Finally! Time to get down to the nitty-gritty! We’ve spent the first six parts of this series setting the stage as thoroughly as, I like to fancy, is humanly possible given the vagaries of time and the understandably jumbled recollections from the principals involved, so without any further ado, let’s jump right in and take a look at Scarab #1, cover-dated November 1993, shall we?
Right off the bat, the first thing one notices (after spending a few minutes taking in Glenn Fabry’s really cool metallic-silver-ink-embossed cover, that is) about this book is the often-contradictory relationship that exists between its prose and images. The first scene is a downright ugly piece of business, with a mystical assassin called the Sicari ripping an old homeless woman to shreds from the inside out in the early morning hours underneath an abandoned seaside pier. Artists Scot Eaton and Mike Barreiro do a fine job expressing the innate horror of the situation, but it’s writer John Smith’s downright lavish and verbose descriptions of the unfolding brutality that really set the tone for the dualistic nature of everything to follow.
I’m guessing that this issue was written with the understanding that it was to be the first part in an ongoing monthly, because Smith goes out of his way to impart everything with melodramatic gravitas— after all, the issue begins and ends with the lines “Today the world will change,” and “Nothing will ever be the same again,” respectively, and that’s pretty grandiose stuff for a mere eight-part mini-series.
It sure as shit makes for some fun, if overwrought, reading, though — as do lines like “Everything is charged with a fabulous significance,” “He can feel her breathing now, hands ’round her lungs, cupping them like breasts,” “Leafing through her head like a book,” and ” The tiger menace of things to be is red in the sky.”
Man, if I wrote this stuff, I’d be blushing — and all this before we even get to the credits page of the story in question, “All Roads Lead To The Minotaur” (Smith had used this previously as a chapter title in New Statesmen), on page three. Not since Alan Moore compared house plants to “infirm boy-kings” back in Saga Of The Swamp Thing #21 had a new (to American audiences, at any rate) comics author hit the ground running with prose this deliriously purple, and while by all rights it ought to elicit a few groans from today’s more purportedly “sophisticated” audiences, the fact is that it just plain works. Smith and Eaton compel the reader into the world they’re creating by dint of sheer, over-powering, clobber-you-over-the-head force. Subtlety is neat and all that, but sometimes, friends, I much prefer this kind of agonizingly direct approach, don’t you?
And then we’re in Staten Island, with 76-year old Luis Sendak sipping iced tea on his front porch on a hot summer day, reminiscing about his past. He’s seen some serious shit, Louis has, no mistake — beginning when he was 10 years old and his father brought home a mysterious green door (don’t worry, you’re not the only one who caught the Marilyn Chambers reference there — Smith himself elaborates on the connection in a later issue) and hammered it into place in the spare bedroom of their family home, where Louis still resides to this day.
Old Man Sendak would apparently disappear behind the door for weeks, even months, at a time, and always come back with some exotic trinket or other from a faraway land or unknown dimension that he’d lock away for safekeeping in a trunk while mysterious voices whispered tantalizing gibberish to him from the other side of the mystical gateway to parts unexplored. One of them, a beetle-shaped, buzzing, quasi-organic amulet called the Scarabaeus, would change Louis’ life forever some 17 years later, when his dreams lead him to it and it literally hatches open and envelops his body in a kind of pulsating, throbbing, super-powered exo-skeleton (complete with hood and cloak).
The door giveth and the door taketh away, though. Like the time Louis and his wife, Eleanor, were arguing about trying to have a baby in 1944 — it opened up, sucked her in, and never let her back out.
I don’t know about you, but spending decades wandering through rooms full of discarded typewriters, TVs tuned to dead channels, plague rats, strawberries and cream, etc. would probably grate on my nerves after awhile, but Eleanor seems to be taking things pretty well — in fact, she hasn’t even aged a day.
