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Comics Reporter Interview: Mark Sable

October 9, 2011



I was pitched an interview with the writer Mark Sable by one of his publishers. I usually don't respond to those kinds of pitches, but I knew I had heard the name before, and went to look him up.

A picture started to form. Mark Sable is one of those constantly-employed writers that splits his time between his own projects, comics series and stand-alones for various smaller publishers and start-ups, and occasional but not always reliable work at the big two companies, mainly but not limited to one-shots and fill-ins. I think that's a fascinating place for a writer to be in their career: getting a lot of work but maybe not the exact kind of work that might come eventually come to you, with hundreds of comics readers that are wannabe writers wanting to take your place, all without the kind of high-profile gig that stamps you in the mind of the majority of the medium's fans. I read from two ongoing/forthcoming projects from Sable in specific preparation for this talk: Graveyard Of Empires from Image, and Decoy from Kickstart. I found compelling much of what Mark Sable had to say about his work and orienting himself towards writing in general, and I thank him for the time in doing the piece and taking a peek at the transcript before publication. -- Tom Spurgeon



TOM SPURGEON: I take it from what I've read you're a lifelong comics reader or at least a long-time comics reader?

SABLE: Yeah, lifelong. I think like everyone else there's a short break in high school. I'd like to say it was to chase girls [laughs] but I think it was the fear of being a social outcast building up stronger than in other years. The story I tell sometimes is that I was bar mitzvahed and literally the theme of my bar mitzvah was Marvel Comics.

SPURGEON: Decoy is one of the comics you sent me. There are thriller elements to it, which makes me think that pacing is important. How much information are you providing the artist in terms of pacing issues: say, the number of panels per page, or the panel shapes and sizes. Do you provide more information now than you used to as far as storytelling rhythms go?

SABLE: Yes and no. The one thing I've always done, and I'll always continue to do it unless mandated otherwise, is indicate the number of panels. That's not to say an artist can't say to me, "I want an extra panel" or "I don't need as many panels." But if I don't do that, I'll over- or underestimate what I can fit on a page.

The other thing I'm very careful about is with double-page spreads; I try not to have panels that run horizontally across two pages. It's very hard to pull off, and if I don't tell an artist, sometimes they'll do it. I don't think it's even the artist's fault. There's a sequence in Graveyard Of Empires that Paul and I sat down and worked out, it was meant to work that way.

I'm not that specific with the shape of the panels. That's something for the artist to decide. I'm not at the point where I feel comfortable having a strong opinion on the matter. I give panel size, and I try to indicate the pacing to some degree: "Okay, this panel should be larger." Also, someone like Andy McDonald, although it's the first time I've worked with him, I've known him a long time personally. I've followed his work. I feel like there's a level of trust with him where it's always like, "Okay here's the script. If you find a better way to do it..." That's a situation where there's enough creative participation and collaboration that we can go back and forth on a particular thing. Should this be a splash? Should it not?

SPURGEON: It seems to me you're at the point in your career where you don't have those recurring mainstream gigs that define the rest of your schedule. How do you manage a career where a writer is where you are? What projects you take on and what do you take a pass on? How much attention to you pay to projects in terms of getting you from one place to another career-wise, or do you just take things as they interest you and work as much as possible?

SABLE: There's a little bit of both there. Ideally, I'd like to have stability of the sort that as a freelancer I don't completely have -- at least in terms of my writing. I teach writing as well, primarily screenwriting and TV writing, and that's really rewarding in and of itself. Having a source of income outside of comics is helpful just to live, but it also lets me have a little bit of say. There are some things I can say no to. Not everyone can, and it's easy on the outside to wonder how a creator could say yes to a project that seems so obviously wrong for them.

I don't want to complain. I've been extremely fortunate. But comics don't pay a lot. How many comics creators get healthcare? I'd certainly love more regular gigs from the Big Two, but that being said I want them to be the right gigs. Not that I'm not hungry, but I think I felt desperate in the beginning and a little dazzled. They approached me to do Teen Titans stuff right after Grounded, and I was so flattered that I didn't wonder if that was the right fit for me.

Another issue about doing work for the Big Two is that no matter what it's going to be read by more people than read my creator-owned stuff. I don't know what the percentage is, but I think I've done much more creator-owned work than Big Two work. But those work-for-hire books that I've done can stand out a lot more in casual readers' minds. When I was doing Teen Titans and Supergirl, just little arcs, the Cyborg story, I felt like I was getting maybe typecast a bit as the teen guy. I have no problems writing books like that. I wouldn't have written Grounded if I felt I had nothing to say in that genre. But I don't want to get limited to it.

When I look at people's careers I admire the most, they're people who are able to do some version of both. Brian K. Vaughan is someone I have a lot of respect for. There's an example of someone who's been extremely choosy about his work. It's hard to think of anything he's done that's not exceptional in some way. I know that when he started out he was doing some Marvel and DC stuff that are back-issue bin kind of stuff. He was fortunate enough to do work that would eclipse that. But who knows if he'd be able to be as choosy if he were not getting all that work from Hollywood?

