Bugged Out!:

Scarab Reconsidered 20 Years On, Part Twelve

So here’s my theory: sometime between submitting his final scripts for Scarab #5 and #6, John Smith got word — probably via editor Stuart Moore — that DC wouldn’t be going ahead with his project as a regular monthly series after the initial eight-issue “trial run” was over, and artists Scot Eaton and Mike Barreiro were duly informed of the bad news pretty shortly thereafter.

How else to explain the breakneck “idea dump” that kicks off the sixth issue? After a brief intro sequence showing the Enola Gay doing its dirty work on August 6th, 1945 — cue up the old OMD song right here — “Scream Over Hiroshima” quickly and gruesomely recaps some of the devastation unleashed by “Little Boy” before a somewhat clumsy segue into Louis Sendak’s dreamscape unleashes a veritable fire-sale of ideas for full-fledged Scarab stories that, sadly, would never come to pass. We learn that several months have gone by since Louis / Scarab’s foray into the fallen angel Colouris’ torture garden, and that in that time he’s come face to face with a television haunted by the 20th century in New York’s fabled Waldorf Astoria Hotel; a traveling sideshow called the Zoo of Shame,  run by one Mr. Chigley, who’s looking to break the spirits of innocent children;  a weird villain called the Phantom Barber, who was stuck bald by scarlet fever in his youth and now employs an army of tin-can automatons to scalp anybody with a full head of hair; a guy named Ernest Breedlove, apparently “the sexiest man alive,” who was raped to death by a deck of living tarot cards; something called the Electric Fetus Machine, a device tasked with, in Smith’s words, “stirring embryos across the world to revolution in the womb” ; and, perhaps most interestingly of all, a group of narcoleptic ventriloquists (get your head around that idea for a minute) who hire a famous male porn star with a highly unusual “drug” habit (apparently he’s into mainlining other people’s dreams) to do a private show for them that ends with the dummies turning on their owners and slaughtering them all.

So there’s about a solid years’ worth of story ideas, by my count, condensed down to about four pages. I’d say the writing was definitely on the wall at this point.

After that we finally find out what all that Hiroshima stuff at the start has to do with anything — a couple of former Soviet government operatives (a scientist and a military general, to be precise), now at loose ends, are seeking to restore the former “glory” of their empire by sabotaging the forthcoming US / Russia peace talks in Reykjavik, Iceland (in real life, Reagan did a perfectly fine job of torpedoing those discussions on his own several years earlier by not budging on his insane “Star Wars” idea) via the services of three psychokinetically-linked mutant brothers held captive in isolation tanks full of water. Nicknamed the Glory Boys, these brothers have the ability to unleash the psychic mass imprint of human suffering captured at the moment the A-bomb went off and pretty much royally fuck up whatever location they target this captured “scream” at.

Before going for Reykjavik, though, they’re going to give it a dry run over another city entirely — London. The plan goes off without a hitch, and Louis is interrupted from his ongoing search for his wife Eleanor’s spirit / soul / whatever within the ever-ephemeral “Net” by the physical and psychic disturbance to all levels of reality (and hyper-reality) that the scream’s re-awakening, if you will, generates.

Cue some interesting ruminations on the metaphysical nature of the atom bomb and all it represents that are culled not-too-terribly-indirectly from Dennis Stillings’ essay entitled “Mediations on the Atom And Time” from the pages of, once again, Adam Parfrey’s underground classic Apocalypse Culture, and next thing you know, Scarab has arrived in London way too late to prevent disaster and finds himself unable to do much beyond surveying the devastation. He makes a rather unusual acquaintance pretty soon after arriving, though, in the form of “confectioner and part-time spiritualist” Hilda Routledge, an old lady who was out doing a bit of shoplifting when the psychic imprint on the bomb hit, and duly informs our insectoid hero that she’s got a message for him from “the other side — it’s your wife, Mr. Sendak. She’s coming back.”

To be, of course, continued.

On the artistic front, Eaton and Barreiro seem able to, for the most part, keep pace fairly nicely with Smith’s admittedly slap-dash (not that he probably had much choice in the matter) clearing-house of concepts, and their depiction of the physical changes taking place around Eleanor (her ectoplasmic “blossoming” reaches a fever pitch in this story) is particularly noteworthy. Things still have the organic, even purposely “ugly,” look of previous issues, although that would soon change as they adopt a more purposeful standard super-hero look in the last couple of chapters, most likely in order to showcase their abilities for future assignments now that this well was apparently running dry. (For proof that they knew where things were headed, check out a post-it note attached to a calendar in Louis’ kitchen in this issue that reads “Eaton and Barreiro want to draw Action Comics.”) You can’t really fault them for any of this, of course, and I’d probably do much the same thing if I were in either gentleman’s shoes.

Still, even as conceptually dense as Scarab #6 ended up being, the fact is that it remains really nicely executed on all fronts, given the suddenly-more-confining editorial dictates within which it was forced to operate. You can almost picture Moore telling Smith “get all your ideas onto paper fast, because your number’s up,” and frankly, I’m still downright bummed out, all these years later, that we’ll never get to see the full versions of these stories Smith had ready to go. So tantalizingly strange are the “Cliff’s Notes” versions we’re given here.  Overall, one is left with the distinct impression that Scarab was a series cut short just as its creators were beginning to fire on all cylinders.

Next up we’ll see how Smith, Eaton, and Barreiro begin their wind-down in earnest, as this little two-parter reaches its highly ambiguous conclusion and the stage is set for an even more ambiguous wrap-up to the series as a whole. Hope, as always,  to see you then!

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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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