The Final ’80s Countdown, Part Twenty-Three.

§ November 8th, 2023 § Filed under final countdown § 16 Comments

And we’re back to the “fave ’80s indies” poll with our next entry:

Jon Sable, Freelance (First 1983-1988)

I did read Jon Sable Freelance for a while, starting somewhere in the early issues (not with #1, but around issue #10 or #12 or so) and kept up with it for a couple of years. Near the end there, I was mainly picking it up for my dad, as it was one of the few comics I was buying that he was also reading. I eventually dropped the book, as it was costing me a whole $1.75 a month, and I wasn’t enjoying it quite as much. (At least I was still buying Groo the Wanderer which my dad was also reading.)

The series premise was that Jon Sable was a bounty hunter for hire, who had a “secret identity” as a children’s book author named “B.B. Flemm” (complete with a blonde wig and mustache), which was a little peculiar but did give the book that little bit of a twist to make it unique. Mike Grell created the character, wrote the entire initial series, drew all the covers, and illustrated most of it with other artists stepping in during the last dozen or so issues.

A second series started up in 1988, after the first ended, called simiply Sable and primarily written by Marv Wolfman, with art by Bill Jaaska and others. It was accompanied by a TV show adaptation of the property, also called Sable, that came and went with seven episodes in late ’87/early ’88. I never did read any of this second series, despite enjoying Jaaska’s artwork when I’ve encountered it. I also maybe saw a total of about 10 minutes of the TV show, which all things considered was probably about 10 minutes more than most people. Which…you know, it feels like the premise would lend itself to television, but not everything gets traction, y’know.

While the second series was running, First also published Mike’s Grell’s Sable, reprinting the early issues of the original run. The comic was canceled with #10.

Grell would return to the character with a couple of new mini-series from IDW: Bloodtrail in 2005, and Ashes of Eden in 2009. IDW would also release eight volumes of The Complete Jon Sable Freelance, which reprinted up to #45 of the initial run.

Comicmix would later, in the mid-2010s, put out four volumes of the Jon Sable Freelance Omnibus, reprinting all 56 issues of the original run, as well as the two iDW minis. The non-Grell Sable run is skipped entirely, unless some issues of that run are included in Volume 4 (as the original solicit for that volume lists the contents as including “other surprises”). All these reprint volumes appear to be out of print, but hopefully are still easy to find if you’re interested.

Along the way, Jon Sable popped up in the First Comics 988 crossover series, appropriately titled Crossroads, teaming the character with the ninja character Whisper in the first issue. This was by Mike Baron, Angel Medina and Rod Whigham. In 2000 Grell wrote a prose novel called Sable (which you can get for as little as five bucks from Amazon). And in 1996, Grell wrote and drew two issues of Maggie the Cat for Iimage Comics, featuring a recurring character from Jon Sable.

Like I said above, I only read these comics for a couple of years, and not from the beginning, so I can’t pin down a “peak” period of the character for you to sample. I think, though, if you want to give it a try, sticking to the first couple years’ worth of stories may be your best bet, where Grell’s story and art are at their strongest. And they’re fairly cheap, too…I think I have a couple of copies of the first issue at my shop right now, and they shouldn’t be more than two or three bucks apiece. And I’m pretty sure I have more of the series in the endless backstock that I’m always trying to get processed and priced.

I do want to point out one issue of particular note, #33 from 1986, which presents material from one of Sable’s alter-ego’s children’s books. Here we find out “B.B. Flemm” draws an awful lot like Segio Aragones, who provides the art for those segments.

And here’s something I wish I had a scan for to back me up…but sometime in the 1980s, my dad spotted in the classified ad section in the Soldier of Fortune magazine an entry that read something along the lines of

“Need help? Problems solved – Jon Sable Freelance”

…along with a phone number. Okay, I’m not sure of that wording at all, but it was definitely for “Jon Sable Freelance.” I have no idea if that was a joke inserted by an editor who was a fan of the comic and needed to fill space, or if it was an ad placed by First Comics, or possibly Grell himself, with the phone number going to a recorded message plugging the comic or something. A mystery for the ages! Unless someone knows the answer and can tell me.

