Bugged Out!:

Scarab Reconsidered 20 Years On, Part Four

Where were we again? Oh yeah, it’s 1992, and despite attempting to jazz things up in their low-selling Dr. Fate title by having the Helmet of Fate’s original bearer, Kent Nelson, pass the golden dome onto his wife, Inza (who presumably suffered the same peripheral vision problems wearing the thing that her old man did), sales on the book are still floundering,  and so editor Stuart Moore decides it’s time to try a radical re-invention of the character by passing the writing duties onto a guy who’s ably demonstrated that he  has no shortage of bizarre ideas battling it out inside his head : John Smith, who Moore had strongly considered handing the reigns on Hellblazer over to just a year or two previously.

Smith admits, in the only interview I’ve been able to find online where he discusses the subject, that he’d never read a single issue of Dr. Fate (he was in good company, the series was a perennial low seller) and had no working knowledge of the character to speak of, but what the hell? He was game to give it his best shot.

There’s very little that’s known about the specifics of Smith’s Dr. Fate pitch apart from the fact that he had roughly two years plotted out and that many of the ideas contained within it found their way, eventually, into Scarab (which ideas precisely those were is something we’ll be attempting to puzzle out when we get to the nitty-gritty of examining all eight issues of Scarab here in the not-too-distant future, although some “safe bets” will be expounded on here momentarily), but in the end, despite the very sound editorial instinct Moore showed in offering the title to a hungry young British author who had a penchant, even at that early point in his career, for pushing the envelope as far as it could possibly go (and possibly even a bit further than that, given the minor brouhaha surrounding his and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate strip), certain elements — there’s that dreaded ambiguity again — were deemed by DC’s decision-makers to be a little too “far out” for a character who had been around since comics’ Golden Age.

So there went that whole idea.

Hold your horses, though! Moore evidently thought enough of the proposal to keep Smith, and his radical imaginings, dangling on the line for just a bit longer. DC’s “mature readers” line of books — most of which centered on mystical/supernatural characters — were about to be spun off into their own separate label, and if He Of The Generic Name could just hang on a bit longer, there might be a place for this whole Dr. Fate “series Bible” over at this new, soon-to-be-christened-as-Vertigo imprint. It just wouldn’t feature Dr. Fate anymore.

So while Smith set to work tweaking his concepts and characters in whatever spare time he had between his various 2000 A.D. scripting gigs, Moore waited until the time was right to shoehorn whatever his writer came up with into the new “Vertigo Universe.” He didn’t have to wait long.

Matt Wagner and Guy Davis’ Sandman Mystery Theater was one of the early successes of the new line, and the DC brain trust felt that maybe the Golden Age was, indeed, fertile ground for more “mature readers”-type stories, so suddenly this Dr. Fate pitch looked like it might have a natural home after all, it just needed some fine-tuning/editorial meddling. How about a new. wholly original character who was supposedly around “back in the day,” but could be brought into the present? You’ve gotta lose the helmet, sure, but some kind of mystical relic can take its place easy enough, and Kent Nelson can be replaced with somebody else with a different name and different appearance, and bang! Suddenly you’re in business!

And so Scarab was born. Initially slated to be an ongoing monthly when first announced, the core idea seems to be pretty simple : take a mystically-powered superhero from the past, throw him into the present day, layer on the “house style” Vertigo “high weirdness” already established by writers like Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan, and sit back and watch as a new “cult favorite” title is born.

To that end Kent Nelson became Louis Sendak, and the Helmet of Fate became a magical amulet called the Scarabaeus, and a new backstory was hastily constructed over the skeleton of the rejected Dr. Fate proposal.

The year was 1993, and although it was a long and circuitous path getting there, it looked like that imminent “big break” was finally happening for John Smith. Maybe this whole writing for American comics publishers thing was gonna work out after all.

Once you’ve got a writer in place for a projected series, though, the next thing you’ve gotta do is find yourself an artist (unless you’ve got the artist ready to go first and need to find a writer, which has certainly been the case many a time in the past, as well). Scot Eaton had just come off a reasonably successful (and highly under-appreciated, to this very day) run working with well-established horror novelist Nancy A. Collins on Swamp Thing, and while Alan Moore’s seminal work on that series was without question the cornerstone upon which the entire Vertigo line was able to be founded, sales on the book were, while reasonably good (especially by today’s standards) still well behind the top-tier sellers in the range  like Hellblazer and The Sandman. Still, the powers that be at 1700 Broadway were generally pleased with the results, both creatively and commercially, that Collins and Eaton were able to deliver, and when the decision was made to pair Grant Morrison with another Scottish author, the hitherto-unknown-on-these-shores Mark Millar, on that series,  and to have a change-over in the look of the book by assigning the pencilling duties to Phil Hester, DC decided that the outgoing Swamp Thing writer and artist team were still people they wanted to keep in the fold.

Collins was commissioned to begin work on her own creator-owned series, Wick, (what? You’ve never heard of it? Rest assured, we’ll be mentioning it again in an upcoming installment here), and Eaton was paired with Smith to be co-creator of Scarab.

It wouldn’t be an easy gig — the title character, and the entire world of the book, were shaping up to be physically — well, ugly — but his deftness with the more free-form and organic demands of the art chores on Swamp Thing convinced Moore that he would be a good fit for the sort of stories Smith was planning to do, and his veteran experience and sensibilities, not to mention his reputation for being able to meet deadlines, would undoubtedly be of much assistance in establishing a cohesive visual look for a project that was, to that point, solely in the hands of a writer with very little experience in the marketplace he was jumping into.

As an added plus, DC were also willing to offer Smith and Eaton creator ownership on the title! Sure, it’s not the pure, 100%, lock-stock-and-barrel creator-ownership deal that publishers like Image, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, even Dark Horse in many cases, offer to writers and artists — DC has the ability to use the characters in other publications if they so choose, retains publication rights on the material in perpetuity if they choose to exercise them,etc. — but hey, it was a good step beyond the “work-for-hire” deals that most creators were stuck with at the time, and are still stuck with to this day.

With the “creators” part of his creative team in place, then,  Moore’s last major task was to assign an inker to the project (not that inkers aren’t “creators” in their own right, mind you, it’s just that Smith and Eaton were the copyright holders here and were responsible, both verbally and visually, for the look, tone, feel, and content of the series), and for that job he chose Mike Barreiro, an artist who was relatively new to the industry at the time, but had established a solid reputation for following his penciller’s lead and accurately providing the finishing touches that his (or her) illustrations were aiming for. His work’s not flashy or heavily stylized by any means, but it’s very professionally sound and he doesn’t take too many liberties nor do anything to in any way detract from a book’s look.

And so, the gang’s all here — John Smith, Scot Eaton, and Mike Barreiro are at the starting blocks, raring to go, all set to take us into a series that promises to be part superhero yarn, part mystical mind-fuck, part horror story, and part metaphysical journey into the unknown. Sounds good, right? What could possibly go wrong from here?

The answer, as it turns out, was plenty.

In our next segment we’ll see an ongoing regular monthly get shaved down to an eight-issue trial balloon (how exactly does one  shave a balloon?) courtesy of lukewarm editorial reaction and a huge jump in paper costs. Then it’s time to get our hands dirty and examine Scarab issue-by-issue, blow-by-blow! Oh, and there’s a sidebar pertaining to Adam Parfrey’s classic underground book Apocalypse Culture in there somewhere, as well.

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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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