The Great Sabre Interview Part One: characters that are alive in an alternate universe
As promised, today 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. You’ll find as you read this interview that Don is an incredibly honest, incredibly passionate man whose work means an incredible amount to him. You can hear and see the passion in every word that Don shares about hiw work. That passion makes this a wonderful interview that I’m sure you’ll love reading. Before you read this interview, read our article about Sabre that sets context and style, then come back here to hear the juicy behind the scenes details!
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: When you look back on the run you produced on Sabre, what’s the story element that you most wish you could have gone back and elaborated on?
Don McGregor: In the process of creating a series, there are a lot of factors that have to be considered before I even begin writing any finished copy.
Even if you have introduced a concept, an idea, for yourself and to a publisher, it’s often not determined exactly what format that book is going to appear in, especially when it’s a comic. During the time-frame that I had written the original Sabre, long before I had chosen an artist, in approaching that graphic album or novel, whatever you want to call it, it was awhile before it was determined it would be 38 pages in length. That was the only determination that was in cement, in place and there’s no way around it. Whatever was going to be in that book or not be in that book, I had 38 pages to do it in and I really worked hard at trying to figure out how much I could work into a solitary book, in a story that would hopefully satisfy readers that had been following “The Black Panther” and “Killraven” and the other material I have been writing.
But, it wasn’t lost on me that I was competing now with two and a half years’ worth of books in 38 pages.
And there’s no way you can even come close to doing a novel in 38 pages.
At one point in your piece, Jason, you said something about being successful in some alternate universe. Realistically, in the creative world here, all things being equal, I would prefer that success happen in this one; it would be my best hope. I read what you wrote to Marsha and she just said, “Tell Jason, ‘This one’.” This is the universe we’re trying to survive in.
That said, sometimes I have talked about Sabre, Melissa Siren and the others that it’s almost as if they do live in some kind of alternate universe, because there was a time after I had finished the first story that I virtually knew what happened next in their lives, even though I wasn’t thinking about Sabre, I was in the midst of making the firstDetectives Inc. a reality, and was also creatively involved with developing Ragamuffins.
And then, one night it just hit me, I knew Sabre and Melissa’s lives. I knew where they went. I knew what happened next, the tone and theme and overall actions of “An Exploitation of Everything Dear” was clear to me. I hand-wrote it down as fast as I could, trying not lose this glimpse into what you label an “alternate universe.” For many folks, who’d only seen the graphic novel, they do think of Sabre as being a lone hero who walks off into the distance at the end and leaves the woman behind and goes on to a new adventure. That was never my intent for Sabre as a series; I always knew it would lead where Sabre #7 did, the birth of Sabre and Melissa’s children. That ending was as far as I could take the characters in a 38 page book.
I always knew that the story was planned to be a love story between a man and a woman and also raising a family and having to make decisions that affect your life, and those you love. So I essentially knew the entire spread ofSabre: An Exploitation of Everything Dear that night. Part of it is a road story, which examines what has happened in various states as Sabre treks to return to Melissa before she gives birth to their children.
Yet, for some people, who only saw Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, Sabre is written about as the loner hero, when really he is anything but. I also knew that there would be gay characters added to the supporting cast, and Deuces Wild and Summer Ice (although I did not yet have names for them) and that they would accompany Sabre on his cross-country flight.
For the folks who never experienced the second story-line, they have only had a glimpse of who and what Sabre is.
So, sometimes I’ve found it a little frustrating when I read things written about the character and series that have no awareness of how much vaster the scope of the series was
But if one reads “An Exploitation of Everything Dear” and the beginning of the last Sabre novel, “The Decadence Indoctrination” (which was really designed as a novel as opposed to being called a novel in name), one can see that the love story for Sabre and Melissa is always at the core of the series. I always thought the couple were a vital essence of Sabre, one of the elements that made it unique in the comic costumed hero genre.
In a way, that part of Sabre was, in my mind, my equivalent of a Prince Valiant.
I’m not equating myself with Hal Foster (Prince Valiant along with Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates are my favourite comics). What I am equating it to is the essence of Prince Valiant, that Foster’s strip is about a man and woman who love each other, have a family, and follows their lives through-out their time period. They raise kids against the panorama of time and it’s just a remarkably
beautiful piece of work. I’m not saying I’m even in Hal Foster’s league.
