This is the third part in my look back at the fantastic work of Mike Grell. The first two were written prior to the evolution of The Nexus from 411Mania Comics. Following pieces on Green Arrow and The Warlord, I’m pleased to inaugurate my NMM work at The Nexus with a look at one of the most dynamic comics ever, Jon Sable: Freelance!
In The Beginning
I didn’t get into Mike Grell’s work until the seminal Green Arrow and the Longbow Hunters in the later part of the 1980s. In fact, I missed Jon Sable: Freelance until a few years ago when I was able to put a run together cheaply. While The Warlord is my favorite Grell-work, and Green Arrow is amazing, Sable just may be the best overall. While it’s fantastic to put a sizable run together for almost nothing, it’s also kind of sad that such brilliant work is left to wither in the bargain bins.
Mike Grell told amazing, down-to-earth storylines that resonated with contemporary issues and relationships, yet always brimmed with action and excitement. Although Oliver Queen was the superhero Green Arrow, the stories that Grell told using that character were also wonderful in dealing with relationships and contemporary issues. As good as Arrow was, Sable boasts the writing and artistic talents of Mike Grell for almost the entire run. That’s a guaranteed A-Game at both ends, each and every month.
Jon Sable first appeared in 1983 in the First Comics series Jon Sable: Freelance, a series I also fondly call JSF. At first glance Jon Sable: Freelance is your typical action-adventure series about a merc that’s lost his family and is taking his frustrations out on the world. Prior to Jon Sable Mike Grell had proven himself a master-storyteller capable of spinning stories away from the normal comic cliches. Grell’s probably most famous for his creation of The Warlord or his mammoth run on Green Arrow, yet many people I know consider the work on Jon Sable: Freelance to be his finest. Whichever is your favorite, JSF clearly belied any attempt at pigeonholing, and rose far above the level that a series about a bounty hunter ever should have.
It’s simple really. Mike Grell is a master of characterization. There were enormous quantities of action in Jon Sable: Freelance, but the most memorable portions are the character-centric moments. Grell took enormous pains to realistically characterize the cast and make their actions and reactions, interesting and believable in the context of the storyline. There was always a clear narrative and even when using flashbacks, forward momentum for the character’s arcs was never sacrificed.
Who is Jon Sable?
Jon Sable was born to a French Resistance fighter and a WWII pilot in the final days of the war. His father had been shot down and he was conceived prior to his dad returning to his unit. Sable’s mother died when he was only six, but she was able to send Jon off to live with his father in the United States. Sable served in the U.S.A.F. (United States Air Force) during the Vietnam Conflict. He was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic Pentathlon team. He finished in fourth place, just missing a medal, but found true love.
Elise McKenna also competed in the ’72 Olympics, as a member of the Gymnastics team for Kenya. Neither Jon nor Elise medaled, but they quickly fell in love. They moved to Kenya, married, and had two children. Jon operated the successful Sable Safaris Unlimited and began helping out a local game warden, Hal Brooks, in the hopes of ending the poaching of ivory in the area.
A Storm Over Eden
During the course of battling the poachers, Sable put himself, unbeknownst, at odds with a white-haired, European with strong interest in the poaching trade. This white-haired man ordered the deaths of Sable’s family. Sable returned home to find his house in shambles and his wife and children dead.
Sable snapped following the brutal murders. For more than a year Sable disrupted the ivory trade in search of the white-haired man. Eventually they met atop a waterfall. Sable was victorious, but tortured by the fact that he didn’t learn the identity of the white-haired man before he plunged over the falls.
While this is Sable’s backstory, it’s not the absolute beginning of Jon Sable: Freelance. Grell began telling the tale in 1983 with Jon Sable firmly entrenched in a New York City apartment as one of the preeminent mercenaries in the world. Issues #1 serves as an introduction to Sable as he saves the life of the President of the United States whereas issue #2 deals with Sable’s alter-ego (more on that in a moment). Grell doesn’t make us wait long for answers. Issue #3-6 cover the intricate backstory of our hero. The brief delay in the origin works out well, the first two issues constituted a better introduction to Jon Sable then the origin would have.
