The Great Sabre Interview Part Two: Birth, Violence and Gay Kisses
Continuing our monster interview with Don McGregor, Don talks about creating some of the first gay characters in comics, the bullshit of politics, strong female characters, the importance of good comic coloring, the strange way America deals with violence and sex, and much more.
Don McGregor: When I was working on “Exploitation” as a mini-series, Deuces Wild and Summer Ice were definitely characters that were going to be in the storyline. I had been trying to write gay characters since Taku and Venomm in Panther’s Rage. But, as naïve as I might have been, I wasn’t totally ignorant of what I could do, and what I had to bide my time, and see if I could find a way to do it. But Deuces and Summer were a done deal, and I was doing a lot of work creating their characters. Dean Mullaney would not care, would not tell me I could not have homosexual characters in the series; I’d already written lesbian characters in the earlier Detectives Inc: A Remembrance of Threatening Green.
Certainly, early on, I was developing Sabre’s opposition in “Exploitation”. I love Joyful Slaughter.
For me, Joyful was so unique and colourful and idiosyncratic. Joyful’s personality was so distinctly different from any of the villains I had created before, and a costumed hero series often requires an opposing force of character that instils something unsettling but also charismatic.
For some reason, for me, a little of Joyful is inspired by Tex Avery and Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. I’m sure some people reading this interview won’t get that, but I guess it’s his off-the-wall, bonhomie personality that I find so fascinating. I like the sequences between Sabre and Joyful, at least partially because they are such polar opposites in their world-views, and I had a good time writing the dialogue sequences between them. All that, of course, fights for how much room you have to devote to such scenes within the constrictions of a finite number of pages.
Joyful appealed to my sense of humor, but also that sociopathic bent that he sees nothing wrong with the terrible violence he can inflict on others, just through his power alone. And I loved the idea of Joyful running for President, and that the public didn’t vote, just the invested elite, that all the camouflage that anybody is giving everybody a choice or real options is now blatantly in the open as bullshit. No charades, at all.
Joyful has such a complex personality. At the same time that this character is terrible, he also has an outward affable personality, very charismatic, and his infectious enthusiasm can sweep you up, especially if you have never seen the violent side of him. How cold-blooded he can be in his rigid beliefs to enable him to enforce any cruelty on those he believes are a threat to what he truly believes is right. And that it is his destiny.
I think his character rang true then, and we see it a various guises still through people who believe their belief is the only belief and anyone that doesn’t believe their way, or live their kind of life, is forfeit. Their enemies are going to go to some kind of hell, or they deserve death.
A good bad guy is often enhanced by the people or monsters he hangs around with. The Lounge Lizard just seemed so apt. I had the animatronics established, so it gave me the room to create this character who was literally a lounge lizard. He’s the stereotype pop culture image of the lounge lizard, except he’s really a lizard who wears the robe, has the monocle, and assumes the condescending attitude, because this seems just like the kind of creation these animatronic experts might devise for one of their entertainment suites. But because Lounge is totally soulless, he can slice and dice you before you can readjust your bemusement at his physical presence.
Anyhow, I tell you all this, so you’ll understand, I had all those characters planned, I had the over-all scenes of the story well in mind and I knew it was going to be basically Sabre going back to be with Melissa and trying to get to Santa Rosa in time for the birth of their children.
But now is where we come back to various elements I was concerned about. Elements or characters I wanted in the strip, but knew I already had more than I could really accommodate. As soon as I had word that Sabre was a regular series, I addressed one of my major concerns.
There weren’t any black women in the series.
I felt strongly that some people, if they wanted to, could rightfully take me to task for this. It wasn’t an oversight. The problem was I had too many characters as it was for this amount of pages, and it seemed to be more important to me that we get gay characters into comics, to try to open up diversity in the medium. You have to have room to develop all of these characters and detail their life-journeys, who they are, what made them that way, how the current situations affect their lives, they have to be fully invested, along with Sabre and Melissa’s story. It enriches everything within the scope of the story.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Of course you did add a black female character and she’s one of the most vivid characters in the series.
McGregor: Well, like the others, I gave a lot of thought about who Midnight Storm was. Midnight was not planned for “Exploitation” at all, but when I get the word that we are now going on as a series, Midnight appears on the cover of Sabre #6. She comes in immediately. It was the first thing that I changed, even though I am still obviously having the big battle that I’d planned to do from the get-go, except now the war runs through issues 6 through 9, so that’s four issues rather than one.
