Recently I opened up a box of old comics from my youth and revisited a few titles that I enjoyed back in the 80’s. One of the comic books that caught my eye was one of my favorite independent titles of that decade: Mike Grell’s Jon Sable, Freelance published by First Comics. It instantly brought me back to my prime years of comic book collecting.
My brother and I started collecting comics around 1977, and our collection is still intact. Very few issues are mint or near mint condition, with 90% falling into the category of “well read.” When comic book values increased during the 80’s we bagged and boarded them in an effort to keep them in good enough condition to fund our retirement, but that wasn’t realistic since we read them enough to crease the spines and wear out the covers. There was a time when I would buy near mint copies of some of the comics that were worn out, particularly some Claremont/Byrne/Austin issues of The Uncanny X-Men, but I stopped several years back when I opened up our box o’comics, looked at the wear on the covers, and was transported back to a days when I read them the first time around. Each worn cover was a reminder of the fun I had reading them, and I wouldn’t trade any of them for a mint copy.
We were strictly Marvel and DC readers in the early years of our comic book reading, buying most of our comics at the local convenience store. But on our first trip to the Galleria Mall in White Plains, New York around 1982, we discovered something that we only could have imagined in our dreams, a store devoted entirely to comic books: Heroes World. Our corner store probably had about 10 Marvel and DC titles, mostly for the well known characters (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Marvel Team Up, Action Comics), but Heroes World had dozens of titles (and back issues!!!). It was our first exposure to independent comics.
Jon Sable: Freelance #1 hit the stands with a cover date of June 1983. The cover shows Sable dressed completely in black with his signature battlemask with a skyline in the background. We were familiar with Mike Grell from his work on Warlord with DC, and his art and writing got us instantly hooked on Sable.
Jon Sable is a New York based gun for hire in with a secret identity as successful children’s book author B.B. Flemm. Issue #1 begins on the eve of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to New York City for a speech at the United Nations. Sable is established as a thorn in the NYPD’s side as the press questions Police Captain Winters’ ability to control security for the President’s visit. Sable returns home from a TV interview as B.B. Flemm and gets in his target practice at his home shooting range until his alarm signals an intrusion. Sable makes quick work of the three intruders and calmly walks to the car of the man who sent them into his home.
Sitting in the back seat of the chauffeured car is President Reagan. Sable passed his test by taking out the president’s three best men and is offered a job to add an extra layer of protection for his speech the following night at the U.N. Reagan has received information that there will be an assassination attempt, but when Sable attempts to politely decline, the Gipper subtly encourages him by informing Sable that he is fully aware of his children’s author alter ego, and his multi-million dollar career would take a hit if his secret is revealed. Reagan seals the deal by informing Sable that the assassin is Milo Jackson, a former teammate of Sable’s on the 1972 Olympic shooting team and fellow mercenary in Rhodesia several years later until Jackson disappeared after selling out his fellow mercenaries in an enemy ambush. Sable accepts the job.
No spoilers here. Grell puts together 28 pages of tight storytelling and fantastic art that made me count the days until the next issue arrived. Sable’s flashback sequence of his days as an Olympic athlete and mercenary in Rhodesia are just a small taste of his origin story that would be told over four issue arc from #3 to #7 that still ranks as one of my favorites. When I dug into the box o’comics again and saw the cover for issue #3, I remembered the first time I saw it on the rack at Heroes World and how it stood out among the other comics with the sable horns added to the B and L of the title font.
Fast forward to November 1987 and the premiere of the TV series Sable. I had grown up on The Incredible Hulk TV series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno and the TV adaptations of The Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America and Dr. Strange but after Hulk ended in 1982 it was difficult to find a comic character on TV with the exception of three subsequent made-for-TV Hulk movies. When I found out about the pilot for Sable, I was happily surprised that this independent comic book character was getting mainstream attention. But my enthusiasm quickly faded as I realized the show bore little resemblance to Grell’s comic book. Twenty five years later I’m still wondering why they felt the need to completely change Sable’s battlemask.
Jon Sable, Freelance was a title that made me count the days to our next trip to the comic shop. Looking back on this comic book thirty years later, I’m reminded of what I enjoyed about it the first time around. It was sharp, cool, and had a great lead character. Hopefully one day someone that truly respects the property will bring Jon Sable back as a TV series or feature film and keep it true to the Grell’s original comic book.