Continuing our monster interview with Don McGregor, Don talks about why he did a science fiction graphic novel, why he showed love between black and white characters, and between gay characters, and the frightening story of the day a beach that came alive.
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Don McGregor: Daniel, I want to say again I found it interesting how you were talking about your experience of when you first saw those books and how it stayed with you with memories of the time period that you saw them. I guess I was struck by how many people have expressed different life-stories about how they encountered those books and how they affected them. I suspect that it has something to do with when the person experiences the book, where they were at at that point in their lives.
Daniel Elkin for Comics Bulletin: Yeah and it was because it was like nothing else that I was reading at the time, it really stuck in my brain.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Why do you think it stuck in your brain so much, Daniel?
Elkin: Why did it stick in my brain? Well I think part of it was telling the stories about people and not about heroes. There was nudity in it, which was completely new for me, at least in comic books, and there’s this interracial relationship, and the hero looked like Jimi Hendrix, and all that sort of worked together to be unique. It was unlike anything that I had seen before and, like I wrote, unfortunately, it came at a time where I was sort of moving away from comics and I didn’t stick with the series. In retrospect, I apologize.
McGregor: Nothing to apologize for, Daniel. When people first began writing to my stories, or when I started doing conventions as a writer, it was a surprise how intense and emotional people were about the Panther, “Killraven”, Sabre, Detectives Inc.
Sometimes it felt as if I were in a Confessional, hearing things of such inner pain or joy, that it took me aback that people I did not know would reveal so much of themselves in such a candid manner to someone who was virtually a stranger to them. I don’t believe I was ever looking ahead or could have predicted such personal revelation from the readers when I wrote the stories.
You don’t think about any of that when you’re in the midst of creating. You’re just trying to write the story and I’ve think I’ve said this before to you guys, I’m just trying to hear the voices in my head, of the characters.
Certainly the voices of Sabre are completely different than in series like Detectives Inc. or Ragamuffins. Each series needs a separate narrative voice. A distinct approach to the writing. But that’s not including the voices of the characters. And in a series like Ragamuffins it has to be voices from the 1950s, and on top of that mostly the way young kids of five or six years old speak.
To be honest with you I wanted to do Ragamuffins before Sabre. But even I knew it would be foolhardy to test a market place most industry people did not feel existed in such a capacity to support a title, going with little kids growing up in the 1950s would have given me less of a chance to prove that it did. It’s also the reason I didn’t start with Detectives Inc. This medium was then in the throes of superheroes and costumed characters. I also knew that at that time I was known as a superhero, fantasy epic writer, that already that was the common perception. Yes, there were people who remembered I’d started published writing at Warren Magazines doing mostly horror stories, but we’re now three years down the line and doing a regular series that acquires an ardent following changes everything.
Even though I did “Morbius the Living Vampire” at Marvel, it was really “The Black Panther” and “Killraven” that had stayed with most people and that’s the category I suspect a lot of readers wanted to see me do. So, although Detectives Inc. and Ragamuffins were already developed, I knew I should wait until we had established that a book could be a success with what became known, eventually, as the direct market.
Thus, I started creating the world of Sabre, long before I even had an artist in mind. Who those people were, and how the world had come to the one they had to live and survive in.
Remember, when Sabre was first being solicited as a graphic album there weren’t a whole lot of other books of that nature being offered to the distributers. By the time we were doing Detectives Inc., in 1980, new graphic novels were coming in from different companies. The playing field was already changing radically. Distributors were actually starting to dictate to small publishers, “Well, if you do a private eye series, we’re only going to order this many copies, but if you do a science fiction or a super hero book, well we’ll order 10,000 more copies, or however many more an incentive you want.” That’s just an example off the top of my head.
Rules get solidified into cement pretty quickly in this business. So, in a quick amount of time, within a couple of years, distributors are in essence dictating to publishers what they should publish. Their edict isn’t based on creativity and it sure isn’t based on expanding the medium. The mentality is mostly just based on what sold in the past and repeat that process until something new gets done, that does sell, and then, maybe they will give other approaches more of a chance.
Therefore, if the people distributing books to store owners put pressure on what can be done long before a book ever gets a chance for store-owners to decide if they want to carry it, you’re in a new uphill battle. If those people don’t feel there’s an audience for private eye books, mystery books, it’s going to be harder to convince anyone they should let you write it.
So by the time I was writing Detectives Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green, there already was a system that was steadily becoming more rigid in its views, and would try to subtly influence the medium.
Sacks: The thing that I like most about the books is your incredible open-mindedness, with all the diversity of types of characters that you have, which is the reputation that’s followed you throughout your whole career. You talk so much about how important it was for you to have a gay couple in comics 25 years before that sort of thing was even remotely commonplace. Why was it so important that you do that?
McGregor: There’s no easy one or two line quick reply to that. To be honest with you, I don’t recall having a whole lot of ways that I actively thought about. Certainly, I got asked that question over the years, mostly when it came to race, and always from white questioners. I didn’t have an answer, and didn’t think about it until I’d been asked the question a number of times, in different ways, but always as if they thought I had an answer, or should have an answer. I couldn’t say, “Well, listen, I had this reason, or that reason” because it never occurred to me before the questions started.
