The Great Sabre Interview: Preview and Analysis
Tomorrow we start a massive interview with Don McGregor about his unparalleled series Sabre. The interview will run at least a week and will be the definitive word on a massively influential and powerful book. As a way of setting the stage for that interview, we’re presenting this introduction to Sabre by CB’s own Daniel Elkin and Jason Sacks. We hope you enjoy the piece and it leaves want more about Sabre.
Jason Sacks: Don McGregor was perhaps the most humanistic comics writer of the 1970s and ’80s. Where other writers were obsessed with grandiosity and flash, with superhuman achievements and the triumph over evil, McGregor explored different territory.
McGregor knew that the most important battle for a real hero was the battle within. It was the battle to preserve some nature of humanity in a world that would bruise and batter, a world of people with strange names and incredibly narcissistic ambitions, who would tie you to an erupting geyser and force you to battle with your own inner doubts and pains simply in order to return to the thing that you loved most.
Don wrote a slew of great comics in that era (and wasn’t able to write a slew more great comics – a true tragedy that is hopefully rectified in some parallel universe where Don is the bestselling writer in comics), but perhaps none reflects his view of the world more than Sabre.
When we first meet Sabre, on the first page of the original Sabre graphic novel, he looks like a cross between Eastwood’s Man Without a Name and Jimi Hendrix. Sabre is a lone her, a single man on a mission of anger and vengeance. As we find out several pages later, there is more to this man than first meets the eye: “There still some survivors who will not abandon their romantic ideals. One of these survivors has been labeled a romantic realist. He calls himself Sabre. He is a roguish anachronism, or so he’d like to think.”
What in the world does it mean to be a romantic realist? It’s a compelling turn of phrase, but one that I hadn’t encountered before I read the term from McGregor. That phrase gives the reader an odd sort of mystery to uncover, but as the 14 issues of Sabre play out, we see that the phrase is perfectly well-suited to this action hero.
Sabre is romantic in nearly every sense of the world. He dearly loves his life-partner Melissa with all his heart and soul. The pair have as realistic a romance as you can find in a book that takes place in a kind of post-apocalyptic society. Sabre and Melissa clearly love each other deeply, and McGregor presents the relationship between the two as some of the most realistic depictions of marriage ever shown on the comics page. Sabre and Melissa flirt and make love, bandage each others’ metaphorical and literal wounds, balance prosaic tasks like changing diapers while also working hard to defend each other from giant marauding crabs (not nearly as corny a scene as it sounds).
But Sabre is also a romantic hero in the Rafael Sabatini sense of the word. He’s a fighter, with his flintlock laser and his sabre and his flights on giant butterflies created by the military and his reluctant willingness to fight and sometimes kill in order to save his family and friends. In this strange new world, Sabre has to be a realist and has to fight to within an inch of his own life in order to preserve everything that is important to him. He has no choice. There are times when war is necessary, and if Sabre has to fight a war to bring real peace, then that is what he does.
Don has often told me stories about the wars that he went through in order to get his comics published, and unfortunately, Sabre’s war is a bit of a parable of Don’s war. He was the romantic realist in a world of uncaring corporate behemoths more interested in their survival than the embrace of great art. Even when he was able to move away from the medium and into a smaller village like classic indie publisher Eclipse Comics, an apathetic market and a depressing series of setbacks combined to kill McGregor’s most ambitious work when it was just really starting to gain steam.
Don has never done things in a small way, and the world of Sabre reflects that. The third Sabre GN, “The Decadence Doctrination”, was a rare and special event for its time, a tremendously ambitious graphic novel that flowed like a novel, with subplots and tangents and a wonderfully uncompressed style that led to great character moments. There was time in this projected 600-page book to share small scenes that illuminated character. People could live and breathe and have space to simply be themselves. It was a radical idea for its time, a moment of pure ambition to create a true graphic novel but of course the idea just never was able to fly. There was no way that the piece could overcome the apathy of the comics fans who were just not ready for a comic that had as much adult emotional sophistication as this comic.
Reading these 14 issues of Sabre together, I felt such a conflict of emotions. On one hand I was thrilled and delighted to be able to spend time with these wonderful, human characters trying to make the best of a weird, complicated society. On the other, I was crushed that there were only a relative handful of stories about them.
This stuff could have been a revolution. Instead it’s just a footnote.
Daniel Elkin: Sometimes, though, Sacks, like in the work of David Foster Wallace, it is within the footnotes that the real revolution occurs.
A little personal history first. In 1982 I was an awkward 15 year old boy with too many thoughts in my head, caged in the concrete of suburban Dallas, Texas. I infused my day-dreams with the worlds I had access to via comic books, and these helped tint my exceedingly gray days with the hot colors of grandiosity and voyage, possibilities and potential. My weekly trips to Lone Star Comics were a lifeline for me, a way to get out of myself and into a future unmasked and exciting. It was on one of those trips, in the blazing hot Texas summer of ’82, that I picked up a copy of Sabre #1 off the rack and added it to my stack. The fact that the fine folks at Lone Star even sold such a book to such an impres
sionable teen is a miracle unto itself, but, regardless, I remember vividly coming home, sitting in my bedroom, and cracking open this book.
What Don McGregor had created there in those pages was truly a formative moment for me. I had heretofore been feasting on the cape and tights tales of super powered outcasts like the X-Men and the Hulk and such – Sabre was nothing like these stories. This was story about the wounds we carry. This was a story about idealism and the fights we have to engage in to stay true to ourselves. This was a comic you read as much as it read you. All that, and boobs too! Naked boobs and fornicating.
