Sable symbolically bestrides the city. Artist: Mike Grell.

JON SABLE, FREELANCE

Original medium: Comic books
Published by: First Comics
First appeared: 1983
Creator: Mike Grell
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Following the mid-1970s institution of the Direct Market in comic books, new publishers, taking advantage of altered distribution conditions, proliferated. One thing most had in common …

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… was irregularity of publication. Most of their comics didn't have set schedules; and of those that did, most didn't stick to them very well. An exception was First Comics, which, starting in 1983, published nothing but ongoing monthlies, and it published them on a reliably monthly basis.

The company's third title, Jon Sable, Freelance, was actually its first with a brand-new character. Warp, which debuted with a March, 1983 cover date, was based on a stage production; and E-Man (April) was a revival of an old Charlton Comics superhero. But in Sable (June) the hero started from scratch, with no prior history in any medium. In keeping with First's early tendency to work mostly with personnel favored by the fan community, he was created by cartoonist Mike Grell, already well known as the creator of DC Comics' Warlord and his own Starslayer, which had begun the previous year from Pacific Comics.

Sable represented a reversal of the usual superhero situation, in which the mystery-shrouded adventurer was his real identity and the open, public persona was the disguise. He'd been a game keeper in Rhodesia until poachers murdered his family and almost got him as well. Shattered, he disappeared, surfacing years later in America where, under the name B.B. Flemm, he'd become a well-known author of children's books. But when hired by a client to right some wrong, he'd sally forth to combat evil under his own name, using warpaint as a disguise so nobody would connect mild-mannered Flemm with the tough, violent hero. The "Freelance" part of the title referred to his habit of working for a succession of employers rather than settling into a steady job — in the earliest use of the word, the freelancer was a man with a weapon. In the Old West, he'd have been called a hired gun.

The comic book continued for 56 monthly issues, ending with a cover date of February, 1988. All were written by Grell, and most had artwork by him as well, tho other talents began drawing it after the first few years. Upon the cancellation of the series, the character was immediately re-launched in a new one, Sable, with a first issue dated March, 1988. The new title signified new directions, as that was when Marv Wolfman (Nova, Dial H for Hero) took over the writing — but the reason for starting his tenure with a new "first issue" probably had more to do with the fact that in the Direct Market, a "#1" could be expected to sell much better than a "#57". Under the new name, it lasted 27 more issues, ending in May, 1990.

The new title also tied in with the TV show, which had begun on ABC November 7, 1987, and was succinctly called Sable. The title character was played by Lewis Van Bergen, who had played Willie Garvin in a 1982 TV production of Modesty Blaise. The TV show differed from the comic book most noticeably by giving Sable a sidekick — and a blind one, at that, computer expert Joe "Cheesecake" Tyson, played by Ken Page (Oogie Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas). Also, B.B. Flemm's name was changed to Nicholas Fleming. Only seven episodes were aired, the last one on January 2, 1988, tho three more were scripted.

As the Sable title was winding down, First reprinted #s 1-10 of the original series in Mike Grell's Sable, which ran March through December, 1990. Not long after this final title ended, the company itself folded. Sable was homeless for the rest of the 1990s (tho he did make a major guest appearance in Grell's Shaman's Tears in 1995).

He returned in 2000, but not in comics. Sable, written by Grell, was published as a novel during July of that year. The story covered the first half-dozen issues of the comic book. A cover blurb promised it was soon to be a major motion picture, but that didn't happen. The character wasn't seen again until 2005.

In March of that year, IDW Publishing (John Law) launched him in a six-issue mini-series, giving the character his first new adventure in a decade and a half. In April the same publisher started filling readers in on his background by reprinting the original comic books in graphic novel form. This followed on the heels of IDW's revival of Grimjack, another old First Comics character. Both revivals have been praised by critics, but it remains to be seen if they can maintain a presence in the 21st century comic book market.

— DDM

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Text ©2005-07 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Nightsky Sable LLC.