Now, over the years, I’ve had thoughts about it, and they might have some validity, but it’s all thought of after the fact. I could say that living in New York had impact on me wanting more diversity, and it might have a little. But then that wouldn’t explain why I had already been tackling race issues even before the Warren Magazines, while I was still in Rhode Island.
When I started working at Marvel Comics, and realizing the attitude that the major companies had to race and sexual choice, I just never understood it. The reason “Panther’s Rage” had a majority black cast was because it was set in Wakanda, a hidden African nation, and that’s where editorial told me they wanted the series to take place. The inter-racial kiss in “Killraven”, and later certainly much more sexual in sexual in Sabre, probably evolved from having friends who had interracial relationships and seeing how much pain was brought needlessly into their lives.
You’re asking me about including gay characters, in this instance. There could have been some influence that, as I lived and wrote in New York, I had friends and co-workers who were gay, and so it was natural for me to want to write about the world I had around me. The storyteller may have wanted to reflect the world around me, but I don’t recall any active thought about it.
And again, I didn’t understand the big deal made about it. And if, as it seemed, the bottom line for the companies was money, then why would they want to make large groups of people who buy comics non-existent?
After a couple of decades of being asked these kind of questions, I certainly became conscious of the fact that some people were mystified, some aggravated, some curious, some sincerely believing there must be some active agenda for me to consider it so important.
On a tangent from that question, I think you reflect life-experiences you have had sometimes, and that informs a particular scene, or certain types of characters. You know there is a truth to that scene because you have had it happen to you, or have witnessed it happen to someone you know, or have seen from the side-lines how some people react to a given situation.
For instance, Jason, I think you mentioned the scene with the horseshoe crabs in your comments. That’s actually based on a real moment. I was still living out in Rhode Island at the time. I lived in a house that was three blocks up from the ocean and you could walk up to a private stretch of beach. One night I was walking with my ex-wife up the dark, lonely stretch of beach sand. Suddenly, the night, the ocean front, all of that changed from anything I’d ever experienced before. It was one of those very strange, surreal moments when you can’t figure out what is going on and it defies any reality you’ve ever experienced.
The closest thing I could describe this was that the earth seemed to moving beneath us; it was still sandy and where the waves had stretched, wet and clay-like, but it moved beneath us as if alive. There’s this incredible jolt of adrenaline, because you can’t trust the ground you are walking on. It doesn’t adhere to way it has been all your life! The sand is actually shifting and moving and, as you take steps, you’re surprised to find you are still on shifting ground. I imagine it would be something like experiencing an earthquake, where the place that was safe one minute is now shaking all about you, everything inexplicably about to crash around you.
Our feet kept walking, but you haven’t gotten to a safe place. What I didn’t know at the time was that horseshoe crabs would come onto the beach and they would bury themselves in the sand. Now, these horse-shoe crabs, as the sand cascades off them and reveals them, are really huge. Dark, hard shells revealed, moving, and I didn’t immediately know what the hell I was seeing. I knew I didn’t want to topple over on top of them, that was for certain. Of course the crabs were not as big as I had them mutated in Sabre. I did that to make the sequence in the comic visually more exciting and also threatening to Sabre and Melissa. But it still was pretty intense for a few moments, in real life, and our equilibrium was gone.
The horseshoe crabs, we later learned, come onshore to lay their eggs, and they burrow themselves under the sand at the shoreline. We’d disturbed them as we walked up the coastline, and I guess the panic message went out from the first ones we stepped on, all the way up the shoreline, because you not only felt it, but as it continued you could see the sand rippling ahead of you, into the distance, unnervingly.
Anyhow, that inspired me to think, “That’s a good idea for a scene. It’s pretty visual, it’s great for comics.” The writer is always filing things away. Trying out different scenarios. “Well, maybe the characters are going out to have sex on the beach and this terrifying undulation of sand and ground ends their rapture. And then they find that they are lying on top of these frightening horseshoe crabs. That might work, I don’t know.” And sometime along the way, many years later, a lifetime removed, I find, Sabre: The Decadence Indoctrination is the story where this can be used.
So a lot of the things are based on real life events. The Clown Brothers, for instance, are based on real people, and there’s a sequence in there with the wigs, when one of the brothers pulls the wig off the other one, that really happened. They were relatives I had and they actually went to court to sue each other over for one pulling the wig off the other one in public. So this, as surreal and as dumb as it is, also reflects how crazy people can get and hopefully there’s a spark there that helps identify the character and keep the story ablaze. It’s so real. I really, really haven’t exaggerated it at all. So a lot of the sequences are based on something that has happened. I suspect I’m probably more Winslow Butterfingers than a Sabre, though I didn’t have Aloysius, the voice activated dye-churner robot RR9/18 beside me when I was around them. I wish I did. Aloysius would have been a good companion.
Come back tomorrow and hear more amazing behind-the-scenes stories about Sabre! And remember…