Thursday, 18 April 2013


Sometimes when you meet your heroes, it doesn't work out the way you imagined it. I remember standing out in the rain on a dreary Montreal afternoon waiting to get my book signed by William Gibson, a writer I had huge admiration for, then not being able to say a single word to him when the moment of truth finally arrived. When I got a chance to meet George Romero at a convention in Toronto a few years back, I made a point of telling him how he was a hero of mine -- a title he humbly refused to accept -- because I had never forgotten that disappointing day in the rain so long ago.

Other times, your heroes pretty much seem exactly like you'd imagined them. In the case of Mike Grell, when I had a chance to meet him at the Motor City Comic Con, he turned out to be a larger-than-life figure as exciting and charming as any of the comic book characters he wrote and drew.

I first ran into Mike Grell's work in the 1970's, when he was probably best known for doing Legion of Super-Heroes. I found his stuff in an issue of Secret Origins, where he had done a re-telling of the origin of Green Arrow. (GA was always a favourite character of mine, and this was probably the beginning of that love affair. The story stuck with me, even though I was so young when I got the comic that I mostly used it to draw on with a big red marker I found somewhere. You can imagine how happy it makes me to have a surprisingly good TV series about him on the air right now, even if they seem embarrassed by the character's name for some reason. But I digress...)

Grell was one of the many comic book creators who decided to try their hands at creating their own new characters under the aegis of First Comics, in the early 1980s. I have written about many of the other great First books here, including American Flagg!, Grimjack, and The Badger. Mike happened to write and draw the one that is still my favourite First book, after all these years, and probably my favourite comic book period. That is no small feat, because as anyone who's helped me move can tell you, I have a lot of comics squirreled away in my basement. A lot.

Cover to first issue.
The book was called Jon Sable Freelance. It featured the adventures of a dashing but troubled mercenary named Jon Sable. Although Sable went into action wearing a "battlemask" of black combat paint on his face, he was no super hero. By turns, Sable owed the tenor of his stories to characters like James Bond, Mike Hammer, and the heroes of jungle adventure serials. Like John Gaunt, Sable was a "Jack" of all trades -- in his time, he had been a soldier in Vietnam, an Olympic pentathlete, a big game hunter, a mercenary in Rhodesia, and finally a famous soldier of fortune paid to go on adventures around the globe.

But here comes the twist. Sable, like many comic book heroes, leads a secret double life. In his case, his public persona is the globetrotting adventurer with the flamboyant battlemask and the custom Mauser. His secret identity is as the author of a series of children's books about leprechauns living in New York City's Central Park. Before embarking on a life of adventure, Sable wrote and tried to sell his autobiography -- he failed, but one publisher, Eden Kendell, liked the section of the book where he recounted the stories he used to tell his children. Sable agreed to publish them under a pseudonym, then found himself trapped -- the books were making him too much money to quit. So the fierce mercenary must occasionally don a blonde wig and fake moustache to hit the talk show circuit as kiddie writer B.B. Flemm.

If Sable was most other comics, it would end there -- with an action-packed central character and occasional comedy interludes. Where JSF was ahead of every other book on the shelves at the time, and most books since, is in the development of realistic characters with depth and complexity.

Sable has an early encounter with Flemm's artistic partner, a tall, self-possessed woman named Myke Blackmon who's dissatisfied with the arms-length working relationship she has with the author. Soon enough, she discovers Sable's dual identity, and they feel a spark. Myke doesn't understand how a man who can tell such warm children's stories can lead such a violent life, though, and a conversation with Eden leads her to the manuscript for Sable's autobiography -- and the tragic story of his family's murder.

Myke knows that Sable is a dangerous, self-destructive character to get involved with, but despite her best intentions, she finds herself drawn to him. And this doesn't happen quickly, but over the course of two years of stories. In the meantime, Sable jumps into the sack with any number of "Bond Girl"-esque supporting characters, but remains haunted by the loss of his wife and children. When he and Myke are finally drawn together, there is a real question whether together they can heal the deep wounds inside Jon Sable -- or whether he will take her down with him when he finally manages to destroy himself.

In the late 1980s, Grell left Jon Sable to return to DC Comics, where he revived Green Arrow in a beautiful painted volume called The Longbow Hunters. Although he didn't draw the interiors for the GA monthly that followed, which was aimed for adult readers (like Sable), Mike handled the writing duties. For those of us who missed him on Sable (a handful of not-even-close writers and artists tried to follow him and failed) there was a nice nod to the character in an early storyline. GA meets and fails to save a suicidal mercenary who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jon Moses Sable. Perhaps that was a shot at First Comics, who are by now infamous for burning their bridges with all of the talents who built their company, and perhaps it was Grell expressing his dismay at the Sable television series.

Yes, dear readers, there was briefly a Sable TV series that was produced by uberfan Gene Simmons -- who was in fact originally supposed to play the title character himself. The series managed to screw up pretty much everything that made the character memorable and unique, and it's best that it faded away. If you're really, truly perversely interested, you can dig up the pilot on YouTube.

The good news is that that wasn't the end of Jon Sable Freelance after all. Like Grimjack and Nexus, Sable was rescued from First's ownership and now Mike Grell has done several new series with the character. First, Mike tried his hand at writing a novel that retold the origin of Jon Sable for a new generation of readers. Then he produced a new comic version of the origin story called Bloodtrail. He has since followed up with Ashes of Eden, a full-throttle return to the glory days of Sable featuring his occasional partner in crime Maggie The Cat.

The original Jon Sable Freelance stories are in print again, in handsome new omnibus editions from IDW. Check 'em out.

Footnote: When I got to speak to Mike in person at the Motor City Comic Con, I asked him of all the projects he'd worked on over the years of his comic career, which was his favourite? The Green Arrow / Jon Sable fan in me was ultimately disappointed in his answer. His favourite job was his time drawing the Tarzan daily comic strip, back in the day when newspapers offered such things. Although it wasn't the answer my heart was hoping for, looking back on it now, I can see how that early, formative job put Mike on the path to Jon Sable.

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