Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the career of historically overlooked artist Trevor von Eeden is actually the project that he turned down: in the mid-80s, comics history was made when Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli retold the origin of DC’s Dark Knight in the four-issue Batman: Year One. Mazzuchelli, whom Miller had worked with on Marvel’s Daredevil to no small degree of success both commercially and critically, was in fact the second choice of Miller’s to illustrate the story. Von Eeden, it turns out, had been the one originally asked to work on it and turned the project down.
“I have no regrets,” von Eeden said in a 2012 interview; given the fact that the project propelled Mazzuchelli into the stratosphere in terms of popularity, that alone says everything about von Eeden’s dedication to his craft over everything else.
Those familiar with the artist can see exactly why Miller would have considered him in the first place. By the mid-80s, Trevor von Eeden was a rarity in mainstream comics. He’d been working professionally in the industry for about a decade by the time Year One was published, having gotten started on titles such as Black Lightning — which he co-created with writer Tony Isabella — and Power Man and Iron Fist, in addition to Green Arrow strips appearing in World’s Finest Comics,Detective Comics, and a four-issue eponymous miniseries. In other words, he was nothing short of a mainstay of superhero comics with a solid and dependable style that audiences appreciated.
And then Thriller came along. Co-created with writer Robert Loren Fleming, 1983’s Thriller was an action-adventure series that avoided super-heroics even as the skilled operatives of Angie Thriller — the “Seven Seconds,” as they were called — worked to save the world some fifty years in the future. Quasi-supernatural and decidedly off-kilter, Thriller was short-lived but unspeakably important for von Eeden, allowing him space and opportunity to experiment and create a new approach to his work that gave him a singular voice for arguably the first time in his career.
Taking inspiration from creators like Alex Toth, Jim Steranko, Joe Kubert, and even Frank Miller, Thriller is von Eeden in full swing, putting out artwork that’s at once bold and graphic and scratchy and intimate, with every line an expression of where he was at personally at the time. In a 2019 interview, he memorably referred to the run as containing “some of the very BEST, and the very WORST work of my career,” adding that it was “indeed a complete expression of myself… it’s just that the ‘self’ that I was back then wasn’t exactly a HAPPY one.” Such unhappiness for the artist wasn’t necessarily visible to the reader, though; instead, they were more likely to be blown away by some of the boldest, more powerful artwork published by DC since Kirby’s New Gods was in full flower.
Thriller fell apart frustratingly quickly; Fleming left the series with the seventh issue, von Eeden after the eighth. (The series staggered on until issue 12 with different creators, but the shock of the new was gone.) From there, von Eeden becomes frustratingly more sporadic — he’d show up in fill-in issues of books like Batman and the Outsiders, Green Lantern Corps or Vigilante, with each appearance disrupting the book’s visual aesthetic and feeling like a communication from another dimension.
He seemed to find a home in an early ‘90s attempt to turn Green Arrow’s sidekick Black Canary into a solo star, drawing all four issues of a 1991 miniseries, and ten of the 12 issues of the subsequent monthly series, his style again having undergone a metamorphosis as inkers tried to curb some of his impulses and he responded with an even more graphic approach. For those familiar with the work of fan-favorite Batman artist Norm Breyfogle, that creator offers a useful touchstone to understanding what von Eeden was attempting, but more boldly, if such a thing doesn’t seem difficult to imagine. Sadly, Black Canary, too, ended all-too-soon and he disappeared once again to the world of fill-in issues and unexpected appearances: Heavy Metal and X-Men Unlimited? Von Eeden could do it all, while also folding in some historical fiction and entries for DC’s non-fiction Big Book series, as well.
Today, von Eeden is still working, even if that work is unfortunately rarely seen. His creator-owned historical project The Original Johnson — a biography of Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxer in the world — was such a labor of love that, more than a decade after its publication by IDW, he’s talked about attempting to bring it back into print in such a way that meets his own expectations. While he appears to have fallen out of favor with DC, he’s talked in the past decade about being open to visiting some of Marvel’s best-known characters, with Thor, Spider-Man and Black Panther on his list. (A von Eeden Spider-Man could be amazing, no pun intended.)
It’s time, finally, for von Eeden to be appreciated for what he did, and what he still can do, as much as what he didn’t, and the projects that have fallen apart around him. He’s always been far more than the official history books would have fans believe.