While Sable doesn’t get the closure he would hope in these early stories, later in the run (issues 36-39) he returns to Africa to get the “real” answers behind the murder of his family. Grell proved his amazing ability by showing the emptiness of revenge. Sure Sable brought justice to the people responsible, but nothing would change the horrors that he already lived through or return his life to the happiness he lost. In effect he was a shell of the man he once was. Incapable of a normal existence, although he did try to be as normal as possible.
A Strange Duality
To add a sense of a fun to the turmoil-stricken character, Mike Grell added the alter-ego I mentioned before that of writer B.B. Flemm. A couple of years prior to the start of the series Sable sold the rights to a children’s story he’d written named “Wee the People.” It really wasn’t that simple. The stories actually were a part of book about Sable’s life that featured the “Wee the People” tales as part of the larger narrative. Eden Kendall, an independent book publisher, didn’t have interest in the book about Sable, but she was eventually able to convince him to write the children’s stories. These stories were about leprechauns that lived in Central Park. They were based on stories that his wife Elise had told their children.
Sable felt he would be a laughing stock if it got out that he was the writer of children’s books. Thus the strange duality of the series was born as Sable would adopt the pseudonym of Flemm. This weird twist allowed Mike Grell the opportunity to occasionally dress Sable up in a silly disguise and lighten the mood substantially. Sable appeared in the guise of Flemm at book signings and even on the Tonight Show.
While Eden Kendall would be a supporting character for the rest of the series another more important character came out of the “Wee the People” books. Myke Blackmon was the lithe, beauty that worked as the artist on the series of books. Sable wanted no part in meeting her at first. Hey, he had a secret-identity to protect. Think of how many years it took Clark Kent to reveal his secret. Of course the game of cat and mouse didn’t last long. Once they did meet sparks flew and the often-rocky, but always interesting, relationship was a centerpiece of the series from then on.
To bring the section on B.B. Flemm to a close, I must mention issue #33. This was one of the best of the series, and a book that Mike Grell has mentioned as a personal favorite. Grell handled the introductory pages, but soon passed off to comic-genius Sergio Aragones (of Groo fame) for a fun-filled romp with the leprechauns themselves.
The Sparrow, Maggie the Cat and exotic locales that would give James Bond fits
Jon Sable always found himself in amazing settings, battling personable villains, and beautiful women. Sable’s adventures brought him to Nicaragua, Germany, Bangkok, France as well as numerous adventures in the United States. He found his greatest adversary in the Soviet killer The Sparrow, and teamed with, and battled, a gorgeous-thief, Maggie the Cat. One other supporting character worth mentioning was Sonny Pratt. Formerly a Hollywood stuntman, Pratt trained Sable for the Olympics and continued to be a mentor standing by his troubled friend.
After issue #42 Mike Grell gave up pencilling the series, but continued to write and produce covers. The series ended with issue #56 as Mike Grell dedicated much of his time to Green Arrow. The book would be relaunched as Sable with Marv Wolfman as the writer. Sadly, this new title never captured the wonderful synthesis of action, character, and locales that Mike Grell’s work had.
Television, a novel, and the almost-film
For the fall of 1987 Sable was launched as a television series. Starring Lewis van Bergen as Jon Sable the series is probably best remembered for launching the career of Rene Russo. Being a comic fan, I did watch a couple of episodes of the book when it was on, but I remember very little. In January of 1988, Sable was cancelled after only seven episodes. Sable has yet to be collected on DVD. Hopefully down the line, as I’d love a chance to see it.
In 2000 Mike Grell released a novelization called, you guessed it, Sable. The book updated Jon Sable for the new millennium. Essentially the book was a retelling of the events surrounding the murder of Sable’s family, his career change to mercenary/children’s book author, and his eventual revenge against those responsible for the death of the kids. Grell succeeded in converting the older stories into a new medium and updating the concept from its ’80s roots.
The book was picked up as a movie property with Gene Simmons (from KISS) attached as producer. Reportedly, the film was scrapped following the 9/11 tragedy.
Only time will tell if Sable will ever step out of “development hell” or if there will be further novels in the series. With the recent move to reprint ’80s creator-owned favorites like John Ostrander’s GrimJack, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg, and Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, there may be a market for JSF reprint editions. A new comic series would be an outstanding gift for Grell fans, it seems apparent, at least to me, that there’s plenty of potential left in the franchise.
