Bugged Out!:

Scarab Reconsidered 20 Years On, Part One

So here’s the deal — your newbie (at least around these parts) author found himself having a few back-and-forth conversations with Sequart founder Julian Darius via Twitter over the course of the past several months, and those conversations always (okay, usually) ended with Dr. D asking, in so many words, “why don’t you write some stuff for us?” It was a mighty tempting offer, to be sure, since this is more or less my favorite comics-themed site on the web, but I always found myself feeling a bit gun-shy about the whole idea for a variety of reasons, none of which were particularly well-founded, but hey — if life made sense it would be kind of boring, right?

First off, until rather recently at any rate,  writing about and reviewing films (with a heavy emphasis on “B’-grade exploitation flicks) has been my primary “thang” online, either at my own site — http://trashfilmguru.wordpress.com — or for sites such as http://unobtainium13.com or http://www.dailygrindhouse.com. Over the past several months, though, I’ve found myself gravitating toward more and more comics-related reviews and analysis, though, and have slapped up a fair number of posts on and/or about comics either at my own (previously mentioned) site, or over at http://geekyuniverse.com , and occasionally I’d link to one of my screeds on Julian and/or Sequart’s Twitter feed — and again the question that always came back was “why don’t you write some stuff for us?”

Clearly, the requests were getting harder for me to ignore, and the idea continued to intrigue me. But was I really ready for what passes for, in my mind at any rate, the big leagues? After all, I’m not an academic, I’m an opinionated asshole (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Heavily-referenced, footnoted works aren’t really my style. Maybe I’m just too lazy, maybe I’m more concerned with expressing my own views than regurgitating someone else’s, or maybe it’s some combination of the two, but still — I wasn’t sure my type of long-winded bloviating really fit in with the more considered approach that most authors take to their subjects around here. I didn’t want to be a square peg in a round hole.

Still, I gotta admit — I love me some Sequart. I check in here almost every day. I’ve used up countless sheets of printer paper at my “real” job running off various articles from this site to read over my (always too damn short) lunch breaks. And finally,  I just couldn’t resist. Especially since Julian hated the new “Thor” flick even more than I did. I figured what the hell — I may not be the most exact match around these parts style-wise, but at least most contributors here know their stuff, which is more than can be said for a fair number of “nerd culture”-themed sites where every shitty product with a Marvel or DC logo attached to it is met with fawning praise regardless of its actual quality. Especially if the person writing the review got the comic (or a pair of movie tickets, or whatever) free.

I’m a deeply, tragically flawed human being (and so are you, dear reader, whether you like to admit it or not), but at least my conscience isn’t for sale at any price. And I think the same is absolutely true of anyone and everyone else here. So I made up my mind the other night, as I was putting the finishing touches on a piece I was writing on the lost grindhouse classic “An American Hippie in Israel” for the forthcoming fifth issue of Brain Harris and Tim Paxton’s superb horror / exploitation cinema ‘zine Weng’s Chop, that the next thing I wrote for somebody other than myself was going to be for Sequart.

So what gives with the pictures from DC/Vertigo’s 20-year-old Scarab miniseries, then, you may ask? Well, I’d emailed Mike here a few times and we had back-and-forthed a bit about just what, precisely, I wanted to write about here. I take a pretty strong stance in favor of creator’s rights, and that’s one area that this site hasn’t run too many pieces on, even though it’s a natural fit. And there are also a fair number of comics currently being published (Sex Criminals, Manhattan Projects, Superior Foes Of Spider-Man, Hinterkind – to name just a handful) that I’m enjoying the hell out of that no one else has chimed in on here yet. The idea of a weekly column was even mentioned (by me, of course).

But then I got to thinking about it some more. What did I want my first piece on here to be about? And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing a lengthy, detailed analysis of a largely forgotten comic from Vertigo’s early days about a character that was named after, and resembled, a big, gross, smelly Egyptian dung beetle.

Like a lot of you, I’m sure, I still find the most exciting period in Vertigo’s history to be those early years — before the lines of demarcation separating that imprint’s books from the ‘proper” DC universe became intractable neon monoliths flashing “DO NOT ENTER’ in either direction. Things were fluid then. Superman or Batman could still pop up in an issue of Doom Patrol or Shade, The Changing Man (not that they usually did, but still — ). Nothing was set in stone. They were throwing a lot of shit —- most of it pretty good shit — at the walls and seeing what stuck. They were exciting times indeed, and all you kids are just gonna have to take this old geezer’s word for it.

One book in particular stood out for its boldness, daring, and outright discombobulation, though; Scarab,  an eight-issue miniseries written by young (at the time) up-and-coming (again, at the time) British author John Smith, penciled by Scot Eaton, and inked by Mike Barreiro really swung for the fences, albeit in a dizzying, scattershot manner. Was it a superhero book? A horror comic? A postmodern genre mash-up with no clear purpose apart from telling a good story?

In truth, it was all these and something more — and less. Clearly the book was a mess. Not all the concepts at its core were explained (or even apparently thought through) all that thoroughly. Not all of it seemed to flow that naturally, story-wise. And structurally, it was all over the map, going from single-issue one-off yarns to multi-part, broad-scope adventures and back again without much by way of a clear or unifying purpose.  Hell, in many respects the whole project taken in total didn’t even make a great deal of sense.
So that’s the knock — or several knocks, as the case may be. On the plus side, though,  the whole thing is crackling with more ideas per page than any other Vertigo book this side of The Filth,  Smith exhibited (and continues to exhibit, largely in works published on his side of the pond) a strong flair for characterization and intelligent prose (even if that could get a bit purple at times), and  all in all the stories read like some kind of hyped-up, amped-to-the-gills mish-mash of the most interesting throwaway bits from Grant Morrison and Alan Moore delivered in a style all its own and without (for good and ill) either of those other writers’  intuitive sense of discipline and structure.

In short, this was bold, fearless imagining let loose with, apparently, very little direction. I’ve re-read the entire run a couple of times a year since it came out in 1993 and 94 and find myself picking up new and intriguing bits and pieces — and consequently becoming more impressed with it — each time.

Quite clearly, something of a low-level obsession was stewing away in the back of what passes for my brain here. A little research and legwork were required if I was going to delve into this with any kind of vigor, and so in recent weeks I’ve been doing my homework. I’ve immersed myself in what little there is to be found regarding Scarab online and now consider myself pretty fluent in this book’s  utterly unique language, lineage, and history. In how it came about and why it ended up the way it did. And multi-part essays have become old hat to me thanks to the 12-part series I did for Geeky Universe entitled “Just Pay Ditko!” focusing on how and why the comics industry in general has shit all over one of its most singular creative geniuses, how and why it continues to do so, how and why he’s walked away from  said industry entirely while continuing to create provocative, challenging, and highly idiosyncratic work on his own terms and no one else’s , and what steps we as fans, and the industry in general, can and should take to make absolutely certain that the next great  mind to come along (because, let’s face it, there will never be a “next Steve Ditko”) doesn’t suffer the same kind of indignities and abuses that this unassuming titan among comics creators did. So I’m more than ready for another immersive project to throw myself into.

Are you ready to join me? I hope so, because in our next segment I’d like you to come along with me as we meet John Smith, co-creator of Scarab, and a guy whose imagination is infinitely more wild and untamed than his name would lead you to believe. This is going be a really fun ride, and I’d be humbled and honored if you stuck around for the duration.

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, and writes about films and comics for sites such as unobtainium13.com, dailygrindhouse.com, geekyuniverse.com, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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