Tuesday, 8 November 2016


John Smith, Scot Eaton & Mike Barreiro Scarab (1994)
This one apparently wasn't sufficiently popular for a collected edition, obliging me to rebuy the original eight-issue series of which I think I read two or maybe three at the time. It seemed interesting, but I was going seriously off the boil with comics in general, and then I missed an issue and I couldn't be bothered to hunt down the rest. My more recent purchase came in the mail padded out with other comics the seller had given up trying to flog, thus defining them as pulp in the true sense of the term. One of these comics was the not conspicuously collectible first issue of DC's Blackhawk by Martin Pasko and Rick Burchett, which I mention as it seems vaguely relevent to Scarab.

This Blackhawk was the 1989 revival of something which had been popular in the forties, a practice which DC had really been hammering into the ground for much of the eighties - lame golden age also-rans which had worked fine in their day but looked otherwise ridiculous in the era of Watchmen. Of course, Watchman had been the same basic reinvention of vintage superheroes, the key to which was the reinvention - doing something which hadn't been done before rather than just digging the reader in the ribs and asking who remembers Tootsie Rolls with a cheeky wink. Some titles took the latter route with cornball stories, big grins, and stars and stripes aplenty; but All-Star Squadron seemed retarded even to me - a developmentally stunted teenager who would happily read almost anything featuring a flying guy with a cape, so God knows how it must have read to the eight-year olds for whom it had presumably been written. There's probably a limit to how much nostalgia a child born in the seventies is likely to feel for Lawrence Welk, women in cloche hats, and prohibition. The eighties Blackhawk looked dull beyond my imagining even at the time, and sure enough...

It's the big patriotic grin like a single tooth filling the full width of the hero's mouth, jazz on the radio, and a version of that eternal war against the Nazis which can never quite decide whether it's ironic or not. The original Blackhawks were a freelance team of fighter pilots accompanied by Chop-Chop, an absurd conglomeration of racist stereotypes - a buck-toothed yellow monkey who speakee rike this. I find it really difficult to see how anyone could have been left with much of a post-coital glow by the thing unless they somehow popped their cherry whilst reading an issue, which seems unlikely on the face of it; and yet here it was again like a Two Ronnies sketch that had taken itself too seriously, corny tips of the hat to an imaginary audience of OAPs alternating with scenes of the revisionist Blackhawks reading their own comic exploits and finding themselves appalled at both the racism and the political naiveté. The whole endeavour screams look, maybe someone will buy it...

My point is that I don't know what the point was.

Scarab began life as a revised Dr. Fate, Dr. Fate being a mystical superhero of the forties of the kind characterised by amusingly portentous dialogue and adventures involving pyramids. More recently he turned up in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing in which capacity he was reasonably entertaining. John Smith's proposed narrative was full of shagging and even some bumming, which I guess DC comics saw as being at odds with whatever nostalgia might be tapped by the revival of yet another caped dude of yesteryear, so Smith switched the plates and came up with this.

Scarab is as intriguing as I remember, and better read in a single sitting than monthly instalments during which all momentum becomes bogged down with imagery. Smith was going, I presume, for a sort of atmospheric overload with vivid Burroughsian text scattered across the pages in something approaching stream of consciousness, using artwork to dilute the onslaught as much as illustrate it. The word count is high, and not all of it is to be taken as a literal reference to anything. At least some simply establishes mood, even the dialogue:

The screech of fingernails on a blackboard... skinny boys salivating over broken glass... love amongst the set squares and protractors...

For the sake of argument, you might call it John Smith doing a Doom Patrol, although he was always very much his own writer. The problem with Scarab, and I suspect why it never went further than these eight issues, is that with John Smith being very much his own writer, they really should
have just let him loose on Dr. Fate; because it reads as Dr. Fate with the serial numbers filed off, but we're stuck with a new and unfamiliar dude resembling H.R. Giger's idea of a superhero which is a lot more distracting than a warped version of something familiar would have been. The narrative seems almost at odds with its star, particularly when out of costume he's just another body builder with a mullet and not much in the way of personality beyond a love of justice 'n' shit. We're left with the impression that Smith felt the same way by the end, particularly when he throws in a couple of characters from his Indigo Prime strip in 2000AD, possibly as a means of keeping himself interested.

Scarab is potentially as rich as any novel I've read, but remains forever hamstrung by the creative identity crisis surrounding its main character, which is a great shame because I'm sure it could have been as big as Moore's Swamp Thing. Maybe with a bit more time, it would have found its stride.

1 comment:

  1. Been meaning to dig out my own copies for a reread for some time now. I remember enjoying it at the time, and disappointed that it didn't lead to John Smith doing more work for Vertigo. Still, america's loss was 2000AD's gain with the likes of Devlin Waugh and more Indigo Prime.