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CR Sunday Interview: Mark Sable
posted 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. Sable was the writer behind one series and one graphic novel with which I was familiar. The series was the high-concept, independent superhero work Grounded. As it turns out, that was his first published comics work. The graphic novel was an odd but memorable book about eating disorders in sororities, Hazed. I then recalled that Sable is the creator half of a series of conversations with Abhay Khosla that have been running, as he mentions in our chat below, over at The Savage Critics. I've enjoyed those quite a bit, and have been impressed with how Sable has held his own with the very skilled writer/talker Khosla.

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


imageTOM SPURGEON: I was looking at your resume, and the thing that jumps out is that you have three degrees. You studied English, you studied Drama, and you have a law degree.


SPURGEON: Not only is that a very broad education, but that's significant exposure to three very different kinds of writing. Has that been a boon to you at all in your career -- having all of those writing experiences?

SABLE: I'd like to think it has. It's hard to see a direct correlation sometimes. I'm not finding myself saying, when I'm writing dialogue, "If I wrote this as a brief, it'd be a lot more interesting." [Spurgeon laughs]

What they say about law school is that it teaches you a different way of looking at things and thinking. Sometimes I look at it and I'm like, "Wow, I spent way too much time in school. I'd be better off having life experience." Not that I stopped having a life when I was in school.

When I was in law school, and I know that this sounds ridiculous, but there was this mid-20s crisis based on thinking I was going to make it as a writer at 25. It didn't happen. No one was more shocked and appalled than me. So I did what a lot of people do: go to law school. That seems like a safe way to a career. I thought I could still do my writing. I learned the business side of entertainment. But I didn't get much writing done. What I learned most in law school is that I was so unhappy that the idea of not writing in some form in my life would be miserable for me.

I'm trying to think of some of the other ways it helped. The dramatic writing stuff, again, when I went to grad school, I think I was one of the few people right out of college. I now understand why schools want people to have a little bit of life experience, to be out in the world and work. I looked at it very much coming into it as "How this can help me?" I cared more about the screenwriting stuff and how it could help my career, how it could get me an agent, how I could break in. And I think, looking back, maybe it helped a little bit and maybe it didn't. I think the stuff that helped was just studying Shakespeare, studying Chekhov, reading Aristotle's poetics: that stuff. I don't think structure is necessarily my strong suit, and because it's not I've worked really hard at it. Being exposed to those things in a significant way really helped me.

I think you know Abhay Khosla?


SABLE: He's a critic and good friend of mine. We do a column on The Savage Critics called Creator vs. Critic, this back-and-forth thing. I'm always giving him a hard time about critical theory, which I do think has its uses. But it's a very different way of approaching things than a writer would. Thinking critically is important for writers, but too much critical theory and you start to question what the point of creating anything is.

It seemed like a lot of the criticism, whether it was Marxist or feminist or Freudian or whatever, whether I agreed with the politics behind it or not, it felt more like the critics or the grad students or whatever were trying to impose what they believed on the material rather than do an actual close reading. There seemed to me a game of, "Well, I can prove Shakespeare is homophobic. I'm not homophobic, so therefore I'm better than him." Well, no, you're not. Shakespeare created great if flawed work. Pointing out the flaws doesn't make you better than him.

It's not that critics are less valuable than artists, it's just that in the academy it seemed like a petty, personal competition with (mostly dead) writers. As an aspiring writer, it's crucial to know what great artists did wrong. But it's also important to recognize what they did right.

If you're a creative person in an embryonic stage, this drive to devalue the author can be damaging. If you're constantly told why an author you admire is worthless, why brother trying to follow in their footsteps?

It's been pointed out that I tend to let my characters speak for themselves and don't have a strong authorial presence. I sometimes wonder if that's a reaction to my time in school... if I don't want to give critics a target.

Still, being exposed to critical theory despite my allergy to it was one of the benefits of any kind of liberal arts. If I were creating my own course, I would focus too much on things that were in my interest area, or that I thought would help me. I 'm not sure I would have read modernist literature on my own. I'm not sure that shows up in my work, but... [laughter] I think it was all very valuable.

That's a very long-winded way of saying I'd like to think it all helped, certainly if for no other reason than I need to believe it helped because of all the time I spent in school. It's not something I'm usually conscious of when I'm writing. Sometimes afterwards looking back I can see it.

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: Oh, that's cool.

SABLE: There was a caricaturist there, and I gave out shirts with a picture of me -- this seems incredibly narcissistic looking back -- there's a picture of me on this shirt, a caricatured version of me in Iron Man's Silver Centurion armor. With the helmet off. And me wearing -- I no longer wear glasses, I wear contacts -- me wearing these really thick, socially damning glasses [laughter] and saying, "I had a MARVEL" -- Marvel in all caps -- "MARVELous time at Mark's bar mitzvah."

I look back at that now with both horror and fondness now.

SPURGEON: I think the majority of people reading this just had to suppress the desire to have one of those shirts. That sounds fantastic.

SABLE: I'll have to capture the image and try to sell them without Marvel suing me.

SPURGEON: As a comics reader, did you latch onto writers? Were you aware of writers the way fans usually become aware of creators at some point? If so, which writers stood out to you at that younger age, or even as you got older?

SABLE: At the younger age, it was not many. And it was not their fault. Larry Hama oddly enough stood out, because of that silent issue of GI