The Mark Show: Mark Sable on Unthinkable & A First Look

The Mark Show: Mark Sable on Unthinkable

Unthinkable #1

In May BOOM! Studios premieres two new series, Mark Waid's The Unknown and Mark Sable's Unthinkable. Since both books start with “Un,” we thought it would be best if writer Mark Sable interviewed Mark Waid and Mark Waid interviewed Mark Sable about their respective series. Both were given the chance to ask each other ten questions. This is part two of that interview session. Let the battle of the UN books begin!

Mark Waid: How long have you been carrying around the idea for Unthinkable? I know it was something you'd already pitched to Ross [Richie, Publisher] before I took the job as EIC, right?

Mark Sable: I've had the concept for Unthinkable almost as soon as I learned about one of the real-life government think tanks that serves as an inspiration for it. Which was pretty soon after 9/11, as I recall. But it took me a bit longer to find the right character for it. You can put any number of characters into a situation where they are asked to come up with worst-case terrorist scenarios, and then see their ideas as a blueprint for real terror.

But think we've seen the highly skilled protagonist who was trained exactly for the mission at hand plenty of times. I'm more attractive to someone who on paper should be able stop terror attacks, because he's a self-proclaimed "expert" - not to mention the fact he came up with the ideas for the attacks himself. But like most writers, in reality he lacks the attributes of the heroes he writes about.

Unthinkable #1, page 1

Right there, that sets up Ripley as someone who is in over his head and makes stopping the attacks that much harder. It also adds depth to the heroes' journey - this is as much the story of someone learning what it really takes to be a hero as it is about as it about saving the world from terror.

MW: So, your book is about our post 9-11 world. Is that a frightening place to write from? Do you find yourself sweating over readers' reactions to what might still be a very sensitive topic? Did I just jinx you?

MS: To an extent, yes. Like many people, I've lost people I knew and cared about, not only in 9/11 but in Israel to Hamas suicide bombers. I myself came scarily close to being a victim to an attack in Europe myself, something I rarely talk about.

There was a point where I would have felt this story was too soon. I remember being really, really pissed off at the some of the work from creators that were put out in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

But this is not a 9/11 story. It's a story that uses something that was done in reaction to 9/11 as a jumping off point. Let me also be clear - I'm not a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.

All that said, having had such first-hand experiences with terror, I think it's important not to deny the reality of it. And ultimately, how can you write a modern-day thriller and not acknowledge 9/11 and our response to it? That would be intellectually dishonest.

MW: How does Unthinkable tap into the modern post-Obama American gestalt?

MS: It's interesting, because I think I was more scared about how this story would play in a post-Obama world than a post-9/11 one. There seemed to be this incredible tide of hope that made me fear that readers would be sick of hearing about terror.

Unthinkable #1, page 2

But even if we feel safer because of who is in charge, the threat is still there and the fear will always be. And while fear is something one needs to use to write a thriller, the message of this book isn't "fear".

I also may have lucked out in that - without spoiling the end, the motives behind the plot actually make much more sense in an Obama administration than it would have in a Bush or McCain one.

MW: How much research did you do on these doomsday scenarios? Did you grow up wanting to be a Bond villain?

MS: A ton. I read everything I could on how past terror attacks were carried out and stopped, and why. I looked into a lot of things that people are afraid might happen next. Some which are absolutely ridiculous, some which they fear for good reason. And I spoke with intelligence, law enforcement and military personnel both here and abroad.

That said - while I wanted to ground the book in reality, I didn't want to be confined by it. The end goal here is to entertain everyone, and whatever research I did was meant to convey the "feel" of reality rather than to draw up a blueprint for terror. After all, if the terror attacks feel too much like they were ripped from the headlines, we'd have to call "Thinkable".

Unthinkable #1, page 3

As for wanting to be Bond villain - let's leave my fantasy of body painting ex-girlfriends, my uncanny resemblance to Yaphett Kotto and my third nipple out of this.

MW: What do you see of yourself in the lead character? What makes him attractive to write?

MS: Ripley and I are both writers, obviously. We both probably have a higher assessment of our skills than is warranted. And I we both harbor fantasies about playing the hero.

That right there is what makes him fun to write. I get to see what it might be like to pit myself against the forces of terror without having to take the risk myself.

MW: How did the Altered Reality Game come about?

MS: Boom!'s marketing genius, Chip Mosher, has the same approach to comics marketing that I have to writing, which is to always try for something that's never been done before. Ian Brill stepped up to the plate by coming up with an ARG, and the two of them, along with Dafna Pleban, created the architecture for me to create the game in.

At first, I just thought, okay, this is different, it's a new challenge for me as a writer. But as I actually wrote the content - which is almost as much as I did for the book itself - I began to realize how perfect an ARG fit with the concept of the book.

First, there was the process of writing it. Unthinkable deals with a conspiracy. In order to write the ARG I had to create identities for the characters in the game that to anyone but the FBI and the NSA seem as real as possible. And just - organically, they started to tie into real world things in a way that frightened me. Because I realized just how easy it is to create a false conspiracy theory. I have no doubt that if I leave that stuff up long enough I'll read about it as if it were real on Wikipedia.

Unthinkable #1, page 4

More importantly, a major theme in the book is the question of what the responsibility of an artist is when they put their work out into the world and it's used in a way in which it's not intended. Unthinkable isn't Murder She Wrote - it's not just a story about someone who happens to be good at solving mysteries or stopping terror because that's what they write about.

