A couple of weeks ago I posted about comic book writer Mark Sable’s troubles with the TSA over a script of his excellent “Unthinkable” comic. What happened was Sable was detained by the authority because of the details within the script for “Unthinkable #3.” Mostly involving terror scenarios like 9/11 and other real-life terror attacks.
“Unthinkable” involves writer/producer Alan Ripley going to work for a Think Tank that imagines the worst-possible terror scenarios and helps the U.S. Government prepare in preventing such attacks. What eventually happens is Ripley’s colleagues at the think tank start dying off in scenarios they dreamed up. Ripley soon becomes a suspect and the mini-series has him vying to clear his name.
I sat down with Sable to talk about his experience with the TSA and to talk about the comic in question, “Unthinkable #3” out this week from Boom! Studios.
DAILY PLANET:You twittered the other day that you were getting offers to sue the TSA for harassment. Thinking about it?
MARK SABLE: Not seriously. The only reason to do it would be to set some kind of precedent. I think that reviewing passengers reading material is going too far, and not a particular effective way of screening for terrorists. Are TSA agents – who don’t even need a high school diploma for the job – really capable of determining what is suspicious material and what isn’t? And what kind of terrorist carries his plans, written in English, on a plane. By its own admission the TSA is designed to catch stupid terrorists, not smart ones.
But I don’t think it’s worth going through the ordeal of a lawsuit and clogging up the lawsuit to prove a point. And I’m worried enough I’ll wind up on a no-fly list as it is.
How exactly did they know to stop you? Did the Security Guard read the script while you were going through the X-Ray?
The NSA or some similar agency might have found my name next to “terrorist attack” while they were trawling search engines. Particularly because we did and ARG (Alternate Reality Game) – an online game that blends fact with fiction – to promote the book. In doing so we created web presences for the fictional characters in the book (including a fictitious private military contractor). So it’s possible the NSA tipped of the TSA. Possible, but unlikely.
The more likely explanation is that I got SSSS on my ticket because I had what they perceived to be an erratic flight pattern. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I think I was probably taken aside at random. Then, yes, while me and my belongings were being…thoroughly searched by hand, they found the script. The first page has a recap of what’s happened in the series so far – namely that a bunch of terrorist attacks that the protagonist imagined as part of a government think tank have come true, and we’re living in a police state.
The minute I saw them looking at the script I’d new they’d use the words “terrorist” and “police state” as pretext to hold and question me, and sadly I was right.
Obviously this book was spurned on by September 11th, but what other motivations got you developing this series?
I’ve always had a fascination with terrorism, espionage etc. From reading G.I. Joe comics and Tom Clancy novels when I was a kid, to sadly losing people I know to very real terror attacks.
But I think the deeper theme to me has to do with what it means to write about action versus, well, taking action. Alan Ripley, the protagonist of Unthinkable, is someone who has successfully written about action heroes his whole life. Suddenly, he’s thrust in a situation where he has to be that kind of hero, and at least at first, falls way, way short. That’s something I can relate to.
When did you start work on it?
I had the concept very early on, when I first heard of the real-life think tank that the government started after 9/11 where writers like Brad Meltzer were asked to come up with worst-case terror scenarios. I knew right then there was a solid premise for a story, but then it took years of research to make the terror scenarios plausible while still, well, unthinkable.
How has it been working with Mark Waid at Boom! Studios?
Amazing. Mark is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of super-heroes, but what’s more impressive is his uncanny understanding of storytelling in the comics medium. He can look at a page of script and spot problems for the artist a mile away. He’ll not only point out story problems, he’ll always help you find a way to make something work, even if it seems impossible. Unthinkable is immeasurably better for his presence on the book, and I think he’s made me a better writer as well.
I’d be remiss however if I didn’t mention the work of managing editor Matt Gagnon, who also had a strong editorial hand in the book. Most notably, he found the artist, Julian Totino Tedesco. Julian is the real star of the book, as far as I’m concerned.
Is this an ongoing series?
Right now it’s a five issue mini. I wrote it with a very definite end in mind so readers will not feel cheated out of a satisfying ending. That said, I love the characters and I think the premise would lend itself to an ongoing.
Last time we talked, when Hazed was released, you were working on an animated show. What’s going on with that?
I wrote a pilot, and the Cartoon Network decided they wanted to do more live action shows and they declined to go further. The rights revert back to me though, and it’s a strong premise that I hope will emerge in another form.
You’ve been getting quite a bit of mainstream comics work with Two Face Year One and Cyborg. Anything else on the horizon?
Right now, nothing definite. I threw myself into Unthinkable like I’ve never done with a book before. And so far, critically and in terms of sales for a non Marvel or DC book, it seems to be paying off.
I think the last two books that I’ve worked on, Two-Face and Unthinkable, are the best work I’ve done as writer. I’m hoping that editors will take a new look (or a first look) at that work, and see that I’m capable of smart, edgy work.
Tell us a bit about your experiences working on Unthinkable versus playing in the DC sandbox. What’s the difference for you?
It’s interesting, because I see more similarities than differences. Some creators only do work for the Big Two to pay the bills, and I think you can see that. Others are very – maybe even overly – reverent towards characters because someone else created them. But I feel every bit as connected to Harvey Dent as I do the character in Unthinkable.
To me, it’s less about the publisher than the specific experience – the character, the artist, editor etc. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had almost all positive experiences.
“Unthinkable #3” hits stands on Wednesday and is available for order online at ForbiddenPlanetUSA.com.