Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Sabre: An Exploitation Of Everything Dear

"At his worst, he could be overwritten and almost incoherent in his pretensions. At his best, he brought to comics...a literary style and philosophical ambition, and a maturity even in Comics-Code approved stuff, that's rarely been matched. He makes Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore look like...well, like comic book writers."
The Masked Bookwyrm

"Too many words, Don!"
Gene Colan

People either love or hate the work of Don McGregor. As you may've guessed, I'm somewhere in the middle. Like the above quotes intimate, people have a problem with McGregor for several reasons: His work is oftimes ludicrously florid, breathtakingly pretentious, and insanely dense & verbose. You can't skim through a Don McGregor book; You open up one of his stories, you're there for a while.
Sabre, the graphic novel published by Eclipse that was a big part of starting the whole direct sales movement, is a prime example of McGregor Mania, and even as a fan, I have mixed feelings about it (see previous post, back issue fans!)
A couple of years later, Dean Mullaney of Eclipse gave Don and his creation another spin, in a regular series, firstly reprinting the graphic novel in colour, then heading full pelt into a sequel: An Exploitation Of Everything Dear, and you know what? I think it's better.
Here's the cover to the first installment, full of the kind of dialogue that'll make Don haters wince in pain. (And this is just the cover!)

I'll admit, it makes me chuckle in a kind of "Only Don McGregor..." way, and the lettering is unbelievably amateurish for a professional book, but it's a great cover. In fact, most of the covers on this series are great, done as they are by Kent Williams. It's a shame he couldn't do the insides too.

The interior art is actually by Don's frequent collaborator Billy Graham. Now, as a kid I hated Billy's work (which is why I never got round to reading their Black Panther series properly), but I've since grown to appreciate his style, though I still feel he really shone with a good inker. Like in the first couple of issues here, where he's paired with George Freeman.

Anyway, the last time we saw Sabre he was walking away from his pregnant lady love, the test-tube created Melissa Siren. This time around, he's been captured by the fascist police state now in charge of America and flung in a cell, awaiting execution. His old adversary/best pal Blackstar Blood is trying to help him break out, and we're also introduced to fellow prisoners, and gay couple, Deuces Wild & Summer Ice.
In this first issue, we also get to meet the new bad guys, Joyful Slaughter, a spendidly venal good ol' boy who's running for President, and who sees Sabre's death as a perfect political showpiece, and his sidekick, animatronic assassin The Lounge Lizard, who smokes a pipe and wears a silk dressing gown while dismembering rebels.

Joyful is a great villain, all fake bonhomie & psychotic tendencies. The Lizard sadly, is a bit of a non-character. Maybe it's the way Graham draws him, but I just didn't feel the same menace I did from his predecessor Grouse, from the original story. That scene between Sabre & Joyful also points out another thing that irks McGregor's detractors. It's the way his characters will suddenly go off on long winded tracts about the meaning Don wants to impart from the story, and I guess sometimes it does feel slightly shoehorned in. But then, on the other hand, Sabre does talk like that all the time.
There's also the names Don comes up with for his characters, some people hate that. Yeah, it is a little wearing I suppose, but then Dickens did it, so why not? For those who care, about halfway through the run, it's explained that in this future world, it's the fashion for people to rename themselves in such a florid way.
But above & beyond all that, what I like about this series, especially compared to the original, is that here the characters do feel like real, breathing people. No, nobody talks like this, but in the world of McGregor, it's such a total package, where you're clearly not in the real world, you can kind of go with it.
Anyway, Sabre, Deuces & Summer escape from Joyful & his cronies, and head across The Rockies, our hero hell bent on reaching Melissa before the birth of their baby. Meanwhile, we're treated to several scenes of Melissa waiting for her man in the company of Willoughby, the Woody Allen-esque schlump who used to be on the bad guys side. Along the way, we also get this nice flashback about how the two first met, and at last, we start to feel like, yes, this is a real couple, and yes, they do love each other.

Moving on into the radiation soaked Oklahoma, Sabre & companions discuss, at great length, how it all went wrong in this Land Of The Free & Home of The Brave. Again, this is a little wearing, but I think even Don realizes this, as he repeatedly has Deuces & Summer tell Sabre to shut the hell up. Why I'll defend McGregor to the skies, even with all the stuff that annoys me nearly as much as everybody else, is when he hits upon heart-rendingly poignant scenes like this, where an old couple have died, hand in hand in their radiation suits.

