Like you, I’m not quite sure what Glenn Fabry and Tony Luke’s cover for Scarab #5 is exactly supposed to be depicting other than some weird electricity coming out of our protagonist’s head, but it looks pretty goddamn cool, and sometimes that’s enough. Which isn’t too bad an analogy for the issue itself, come to think of it, so let’s dive right in and you can judge for yourself whether or not this final stand-alone story in the series was a metaphorical (and metaphysical) masterpiece, an exercise in strangeness for its own sake, or maybe a little bit of both.
We open with a guy we’ve never met before named Jeff walking down a seedy back alley in New York City. Jeff’s a balding, middle-aged divorcee who’s just chickened out of a suicide attempt (and you thought the men in the last two issues had no balls — sorry, topping yourself is really nothing to joke about, is it? Whoops, too late) and stumbles across an impromptu deluge of flowers , a “flash-flood of dogwood and apple blossom. Snapdragons and roses. Lilies and gentians and forget-me-nots” that functions, unbeknownst to him, as a gateway into another dimension, a tropical “Paradise Defiled,” as the story’s title puts it, run by a fallen angel named Colouris who , we are soon to discover, has grown fat, wise, and quite insane gorging himself on the fruit of the “one true tree. The primal tree. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil” — and he’s hatched quite a plan in his centuries of gluttony. He’s aiming, via the surgical arts, to transform some unlucky conscript into the spitting image of his former self, back when he still lived in heaven — but so far the results have been less than stellar, as the shambling, patchwork techno-biological monstrosities that our fat blue/purple “artist of the flesh” has surrounded himself with — not to mention the piles of skulls that litter the landscape of his garden — attest to. Still, he’s not a quitter, and maybe — just maybe — Jeff will prove to be his crowning achievement, once he’s under the knife.
So how does Scarab/Louis Sendak fit into all this, you rightly ask? Well, as it turns out, Jeff is the son of one Marcia Coogan, an old friend of Louis and Eleanor’s, and as Eleanor lays comatose in her room behind the Labyrinth Of Doors, with new bulbous appendages of unknown function blooming out of her nostrils, ears, and mouth, and Louis chills out in something called “the sweating room,” the phone rings. It’s Marcia. She’s got no one else to turn to. Will Louis please look for her missing boy?
Okay, obviously John Smith didn’t think this one out too thoroughly, given that Marcia would have no reason to think Louis is anything other than an infirm old-timer, but nevertheless, Scarab is soon flying over the streets of New York, looking to pick up some scent of Jeff. He finds the alley where he disappeared but, seeing no sign of him, gives up the half-assed search instanstly (some hero), and heads back home to fret about his wife some more.
Not to worry, though — Colouris’ minions will soon take the action to the Labyrinth itself and Scarab will find Jeff whether he’s really in the mood to do so or not. That’s because they’ve been sent out of the garden to find new, young, innocent flesh — namely babies — being that no adults have been able to withstand the rigors of angel-transformation surgery and hey, maybe the little ones will be more receptive to our villain-of-the-month’s medical ministrations.
Got those copies of Apocalypse Culture handy? Good. Now flip open to Tim O’Neill’s piece “Surgeons And Gluttons In The House Of Flesh,” about the occult and alchemical nature of surgical addiction, and give it a quick once-over to see where Smith cobbled together some of the core concepts for this issue, then we’ll rush headlong into our cool-but-confusing conclusion.
Okay, back (assuming you ever actually went anywhere)? Good. So Colouris’ deformed henchmen, The Liliot, quickly grow dissatisfied with the selection available in the various maternity wards of New York hospitals and, sensing the presence of something called “The Immaculum” (Eleanor, we’ve got to assume) nearby, make for Chez Sendak, invade the Labyrinth, and soon Scarab is chasing them back to their home base, where he’s quickly impaled with a tree branch (not that it seems to faze him much) before finally meeting our deranged, slovenly former angel, who informs him that the whole of the garden he’s constructed is tuned in to, responds to, and derives its strength from, pain. The more the poor saps who wander into this place suffer, the more things bloom and grow. Kinda neat, huh? Sick — but neat.
With “pain” being the key to everything, then, Scarab decides, for all his quasi-mystical ability, that the best way to defeat Colouris is to engage him in good old fashioned fisticuffs, and a few well-placed blows to his sizable gut later, big blue is puking out a bunch of — get this — keys.
Somehow Scarab seems to sense that one of these regurgitated keys is the one that will unlock — and undo — this whole abomination (and tis creator), and while he fumbles around in the mess, it’s left to none other than a newly (and, it’s gotta be said, grotesquely) deformed Jeff to offer up the blood-drenched “Enochian Key — the key to the garden and Colouris’ soul.” Scarab sticks the proffered key into his adversary’s forehead and “a lock snaps open — the garden strips Colouris bare. Closing in around us like an origami flower.” Which is all just a fancy way of saying that everything collapses , implodes, and finally leaves Scarab holding a dripping key in a room that’s completely empty save for a metronome ticking away on a table.
Yeah, don’t ask me how all that works, either. But it makes for an intriguing enough — if unfocused — read, and Scot Eaton and Mike Barreiro really pull out all the stops this issue in terms of presenting a landscape full of surgically-created freaks the likes of which David Cronenberg probably would have loved to feature in his earlier films back when he still burned with the fires of youthful creativity (not that his more recent work is bad, mind you, it’s just that he’s toned down his act so much in his later years and become so , well, respectable). So — if biological “body horror” is your thing, Scarab #5 has a lot to offer, provided you don’t mind figuring out a lot of the various angles that Smith is trying to play here for yourself. And, of course, we’re well used to non-resolutions by now, aren’t we?
At this point, narratively speaking, it’s still pretty difficult to discern exactly where generically-named John is going with his over-arcing themes here, and he’s certainly guilty of piling one rushed occult reference on top of another, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, is it? I take it more as a sign that we’ve got a writer here with a lot to say who’s beginning to realize he probably only has a short amount of time in which to say it, and I prefer an imagination that’s actively engaged in a kind of haphazard and scattershot overdrive to one that’s happy to rest on its laurels any day of the week.
Next time around things start to get — believe it or not — even weirder, when Smith begins the process of emptying out his vast storehouse of ideas in earnest as Scarab races headlong into its big three-part conclusion. Stay bucked in nice and tight, folks : for good and for ill, this ride’s about to get even bumpier.