Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cheap Thrills -- JON SABLE FREELANCE #34

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin

Random Pulls from the Bargain Bin
In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult.  Thank goodness for the local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore!  Each week Daniel Elkin randomly grabs a comic from the bargain bin (for 50 cents) to see what kind of bang he can get for his two-bits.  These are those tales.
December 31, 2012 – paid 50 cents for:
JON SABLE FREELANCE #34
Published by: First Comics
Created, Written, and Illustrated: Mike Grell
Letterer: Ken Bruzenak
Colorist: Lynn Varley
Editor: Rick Oliver
BATHE IN PURE WATER TO WASH AWAY THE HUMAN SCENT.
In March of 1986, The New York Times charged that United Nations Secretary General and Austrian Presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim was a Nazi. Microsoft Corporation had its IPO. The Navy found all seven bodies of the Space Shuttle Challenger's astronauts dead inside the crew compartment. Van Halen began touring with Sammy Hagar. Husker Du released Candy Apple Grey. Janet Jackson released Control. Metallica released Master of Puppets. Lady Gaga was born (this way).
If you put March of 1986 in a cauldron, you could probably foresee Macbeth's fate. It was that potent. Chaos and Havoc seemed to be dancing a minuet on the world stage, and we, the poor unsuspecting public, were getting trodden underfoot. It was a time of cacophony, less like Walt Whitman's Song of Myself and more like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. It was amazing more of us weren't struck deaf right then and there.
This may have been because also in March of 1986, First Comics published Mike Grell's quiet masterpiece, Jon Sable Freelance #34 – a comic noted both for its quietude and its use of brown.
I like brown. It's my favorite color. It is the color of the primal force by which all other colors fade by comparison (I'm especially looking at you, Orange).
There's a whole lot of back-story to the Jon Sable Freelance franchise and good old Mike Grell himself that I'm going to totally ignore right now, and instead I am just fully immersing myself into the quiet genius of this issue. I'm going to get my fifty cents worth of brown wonderment, goddamnit, unsullied by the distractions of what is really going on.
And so.
The comic opens up to a page awash in emerald and brown, culminating in a naked woman taking a dip in a cold river's waters. There is something a little ominous about the trees on this page, and the woman's gun hanging on the rock in the last panel seems to foretell something nefarious. But we got a page heavy on the use of brown, and brother, I'm all in.
But it is on the next page that things go from interesting to testicle-tightening full-blown art genius shit BAM!
My scanner doesn't do this two-page spread justice (especially to the use of brown). Look at the movement on these pages. Your eye is forced to follow the storytelling just through the layout. Something unknown but bad is about to happen, then time shifts and we fade into the next part of the story seamlessly as if Grell was filming this shit. If I were compiling a Top Ten List of Artists from 1986, Grell would be in the top five BASED ON THESE TWO PAGES ALONE!
Damn.
The story now kicks into full gear in this book. Jon Sable has come to the Owl Cafe to meet up with a gentleman named Winter Wolf. Winter Wolf is an old Native American man who wears an awesome fedora with a feather in the hatband.
The waitress of the Owl Cafe is all nervous that Winter Wolf has shown up at seven, saying, “Dammit, you oughta know better than to come here now.” Sable wants to know “What the hell was that all about?” when suddenly a VW Bus painted in camouflage colors (mostly brown)SCREEECHES into the parking lot. On the side of the bus is a red circle with a white armored fist in the air. Winter Wolf turns to Sable and says:
A quick cut to the interior of the bus shows a grim faced fella wearing a brown(!) hat with a swastika on it.
This comic is actually taking place somewhere in Idaho, but for me, I prefer the setting to be somewhere in Illinois.
Anyway...
So Sable and Winter Wolf head off to the wilderness on horseback for a hunting trip. It is a wilderness that is full of brown. It's my favorite type of wilderness.
Sable tells Winter Wolf that he's not just on this trip to hunt, but also to LEARN “and to get back some of what I lost.” Winter Wolf tells him, “There are things a man can only find in himself... but sometimes you have to go to the wild places to look.
That's some profound profundity there, huh? I know when I look in the wild places to find myself, I'm often shocked at my hirsutism. It is my curse to bear. I blame my dad.
