Bugged Out! Scarab Reconsidered 20 Years On, Part Fifteen

All good things, as they say, must come to an end. As must all bad things, and all mediocre things… and all truncated, confused, ambitious, intriguing, but ultimately, hopeless things.  And so it was that John Smith, Scot Eaton, and Mike Barreiro were forced to put a wrap on Scarab with its eighth issue, cover-dated June, 1994. Going out quietly was out of the question, of course — too many ideas were still bristling from each and every panel of this gloriously warped, post-psychedelic mess for that to even be a possibility. And something approximating a “clean” resolution was probably equally unlikely given that whatever “road map” Smith had for the series was long since out the window. In a very real sense, then, what we are left with here is a book that doesn’t “end” or “conclude” so much as it just plain stops. And before we do the same, let’s take a look at how that “stoppage” was achieved, shall we?

Scarab number eight, a story entitled “What The Rabbit Saw,” opens with a very curious splash page — a white rabbit and  a discarded gas mask sitting amidst a pool of blood (with an uncharacteristically large “Eaton N’ Barreiro” artistic self-credit in the lower right-hand corner). The rabbit and gas mask are both the property of one Bobby Dazzler, agent for the Indigo Prime stand-in organization Cosmic Coincidence Control Center, and the implication, of course, is that Mr. Dazzler is dead.

Which he is. But how his life ended, and what the proverbial rabbit saw, remain — in true John Smith fashion — obliquely addressed, to put things mildly. When the skies over Reykjavik, Iceland opened at the end of issue seven and Dazzler and his counterpart, Benedict Creed (whose character design owes at least something to the appearance of Robert DeNiro’s Louis Cypher from Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart) it turns out that they, and the rabbit, and the accompanying army of blue seahorses that follow in their wake, were only precursors to yet another rending asunder of the heavens overhead — but more on that in a moment.

First off we’re treated to Scarab’s last great bit of info-dump exposition, as Mr. Creed explains to a confused Louis/Scarab that he and his partner have been brought out of state of the state of stasis they were “enjoying” within something called “The Gyre” in order to straighten out the mess caused by the “uncorking,” if you will, of the psychic scream from Hiroshima. Scarab first feels as though their arrival must be, in his words, “some kind of joke,” but it turns out the CCCC is a deadly serious enterprise, tasked with, as Creed puts it, safeguarding “the integrity of the world-mind.” Scarab feels as if they’re somehow familiar to him — or at least should be (a major hint for later), but it’s hard to see how that would be the case, given that they’re not even human beings at all, but “para-reality constructs — 12-dimesional mathematical intelligences unfolded into linear space/time,’ also known, among some, as “agnostic angels of the quantum mesh.”

I know, I know — you don’t meet many of those every day, but the CCCC backstory is cut short when one of their blue seahorses intones that an “indigo alert” (how’s that for obvious?) is now in effect, that second ripping-open-of-the-sky we alluded to gets underway, and Louis instinctively knows that his long-comatose wife, Eleanor, is back.

He then proceeds to tear ass back to Long Island from Iceland , rip open the entrance to the Labyrinth of Doors, find a tendril-laden, semi-crystalline series of yellow-ish orbs growing out of his wife’s body, and then does what, I suppose, anyone else would do under the circumstances — spends the rest of the issue (and,  by extension, the rest of the series) having sex with her/it/whatever. Apparently, not only does true love see beyond gender, it also sees beyond shape, physical possibility, and maybe even beyond species, because there’s just no telling what Eleanor even is by this point, but what the heck — it’s nice to see this long-delayed reunion finally take place.

Tell ya what, though, it’s not without repercussions — the impregnated women of Whitehaven, North Carolina all go into labor at the moment of Elaenor’s return/re-emergence, Hilda Rutledge pukes blood, Sidney Sometimes’ teeth begin to hatch — well, something — and besides referring back to all our since-dismissed supporting players, Smith and Eaton also treat us to scenes like great auks over-running Reykjavik and owl-like creatures called the Companions Of Fear “sounding out the hours in the war against sleep.” All in all, then, it’s fair to say the party’s on.

Bobby and Benedict are more than just a bit worried, though, and decide to check in on the happy couple by the handiest means possible — “seeing” what they’re up to through the rabbit’s eyes. Dazzler appears to have some sort of psychic connection with his pet, and when the rabbit gets a good look at Louis and Eleanor’s multi-dimensional love-making, it snaps his owner’s mind before tearing his body apart. Seeing a guy kiss hundreds of tentacles with full, red lips at the end of them will do that to you, I guess. Smith indulges in one more deliciously purple round of OTT prose as he attempts to describe sex on the astral plane (“Some love is iron, some is rust, but the purest love of all is lust”), but it’s pretty clear we’re in wrap-up mode at this point. He teases us with a few scenarios in alternate realities where Louis and Eleanor’s building mutual orgasm is having an effect (one reality, for instance, begins undertaking a “mass holocaust of human fetuses” while another sees the Tropic of Cancer turn malignant), and then winds things down by having Benedict Creed unleash the seahorses (which are, in actuality, reality-fixing drones) on the world to patch up the Scream’s damage before escorting his deceased colleague’s body back to The Gyre — which just so happens to be located behind the Labyrinth of Doors. A-ha! So that’s how Scarab “knew” these guys!

As they dissolve away into nothingness, Eleanor feels a bit of a twitch, but Louis assures her it’s “probably nothing.” Thanks ever so much for the help, I guess.  Eleanor then assumes a more humanoid (but appropriately cosmic) form, and then it’s time for another round of fucking to close things out, with Smith telling us that “sex is an energy. A soft bomb going off in my soul. Doors slamming like a military salute. And the Labyrinth grinds to life around us, humming and clacking like a busy prayer wheel, spinning our lust into the web of the world — tomorrow, it could be another place.”

A suitably ambiguous line to end an almost frustratingly-ambiguous series. Plot lines are left dangling all over. Meanings are barely hinted at. Characters are suspended in limbo. And just precisely what was gained by all this remains for each reader to decide. It was a wild ride, to be sure — hopelessly uneven, obviously misshapen, heavy with borrowed concepts (some self-borrowed from the author’s other works), but crackling with a kind of creative intensity and energy that just can’t be faked. Smith showed more concern with throwing out a steady stream of concepts than he did with concise, or even sensible, plotting, to be sure, and he never really gave much of a damn about capping off any of his heavily-built-up “confrontations” with anything like satisfying conclusions, but on the whole I remained impressed with his youthful rebelliousness, willingness to not just push, but flat out rupture, the envelope, and his refusal to constrain his imagination in anything like a “safe” or “reader-friendly” formula. Scarab seems to have a “here it is — take it or leave it, assholes” authorial viewpoint right from the start, and I’ve always found that to be every bit as exciting as it is necessarily haphazard.

Sure, the whole thing could have been “better,” in a traditional sense, but could it have been any more far-out and weird? Methinks not, friends, methinks not.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself because, believe it or not, even though Scarab is over, our series here isn’t — I’ve got one more installment up my sleeve wherein we’ll give a more detailed critical look at exactly what the fuck it was all about before taking a quick glance at how the character fared in his (admittedly brief) return some years later in the pages of JSA. So join us here again sometime in the next couple of weeks as we finally turn out the lights on this lengthy shindig. Hope 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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