I believed I had the room then for so much more effective emotional resolutions to all the main characters in the strip, and to give the important moments room to breathe, and to capture all the complexity of life and death in the midst of such turmoil.
So you can see how that decision really changed how I could write the story; I really had room to really play out, dramatically, what happens with all the different characters and at the same time I was able to create Midnight Sto
rm. Coming up with her character, I had to give major concentration to where the character was going to fit into the series as a whole. It wasn’t like I was going to have her in one book and she wasn’t going to be around after that. Midnight would become a major player in the series, fully capable of having her own series.
But one of the problems that I faced right from the get-go was, I’d think, “She can’t just be one of Sabre’s friends; he’s got too many friends.” I felt, at that point, any people in opposition to Sabre that are defined are now overwhelmed by all these characters who have joined around him. The series, for this kind of story, was unbalanced. There had to be more people in conflict with him…and Melissa.
At the same time, I didn’t want Midnight to be like a Joyful Slaughter or a Lounge Lizard. I wanted her in conflict with Sabre, in opposition to him. And I liked the idea that there was some mystery to this, that we don’t know why Midnight is so pissed off at him. Yet, somewhere during the unfolding of the world of Sabre and its mythology, we’d find out why and it would be justified.
Right out of the gate, Midnight is immediately in Sabre’s face, and her hostility is palpable. And if people ever get to see Sabre: The Early Future Years, they will get a chance to find out why Midnight is so angry.
Sacks: It’s not an “if” people get to see The Early Future Years, it’s a “when”.
McGregor: That will be so dear to my heart, it will make 2013 such a much better year.
I’ve taken you through a few of the complexities that affected the approach to “Exploitation”, and why I made some of the decisions I did.
For me, and I’ve stated this many times in many places, Sabre actually starts being Sabre, for me, with Sabre #7.
With Sabre #7, the series starts to encompass the wide parameters I had planned for the series since before I wrote Slow Fade. This is when Sabre becomes what I saw in my head, what it could be, and what I wanted it to become and how different a series in the comics medium it could be. I suspect no one ever thought that it would come to where the series was now.
Jo Meuniot came in and did a knockout coloring job on Sabre #7, so if any came into a story and just glanced through the pages, they could see how colorful the book was, but also how dramatically it enhanced the story-telling. I loved her for that work. I finally had a book that I could hold in my hands and really like. “Ok, we’re finally there. It took us a while to get there, but now finally this book is showing what I thought it could be from the get-go.”
Daniel Elkin: It’s interesting that issue 7 was the issue that you feel the book came into its own because that’s the issue when Sabre’s children are born. It’s quite a scene.
McGregor: I believe so, too. What you’re saying is, I think, that you hadn’t experienced a scene like that in the comics medium before, so it’s striking. And it’s life being born in the midst of death.
And right after that, the scene with Deuces and Summer, when they finally kiss, has a dramatic satisfaction to it, but also breaks a taboo I’d come up against since my beginnings as a writer in comics. For me, I had been able to extend the kinds of characters traditionally seen in comics, and was able to develop their own life story arcs, although I never thought of any of this as being arcs at the time. It was just following the people’s lives, what brought them joy, what hurt them, how they viewed the events around them.
These are visual and emotional moments that I don’t think most readers would see coming. Mostly because, even though Sabre had gone places most comics hadn’t, it had now really showcased more diversity. It was my hope that the Sabre/Melissa and Deuces/Summer scenes would resonate with the readers, because they liked these characters, and because there was a sense of celebration and commitment, of birth and love and lust, whether the couple were a man and woman, or two men together. In early 1980 comics, at least to my knowledge, that kind of dignity and hope had not been seen.
I’ll give you some behind the scenes story on that issue, Daniel. All I’ve really asked for is, when I was doing this book while others were doing their own creations, is that the playing ground is level and fair. Don’t tell me I can’t do this if you’re letting other people do that. Especially if I’m doing something –
Okay, let me back up and give you an example. I know when I did the first issue of Sabre #3 and Tom Sutton did the backup feature with Blackstar Blood and it showed how he lost his eye, the character Sparrow had a line of dialogue, while Blackstar shows off with his gun, and I had her say, “What is that, a substitute for your penis?” Now Jan, Dean’s brother, wasn’t an editor, but he met with a lot of the talent in the New York area, often picking up art and paying people, while Dean was doing whatever he was doing. Jan did not want the word “Penis” in there. He was upset about it, and I think I said, something like, “Well, I can put the word “cock” in there.” You can imagine the reaction to that. But I made the change, and put in the phrase “phallic symbol,” instead, even though I felt it was much weaker, and lost the confrontational edge it had had.