The terror attacks are things that Ripley and his fellow think tank members have come up with themselves. These might not have happened had he not thought about them and shared them with others, however noble his intentions were. That's a mighty cross for him to bear.

I wanted the ARG to be more than just a marketing gimmick. More than just bonus material - although I think that it works alone on that level as well. I wanted to give players a unique interactive experience.

The Unthinkable ARG is not just a scavenger hunt. It puts the players in a position where their actions are going to have ramifications. The Wolfpack ( is asking them to spy on and hunt down dangerous, albeit (fictional) people, and they are ultimately going to have to decide if they are playing for the right side and what to do about it if they're not. Both choices have consequences and there is no easy out.

MW: How detailed is your vision for this book? Do you have the last few scenes already written in your head, or are you discovering new things about the overall story as you write each issue?

MS: I can't write a story I don't know the ending to. I had a very, detailed, very long outline (which I believe you referred to as "insane"), with each and every attack plotted out in painstaking detail.

But, early on you asked me to hold off writing the actual scripts (mostly so that I could adapt my writing to artist Julian Tedesco's take). That had the unintended consequence of letting me focus on the ARG for a while, which let me learn more about the characters, what they wanted to destroy and how they could go about achieving it.

Unthinkable #1, page 5

I returned feeling like I could better execute what I had planned, and whatever new ideas I can't fit in this series, let's just say I have enough for a sequel, if not an ongoing. Hint, hint.

MW: I think your artist is one of the most talented newcomers I've ever seen. What do you respond to in his work? Has seeing how he interprets your scripts affected your process at all?

MS: His attention to detail is insane. I mean, I asked Julian to set a scene in Russian nuclear sub. And suddenly I'm staring at an incredibly accurate rendering of the interior of a Soviet Typhoon Class ballistic missile submarine. And it wasn't a swipe either, you could see he'd incorporated various references and made it his own.

But it's his storytelling that sets him apart. It's not just that nailed him some of the most difficult pages I've ever asked an artist to draw. He infused this dynamism into every scene in a way that, he knows how to make even the most boring talking head scenes flow visually with the subtlest of cues.

Like I said before, you asked me to hold off on the scripting for the later issues. Unfortunately for Julian, now that I see what he's capable of, he's I'm probably going to want to challenge him even more.

MW: "Rooting for the underdog," above and beyond what we normally see in adventure fiction, seems to be a common theme in your work. Am I off-base or am I onto something?

MS: You are definitely on to something. With adventure fiction, there is always that dichotomy between identification and wish fulfillment. The best writers find a way to do both, but it's rare.

As a reader, I've always identified more with Spider-Man than, say, Superman. You know that Alan Moore story, "For the Superman Who Has Everything?" To me, that might as well be the title of every Superman story. To your credit - with Birthright especially, but also with your Captain America and FF work - you have a talent for making me care about those characters. James Robinson, Kurt Busiek and Grant Morrison (all no doubt, influenced by you) excel at that as well.

Unthinkable #1, cover B

I start from the other end. With Grounded, out of an entire school of superheroes, I chose the only kid without powers. With Fearless, (co-writer) Dave Roth and I gave a guy suit so deadly he had to take an- fear drug to use it. It's the same with DC work. I picked Cyborg, who was given abilities he didn't want in in an emergency to save his life and compensate for his handicaps; then pitted him against that same technology used by on people who wanted it more than anything; and in Two-Face: Year One, I chose to portray Harvey Dent as a flawed man alone against an entire city - and that's before he got splashed with acid.

The challenge I face, how do I make the reader want to be these characters, or at least go on a journey with them. But I feel like the bigger the underdog, the better the feeling when he or she overcomes their obstacles.

MW: If the government's "Unthinkable" think-tank pool were limited to comics writers, who would they be wise to pull in?

MS: We'd all be in trouble if that were the case. We'd be perfectly safe from super-villains, but little else.

Seriously, I think there's more imagination per word-slash-image in comics versus any other medium. And while there are great writers who know how the espionage world works - I'm thinking Greg Rucka and Queen and Country - I would lean more towards imagination than expertise, which the government already has. (That's not to say Rucka doesn't possess both).

But the first name that pops in my head is Warren Ellis. He's got a devious mind, which I mean in the best possible way. He's clearly ahead of the rest of us in terms of what dangers are coming our way. If he didn't coin the phrase "bleeding edge" - he should have.

And justly so. I've never had the pleasure of meeting him, but if he is anything like the online persona he projects, the idea of the button down, Skull-and-Bones types that (at least used to run) Western intelligence having to cater to his cantankerous personality is too amusing for words.

The other creator I'd want in that room is Alan Moore. Again, someone with an unparalleled imagination who's tapped directly into the zeitgeist. I mean, I only realized this after the fact, but remember the island of geniuses that Ozymandius uses to come up with the giant squid at the end of Watchmen? That pre-dates the think tank by 25 years. Not just the one in Unthinkable, the real life one as well.

Of course he's an avowed anarchist, so it's hard to think of someone less likely to work for the government. But that's exactly the type of person you'd want to have on your side.

Unthinkable #1 is written by Mark Sable and drawn by Julian Totino Tedesco with first issue covers by Paul Azaceta and Kristian Donaldson. The first issue of Unthinkable ships in May and has a Diamond Code of MAR094127.

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