Bugged Out!:

Scarab Reconsidered 20 Years On, Part Sixteen

Honest, folks, after this, we’re all done here. I know, I know — Scarab the mini-series is done already, but let’s consider this something of a postscript to look at what ended happening with the character — and his creators — later, just for completeness’ sake.

It’s no secret that Scarab’s initial outing didn’t exactly take the comics world by storm — the general consensus is that it was a wild, but ultimately confusing, ride, and, as we’ve discussed earlier, DC editorial already lowered the boom on it before its eight-issue “trial run” was even over. In the letters column for issue number eight, editor Stuart Moore said that “there were no immediate plans” for the character, but that they’d never ignore “a few thousand letters” demanding his return. Evidently, those “few thousand” never came (I hope they at least got the “few” part, though), and Louis Sendak sat around in limbo until 1999.

Why 1999 for his resurrection? Well, that was the year that DC decided to give its original super-team, the Justice Society of America, another go, in a new book simply titled JSA (guess they were taking a page from the KFC marketing department). Like previous incarnations of the series, most notably those penned by Roy Thomas, this was a fairly continuity-obsessed affair, and the creative team of writers James Robinson and David S. Goyer (of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Man Of Steel fame), penciler Stephen Sadowski, and inker Michael Bair decided that one of the first orders of business to wrap up was explaining exactly how there could be a Golden Age super-hero that none of his contemporaries remembered.  This subplot runs through the first four issues of the series, but takes a back seat to the main storyline focused on the search for a baby who is destined to become the new Dr. Fate, but it’s kinda neat to see the character arcs of Scarab and Dr. Fate meeting for the first time given that so many of the concepts and characters introduced in the Scarab mini-series were initially meant to be in the revamped (but ultimately shelved) Dr. Fate monthly book.

After somewhat clumsily shoe-horning Scarab back into regular DC continuity (a move which co-creator John Smith, who held initial copyrights to the character along with artist Scot Eaton, says was achieved by means of a simple phone call informing him that since the character was never used again, his copyright ownership, per contract, reverted back to the publisher), he sat around for a couple of years again until, in 2001, Goyer (who was still on board JSA as a co-writer and must have had at least some level of fondness for the character being that he brought him back twice and Robinson was no longer working with him at this point, having been replaced by Geoff Johns  — Sadowski and Bair were still handling art duties, though) took him out of mothballs again for the five-part “Injustice Be Done!” storyline.

It has to be said that poor Louis doesn’t fare so well this time around, though, only surviving until the story’s third installment, whereupon he’s finally killed off for good by the villainous duo of Johnny Sorrow and the King of Tears. As a matter of fact, Louis and Eleanor’s house makes more appearances in this story than does Scarab himself, who pops up only in issues  16 and 18 (the latter of which sees his demise), while his trippy abode (no further mention of the Labyrinth of Doors by that name specifically, but the Sendak home is still  shown as being a reality-bending setting)  serves as the main scene of action for the entire arc.

As you’ll see in some of the images presented below, Scarab is drawn in a much more conventional “super-heroic” style in his JSA appearances, and you can forget all the bestiality, sexual surgery, minotaur shit, and all-night orgies that featured in his self-titled mini-series, as well — this is a code-approved Scarab we’re talking about now, after all.

Since that fateful final outing, though, it’s been all quiet on the Louis Sendak front at DC. No further attempts to resurrect or re-boot the character have ever come to pass, and he hasn’t warranted even so much as a cursory mention in the re-vamped “New 52” universe  — which is probably just as well given what’s been done to every other character, although,  is it just me, or wouldn’t  he be a natural fit in the pages of Justice League Dark (at least if he were handled correctly — which, I admit, is an awfully big “if,” especially when it comes to “New 52” crap)?

All in all, then, it’s probably safe to say that, unless something drastic happens, we’ve seen the last of Scarab in the funnybook pages. His second outing was certainly none too auspicious, and he was treated as little more than a loose end to be tied up (permanently speaking, as it turns out), but what the heck?  We’ve still got those eight issues of his Vertigo series to continuously puzzle over and marvel at in equal measure.

I say “puzzle over” because “what could have been” remains such a big question as far as Scarab is concerned — what could have been had the series continued, what could have been if Smith’s ideas had been utilized in the pages of Dr. Fate rather than being “re-purposed” into a messy new concept — and I say “marvel over” because, when you think about it, there’s just no way DC/Vertigo would ever publish anything as “out there” as Scarab today, much less set its actions within the continuity of the DCU “proper.” Things are too tightly controlled now, too uniform, too editorially-coordinated. It just plain could never happen — and given its wonderfully unpleasant subject matter and its author’s obvious obsessions, it’s a wonder it even happened back in Vertigo’s more experimental, “baby steps” phase.  There were a number of better books than Scarab that come out under the Vertigo banner during those halcyon days, to be sure, but none as purely experimental for their own sake. That alone is enough to earn it some serious points in my book.

