The long, strange journey of Trevor Von Eeden

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Artist Trevor von Eeden has a secure place in comics history for a couple of reasons. First, he was one of the most distinct and powerful mainstream comics artists of the Bronze Age, with significant work on Black Lighning (which he co-created drew the first appearance of), Black Canary, and perhaps most memorably, the challenging, ahead of its time Thriller, written by Robert Loren Fleming. Much missed Beat contributor (and, oh yeah, Copra creator) Michel Fiffe has a lot of information on Von Eeden in a past Beat post and on his own site.

Von Eeden was also known as the “first black comics artist” at DC. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but Von Eeden mention it several times. He was also hired when he was a teenager, at age 16, to draw comics and while still a teen became the artist on the new book Black Lightning, written by Tony Isabella and the first African American superhero to have his own title.

A teenage, minority creator at a company where people skills weren’t always the greatest. What could possibly go wrong?

Von Eeden has a very very long interview with Ramon Gill where he talks about all the things that went wrong. Von Eeden has had a lot of personal difficulties in his life, many of which, I’m guessing weren’t caused by working in comics. But I’m also pretty sure that the burden of being a teenaged groundbreaker in an industry that didn’t have a lot of experience with these issues, didn’t help.

As in past interviews, Von Eeden mentions a “Chair prank” which greatly demoralized him.

Unfortunately, the folks at DC Comics chose to play a very mean-spirited and ill-advised “prank” on me, shortly after I’d started drawing the series [Thriller]—one with tremendous repercussions on my life and career. Newbie editor Alan Gold (who took over the editorial chores starting with issue #2) and I were summoned to a meeting to discuss the book (I forget whose office it was)—where there was only one chair available, for only one of us to sit. I refused three invitations to sit down, since there was no way I was going to sit, and have my editor stand around like an uninvited guest in a meeting that concerned us both. Alan then decided to break the ice, and after my third refusal, moved to sit in the chair himself. It collapsed completely to the floor, where he was left sitting flat on his ass, with all four legs of the chair splayed out around him. After a pause of about half a second, he laughed uproariously. However, I didn’t find that joke intended to be played out at my expense the least bit funny—as I said, I took my job very seriously—nor did I find funny the fact that the meeting mysteriously evaporated after that, with no explanation nor apology given about the strangely collapsing chair, and without a single thing about THRILLER being discussed.
I’d spoken to Alan a few years ago via email—and now in his ’70s, he said that he has no memory of what must’ve seemed to him a harmless office prank (although I’ve never, to this day, heard of any other such pranks being played on anyone else at DC Comics.) The effect of that incident on my consciousness, however, was considerably more severe, and long-lasting. The notion that such juvenile, mean-spirited treatment was actually intended for me—literally as my reward for the years of extremely difficult and dedicated effort to give my absolute best to the people who’d given me such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—continued to grow and ferment in my subconscious mind, from then on. The quality of my work—which was proportional to the enthusiasm and tremendous gratitude I’d felt at being given such a great chance to actually become an artist in the comics field—began to steadily diminish, with each succeeding day, week, and month spent at my board. I was completely bewildered at the inexplicable treatment that had been intended for me, and became more and more depressed at my complete frustration to even begin to understand what it was I’d done to deserve it.

Von Eeden is a figure of some controversy — his latest work is a graphic novel called The Original Johnson about boxing champion Jack Johnson. There’s a lot about that in the interview, a lot of about some current things that happened, some old history about other comics figures. I don’t offer this link as a suggestion that there is not another side to all of this. But being a pioneer requires a lot of discipline and focus, and not everyone can stand the scrutiny and justification for the behavior that called for the need for there to be a pioneer in the first place.

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Comments

  1. George says

    I keep telling people to read Thriller, and I always get a blank stare. Even people who consider themselves veteran fans don’t seem to have read it.

  2. Michael Grabois says

    I bought “Thriller” when it came out. I read it, then wondered what the hell I had just read. And then there was the writer change halfway through the series, which took a sharp turn into WTF-ville.

