« I, I know this place. I’ve been here when I’m wasted. » « Sure, and a man who drives his car off a cliff knows what it’s like to fly. » « He does if he’s headed DOWN. » — Squalor and Todd debate the nature of reality
Compared to his 1970s, the ensuing decade was surely no picnic for Tom Sutton (1937-2002). After producing a massive body of work for Warren, Skywald, Marvel, Charlton and DC by the late Seventies, the mid-1980s found Sutton trudging through a long run (« It lasted hundreds of years. ») of abysmal Star Trek comics to put food on the table. This was the movie franchise Star Trek, with Bill Shatner’s permed hairpiece and those atrocious red velour outfits. Worst of all, inker/saboteur Ricardo Villagrán dogged his every move, casually pulling a Colletta on him*.
Oh, Sutton did work for other publishers in the 80’s, mainly the once-promising upstart First (1983-91), but the rote fantasy of The Black Flame and the hollow tough-guy posturing of Grimjack (coming soon to a screen near you, apparently) didn’t offer much of substance as alternatives to the Big Two’s sludge.
Still, First merits full credit for green-lighting the last great Sutton project, Squalor (1989-90). It was part of a line called First Fiction**, which looked like an eleventh-hour push to get into mainstream bookstores without quite committing to the graphic novel format and its price tag. Cardboard covers, full colour, slick paper; certainly more durable than the average comics pamphlet. Let’s take a look, shall we?
So yes, we have an accomplished illustrator on board… but do we have a proper story to hang the visuals upon? What do you know, we do! In a freakish bit of convergence, a newcomer to comics, Stefan Petrucha, then a freelance technical writer, happened along with a fully fleshed-out, unconventional concept, one ideally suited to Sutton’s strengths. And then someone fished it out of the slush pile.
So what’s Squalor about? It’s a bitch to summarize, but it involves alternate time streams, the oft-elusive nature of genius, conspiracy theories, synchronicity, archetypes, and the road map of reality. Fair enough? I surmise that we have Mr. Petrucha’s experience as a technical writer to thank for his capacity to hold his magic bus to the right side of the road through to the end of the journey.
Petrucha wrote, in Squalor no. 4‘s concluding notes: « Personally, I would love to write more Squalor. In fact, I have a few document files chock full of plot ideas. We’ve seen quirks, glitches, and an archetype up close, but what about paradigms, totems, and babblers? I’d also like to write a graphic novel about Todd Penderwhistle’s coat. Maybe that’s why I’ve had so much trouble breaking into this business. »
While he did break into the business, he’s never again been afforded the chance to handle such a personal project. Squalor was Tom Sutton’s final such endeavour***, though I can’t help but think that he was more than a bit broken by his Star Trek stint.
In 2016, Squalor was at long last collected as a graphic novel by Caliber Press, to what I presume was general indifference. As for the original issues, one can still get copies online for less than the original cover price, which is a bargain and a golden opportunity, but rather bittersweet.
*From Gary Groth‘s definitive interview with Sutton (The Comics Journal no. 230, Feb. 2001) ): « No, I did not ink this thing. This was inked by a fellow who I was told inked in bed watching television. The enthusiasm of this man was evident. He was a pro. Oh, he was very slick. He was very, very good. It was exactly what the book didn’t need. What the book needed was Mœbius. Hear what I’m saying?
This will sound really dumb, but even after all of that crap I had gone through I went into this thing and I said, This is going to be fun. This is going to be creative work. I worked like hell on the thing. I penciled backgrounds you wouldn’t believe, with all the scopes and all of those things. I thought I was Wally Wood. I forgot that Wally inked his stuff himself. I had to leave it up to Ying Yang watching TV or something. They actually took your backgrounds out and erased them. I never realized it until I saw the fucking comic book and I said, I drew something there. A large something. A complex something. »
GROTH: « And this would have been for sheer expediency’s sake? »
SUTTON: « I suppose so. Because he knew he could get away with it. He knew something that I didn’t realize until later, that that book had a special job. And that job was to promote movies. » [ source… well worth your time! ]
**The other “volumes” of First Fiction were nothing special, to put it kindly.