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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Interview With Mike Grell

This interview originally ran on the Starland site in 2005. In it, Grell speaks of the (then) new Jon Sable miniseries, the character himself, the failed Sable t.v. show and a failed Sable/Batman crossover that never saw the light of day.

Mark: For those unfamiliar, give us a little background. Who is Jon Sable?

Mike: His business card reads: JON SABLE, FREELANCE, Freelance bounty hunter, bodyguard, mercenary - anything. As long as it's dangerous. He's the kind of guy men want to be and women want to be with - unless you know what made him what he is.

SABLE'S life was shattered by the slaughter of his family by ivory poachers - and by his own terrible revenge. But what do you do when vengeance is done?

Deported from his beloved Africa, SABLE becomes a hopeless drunk, until his old mentor SONNY PRATT pulls him out of the gutter and tries to set him back on his feet.

What few people know is that his bizarre battle mask hides a gentle side. Under the pen name "B.B. FLEMM", SABLE is the author of popular children's stories about a troop of leprechauns living in Central Park. Guided by his literary agent EDEN KENDALL, he struggles to put his life back together.

Now living in New York, he meets artist MYKE BLACKMON, who illustrates his leprechaun stories. Finally, there is someone who can break through the barriers and make him dare to love again.

But his dark past won't stay buried.

Mark: Were you trying to accomplish anything in particular with the character, and do you believe you were successful?

Mike: Yes. I was trying to break the mold of the standard comic book hero. I was tired of doing superheroes and wanted a character set in the real world, who dealt with the things you hear about news, who had to be responsible for his actions (Ever wonder about the folks on the ground when superman throws a villain through a building?) and was personally affected by the violence he inflicted.

Mark: How do you feel Sable is unique as a comics character?

Mike: For all of the above reasons, plus the fact that I turned the standard comic book hero upside down - your stock superhero is mild-mannered by day and the dark avenger by night. Sable is practically listed in the Yellow Pages under Blood/Guts. Everyone knows he's Mr. Action Adventure. His deep, dark secret is that he's also a closet nice guy who writes children's books. B. B. FLEMM is not a secret identity; it's his nom de plume. He only wears the stupid wig for personal appearances because he doesn't want his knuckle-dragger pals to know he has a soft side.

Mark: Tell us what you can about this new storyline.

Mike: In terms of continuity, BLOOD TRAIL essentially takes up where my novel left off, but also combines characterization developed in the comics. It's designed to re-introduce the character to an audience that may not have seen the original material, so I'm being very careful to bring people up to speed.

SABLE finds himself at a low point in his life. His books are selling poorly, his relationship with MYKE BLACKMON has fallen apart; he's suffering PTSD flashbacks and he's off the wagon. His old pal SONNY PRATT has taken him in and is trying to help him put his life together when JACOB INYATI, Sable's old friend and former tracker, arrives in New York as newly appointed Ambassador to the U.N. and is met with an assassination attempt. Sable is reluctantly drawn into the hunt for the assassin, but his involvement creates danger for everyone around him.

Mark: What will this volume in Sable "lore" add to the character? Will he be deepened?

Mike: I've tried to evolve the character over the years, making him accessible to today's audience. This is the "next step". There are layers to any good character that remain just below the surface - like licking a Tootsie Pop: there's going to be a payoff, but you need to be patient.

Mark: I have, over the years, formed the opinion that this character reflects the creator, to some degree. So, what do Mike Grell and Jon Sable have in common?

Mike: Agatha Christie said, "When you read a book, you get 10% plot, 20% characterization and 70% whatever the author knows best." I've been a hunter all my life, been on safari in Africa twice and one spent 18 nights in a tree trying to ambush a cattle-killing leopard. And I do have a certain amount of background in books for kids. Sable uses a broom handle Mauser, not because it's the best gun, but because I think it's cool; same for the '53 Studebaker.

Mark: I'd like to talk about a couple of old projects, first dealing with one planned in the early to mid-'80's, which never saw the light of day: Jon Sable/Batman. Would you comment on how far this went, and why fans never saw it?

Mike: The plot was finished and approved, the editors and creative staff were all onboard and the publishers both wanted to do it. Then the lawyers got involved and the deal turned into a morass that sucked the life out of the project. I'd still love to do it.

Mark: What was the premise behind the story?

Mike: The plot was simple, but fun. A man suffering from amnesia comes to Sable wanting him to help discover his identity. It should be a simple matter of running the guy's fingerprints. But there's a slight complication...under his suit, he's wearing a Batman costume! What if he really is?

Mark: If I'm not mistaken, it would have been the first crossover involving one of the Big Two publishers and an independent property. Did that have something to do with the project not seeing the light of day?

Mike: All I can tell you is that mostly it was a matter of approvals at the various stages. Time was short for production (something like 90 or 120 days), but the approval time was something like 15 working days at each stage (plot, script, pencils, inks, color), totaling more than half of the production schedule. We tried to get it cut to five working days, but ran into a brick wall. When it degenerated into an obvious chest-beating contest between the lawyers, we walked away. It just wasn't worth the endless battle. Like I said, I'd still be interested.

Mark: Next, there's the Jon Sable television show, which aired in 1987 on ABC, but didn't stick around long. Do you believe the character was well-handled by the network?

Mike: The show was doomed from the start, because they ignored the essential fact that Sable was the exact opposite of every other comic character. In typical Hollywood fashion, they decided that I had it all wrong. Their brilliantly unique idea was that by day he was the mild-mannered children's author and by night he became the dark avenger, complete with secret identity and the whole works. I told them up front, warned them when they did the pilot and predicted doom from the start. Three episodes into shooting, they decided that I did know what I was talking about and tried to change it, but they never got the chance to see the results. The show was canceled with episode two and only ran for six because they were already in the can and ABC needed to fill the slot.

That said, the creative staff - actors and techs, were wonderful. Lewis Van Bergen did a great job with the material he was given and Renee Russo made her acting debut as Eden Kendall. It's more than worthwhile to watch just to see her blossom right in front of the camera. Despite the material, she absolutely shines. That's called a Star... with a capital "S". I'd love to see her reprise her role in a movie.

Mark: What kind of fan response have you gotten since the announcement of Sable's return to comics?

Mike: It's been tremendously gratifying to know that so many of the old fans are still out there, waiting for Sable to return.

Mark: How did the deal with IDW come about?

Mike: Through months of effort and negotiating by Mike Gold, my old pal and editor on Sable. The Grimjack deal laid the groundwork for Sable to follow.

Mark: On the subject of a Jon Sable movie, has that been pitched, and, if so, what interest has been shown?

Mike: There is considerable interest in Sable for a film. At this point, with the book about to debut, we're examining all opportunities very carefully.

Mark: Do you have the time and/or interest to realize another ongoing Sable comic series?

Mike: If the numbers are there, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Nothing would give me greater pleasure.