Bugged Out!:

Scarab Reconsidered 20 Years On, Part Five

Welcome back to 1993! Nice enough place to visit, although you might not want to live here —

Actually, 1993 wasn’t a bad year at all for comics. The Invisibles got off the ground with a bang. The Sandman was ramping up toward its conclusion. The Image and Vetrtigo “revolutions” were in full swing. And Superman was due to be killed off — and bring down the entire out-of-control speculator’s market with him. Yeah, I’ll take 30 copies of that — it’s so rare they only printed a couple million of ‘em, don’cha know?

And somewhere off in a quiet corner (make that two quiet corners, since the principals involved didn’t even live in the same country!) British writer John Smith and his artist partner Scot Eaton were busy re-working the concepts and visuals of Smith’s aborted proposal to radically re-imagine the monthly Dr. Fate series into a new ongoing called Scarab. One ironic thing I forgot —shame on me ! — to mention last time out is that prior to assuming the monthly art responsibilities on Swamp Thing, Eaton had enjoyed — at least, I’m assuming he enjoyed — a brief run as penciller on, you guessed it, Dr. Fate, so how’s that for “it’s a small world after all”?

Anyway, things were looking good at this early stage of the game. Even though the character of Scarab was creator-owned (after a fashion, at any rate, as detailed in our last installment), DC editorial had given clearance for the Phantom Stranger, as shown above,  to appear in the second issue of the soon-to-be-unleashed series, to help fill in the gaps of Louis Sendak’s origins and what he’d been up to in the “missing years” ever since (okay, fair enough, Sendak/Scarab’s whole career was technically “missing” since he was a brand new character, but you know what I mean). Smith had worked out a cast of supporting players and two to three years’ worth of plots. Eaton’s pencilled pages were coming in at a nice, steady clip. And maybe — just maybe — Vertigo was going to come  as close as they ever would to having an honest-to-goodness monthly superhero book on their hands.

Yeah, it would be more an amalgam of superhero and horror and supernatural and just plain weird than it would be a straight-forward masked-adventurer-in-tights kinda series, but hey, that’s cool, right?

And then a curious thing happened. With sales on several of Vertigo‘s monthlies dropping like a rock after their much-hyped-debuts — Kid EternityBlack Orchid, and Doom Patrol, particularly, were all struggling — and with a near-doubling of paper costs that same year hitting DC’s bottom line hard, the decision was made (by who, exactly, I couldn’t say) to scale back Scarab before it ever got out of the blocks. Rather than committing themselves to a regular ongoing series featuring a whole new character by a writer who was, for all intents and purposes, basically unknown on this side of the Atlantic, the project was quickly re-worked into an eight-issue mini-series with an eye toward continuing it as a monthly if, and only if, sales warranted it.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that Scarab wasn’t the only project to be trimmed down by Vertigo higher-ups as a result of the quickly-evincing-themselves economic realities the still-nascent line found themselves saddled with — a witchcraft-themed monthly to be written by Nancy A. Collins entitled Wick, which we alluded to briefly last time around, was scuttled in its entirety at around this same time, and all of the sub-par-selling, corporate-owned titles previously mentioned, along with Animal Man, were, in fairly short order, hastily “concluded” as the range found itself moving away from company-controlled properties and more toward creator-driven projects by established “names,” such as Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s then- forthcoming Preacher series.

Clearly, times were changing, and Vertigo was adapting on the fly in order to keep itself both relevant and, more crucially, economically viable.

So it came to pass that Scarab wound up in something of a tricky spot before its first issue even hit the presses — sure, it was  copyrighted to its creators and all, but it also took place within the confines of the DC universe proper (albeit at its more interesting, malleable,  and free-form fringes), and that just wasn’t the way things seemed to be headed for the Vertigo range as a whole. Also, Smith has related in at least one published interview that he learned many years later that no less than Karen Berger herself was, shall we politely say, less than enamored with his writing, so that probably didn’t help matters much ,either.

Still, at this early stage DC was more than willing to let the public be the judge of this quirky new project, and were planning on laying down some decent promotional muscle on its behalf in the form of posters distributed to comics shops, giving Smith a chance to plug his book in the “On The Ledge” column that ran in all Vertigo titles, etc. They weren’t pulling out all the stops, by any means, but they did want word to get out that this was a book that might have a certain amount of appeal beyond the typical “Vertigo demographic” (a group that, in fairness, they were still in the process of pinning down on a number of levels) and that it may, in fact, appeal to readers of standard superhero fare, as well. Heck, Golden Age nostalgists might even find something something here to like given the character’s purported “history.”

If it’s beginning to sound to you, dear reader,  like DC didn’t know exactly what they had on their hands here, much less what the heck to do with it or even who to target it towards, I’d say that you’re probably right. Editorial skullduggery had forced the hands of Scarab‘s creators to hastily rework what was intended to be a major overhaul of an existing character into something that probably wasn’t going to really “fit in” anywhere after the decision to undertake/dictate said reworking had been made. Maybe the die had already been cast and this was a dead concept walking the moment the DC suits said “this isn’t what we want to see done with ol’ Gold Dome at all, thanks very much.”

Still, they must have figured the proposal was at least good for something — just not for Dr. Fate. And John Smith was proving have a pretty fruitful imagination, at the very least. It probably was never going to amount to everything it could and maybe even should have been, but why not give these kids a heavily-truncated eight-issue run to see if they can prove the corporate decision-makers wrong?

It’s awfully tempting at this point, I grant you,  to assume that DC had already filed Scarab under the header of “over with before it begins,” but the simple fact that they were willing to still go ahead with it at all shows that they weren’t actively averse to seeing it succeed — they just weren’t counting on it. Sure, let’s not kid ourselves, the tough spot the book was in from (heck, even before) the outset is editorial’s  own damn fault for constantly meddling with/scaling back Smith and Eaton’s ideas, but still — something’s better than nothing, right? Or so we’re told, at any rate.

Next time we’ll take a look at the out-sized influence that one book in particular clearly had on Scarab, and then it’s time to — finally! — jump into our issue-by-issue autopsy of the series itself. Yeah, this introductory/stage-setting stuff has gone on a bit longer than I had anticipated, but still — a haphazard structure, as we’ll soon see, is very much in keeping with the Scarab tradition.

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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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