The Reading Rack
Jon Sable: Freelance TPB: Long out of print, this trade paperback edition collects the early issues of JSF. Used copies can be picked up rather cheap on Ebay or Amazon.
Sable (The Novel): Also out of print this can be picked up on the cheap as well, and it’s well worth the price.
As for the regular comics, I’d recommend grabbing the 56 issues of JSF if you see them and they’re within your budget. It’s good stuff.
As was mentioned last week, John and I decided to devote a portion of NMM most weeks to more current topics or top-of-mind musings. For the second installment of that effect, here’s my look at Catwoman. No, not the most recent issue of the comic, but the summer movie that’s been getting panned everywhere you turn.
HEY. Stop throwing things!
I went to see the movie as a part of my professional obligation! Ah, who am I kidding, mostly I went to see Halle Berry in the cat-suit. Ms. Berry’s one of my favorites in Hollywood and I just couldn’t help myself.
As films go, Catwoman was no worse than most of the other mindless popcorn-films that infest the Cineplex during the summer months. As a case in point, I saw I, Robot earlier the same week, and I liked (probably too strong a word) Catwoman more. I, Robot seemed devoid of originality and suffered from a script offering no surprises and little character development. The best parts centered on the special effects and some hilarious quips by Will Smith.
Catwoman wasn’t a masterpiece, hell, it really wasn’t even better than a two star film, but at least it reveled in its mediocrity. There was a sense of humor inherent from beginning to end. The story was a decidedly bad synthesis. With the S & M look of the feature character, but a script fit for sub-teens, there did not seem to be a clear goal for marketing. We all know it wasn’t aimed at comic fans.
Halle Berry does a more than passable job with the dual personality of the frumpy Patience Phillips and her transformation into the white-hot Catwoman. The co-stars all put in straightforward performances with good effort. Benjamin Bratt was interesting as the love interest, Sharon Stone does well acting evil, but really has no purpose other than the “cat-fight” at the conclusion, and Lambert Wilson (who was excellent as the Merovingian in the Matrix sequels) chomps scenery as the villainous cosmetics mogul.
The movie goes tragically wrong by breaking from the roots of the Catwoman character and forgetting about Selina Kyle. This turned comic fans against the movie long before the first glimpse of Halle Berry in the cat-suit drew almost-unanimous derision. Another mistake was giving Catwoman super-powers, essentially turning her into a wall-hopping kitty-version of Spider-Man. Finally, centering the whole thing on cosmetics is just lame, and totally misses out on the geek-possibilities.
Is Catwoman more hit than miss? You bet your sweet whip-cracking buttocks. Yet, it’s nowhere near as bad as it is made out to be. Currently on the Internet Movie Database the film’s ranked as the 43rd worst in history. That’s a bit much! It’s innumerably better than a crap-fest like Batman & Robin. It’s clearly not a winner, but Catwoman is as good as most of the studio offerings this summer.
This is Your Column-within-a-Column
We’re still looking for names for this new feature to NMM where we pose a question and you answer. We’ve gotten some cool suggestions so far, but you have 3 more weeks to submit ideas. So, send your suggestions through e-mail to email@example.com . John and I will select a name from your suggestions. The winner gets graphic novel and will be able to choose from a few. Graphic novel choices will be revealed soon. So keep those suggestions coming!
This week’s question:
If you could sit down and have a meal with any comics creator, living or dead, who would it be and why? Send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week’s question:
What is the first comic book you remember reading and how did it effect what you like or dislike about comic books?
Here’s what YOU had to say:
I remember looking at an Alpha Flight book when I was five and was highly amused by Puck and Sasquatch. The first issue that I actually have a true memory of reading was Little Archie Digest # 4, a Halloween issue, when I was seven. Those Archie digests are a like a gateway drug for emerging comic fans. I also really got into those Marvel Skybox cards, and was introduced to many characters and storylines that way. Remember the feeling of getting your first hologram? Man that takes me back.
Joshua F. H. Hoskins:
The fist comic book I remember reading that had any influence on me was an oversized reprint of Flash comics #1. I remember reading that after watching a rerun of the Adam West Batman TV show, and deciding then and there that the older heroes (I didn’t know anything golden/silver/tinfoil ages then) were vastly superior to their current counterparts. I still haven’t changed my opinion due to the wonderful sagas of All Star Squadron, Infinity Inc., and JSA (we’re not mentioning the mid 90’s Justice Society series).
