The other day I was banging out a review for issue number two of Marvel’s new George Romero-scripted zombie series Empire Of The Dead and I remarked that second issues are kind of a tricky deal in comics: a good chunk (well over half, in many cases, these days) of your readership is already gone, and a fair number of the folks remaining are looking for any reason to jump ship, as well, and hang onto their hard-earned money. The problem is more pronounced in this day and age of exorbitant cover prices, but it was no less real back in 1993 and ’94, when the subject of our little ongoing post-mortem, Scarab, was a going concern. Sure, the cover price was only $1.95 as opposed to the $3.99 flat-out highway robbery of most books in 2014, but when you figure in things like inflation and the fact that this was a series featuring new characters being produced by creators who were hardly “A-listers,” it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the challenge for John Smith and Scot Eaton to retain their readership was every bit as real as the one most writers, artists, and publishers face today.
How, then, to best keep the fish on the hook? Well, a popular guest star is one trick that might work —
To Smith’s credit, the inclusion of the Phantom Stranger in Scarab #2 never feels forced or shoehorned, even if it may have been editorially dictated. The fact that he gets the Stranger’s characterization so perfectly from the outset probably plays a large part in this, but he’s also utilized in such a way as to actually drive the plot forward as well as fill in some of the blanks left over from this series’ breakneck opening installment, and those are the two things any good second issue needs to do (and just in case you’re wondering, Empire Of The Dead #2 only delivers on one half of that equation — the “fleshing out the fictional world established in the first segment” part — while failing to actually advance the overall narrative at all. But hey —that’s the last we’ll talk about that, I promise).
When we join the proceedings here (after gawking for some time at Glenn Fabry and Tony Luke’s way-cool cover, of course), we find that Louis Sendak/Scarab has whisked his now-comatose wife, Eleanor, back behind the Labyrinth of Doors in a desperate attempt to keep her alive. It seems to be working, but she’s hanging by a thread — or so it would appear. In truth, her mind/soul/take your pick is off having the psychedelic adventure of a lifetime in something called “The Net” — an extra-dimensional gestalt plane of existence (I think) that’s not entirely dissimilar to Swamp Thing‘s “The Green” and Animal Man‘s “The Red,” but without the plant-and animal-life focus, respectively, of either of those two hyper-realities.
In fact, “The Net” seem to have no focus at all, which makes it both more frustrating and intriguing to explore. Eaton pulls out the stops in his depiction of Eleanor’s mind/body/spirit whizzing through vistas populated by flying eyeballs, hideous mutations, ectoplasmic blobs, Gothic cathedrals, killer fish, walking skeletons, giant insects, freeway signs, and — well, whatever else he can think of, but how things work, or even if they work, much less what they’re doing there, are apparently concerns that Smith deems to prosaic to address, so at the end of the day all we’re left with is a sense that things are pretty weird in “The Net” just, ya know, because.
Which is cool and all, I suppose, but also kinda sketchy. Looking down the road, one of the most disappointing things about Scarab does, in fact, turn out to the that “The Net” and its mysterious nature are never expounded upon more fully, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves yet, okay? After all, we don’t even know why we’re confused yet — only that we are.
Getting back to the Stranger, he turns up unexpectedly (as is his custom, of course) in Louis’ backyard, butterflies landing on his finger, and immediately strikes a “hey, I’m here to help, but I can’t tell you much about it” tone, which makes for a very solid introduction. In short order, he takes Sendak on a trip down memory lane, showing him long-forgotten adventures from the “Golden Age” or super-heroes that see him battling such intriguing characters as Dr. Vortex and The Quote; Shabbez-Jekk, the thief who stole Manhattan’s shadow; the Loom of Despair in the basement under Auschwitz; and a poison glass apple on this distant planet of Tharn, among other presumably-colorful personages and situations. Scarab apparently made his living patrolling , in Smith’s words, “the borderlands between the real and the imaginary, between the physical and astral planes.” Why? Again, as the author himself states, he had “time on his hands” and was “looking for trouble.”
This reverie soon takes a somber turn, though, as Louis wonders to himself “How could I ever have taken it so seriously?,” before returning, once more, to his fragmented recollections of the violent incident that led him to give up adventuring for good. Again, as in the first issue, actual details are tantalizingly scarce, but we learnt that whatever it was, it left our hero bed-ridden for a full six months, and that it involved “broken bodies, blood and jackboots, women screaming” and “cooked flesh tangled in bedsprings.” There’s a swastika mixed into the visual milieu for good measure, and we’re left with some distinctly unpleasant possibilities to consider.
At that point, the flashback sequence ends, with memories that were, in the Phantom Strangers’s words, ”bright and vibrant, kingfisher-colored,” taking a decidedly dark turn.
And so back to the present, with the “two-bit Bela Lugosi impersonator,” as Luis refers to the Stranger, filling our geriatric leading man in on some of the details regarding exactly who the Sicari was and why he came after him (details that we got into last time around by way of explaining the influence of Adam Parfrey’s Apocalypse Culture on Smith’s scripts), and giving us readers further insight into the mythological underpinnings of the Scarabaeus amulet for good measure (if you must know — and, yeah, you must — it’s a representation of the Egyptian deity known as Khepri, a sacred dung beetle that pushes the disk of the sun up from the tunnel of Tuat every morning, thus establishing his role as the god of rebirth and renewal, a creative alter-ego of the great sun god, Ra, so we’ve got the full cycle of death and rebirth going on here).
The conversation goes south for good, though, when Louis asks if he can use his newly-reactivated amulet to bring his wife back from , he presumes, the dead. The Stranger informs “our man” that Eleanor is, in fact, “in a state of transition, neither alive nor dead, but in-between ” which is, intriguingly enough, “as all living beings aspire to be.” Louis doesn’t take this news well, and insists that he’s going to try to bring her back anyway, even though his ethereal guest warns him that “she may not want to be found.”
To make matters even more complicated, there are apparently bigger things at stake than the state of the Sendaks’ marriage : the Stranger drops oblique hints about “the pattern” of the universe’s “grand design” becoming “faint and threadbare,” and says that Scarab has re-emerged to play a part in setting all things right again; we’re also informed that, in keeping with the whole death and resurrection theme, the reawakening of the Scarabaeus could only happen at the twilight of it’s host’s life, when he was all too aware of the fleeting nature of his own mortality.
Louis’ response to this tidal wave of information, supposition, speculation, and mystical innuendo? Forget it, I’m gonna try to wake my wife up.Which is totally understandable, I suppose, given the situation. And yet —-
When the buzzing, thrumming Scarabaeus offers Louis, now on his own again having walked away from the Stranger, his deepest, most heartfelt wish, he chooses not to give his old lady a helpful nudge back into the land of the living, but to make himself young again.
And so he is. And our second issue closes with a jubilant, long-haired, twenty-something-all-over-again Louis Sendak transforming into his super-powered alter-ego of Scarab and taking joyously to the air, going “up to face the future.”
That future would turn out to be an undeniably surreal one, as we find out in our next segment, when the onrush of backstory finally subsides a bit and Scarab finds himself in a situation nobody (except, of course, John Smith, who cooked the whole ting up) could imagine. If you thought things were weird enough after two issues, trust me when I say you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!