  3. MBunge says

    “I bought “Thriller” when it came out. I read it, then wondered what the hell I had just read.”

    DC’s history is full of books like that. Their history used to be of little editorial fiefdoms where all sorts of weird stuff could slip through, while Marvel tended to have more of a central authority keeping everything on model.

  4. George says

    The weirdness of “Thriller” is what made it interesting to me. But that weirdness guaranteed that the average DC superhero fan of the time would hate it. If you want clarity and explanations, avoid “Thriller.”

  5. George says

    ” … while Marvel tended to have more of a central authority keeping everything on model.”

    Marvel had its own weird phase: the years between 1972 and 1978. That is, between Stan Lee’s departure as editor-in-chief and Jim Shooter’s appointment to that position. It was “anything goes” at Marvel for most of the ’70s. Nobody was really supervising the books, so we got Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula, Killraven, Warlock and other strange stuff. It was a great time to be a comics reader.

  6. Allan Rosenberg says

    Trevor is one very talented, very special guy. I’m thrilled he continued through his difficulties in comics to continue to create some great comics like “The Original Johnson”.

  7. says

    Believe it or not, I’m doing a piece on Thriller for an upcoming issue of Back Issue magazine! Would love to hear your thoughts about, and especially history about it too.

  8. Jeremy Holstein says

    Thriller is a book that exploded out of the gate absolutely bursting with creative enthusiasm, only that have that enthusiasm taped back by editorial interference. But, man, those first four issues… I know Fleming had a long term plan with the book, and those early issues promise so much. A book well ahead of its time.

  9. Timothycat says

    A deluxe hardcover of Thriller has long been on my most wanted list.

  10. Dale Houston says

    I have always liked Mr. Von Eeden’s artwork – or at least from that Green Arrow mini on. Not sure if I saw his work before that.

    I really loved Thriller back in the day. Something that had a lot of promise that was taken away too soon. Might have been a game-changer if it had stuck around.

    Did any of the Thriller characters ever make another appearance – besides Scabbard in an issue or two of Ambush Bug?

  11. Michel Fiffe says

    Glad you posted Trevor’s recent mega-interview, Heidi. And thanks for the nod (my proposed Luke McDonnell retrospective sure took a weird turn, huh).

    I posted the “History of THRILLER” a while back, cameo by TCJ-era Heidi:

    http://michelfiffe.com/?p=756

    Looking forward to your Back Issue piece, Ed.

  12. Trevor Von Eeden says

    Actually, my current interview pales in comparison to the length of the one posted by First Comics last April:
    http://www.firstcomicsnews.com/?p=186817 in which I’d decided not to make the Berganza story public, nor any of DC Comics’ previous–and egregious– treatment of me, because I wanted it to be upbeat in tone. However, after being informed of The Creep Berganza’s ongoing, and current charges of sexual harrassment–for which he’d allegedly received “sensitivity training” in order to keep his job, while the female employees in question lost theirs–even before he’d done what he tried to do to me, I decided to speak out. A person like that should not be in a position to influence the young, impressionable minds that read comics, in any way!

    Btw, I officially am “DC Comics’ first black artist” and “co-creator of Black Lightning” –as I’d been told by the execs at DC Comics themselves. Either that, or I’ve been cashing royalty checks belonging to someone else. I’m also happy to report that the personal difficulties in my life have long since been whittled down to the absolute minimum. There’s really not much to complain about after having survived cancer.

  13. Trevor Von Eeden says

    P.S: Mr Ramon Gil’s surname has only one “l”… Check out The Hard Code I at http://www.scifies.com –and if you can, please contribute to the current Kickstarter campaign attempting to fund the production of The Hard Code III. Trust me–it’ll be worth it!

  14. says

    Another comment here in favour of Von Eeden’s artwork generally and the ambitious, groundbreaking brilliance that was ‘Thriller’.in particular.

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