Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gulacy Week: "Sabre"

Though I read Sabre (full title: "Slow Fade of an Endagered Species") with the intention of writing a piece about artist Paul Gulacy's work, I was inevitably drawn to examine the motivations & personality of writer Don McGregor. For as much as the graphic novel, first published by Eclipse Comics in 1978, is distinctive for Gulacy's singular and unique art, it is quite a frank personal narrative of a comic book industry maverick.

Sabre opens with a portrait of a dystopian American future that is both eerily similar to our own era and also reminiscent of a Libertarian's nightmare. Droughts, viruses, terrorists, and more have ravaged the U.S. -- but also enumerated among the threats are banal entertainment for the masses (read: television & presumably mainstream comic books), and "the government is taking away our guns."

McGregor's yearning for an earlier time of Romantic individualism, personified by the replica antique guns that are referred to in the story as a societal fad, is ultimately embodied in the person of Sabre himself.

Sabre is a black version of Clint Eastwood who walks the world like Caine in Kung Fu via Samuel Jackson as Jules from Pulp Fiction. Much like fellow maverick The Prisoner (of which much of the book is reminiscent), Sabre fights to be more than just a number, more than just one of the mundane brainwashed masses.

Sabre's one-man crusade against a fascist, fantastic neo-Barbarella society is echoed in other entertainment of the period, everything from the aforementioned Prisoner to John Ostrander and Tim Truman's Grimjack to Roger Corman's movie classic Deathrace 2000.

And though the graphic novel might seem dated with McGregor's bombastic, hyper-poetic narration & dialogue and Gulacy's spot-on photo-reference use of celebrities such as Eastwood and Woody Allen, Sabre is a vital link to future dystopian tales such as Transmetropolitan, Marshall Law, and some of Frank Miller's work.

Then again, as a friend suggested,

"It's all "It's all $&@#$ Philip K. Dick. All of them!"

Whatever the case, Sabre is a compelling, quirky graphic novel that deserves a look, if only for its historical significance. It was one of the first graphic novels for the direct market, and its success helped pave the way for more "adult" narratives in mainstream comics.

Paul Gulacy's art in the book, freed from the restraints of the comic code, presented in a larger tabloid-size, and rendered in glorious black & white, is stunning. I've always felt that Gulacy's play of darks against lights and intricate linework is best viewed in black and white, his signature style benefiting from the purity of the format. (This is exactly one of the reasons I lament the rumored copyright issues that have impeded the Essential Master of Kung Fu from Marvel.)

While some critics in this age of Greg Land & Bryan Hitch may bemoan the use of photo-reference, Gulacy's use of it is compelling. To have a character you have only been introduced to in an indistinct wide shot suddenly come into focus as a dead-on Woody Allen clone is not only amusing but gives the story an added layer of subtext in regards to the character and his significance to the story.

There are certain prickly parts of Sabre upon one may stumble. There is the "rape by animated skeleton" scene. And then there's Sabre's definition of the word "chauvinism," of which perhaps only Dave Sim might approve:

"...a short-hand label for a lot of self-pitying defeatists, who had found a way of blaming others for their failures."

And then there is the issue of Don McGregor's epic, at times overly-effusive writing style, which would have been perhaps more at home in a sprawling Ayn Randian prose narrative than a comic book.

But, like the character of Sabre himself, there is a certain allure to the figure of the Maverick, to the idea of one fighting against the world. McGregor in his afterward to the first edition of Sabre referred to the movie Network in relation to the production of mainstream comics -- a film about a rogue newscaster who starts a revolution. Ultimately, the revolution in that movie was co-opted by the "Man" and rendered impotent, declawed.

Sabre acknowledges this eventuality in the story but adds,

"The world shapers enforce their own delusions...but my own madness is so much more fun..."

Sabre was released in an affordable 20th Anniversary Edition by Image Comics in 1998.

1 comment:

  1. I found the Sabre comic books for this (issues 1-12 or so) at a second hand store years ago, and picked them up, not knowing what they were, and was thrilled to have found a good comic story no one else had heard of, at least among those I knew at the time. I agree with the criticisms here, especially about the narration, but they were a story that was at least grasping at greatness (if falling short in my estimation). The worst thing that so many comic books and other media do, in my opinion, is not aspire to greatness. Give me sometimes pretentious over consistently banal any day.