And so there’s an element, at least, to Sabre that, at the core part of it, is a love story between a man and a woman who maintain that bond while the values of their world are so terribly askew. So, for me, on another level, the series is an examination of how global events affect their lives, especially questions of power edicts and survival. How do they keep the family important and intact in the midst of such upheaval of personal liberties. I think these are questions we all have to face, again and again, in our lives.
So except for Prince Valiant being set in the past, Sabre’s story-line is set in a future we are rapidly reaching. I wouldn’t have thought it was close in 1976 when I wrote it. It took two years before the book would finally become a reality. The book did not appear until 1978.
So, that said, now I can get back to discussing those challenges that are in my mind before I approached the next set of books. It was hard to approach, in the beginning, because I didn’t even know what kind of format the book was going to be when we got to do it. And, in fact, recently I came across some notes about Sabre: An Exploitation of Everything Dear. I’d forgotten this, but apparently before Eclipse (being Dean Mullaney and cat yronwode) decided they wanted to do a six issue mini-series with the first two issues being a reprint of Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, I was originally approached to write it as another graphic album. So, I guess it would have been in the 46 page range that Detectives Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green had been. If they had gone along those lines, obviously the trek aspect of the story would be almost impossible to do; I just would not have had the page count I would have needed, and I’m not sure how I would have proceeded given this glimpse I’d had of where their lives went next.
At that time I was already thinking about Dearie Decadence. Dearie was definitely going to be a character in the next storyline. Somewhere along the line, because of a lot of things I didn’t have any control over, it got decided that no, Sabre would return as a mini-series and it would have a total of four issues. That was great for me because that meant I was going to have more pages. It was then decided it was going to come out in comic book format and the first issue came out, on regular comic book paper. And it was certainly a downgrade in terms of the production values that the original book had.
I wasn’t fond of the approach; I’d fought hard for the first book to have a sense of permanence and to showcase the material. I’d been inspired by Ed April’s Cartoonist Showcase for the original book. Dean had asked me when we were discussing the original book back in 1976 if I wanted to do it as a regular comic, or if I had something different in mind.
The big factor for me is that if we did do “An Exploitation of Everything Dear” as a mini-series, I would have more pages. When I’m writing, it’s always about the story, and very often, as many can tell you, about more pages. I can have more pages? Okay, let’s do it. Negotiations were for more pages, not page rates. It’s not that I didn’t want to be paid; I just could not write just for the money.
So although I did not like going back to a comic book format with thin paper, I reluctantly okayed it. I’d get more pages. I didn’t know at first that Sabre would not be the whole book, that there were plans to put other series into the book.
So, in some ways it was like stepping back in time to being at Marvel, except I didn’t have to worry about content.
And Billy Graham was truly a Renaissance guy, he was not going to have trouble drawing gays or babies being born. You have to keep the time-frame that these books were done. It’s going into the late ’70s, as I’m creating them, and into the early 80s. I had gay characters planned in “Panther’s Rage”, but I never could have gotten it through the system at that time. Here, in Sabre, I could. So, it was a trade-off in terms of quality of presentation.
Eclipse wanted to reprint the first two stories and then round out the series with six issues and that numbers three through six would become “An Exploitation of Everything Dear”. So I started to put together a mini-series.
I had already created the character of Dearie Decadence, and I’m not sure how the hell I thought Dearie, who would have had a Marlene Dietrich look, would fit into the proceedings. Eventually, Dearie, the transsexual, didn’t appear until “The Decadence Indoctrination.”
Then at one point, Dean Mullaney and I went to see Paul Gulacy. He was staying at the time across the river over in, I believe it’s part of New Jersey but they call it West New York or something like that. I don’t remember exactly where he was living, but we went to see Paul to discuss the book. Now, there had been long delays in finishing the first 38 page book, and it was all over race issues. I guess some people think I courted conflict, but really, it’s enough stress to create the stories and the characters and to find a way not to trivialize important human issues while still telling the best damn story you’re capable of. I just did not want to have face more fights to get the book done in the way I had conceived it from years before. I had told Dean, I have to be able to write a story that I could not write at Marvel or DC or what was the point of my not doing work for them? But I had no idea how long it would take to have this book in people’s hands.