If her life was weird before, though, that ain’t squat compared to what’s about to happen. The Sicari’s got a plan, you see — he clawed a blind third eye out of that unfortunate vagrant’s head, boiled it in oil, and it’s giving him telekinetic instructions on how to reach the doorway to Alamut, the after-life paradise promised to members of the original mystical brotherhood of assassins led by Hassan -I-Sabbah (this is spelled out only obliquely in the text, so keep those copies of Apocalypse Culture I told you to get handy and turn to Tim O’Neil’s essay “A History Of Vengeance And Assassination In Secret Societies” — you’ll be glad you did). After a night spent inhaling hash fumes at a roadside inn called the Briar Rose Motel — the same one Abby and Matt Cable resided in during Moore’s Swamp Thing run, perhaps? — our intrepid, hungry-for-eternity super-powered killer makes his way to Staten Island on foot, side-stepping through time and space (yet somehow staying on the side of the road, don’ ask me how that works) as he goes.
Louis is still lost in the past, remembering brief fragments of some night in 1944 when, in the guise of his alter-ego, he was flying over the Loire Valley, a hand reached up out of the darkness — and suddenly he wasn’t Scarab anymore. Ever again. Eleanor, for her part, is still lost in the labyrinth of doors that exists behind “the” door. And then she sees a window in one of the walls there. For the first time since she’s been trapped. The times they are, apparently, a-changin’.
At which point the Sicari makes his move, showing up in Louis’ bedroom and , in Smith’s words, erupts “into buzzsaw flurries of growth, ripping the old man apart like paper.” It’s all so wonderfully grotesque, I assure you.
With our erstwhile hero apparently out of the way, the Sicari is free to enter the labyrinth (something Louis himself could never do despite years of trying), but he doesn’t find the paradise he was promised — he only finds Eleanor. And that pisses him off to no end.
Hurling her through a door, she tumbles into darkness until she finds herself, inexplicably, crashing inside the passenger cabin of a commercial airliner, her pursuer hot on her heels. But fear not — help is on the way! Sensing the distress its former host is enduring, the Scarabaeus re-activates for the first time in decades, engulfs Louis within it, and hey, whaddya know, Scarab is reborn, just in time to save his wife by tailing her onto the plane, punching his fist through the Sicari’s chest, whispering “you’re dead” to him, and subsequently transporting his unearthly (I think, at any rate) adversary to the outside of the aircraft, at which point he’s quickly ripped to shreds by one of its gigantic turbine engines.
All in a day’s work, I guess.
It’s been a day with decidedly mixed results, though, for as the issue ends, Louis/Scarab is seen clinging tightly to the form of his all-too-briefly returned wife — who appears, for all intents and purposes, to be dead.
Thematically, a couple of things stand out in the first issue of Scarab that would go on — by accident or design — to become mainstays in the series’ eight-issue run, chief among them being a sort of vagueness to the proceedings that’s equal parts intriguing and maddening. Scarab’s powers, for instance, are never really spelled out — at times he seems capable of just about anything, but for some reason he quite often resorts to plain old brute physical force. Likewise, the nature of the labyrinth of doors is never really explained, either, nor why its entrance should come to be in the possession of some family man from Staten Island. So you’ve gotta be willing to just go with the flow as far as some of this stuff is concerned.
An absurdly powerful nemesis that doesn’t end up amounting to much, confrontation-wise, is another staple of Scarab that pops up right here at the outset, as well — the Sicari makes a brash entrance, to put it mildly, and Smith spends a fair amount of time playing up the danger — both physical and metaphysical — that he represents, but in the end he’s dispatched with rather easily. His quest that ultimately amounts to nothing is another thing he has in common with future “villains” in the title, as well, so be on the lookout for more of that as we go along here.
Still, all in all I think most readers, whether new to this material or revisiting it, will find that Smith, Eaton, and Barreiro cut a pretty striking debut here, that’s immediately arresting both in spite, and partially because of, its admitted flaws.Smith, for his part, often seems to be trying a bit too hard, despite the fact that there’s very little laid out in explicit terms for the reader, and as the first issue draws to a close it’s fair to say that nothing but questions remain. That’s always made for an exhilarating reading experience in my book, though, and I hope you’ll be sufficiently persuaded to give this neglected gem a go (or another go, as the case may be) and find yourself coming to many of the same conclusions I have.
If so, then by all means, please join us back here in about two weeks or so as we take a look at Scarab #2, wherein Louis Sendak receives a visit from every comics fan’s favorite stranger —