Maybe, then, at the end of the day, Scarab is more noteworthy for what it represented rather than for what it actually was — a representation in microcosm of a time when one of the “Big Two” major comics publishers was willing to give a pretty fair amount of leeway to young, untested creators and see what they could come up with. In the popular vernacular, they were willing to throw a lot of shit at the wall and see what would stick.  And we could sorely use a fresh injection of that mindset at DC and Marvel today, could we not?

As for what ultimately became of its creators, we’ve covered that in pretty solid detail in Smith’s case previously: he remains a fixture on the British comics scene, but his later attempts to gain footing with American publishers never really gathered much steam. He’d pop up from time to time in the weirdest places — doing a fill-in issue on one of Marvel’s numerous X-Men books in the mid-‘90s, briefly taking over Harris Comics’ Vampirella (a four-issue stint that the author himself refers to as “shite”), but by and large he’s found something of a permanent home back where he started, in the pages of 2000 A.D. His most famous creation is probably venerable muscle-bound gay vampire hunter/exorcist Devlin Waugh, but he’s had some very popular runs on the main Judge Dredd strip as well as original projects like the critically-acclaimed Cradlegrave and the previously-discussed-at-length Indigo Prime, which is back running at full steam at this very moment with a new story entitled “Perfect Day.” His career has been noteworthy for long periods of silence — Smith has put this down in an interview to an admittedly hopeless case of flat-out laziness on his part — but one way or another, just when you think you’ve heard the last from him, he’s back. And thank whatever god you believe in for that, because, despite his propensity for re-using his own storylines and cribbing entire lines of dialogue from previous works, he remains one of the most provocative, challenging, frustrating (in a good way), and imaginative writers in the business.  Long may his work continue to see print.

As far as Scarab’s artists go , both Scot Eaton and Mike Barreiro have continued to find a steady stream of freelance work from American comics publishers — Barreiro’s name doesn’t appear on the covers of books nearly as frequently as it used to, but he still pops up from time to time and he enjoyed  several runs as the regular inker on numerous titles, mostly from DC, while Eaton continues to get steady work there, most recently penciling the crossover “event” mini-series Forever Evil: Arkham War.

For my part, I remain hopelessly intrigued by Scarab and find myself going back to it every year or so, and figure that will probably always be the case. Like so many other ultimately inexplicable works in countless mediums like film and literature, I love it not despite its flaws, but largely because of them. So much of why it ended up in the shape it ultimately did was beyond its creators’ control, and hypothetically piecing together where they wanted to go with it if given half a chance is part of the fun of re-reading this series. Smith has stated this his longer-terms plans involved having the Scarab “costume” assume a life of its own and sneak out at night raping and impregnating women in order to produce offspring (sounds like a sexually sadistic take on Marvel’s Venom character to me), and whatever else he had cooking in his head was probably equally unpleasant, but it probably would have made for a fascinating (if nausea-inducing) read, and damnit — we need artists like that;  folks who are willing to leave “good taste” and “audience identification” in the dust and force us to face uncomfortable truths about this messy little reality we inhabit. I enjoy a big-budget Spielberg blockbuster as much as the next person, but ultimately the work of renegade filmmakers who don’t give a shit about offending our delicate sensibilities like Ruggero Deodato or Lucio Fulci is always going to be more rewarding, regardless of its difficulty, is it not?

And with that, it appears we’re finally done here. You can all take a deep breath now. For those who’ve stuck with this series of articles over the past few (or whatever) months now, even if you’ve just skimmed the thing, I offer my humblest thanks — I’m finding the chance to go “in-depth” here at Sequart to be a fun one , and while I’ll probably never have the patience or inclination to undertake anything like, say, Colin Smith’s continuing engrossing and amazingly detailed examination of the career or Mark Millar (and not just because I don’t like Millar’s writing; I’m just not wired — or smart enough, take your pick — for that kind of an immersive project), I do think looking at a series with a limited shelf life in sometimes-agonizing detail is kind of fun, so look, if you’re so inclined, for yours truly to be returning to these parts fairly soon with another critical breakdown of a long-standing favorite of mine — Jack Kirby’s woefully under-appreciated and hopelessly misunderstood 1974 classic. OMAC. Hope to see you there!

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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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