Don’t forget, if the book is being held up, it’s a longer period of time that people aren’t seeing your work, and meantime, you still have to make a living. The time can get very long and very stressful.
I also knew I was going to create gay characters for this storyline, so if there had been objection of the interracial aspect of Sabre, there’s just no way “An Exploitation of Everything Dear” was going to go smoothly along.
On top of that I knew that I would follow up on what had been the most controversial aspect of the first book: that Melissa was pregnant and that in this series the babies would be born. Since the first book was held up with threats it would not be finished because of her pregnancy, or that Sabre would be made white, experience had taught me that while one could hope that creative individuals would embrace people of all kinds of background and alternative life-styles, I’d learned that was naive thinking on my part. This would be a battle if I did not choose the right person to draw this book.
I wouldn’t be locking horns with editors. I needed a partner who understood what it was I hoped to do. I was good friends with Billy Graham and I knew Billy was not going to have any problems with gay characters and the childbirth happening or having Dearie Decadence be a transsexual; he’d have no problem with any of it. “Just get me the script, Don, and I’ll draw what you&#
39;ve written.” In that meeting I did tell Paul about Dearie and the Deitrich look, and I had this tag-line for Dearie: “She can have her cake and eat it too.” I think Paul’s response was, “Why do you do things like this, Don?” Billy introduced me to the first transsexual I ever met; this wasn’t going to be a big deal to him.
But you have to recall now, time-frame wise, it might be 1980 by that time. I’m not really sure exactly when, because it took a while to get everything put together. So now when I started to approach the writing on this series, it was going to be done as a four issue mini-series. I didn’t realize it, but I was kind of going back into my days at Marvel Comics where the Panther or Killraven were about two thirds of the book. There were backup features in the back of Jungle Action, so that would limit my number of pages to tell the story. I just wanted a book that was mine, that I could put everything I had into it, and this in some ways was going backward, Sabre was no longer just Sabre and Melissa and their world. I stood a lot of ground, so I think that made it a really difficult transition to go back to doing a book that stood alone on its own values, for better or worse.
When we got the first pages from Billy for Sabre #3, there were a number of images of him with a drugged, dull glaze to his eyes. I was sitting with Billy in Columbus Circle, and I’d had enough experience now with this new market and what I felt it demanded so as to be able to ask the reader to pay more money for it than the traditional comic. It was a difficult situation. I knew there were things that needed to be worked on and there was a very, very odd sensation.
Billy had taught me so much when I was first coming into the city in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He was on staff at Warren, which, historically, it should be noted, as the first black Art Director at a comic company, by the way. I often stayed with Billy when I came from Rhode Island to Manhattan, to sell stories at magazine companies like Mike Shayne, Mystery Magazine and Cosmopolitan. You’ll note, while I was writing comic stories for Warren, I wasn’t visiting Marvel or DC trying to sell stories there.
Anyway, Billy and I had a lot of adventures together, but I’m saving those for when “An Exploitation of Everything Dear is put into one book. Billy introduced me to much of the comics world. He took me to Louise and Jeffrey Jones’ comic gatherings. He embraced my scripts and drew a number of pages, many of which would never see print because he didn’t have time to finish them.
So, returning to getting the art for Sabre #3 from Billy, there was a little odd reversal that I felt because our positions had been somewhat reversed. Since I’d been in the forefront of this new marketplace, selling primarily direct to the comic stores, I knew we really needed to offer the readers something they could not get anywhere else. We were asking a lot more money than the average comic book of the day, and, personally, I wanted to be out of the confining cage I’d been in for some time at the establishment companies. So, I talked with Billy quite a bit about the differences, and what I thought Sabre, in particular, needed.
Dwayne McDuffie said to me, in one of the last phone calls we ever had, I don’t know how we got on the subject but I guess we were talking about Sabre and Eclipse and Detectives Inc., and Dwayne said that when he was working at DC, one of the elder editors at DC told him that when Eclipse started doing color comics, comics that were handled in more traditional parameters, “They’re doomed. What they were doing before, we couldn’t do. There’s no way we can go where they were going. But now, they are playing our game, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re dead.”