EDIT: hold the phone, I actually used this new thing called “Google” and found this entry on the Internet Archive, featuring “full text of ‘Soldier of Fortune Magazine.” It’s, like it says, just text, not scans of the pages or anything, but it has the ad:

“JON SABLE, FREELANCE MERC. Covert, efficient, passport, anonymous. Short-term, high pay/risk contracts. Urban work preferred. Fee’s plus expenses. Nothing illegal. Contact:
H9S-3J3. (514) [REDACTED]. (101)”

I cut out the address and phone number, but they’re intact over at the link. This appears to be from the February 1986 issue, if I’m reading the info correctly. Anyway, my memory of the ad text was way off, but still I…I don’t know what to make of this. Again, if you folks have answers, let me know!

EDIT: Click here for the follow-up to this post!

16 Responses to “The Final ’80s Countdown, Part Twenty-Three.”

  • Jack says:

    I watched the TV show since I knew the source material, and if memory serves, it cast Sable as a mercenary who…didn’t kill anyone. Which kind of defeats the purpose of having a mercenary for hire. The author gimmick was intact, though.

  • Chris G says:

    The only thing I really remember about the Sable TV show was his blind wisecracking computer whiz buddy named “Cheesecake,” because he loved and took payment in cheesecake. I have an impression of it being muddy looking, but that may be because I had to watch it on the older, smaller TV upstairs.

  • will richards says:

    I wouldn’t hire him purely down to the apostrophe in fees. Unprofessional.

  • Chris Wuchte says:

    Grell has been funding omnibi on Kickstarter. Volume 1 has been published, Volume 2 funded and in production.

    If you’re a fan, it’s worth checking out. Lots of extras, and prices aren’t too bad. Got a head sketch in my Volume 1, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Sable is actually new to me, but always wanted to read it, and thought it would be cool to have a drawing by Grell, who I’m more familiar with through his DC work.

    Supposedly he’s going to be re-illustrating some of the issues he didn’t draw originally (I’m assuming just from the run he wrote), so the art will match throughout. Seems like a big task to take on when you’re approaching 80, but hopefully he’ll pull it off.

  • Nat Gertler says:

    Sable also appears in 1987’s Word Warriors… from which I own a page of art.

  • Mikester says:

    Chris/Nat — will add this info to a follow-up post. Thanks!

  • Sean Mageean says:

    How many votes did Jon Sable, Freelance get?

    I thought the original Jon Sable series was okay–but honestly I preferred Mike Grell’s Starslayer much more…even after Grell left and John Ostrander, Lenin Delsol, and Tim Truman took over on the scripting and art. Plus, Starslayer boasted the first appearances of The Rocketeer, and Grimjack.

  • Matthew Murray says:

    The link at the top of the for Soldier of Fortune will bring you to scans of the issues and you can find Jon Sable listed in a few issues.

    Lower right hand corner of page 110:

  • ExistentialMan says:

    Thanks for the link Matthew. Good thing Mr. Sable specifies “Nothing illegal” in the ad.

  • MixMat says:

    The First (1988) “Crisis Crossover” series was titled Crossroads, actually. It used Grimjack’s Cynosure nexus status as it’s gimmick, though I only had issue #5 featuring other ProgRuin 80’s indie faves Nexus & Grimjack.

    The “peak” in my view are the first 20 issues, when Grell was cooking on all burners, I think. He was building up Sable’s back-story and cast from, I think, a solid foundation that coalesced in Origin, “M.I.A” and his multi-part stories.