Deuces and Summer work ok as supporting characters, though there is the feeling that Don is trying just a little too hard to make them personifications of opposing viewpoints (Deuces the 'man' of the relationship, as tough & can do as Sabre, and Summer the shrill, moaning 'woman' who eventually comes into his own)
Finally reaching the rebel stronghold (really just a collection of shacks) we're introduced to another great tough woman, in the tradition of Killraven's Mint Julep & Volcana Ash, the viper mouthed Midnight Storm. Midnight is a rough, tough hero like Sabre, except she stays and defends her people, instead of gallivanting around like Sabre does. That's the way she sees it, and is willing to let our otherwise preoccupied hero know about it.
I suspect these two might be ex-lovers, but at this point, Midnight's animosity is unexplained.
This rest of the series is a tour-de-force, as Joyful, The Lounge Lizard, Blackstar and a small army invade the village, laying waste to all and sundry. McGregor's experimentalism is in full flight, as he spans most of three issues detailing the battle from various angles and character viewpoints, that in real time would probably take only ten minutes to elapse.

And then there's ish 7, which is where we've been leading up to all this time.

It's a great issue, not least because Melissa giving birth is by no means a shock tactic, or a sales gimmick, but a vital ( the vital ) part of the story. According to the letters pages, several distributors were unwilling to stock this issue at the time, but it just works (and why wouldn't it?) and it's an issue that confirms the Don fan in me.

(Love how Sabre holds his baby just like Kunta Kinte in Roots. I don't know if the inference is deliberate, but it works for me) By the last couple of issues, everybody's 'arc's' converge in the tiny shack where Melissa is still giving birth. Willoughby, in an uncharacteristic act of heroism, buys it, Deuces & Summer prove their worth (to themselves if to nobody else), and the final face-off, refreshingly, isn't between Joyful & Sabre, but Joyful & Blackstar.

It all ends semi-happily, for Sabre & Melissa anyway, who don't actually seem to give a stuff for anybody but each other and their (by now two) babies.

An Exploitation Of Everything Dear is a pretty great series in the end, with some real soul to it. Although McGregor nay-sayers may not find anything here to change their minds either. Sometimes, he's so obtuse, you feel like you're missing the meaning of everything he's trying to say, and looking for stuff that isn't there.
But like I say, the heart I felt missing from the original book is here in abundance, not least in the fantastic letters pages, where Don's love for & care in his work beats strong, just like in the old Killraven days. You just don't see letters pages like that anymore. Plus there are some great backups with Melissa, Blackstar & Willoughby.
Basically, what I'm saying is that I'm prepared to accept the pretension, the speeches and the poetry,' cos I like the heart. And there was more to come...


  1. Good post, I also think I am in the middle with Don Mcgregor perhaps because his writings in super heroes didnt work for me.

    Sabre is a beatiful and incredible series, I love the artwork of Jose Ortiz who was the last one to draw the series in the 80s.

    Did anyone read the new series?Was it worth?

    Saludos from argentina

    keep up the good work

  2. I liked McGregor's work and followed SABRE through his various incarnations but I can honestly say I don't even recall anything you've just written about the series.It made that little of an impression on me I guess. Sorry, Don.

  3. I've heared that Paul Gulacy based his sabre designs on Hendrix. Neat eh?

  4. What a great overview Pete. I have to say I LOVE his writing. I always - even when young - found his words drew me into the story - like you I knew I had to jump in or leave it and the concepts were too exciting to leave. Klu Klux Klan in comics!! A crucifixion on the cover of a Marvel comic in the 70s WOW!
    I have followed his career and even love reading his short story collections.

    I recently printed an interview of Don's and read it to my wife on a long journey and she loved his storytelling even in an interview

    For those who fancy supporting an elder statesman (he'll kill me!) of comics - go to Amazon and search for 978-0980147919
    I recently bought the new hardback anniversary edition and really enjoyed going back to this interesting stuff
    People might not know he has a website, a Yahoo Group and is actually on Facebook too!

    Sorry to gush, but just adding a little balance (hah!) Thanks again for a great blog

  5. Gush away, sir. I did check Don's site, but not sure if it's updated that regularly. As I've said before tho', doing this blog has made me realise how much great stuff I never got round to buying, and McGregor's prose work is certainly on that list to get. Love to read that interview too. Oh, and Sabre IS Hendrix, but he's Eastwood too...

  6. I haven't read any Sabre, but since Norman alluded to it in his comment, I really liked those McGregor Black Panther stories in Jungle Action - when I was about 12, I bought most of that run from a used comic dealer after reading that 3-issue Black Panther arc in Marvel Premiere. I don't know how well it would stand up now, because I haven't read it since, but I know at the time that story really sucked me in with its melancholy, suspenseful mood, and I was quite impressed with the treatment of racism and the Klan in a comic book.