Winter Wolf wonders if an actual sable could possibly be Jon's totem animal. Winter Wolf then proceeds to tell Sable the tale of discovering his own totem animal. I'll give you three guesses what it is. Here's a hint – the dude's name is Winter Wolf.
Winter Wolf and Sable stop for the night. Winter Wolf begins to teach Sable about what it means to be a real hunter. Apparently, first you drink only spring water or spruce tea. Next, you eat no meat until you've killed something. You do these things because you don't want the wrong scent emanating from your wild places. You do these things and, according to Winter Wolf, “you may be able to touch a wild animal.
Which is pretty cool.
If that's your thing.
I guess.
Finally, Winter Wolf gets Sable to do this.
Sure, Old Man. It's to “wash away the human scent.”  Going to teach him how to “hunt,” huh?  “Touch a wild animal,” really? All that talk about wild places and now THIS? I'm beginning to see why they call you Winter WOLF.
Sable takes some target practice with his bow and arrow, and then compliments Winter Wolf on the tautness of his bow (damn, everything is dirty now).
Then suddenly this happens:
Sable and White Wolf watch as the cougar(?) eats the Buck (not a euphemism).
Then this happens:
Followed by this:
That's three two page spreads in a row. Damn.
Mike Grell likes drawing him some mammals, huh? And there is really a quietness to all this. Even as the cougar jumps the buck there is still a sense that we have stepped out of the hustle and the bustle and the noise and the stress of our day-to-day and we've entered somewhere peaceful, somewhere relaxing, somewhere where we can finally take the time, gather ourselves, reflect, contemplate, and understand.
Grell, in his nature drawings, has drawn out our nature.
It is brown, our nature. Very, very brown.
And therein we find a certain quiet, a certain calm. It's a certain quiet, brown calm.
And this is good.
Very good.
Aaaahhhhhh......
In this moment of communing with the forces that are larger than us, it only makes sense in this comic for Sable to draw a bead on another buck with his bow. It works somehow. Just go with it.
As he is about to send a sharpened stick careening into the brain of the brown buck, there is a sudden sharp red BUDDABUDDABUDDOW echoing through the trees.
This startles the buck. White Wolf identifies this sound as a “machine gun,” and Sable wants to“have a look.”
They see two heavily armed men dragging a “Selkirk Caribou” through the woods. The brown woods. They follow these guys to what appears to be a compound of some sort, complete with barbed wire and guard towers.
Then we get the last page of this book.
And we go from our brown solemnity to some seriously fucked up human cruelty shit.
Boom.
See what Grell did there? He kind of took advantage of you, didn't he? Pulled the old switcheroo - Wahoo! He got you all brown and cozy, all snuggled up in the quiet of the natural world, content, relaxed. You had forgotten the start of this book as you luxuriated in this blanket of brownness (the brownest of brownness), and just as you were about to find out some important truths about yourself in your wild places, he smacks you right in the face with Nazi atrocity.
Fucking Nazis.
Damn.
This was some pretty subtle brown abuse, if you ask me. It was also some pretty awesome comic book creating.
Now sure, there's that whole back-story shit about the character Sable being a bounty hunter and a mercenary, and then there's the fact about the creator of this book, Grell himself, being an avid big game hunter. There's also that uncomfortable stuff about Sable being turned into a TV show back then, with the original pilot having Gene Simmons (yes, that Gene Simmons) as Sable. But none of that matters when dealing with the book I pulled out of the bargain bin. What I hold in my hands is a complete work of art, upon which I refuse to foist any of my background knowledge or current moral standings.
This is good stuff, a credit to comics. Jon Sable Freelance #34 utilizes all the tricks inherent in the comic book medium to work its magic on us, its audience. It washes us in brown and then colors us in red. We are manipulated as an audience exactly in the manner that Grell wanted us to be manipulated. He is successful in every artistic intent in this book.
And for that it should be celebrated.
Certainly not cast adrift in the bargain bin, no matter what color they paint it.
But that is another topic for another time, as I am too browned out to deal with it right now.
Instead, I'll leave you with the question that I tend to ask at he end of these columns. Was Jon Sable Freelance #34 worth the fifty cents I paid for it?
Abso-brown-lutely.

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