A long time later I learned Dean didn’t realize Jan had made any editorial comments.
I talked about the playing field being fair for all. In that time-frame, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers did a series for Eclipse where part of the origin involved a rape of the lead character and her giving birth or something to some fantastical being. I don’t really recall exactly what happened, but what bothered me is not what was in their story, they could do whatever they wanted as far as I was concerned, what pissed me off was that I’d had to change the word “Penis,” but this other book went through with violent rape as the creators wanted it. Now, I don’t believe that Jan was being malicious. I think he had different ideas than Dean and I did of what should or should not be in a comic, and this really bothered him. He knew me, personally, so he probably felt he could confront me in a way he wouldn’t someone he didn’t really know. But the fact remains, I had to tone down my book, and for me that meant the playing field wasn’t even, given that standard.
When Sabre #7 was in the drawing stage, Jan would pick the artwork up from Billy and then he would drive out to my place in Brooklyn and hand over the artwork to me so I could place copy on it and then I just sent art with my copy overlays on it to the letterer.
Billy had pencilled somewhere around the first two-thirds of the book and the last page that Billy gave Jan ended with
the first of the babies being born. I had told Billy in the script, “You can be as visually discreet or graphically explicit about this as you want. ”
To me, this is another important facet of what the series was about. Childbirth is a natural event, and certainly one of the few things all human beings share.
Knowing Billy, it wasn’t any surprise to me that he drew it naturally, and without shying away from the baby coming out of Melissa’s body.
So, the last panel Jan sees is the baby coming out, attached to the umbilical cord. I have to remind everyone again that this is 1983 and depicting birth in comics in mass market comics just wasn’t done in that time-frame!
When Jan drives to see me, with the artwork in hand, he’s dismayed. And Jan tells me, and he’s really concerned, “Don, Don, it’s going to cost us thousands of copies in sales. You can’t do this.”
Unlike in earlier days, I was the deciding voice in what appeared in my comics. I wasn’t angry. I understood Jan’s concern, but this was too important and so much of why I created Sabre.
I said to Jan, in my apartment, as I looked at the artwork for the first time, “I’ll tell you what my feeling is, Jan. Childbirth is a natural and beautiful event. Now, we’ve gone over these pages, and the birth sequence takes place into the midst of warfare. The violence didn’t bother you, but the baby being born does. I’ll tell you what, Jan, ask me to take any act of violence out, and I’ll do it. But the babies being born, they stay.”
And to be fair, as I said, that’s another part of what the book was about, that our priorities are all askew.
Why is there such a problem with the babies being born but it’s acceptable for limbs to be blown off bodies, blood to spurt crazily into the air, smear over floor-boards? The slaughter hardly raises an eyebrow. I just don’t get it! It drives me crazy. It’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy to this day!
But that’s not the end of the story. What happens when Jan picks up the rest of the art from Billy for Sabre #7? Right away, because the story switches scenes, we are with Deuces Wild and Summer Ice. And it’s two men kissing in an American comic!
Now, we have to keep in mind that this is 1983, it’s not 2013, and in pop culture gays hardly existed in the world of comics, especially ones with costumed characters. And there were no physical displays between men. I’d already had lesbians in Detectives Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green in 1981, but let’s be candid about this, while it was definitely taboo in comics at that time, there’s less people getting aggressively angry about gay women than when you depict two gay men together.
So, we’ve gone from the baby being born, to Deuces and Summer together, only pages apart, it one issue. There’s just nothing like this being done in comics.
Billy gave me a call after Jan left his place, and told me, “Jan just picked up the pages.”
And cautiously I said, “Yeah? And?”
“And he saw the two guys kissing.”
I took a breath and asked, “Ohh-kaay! And?”
And Billy said, “Well, he looked down at the pages and then he looked up at me and then he looked back down at the pages for a long time and then he looked back up at me and then he looked back down at the pages again for a looong time.”
“And then he looked back up at me and sighed, ‘I guess there’s no sense in talking to Don about this, is there?'”
LGBT Comics Timeline states Sabre had the first gays in a series’s supporting cast and the first gay kiss in a mass market comic.
This time the book came out exactly the way it was intended to be.