My earliest comic memory? Wow, that was a long time ago. I was really big on the Adam West Batman series. As a result, my folks started buying me comics. I can recall a lot of the Neal Adams run on Batman and was a big fan of Jim Aparo’s work on Detective (or is that vice versa?). The JLoA was a must buy each time a new issue came out, and Superman was occasionally added to my box of coverless, read more times than I can remember, comic books. If you haven’t gathered, I was a DC freak. Oh, don’t get me wrong on occasions I would pick up an Avengers book or Iron Man, but no matter how good the stories might have been, they just weren’t the same to me as a child.
As I entered my teen years, I was introduced to the X-Men. As my own teen angst and adolesecent pains grew, I was able to experience the same inner turmoil in them from month to month. From Byrne to Cockrum to Paul Smith and beyond, I read every X-book I could all written just for me by Chris Claremont. Thankfully then there were only a couple books to read a month, I can’t imagine trying to get all the X-books now on the allowence I had then! The grittier the book, the more I loved it. I can’t tell you how many times I read the Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, but everytime I did, I came away with something more.
DC comics came back into my life in my twenties. I was starting a family and it only felt right to return to my roots so to speak. Batman, JLA, Teen Titans all of these became my monthly must reads. As other comic fans were clamoring for the latest Image variant cover, I was comfortably nestled with my old favorites.
And so it remains today. So Hawkman isn’t the greatest read every month, I don’t care. I remember when he was first inducted into the JLoA (#120 I believe). He holds a special place for me along with all the other DC heroes and villians and they always will.
I remember my father buying and reading comics to me before I could read them. An issue of Amazing Spiderman around 1974 with the Chameleon I remember because during the section with Gwen Stacey and Peter my dad would skip the panels and say “too mushy”. I still have it, coverless, sitting in a box. Justice League of America 121 (Aug. 1975) Wedding of Adam Strange and Alanna. “The Hero Who Jinxed The Justice League” This was the comic I can recall reading and calling Hawkman “Hogan” because I couldn’t say it properly. It had a big line-up, a guest star that they, but not I, knew, Adam Stange, and goofy villian Kanjor Ro. It set the stage for me to buy group comics, and long for the conclusion from a cliff hanger. It was a two parter and I own the coverless issue as well as a perfect version and perfect issue 122 that I bought, easily, 15 years later. And I still wanted to know how it ended. It ended in a wedding by the way.
Richard E. Mimms:
Uncanny X-Men 181.
The cover had this punk rock chick terrorizing this young straight lace girl….and they were FLYING!!!!!!!! I opened it up and found out that between the covers there awaited a story of friendships and betrayals and a cliffhanger ending that took me five years to find out the end to. It started it all… (sniff)
Here’s my 2 cents on the topic:
The first comic that I remember owning was issue #18 of the old Marvel Star Wars series. Released in 1979 I would have been about five at the time. It was a really strange book that saw Luke Skywalker unconscious throughout much of the issue after having a problem during a Jedi-trance. In a really odd twist, C-3P0 serves as Luke’s protector for most of the issue. It’s certainly not a classic, but I have fond memories of the story, and it’s my first. I guess the old saying is true, you always remember your first!
Obviously the book had a major effect on me and the comics that I read. For the longest time the only books that I was interested in where based on licensed properties, especially films. Over the next few years I read the Indiana Jones books by Marvel, G.I. Joe, and anything else based on movies and cartoons I fancied at that time. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that I really got into superheroes. Firestorm (second series) #30 and The Flash (The Barry Allen book) #350 were two of the most important books in my genesis into the world of superheroes.
Reading Star Wars #18 all those years ago got me into licensed books and made me seek out licensed work on any film or television property that I was into. Thankfully, my tastes evolved over time and I began to pass up the licensed stuff that was put out as a fourth-rate knockoff. That’s not to say everything licensed is terrible. Many licensed properties never come close to capturing the feel of the source. So, I eventually learned to choose what I read more carefully and my tastes evolved away from most licensed material.
Hope you enjoyed this very long column. John will be back next week and I’ll see you in two!