wonder why everyone was being so pathetically juvenile, do remember that this is comics we’re talking about.
There’s often a moment of holding your breath about issue 5 of a new series. The first four issues are where a lot of work has gone in to impress. The writer has worked and polished this. Sometimes it was actually commissioned as a mini-series, cf. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, but it’s caught on. Issue 5 is a bit of an acid test, the ‘what else has he got?’ moment.
What Fleming had was Elvis Presley, which was not the greatest idea as far as I was concerned. Actually, this was ‘Kane Creole’, who looked, sounded and sang exactly like Presley, they just couldn’t use the name, not without paying Colonel Tom Parker the usual extortionate sum. Kane was a bank-robber and it was in that capacity he ran into half the Seven Seconds and was captured.
However, more of the issue was about personal things, the family. Angie appeared to baby Scotty. She had to help Tony and Beaker explain her problematic status to their mother. She conveyed on Dan the blessing of restoring all the photos of his mother, who had died when he was three, and who his grieving father had ripped out, loving her too much to bear seeing her.
And in response to Edward’s misery in being separated from her, in being alone in being unable to sense her, Angie reminded him that she did indeed still love, and forgive him, the proof of which being her heartbeat in their body, alongside his. It was short on action, but long on feeling. And Dick Giordano had taken over inking von Eeden, smoothing things out a bit.
But then Fleming, for want of any information about editorial interference, blew it utterly, by making issue 6 a practically issue long repeat of Creole’s bank robbery, this time in battle with the Seconds, the only element of any depth being that convoluted revelation – in the Confessional, where else – that this Creole was a clone of the original Creole, himself a clone of Presley. The older Creole had murdered his Promoters when they wanted to replace him with the younger version: not because of that but because, having realised he effectively was Presley, they had robbed his grave.
Von Eeden returned to full art on issue 7, which would be Fleming’s last issue. A lot of it was again passive and personal: the Seven Seconds invited both Creoles to dinner by way of an apology for the previous issue’s misunderstanding. Some of it was explaining who Quo was, which was that he was a martial arts trainer who was married to Janet Valentine, teaching her the nerve pinch, before evolving to become a concept rather than a person: the Balancer.
The rest of the issue was set-up for what would be the next major arc. There were tensions with the USSR over an accidental American passenger jet incursion into Soviet airspace on a flight to Seoul. Coincidentally, or rather not, that was Janet Valentine’s next flight. Meanwhile, the mainframe START computer – State of the Art Corporation – was reprogramming the flight path of her jet to repeat the incursion.
And with that just starting, Fleming left the series he’d created after only seven issues, never to return.
According to Wikipedia this was due to interference from DC management. At the time, I heard rumours of disagreements between Fleming and von Eeden, on one occasion at least resulting in a fist-fight, though Fleming denies that utterly, calling the relationship completely harmonious, though at the time I assumed DC had simply sided with their hotshot artist instead of their novice writer. I’m not going to castigate Alan Gold, not without any real knowledge of the part he played in this but, given his approach on the other titles he edited, I will never doubt that he was the wrong choice on Thriller. Let me quote him from issue 8’s lettercol: ‘Let’s just say that risks are taken only in the face of unusual difficulties, that risk-taking for the sake of risk-taking is just showing off. I personally dislike obfuscation in my entertainment. (emphasis added)… An unusual page layout to convey mood, tension or movement is what we’re sometimes after. Sometimes (more often than not, I suspect) a “standard” page layout tells the story better.’
Ipso fatso, my case rests.
Von Eeden only lasted one more issue as Bill DuBay, a veteran at Warren but who, so far as I can determine, never wrote anything else for DC, was brought in to take over, and finish off the series, in more ways than one, paired with Alex Nino for the last four issues. I cannot recall any greater disaster in undermining and destroying everything that came before.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that. DuBay, either off his own bat or under editorial direction, set out to smash practically everything that had come before, in a comprehensive manner that demonstrates it could only have been deliberate.
The impact wasn’t immediately felt whilst von Eeden was present to keep the visual continuity but the atmosphere changed rapidly. Whether it was Fleming’s intention or not, issue 8 suddenly went very Cold War, with ignorant cliched Russian military roaring about American military plots. White Satin’s plane entered Russian airspace and was challenged. She joked wearily about being a spy so the Russians took her at face value and shot her down. Despite a multi-missile aerial explosion at cruising height, she survived and was taken prisoner to attract the Seven Seconds to rescue her. It was all a plot by them, you see, but actually it was all organised by Infant, the world’s first bio-sensitive computer, built for Russia by START, but who arranged everything to get Mrs Thriller’s little mob there to kill him.
That was the first sign. Salvo – ‘Only flesh wounds, only out-patients, I won’t kill a fly, so don’t ask me’ – and DuBay coerces him into killing. The Russians refer to Tony as a protege of Colonel Bishop Fortune, retired. Hang on to that nugget.
It’s confused and cheap. White Satin has been kidnapped to draw the rest of the team out to rescue. Gagged and bound, she’s shot at point blank range. But then she turns up dumped at the airport, having been shot with a tranquiliser gun. But why was she dumped so she could be found? Because DuBay was a shit writer who didn’t know how compose a decent story.
Nino’s debut issue was on the immediate sequel, as the Seven Seconds tried to escape from Russia, only for Angie to divert them to a super-secret military complex on which all their budget for over half a century had been spent keeping up a bluff that they were as powerful as the US. The Seven Seconds were here to destroy it and everyone in it including the genocide of an artificial race of dinosaur-like monsters that Tony had to kill, again. It was ugly in all aspects. The previously well-knit team that planned and rehearsed its operations was stumbling around haphazardly, arguing among themselves and even slanging Angie – ‘the ever manipulative Mrs Thriller’ and that was Beaker – for dropping them in it without consultation.