There are a number of different scenarios I could see myself being happy doing. I could be very happy just doing comics, even after all those years of wanting to do film. I'm not above compromising. If Marvel or DC wanted to sign me to an exclusive, I'd be very happy to do that. They let you carve out exceptions for creator-owned work, so that would be fine. If I could do creator-owned and work on a television show -- it doesn't have to be Lost -- that would also be fine. Or to have something like Kirkman's career, where he really is making a living off of independent stuff. But the list of those people? It's like Kirkman and...

SPURGEON: Something like this Decoy book. How does that fit in to your desire to do a certain kind of work? What's the appeal of the project in that sense?

SABLE: There's a couple of things. I like espionage. I'd love to do a straight espionage book. It's something I've been trying to pitch, and it's been really hard. Quite frankly, outside of Queen and Country, which was a black and white for a small publisher, it's a genre that doesn't seem to have a lot of attraction at least as far as editors and publishers are concerned. So just the espionage aspect of it interests me, although the idea drifted pretty far from the hard kind of espionage I'd like to be doing. [Spurgeon laughs]

I'm trying to think of where the idea came from, it's always hard to pinpoint, and I'm sure the Life Model Decoy stuff from Marvel was somewhere in the mix there. I think Casanova was somewhat of an influence just in my getting excited -- it's my favorite book on the stands right now, period -- about espionage being something you could have fun with without veering off into Austin Powers territory. The thing that was maybe the clincher for me was I was reading a book called Wired For War. This is one of those things that if I lack that visual arts background that most creators have, I'd like to think my interests are one of the things I bring to the table. I mostly read non-fiction and things that are outside what most people would consider reading for fun.

This book Wired For War is about the roboticization -- if that's a word -- of warfare. Just thinking about drones, how that's changed warfare. Just in the war in Iraq, the amount of drones just blew up. Even under Obama. You think of all the moral and ethical implications of what that means. That book opened my mind to that, as well as to what's technologically possible in robotics now and what's expected to be in the near future.

Other than the decoys in that book -- that's a pretty big "other than," it's like "other than the zombies -- but other than the decoys all the robotic stuff in there is pretty realistic. Some scenes have been cut, but there's a walker that one of the characters has, walkers like out of Robocop, but basically there's a real one out there that's been built. Some of the powers that Decoy has, like the synthetic aperture radar that allows him to see through things, they're real. That book exposed me to a host of things.

I'm going to blank on the name... it was a movie I saw [Transcendent Man]. It's based on a book by Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near, and its idea is that technology is increasing. Technological growth is increasing exponentially. Kurzweil believes that between nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and genetics, we're all going to be cyborgs. To an extent we already are, with our smart phones. He thinks within our lifetime we'll see self-aware AI.

There's two sides to this vision. There's the Rise Of The Machines/Terminator scenario. They became self-aware and they don't need us. But there's also this optimistic idea that these beings will allow us to become god-like and immortal. Kurzweil is in the optimist camp, and I'd never really been exposed to that side of things He's a technologist/futurist. He's also an inventor. He invented a reader -- I don't know if he invented the scanner, but you scan it over a page and it reads out loud to the blind. He has a ton of patents. He lost his father, which I did last year. He wants to come to terms with his own mortality, or not come to terms with it. He's on this quest of getting artificial intelligence and robotic, accelerate it.

How does all this relate to Decoy? The story of Decoy is this guy wakes up and he realizes he's a robot -- not just any robot, but a Life Model Decoy for a spy. Instead of the spy using the decoy out in the field, so the bad guy thinks he's killed the spy when he really killed the decoy, the spy uses the decoy at home to be the perfect father and perfect husband and the spy goes out and enjoys shooting people. [laughter] He's into gambling and womanizing and all those things. So there are character things that appeal to me there.

Relating this back to robotics, when this decoy is forced to take on the role of the spy, the two organizations that are the threats in the book reflect both sides of this philosophy. There's a neo-Luddite group that fears the Rise of the Machines scenario and wants to send mankind back into the Dark Ages. There's another one that believes AI is a good thing but they happen to be a criminal syndicate. They believe there's a virtual heaven for everybody; they just want to control the gates. Getting to play with those ideas is something that interests me. As you can tell, I can ramble on about it. [Spurgeon laughs]

Ultimately to me the hook into it as a writer when it became something more than conceptual was the idea of what would you if you found out your entire family, all your family relationships were something that was programmed into you. They feel real but they're not, and maybe you can let them go. What do you do? Somebody asked me at one point if I had a robot, what would I do. It would be somewhat similar to what Zekiel Dax, the spy in the book, does. I don't think I'd use it so I could go out whoring.

SPURGEON: So what is your best work, Mark? What should we buy?

SABLE: [laughs] Fearless is being reintroduced in trade, and I hope people pick it up. But t's hard to think of anything I'm more proud of than Graveyard, Graveyard of Empires from Image. I'm genuinely proud of it. I'm finishing up the last issue with Paul. I think it's his best as well. I don't feel like I'm being disingenuous with that.

I think Decoy is very strong as well. The tone is lighter. Story structure is something I've always worked on very hard. In terms of character arcs, I don't think I've nailed it any better than in Decoy. And Andy MacDonald's art is great. I really feel those books are the best things I've done so far. Lest I sound too in love with my writing, nothing I write meets my expectations for my work. Every time something new comes out I'm overjoyed at the art and I cringe at the writing. I hate going back and re-reading things, and I don't unless I have to. But yeah, Decoy and Graveyard, in all sincerity I stand by those as the best two things I've written so far.