    I didn’t buy for the next while due to no access or just plain ignoring the next few issues until his art in #35 or so was just rough pencils mostly(i just happened to stumble across those issues and bought the next few). It did have a stopping point (for me) that connected to earlier issues/storyline. The between issues from descriptions online seemed filler/non-involving so I’ve never gone back and looked for back issues of those I missed first time around. The IDW tpbs were of material I had already read so I never bought them, but if they had continued past issue 20 and I had known/budgeted in 2000s I might have chosen differently, but there were just too many new/reprint collections/floppies I prioritised higher.

    Arthur Byron Cover wrote a comparison review of X-Men and JSF(at least I remember it as such), foreseeing the future of both titles in the early 80s. For X-Men I dimly recall it was nothing like what actually was in X-Men until Claremont’s departure in ’91(?) but for Sable he foretold that Sable would deal with aging and sense of purpose, I think. It was very insightful and maybe Grell read the review as he did deal with Sable’s journey forward, albeit as much as a monthly continuing comic book could.

    I retrospectively think he ran out of original ideas for Sable, and so left it for other ventures-Green Arrow Longbow Hunters being the most lastjng one(maybe only thing he could apply real world perspective he did so well in JSF, in a superhero context for DC) He did write it consistently longer than JSF, though not doing art on GA other than covers freed him from the monthly grind that I thought wore him out in the 40+ issues of JSF he did art on.

    I also watched a few episodes of the Sable TV series on broadcast tv, surprise, in this far corner of the world. I think Renee Russo as co-star was the only memorable (good) thing to come out of that. Cheesecake was bad memorable. I don’t recall how many episodes were shown here but it was at least 1 year after original broadcast in the US and wasn’t promoted/publicised much so I might have missed noticing all the episodes being shown.

  • Roel Torres says:

    This was the comic I voted for. I love Jon Sable, and I love Mike Grell. I’ve commissioned Sable sketches from Grell a couple of times, have several Grell sketches that were not commissions, and have half a dozen pages of the comic that were drawn by Jaaska. (The end of Jaaska’s life was tragic and a real sad story. Just FYI.) The wall in the background of my zoom meetings features nothing but a Grell commissioned piece, some random Grell sketches, and some Sable interior pages. (During a zoom figure drawing session we were both participating in, legendary inker Joe Rubinstein started chatting with me because he noticed all my Grell pages. It was a surreal moment.) It’s crazy how much joy you can get from a single creator and a single title. That’s the magic of comics. Thanks for doing this series (in general) and for this particular post (in specific), Mike! I appreciate it!

  • Snark Shark says:

    ” Which…you know, it feels like the premise would lend itself to television”

    Maybe it would have been better in the early 80’s.

    “Plus, Starslayer boasted the first appearances of The Rocketeer, and Grimjack.”


    My fave work by Grell is towards the middle of the run of Warlord.

  • Oliver says:

    Heavens, it’s sad to belatedly learn of Bill Jaaska’s lonely death! Vince Argondezzi was another comics artist whose relatively recent passing seemed to go disturbingly unnoticed for a long while.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    I hadn’t heard that Vince Argondezzi had passed away. I enjoy his and Roger McKenzie’s The Next Man comic, short lived though it was. As I recall he did some nice work on Infinity, Inc. as well. May he rest in peace.

  • CP Bananas says:

    A sincere question for the Sable fans here, from someone who’s never read any and isn’t sure this is google-able: what was the deal with the stuff on his face? I always assumed it was a concession to make a “real-world” character look more superheroic on the stands but what was the in-universe explanation?

  • Rob S. says:

    CP, from what I recall, it’s makeup Sable first applied when tracking and killing the poachers who killed his family — I think his main reasoning was to make him look fearsome. But it’s a long while since I read it, and there might be camouflage advantages, and perhaps even some ritualistic meaning too.

    And later, I assume he does it to partially conceal his identity in NYC, but I can’t say it does a very good job of it. From what I recall, he wears it less and less as the series progresses — although I don’t think I read far beyond when Grell left the interior art chores.