But if you think DuBay has already done serious damage, wait until the double-sized issue 10.
In all the times I’ve read this issue over the near forty years since it was published, I still have not been able to comprehend what DuBay was on about and long ago I concluded that was because he couldn’t comprehend what he was on about. Issue 9 was messy, but issue 10 an utter mess. Let me advance one tiny example to begin with: two issues ago, DuBay proffered Tony Salvotini as the protege of Colonel Bishop Fortune. Herein, at much greater length, he is shown to be the protege of Colonel Mosse Trench. No comment.
The first two-thirds of the issue is primarily the extended ‘origins’ of Beaker Parish and Tony, set against the backgrounds of world tension in the wake of a Yemeni/Omani War in 2009, a crisis defused by the negotiating skills of UN Secretary General Mrs Faith Verity. DuBay has already demonstrated his sloppiness (and Gold his lack of oversight) and now he loses control. An International Conference on complete Nuclear disarmament is taking place now, i.e., in 2035 and Mrs Verity is still Secretary-General, unchanged after twenty-six years. President Martin, Data’s father, was President then and is President still, despite the US Constitution limiting any President to an absolute maximum of nine years, 364 days, and then only in exceptional circumstances that have never yet occurred.
This Conference is taking place against the threat of a nuclear warhead being detonated in New York to destroy the city, precipitate global conflict and total destruction, organised by Middle-Eastern terrorists led by the newly-introduced Iskariot, who is ‘brother’ to Tony and Beaker. The bomb’s been created by START but the plot is by Moses Lusk and both Tony and Beaker are supposedly acting for the wrong side though what the hell they’re actually doing, especially Beaker, and in the end the bomb goes off and everyone is killed and everything destroyed. Deep breath.
At which point real Moses and ghost Angie meet up, she confesses that she’s been blind and that Moses was right all along (of course he was) so now they push the sun back across the sky, reversing everybody through Armageddon, which is no better from being done backwards. All of this starts a new age for humanity, which can now enter puberty (bullshit). Amidst all of this, DuBay has the bulkier than morbidly obese Data get out of his car, for no better purpose than to fuck further with anything Fleming had set up, and if you still don’t believe me when I say that, he sets up Mrs Verity as the uber-Angie, with her own earlier Seven Seconds (Edward, Angie, Tony, Iskariot, Moses, Beaker and Quo). Oh, and Tony kills again, one terrorist deliberately (only flesh-wounds… sigh) and Mrs Verity accidentally.
In terms of perverting a series beyond all recognition, Thriller 10 stands unchallenged.
Personally, I’d have killed it off there or, preferably, after issue 9 but though sales had fallen below the danger point, Gold got two more issues to ‘finish’ the overarching story. No. 11 continued the atrocity. ‘Enlightenment’ lasted two hours. Tony told off Angie and Quo for manipulating them all with something they knew wouldn’t work, Moses decided to try things his way, seeming to forget that last issue had been ‘his’ way and on page 9 the ultimate glob of shit was the revelation that baby Scotty’s father wasn’t Edward Thriller but Moses Lusk. Still think DuBay wasn’t going out of his way to render everything into crap?
Then it got real confusing as Lusk was revealed to be Angie’s real father. Remember when she was supposed to be a cross between ‘Jesus Christ and my Mom’? And Moses had in some fashion kidnapped Angie. At least there was only one issue left with complete nuclear Armageddon on the table again, already.
I’m determined to kick every little bit of DuBay shithousery I can so let me point out that, after he’d destroyed the entire military capacity of the Soviet Union in issue 9, he started the last issue with Russian ICBM’s launched at America. The end result was even less comprehensible than what had gone before. In some manner not explained all the nuclear warheads on Earth were not just launched but exploded way about the atmosphere with no fallout (making as much sense as anything), with the exception of the non-existent mega bomb that DuBay has pulled out of his arse, which baby Scotty teleported into the Trinity, causing his grandmother Marietta to faint.
Oh, and just in case you thought you had any grip on where this little tale was going, the last page featured Moses and Malocchia Lusk (who had recovered her sight without anyone noticing it, least of all the editor who was still sneering at the audience for liking the book the way they did: great look) walking away, he asking her want she wants to do next and she, sounding like a ten year old, asking him to dream up something new, ‘a really different game’. What the hell was that about?
I thoroughly enjoyed Thriller, the first seven issues at any rate, and I remain to this day one of those fans that hold it in higher regard than Robert Loren Fleming. I’m not blind to the flaws Fleming perceived, both then and subsequently, the one that he and Gold ‘agreed’ upon being the slow pace of the first half dozen issues, and given my antipathy to Elvis Presley, I could have done without those two issues. It had lots of potential, all of it wasted. Fleming and von Eeden did discuss a prequel miniseries about Salvo, but neither he nor anyone else ever reappeared.
Fleming believes that, five years later, post-Crisis, from a DC very different from the company of 1983, Thriller would have stood a better chance. I always believed it would have stood a far better chance as a creator-owned series published by one of the burgeoning Independent companies, Eclipse or First. Free from editorial interference, set a lower bar in terms of commercially viable sales, not having Alan Gold within a million miles of it, the chances had to be better. Of course I have no knowledge of actual sales but if it had been selling so badly that an independent company would have cancelled it, it wouldn’t have lasted anything like as long at DC.
For the truth about such things we must once again repair to Earth-2, and pick up copies of issues 41-50, or thereabouts. In the version we got on Earth-1, Thriller is a forgotten failure, waiting for someone to come along with a proposal to revive it because, as we all remember, there is no such thing as a bad character, especially if she’s a cross between Jesus Christ and any of our Mums.