It’s my impression that was a direction cat yronwode wanted the company to go in more than Dean Mullaney. cat’s background, and often rhetoric, were firmly counter-culture, but when she got in a position to work with talent and have power of direction, it struck me as if her desire was to be more like the Establishment comic companies. I could be wrong, and really, with Eclipse moving around in location, I lost being able to track each phase of Sabre for a while. I had it firmly established that I was working with Dean on my books, but lines don’t necessarily stay straight. When people are in close proximity the lines can blur and cross against each other.
But back to Billy Graham and me in Columbus Circle. At the same time, I knew if I insisted on this, it would have made Sabre #3 late and I didn’t want that to happen to Dean’s first bi-monthly comic. It would have hurt the realiability of the book with the distributors and maybe some of the comic store owners. So I let it go. I said, “We’ll fix it up in the next issue.”
Sabre #4 saw the format of the book change, going to Baxter paper, a much more solid looking package. I had contact with Billy, but other choices of who worked on the book were made that I had no contact with. In the beginning I didn’t see what the book would look like until it was printed, so it really was a under the gun learning time period. There were colorists, for instance, chosen for the book, that ended up being atrocious. Especially forSabres # 5 & 6. I’m tempted to reveal the bizarre background to some of this, just to illustrate how crazy decisions can get made concerning your book that you don’t know anything about until much later. Sometimes, years later. Sometimes, I’m sure, never.
The book often appeared garish, with no thought to the mood or texture of a scene. Sabre was colored so dark against the blackline, with no skin tones and shadings that his face was virtually lost in some panels. This was killing me.
I know I said to Dean at one point, “Why are you taking your best-selling comic book and doing everything that can be done to kill it?” Which wasn’t what Dean wanted to do at all, but the look of the book was definitely going to hurt us. That said, when I finished Sabre #5, the decision was made to keep Sabre going as a regular published title.
So, through Sabre #5, I am writing “An Exploitation of Everything Dear” as a mini-series that will end with Sabre #6. It’s one of those processes, writing wise, where it is just a matter of what will get into the story, and what won’t.
I’m not sure how much detail on what weird reasons some people got chosen to work on the book.
Sacks: This is going on the record Don.
McGregor: When I saw how progressively worse the coloring was becoming, I got the colorist’s phone number from Dean and called him. The guy told me he didn’t like Billy Graham’s artwork, and that was his reason for doing such a terrible job.
I told this guy, right then and there. “You have the right not to like Billy’s artwork, but then don’t do the book. You don’t come onto one of my books and go, ‘I don’t like the artwork so I’m just going to say, Fuck it! And I’m just going to screw the book over’.” And I told Dean, “This guy never colors anot
her one of my books again. I can’t put that kind of work and care and energy into a book and then have it come out looking like that.”
So, all this is happening behind the scenes after Sabre #6 came out. Things were changing radically. When I wroteSabre #5, the series was still being done as a mini-series and was scheduled to end with #6. You can see me rushing to get to the climax setting, racing Sabre and Deuces Wild and Summer Ice to the Santa Rosa settlement by the end of Sabre #5 because as I write the book I have one issue left, at that point.
I haven’t searched for my yearly diaries for this, so I’m just going from the top of my head, but it was when Sabre #5 was finished script-wise that Dean called and said Sabre would become a bi-monthly on-going series. The sales were still strong enough to warrant it.
This changed everything for me, immediately!
Everything opened up creatively, and I had room to tell the story I wanted to tell, to really do Sabre as a graphic novel. I didn’t have to try to wrap everything up in one issue. So, it’s some time in within that time-frame that I made the phone call to colorist obliterating Billy’s art that I discussed above. When I’m writing a lengthy series especially, I’m concerned about many different aspects of that story .
Everything impacts on everything else.
So, the bottom line is, I had all those characters planned, I had the scenes of the story well in mind and I knew the scope of it was going to be basically Sabre’s difficult journey back to be with Melissa and trying to arrive in time for the birth of their children.
Okay, now that you know what to expect, can you bear not to come back tomorrow and hear more amazing behind-the-scenes stories aboutSabre? And remember…