Certainly this book was written for a more mature audience than my 15-year-old North Dallas suburban Jewish mindset, but by having it in my hands, I was able to become much more of the man I had hoped to become.
So I have a distinct and sharp personal connection to this series. Regretfully, though, it also came at a time when I was discovering girls and cars and drugs and girls and music and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Whitman and girls, so, while Sabre helped me move into these directions, armed with its churn of aspects and hormones and humanity, I slowly began going to the LCS less and less, until eventually, like all the comics of my childhood, Sabrewas relegated to the long box in the closet and I stepped forth into the rest of my life.
But now I have the opportunity to reconnect not only with this book, but with that awkward 15-year-old boy, and needless to say it has been an incredible experience. But more on this, perhaps, later, because for the purposes of this column we are focused on Sabre itself.
A Don McGregor comic book is dense. His writing in Sabre is thick and evocative and perfectly paired for this medium, for this story. Sabre is a character, like all of the characters in this event, that walks in our world as he paces and fights and talks from the pages. Sabre really does embody the concept of the romantic realist you have previously mentioned, Sacks. He’s a man whose ideals can shape a better world, but he’s also a man who is not blind to the fight he must engage in for those ideals to come to fruition. There is a tenderness to his strength, an intelligence to his brutality, and, above all, there is a commitment to his very definition of himself.
The battles that Sabre engages take on a larger significance in the context of his tale, he grows from his struggles as do all the people around him. There are dimensions to Don’s characters in this book, and their story is our story.
And perhaps, ultimately, that was this book’s undoing. As much as the character of Sabre was anachronistic, so too was the book’s existence. There is now a market for this type of comic book storytelling, but there, in the early 80’s of Reagan and cheap thrills, not so much. One could, perhaps, make the argument that the struggles that Sabrewent through helped pave the way for the current fantastic possibilities in the comic book market today.
Sacks:Sabre absolutely helped pave the way for the current possibilities in comics today. You can make a strong argument, I think, that you can see this book as a linchpin that helped move the industry forward to the state it’s in today. Sabre was part of the first wave of graphic novels that appeared as the industry was slowly fighting its way out of its mid-1970s doldrums and into a future that everyone agreed was the future of the artform: creator-owned, European-style albums that presented material that was far more sophisticated than the extremely conservative material that the Big Two publishers were publishing in the era after mavericks like Don left their ranks.
But more than that, the really important aspect of Sabre, at least for me, is that a single creator was finally able to lead and drive his own characters. These weren’t characters created to be one-shot appearances, phoenixes shooting across the sky and then gone forever.
No, there is a very strong sense with Don’s Sabre that these amazing, breathtaking, odd people are real, complex, multifaceted men and women, the sort of people that seem to have a real three-dimensional life to them. As you put it so adroitly, Elkin, Sabre embodies all the contradictions that are part of all of our lives: great anger and great tenderness, intelligence in brutality, romance amidst the ruins.
And what’s more, Sabre and his friends know that they embody these contradictions. Don is often faulted for creating dialogue that is unrealistic, but these words fit the mouths of these characters. It is a key part of Sabre’s life that he is a highly philosophical and emotional man who expresses himself in a sometimes flowery manner. It’s interesting that most of the time Sabre talks philosophically he’s with Melissa because she gives back as well as she gets, and thus that common ground forms much of the basis for the love and compatibility they feel for each other. There are certain things that only Sabre and Melissa can discuss with each other in certain ways, and their love and trust and openness with each other is seen with the intimacy that the couple use when they are alone with each other.
This intimacy gives Sabre a real secular openness, and we see that is so many aspects of this book that must have seemed terribly jarring in 1978 but which seem perfectly natural now – the fact that Sabre and Melissa are an interracial couple, the frank and honest way the book talks about both sex and violence (and why are those two things grouped together when they are real literal opposites from each other?), the matter-of-fact and completely real way that a gay couple is treated in this book, and more than anything the mature way that Don trusts
his readers to follow his complex story, to stay engaged and interested in longer narratives.
We really see this in “The Decadence Indoctrination”, where so many threads are rolling along in all their disparate directions, and the reader is asked to have patience and allow the stories to come together eventually. Ambitious long graphic novels have become ratehr commonplace now – with diverse books like Box Office Poison, Habibi, theCerebus phonebooks, Footnotes in Gaza and dozens more expecting the reader to have a long attention span and the attention span to appreciate a real novel– but Don was out there leading the way, creating a true graphic novel with real mature themes that could be found nowhere else in comics in that day.
It’s a great tragedy that “The Decadence Indoctrination” was stopped less than a sixth of the way through its run, because it really does present a clinic on how to create a great, multifaceted long graphic novel.
The story is rich with characters that have real depth and complexity to them. We get to learn much more about Sabre and Melissa in this story, but we also learn much more about the amazing Midnight Storm, whose name perfectly fits her personality, all full of range and intensity and power. We get to spend much more time with Summer Ice and Deuces Wild and see why that couple have such affection for each other. And we see Foxy Trot’s complex life shift and change in front of us, and Hieronymus in all his contradictions and so many other characters who build and change and reveal themselves in front of our eyes with a fascinating complexity that begs and pleads for 20 more issues so we can see what really happens to these people; so we can simply spend more time with them.
Thankfully we at least have 14 issues of Sabre to visit with these characters. Like many great comic works from the ’70s and ’80s, this work was cut short before its conclusion – something that happens much more rarely today.