Getting To The Unthinkable

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As nightmare scenarios go, it’s difficult to foretell a darker one than this: Imagine a think tank with a team of scientists and artists whose task is to come up with spectacular terrorism scenarios for the United States in order to avoid them — only to find their ideas being brought into reality. This is the premise for Mark Sable’s Unthinkable, a graphic novel that pits a thriller novelist against a nefarious group intent on forever changing the American way of life. Up-ending assumptions is a common thread for Mark’s work in comics. In the graphic novel Graveyard of Empires, a Marine outpost in Afghanistan comes into contact with perhaps the only enemy fierce enough to force an alliance with nearby Taliban: zombies. With inspirations ranging from David Kilcullen to H.P. Lovecraft to the Department of Homeland Security’s own foresight efforts, Mark’s comics are rooted in a well-imagined reality that is attuned to the nuances of military duty and the politics of national security in America.

Further proving the crossover appeal of comics in Los Angeles’ entertainment industry, both Graveyard and Unthinkable are expected to end up on screen soon. Beyond comics, where he has also written for Spider-Man and Batman for Marvel and DC, Mark also works in film and television with experience at NBC, Fox and Cartoon Network.

He holds an MFA (NYU Tisch School of the Arts) and a J.D. (University of Southern California Law School), a potent combination for an artist. He also teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York including an online course in comics writing.

Sable answered questions from the Art of Future Warfare project’s August Cole about his work. He can also be found on Twitter at @marksable.

Where did the premise and idea for Unthinkable, about a think tank whose research into terrorist threats is used to carry out those very attacks, come from?

I lived in New York during 9/11, and remember the visceral sense of disbelief that accompanied. I heard many a refrain of “this is like something out of a Tom Clancy novel or Jerry Bruckheimer movie”. Besides so-called “truthers”, I guess the Department of Homeland security also shared that sentiment and started their Red Cell program, which I read some newspaper stories about. The Red Cell idea was to take novelists and screenwriters like Brad Thor, Brad Meltzer and Howard Gordon (who, ironically enough, bought Unthinkable for Fox) and have them come up with worst-case terror scenarios. If entertainment’s best and brightest could come up with “unthinkable” terror scenarios before terrorists did, maybe DHS could come up with ways to thwart them before they were even conceived.

Almost immediately after I read about it, I thought to myself – what if someone got a hold of those Red Cell terror plans. So I came up with the idea of a fictional writer invited to join an anti-terror think tank, and have him discover that that someone is bringing his plans to life. I think many people – especially writers – fantasize about what it would be like to be the heroes we aren’t in real life. It wasn’t hard to imagine someone like me – who is no Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer – trying to stop terror plots.  And in the tradition of The Fugitive, being suspected of them himself.


GEMP01col_coversml.pngIn Graveyard of Empires you put Taliban and Marines on the same side against the undead. Why zombies?

My biggest confession as a nerd has nothing to do with writing comics, but the fact that I’m fanatically addicted to CSPAN-2’s Book TV. Years back, I watched David Kilcullen talk about this book on counterinsurgency, The Accidental Guerrilla. He discussed something called “insurgent math”. As I understand it, it’s the idea that by killing one terrorist, you can wind up creating ten more by radicalizing his friends and family.

Originally, Graveyard of Empires was going to be set in Iraq during the first days of the invasion when antiquities were being looted. The Necromomicon – the fictional mystical tome created by H.P. Lovecraft and made popular by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies – was going to be stolen by insurgents and used to re-animated suicide bombers as zombies. But when artist Paul Azaceta and I started work on it, the war in Iraq was winding down and Afghanistan was getting its own surge.

When I heard Kilcullen mention “insurgent math”, suddenly the zombies became more than a plot device to bring opposing sides of a war together. I saw them as a metaphor. If you kill someone in a war zone where the dead are coming back to life, you run the risk of creating ten zombies when they bite and turn others undead. Zombies became a metaphor for spreading violent ideology, which can be as dangerous as a bite from the living dead.


Ever consider a think tank full of zombies?

I was going to jokingly name a real political think tank that seems to be made up of them, but I didn’t want to insult half your readership.


MStuffins_001AWhat are the advantages, and limits, of using creative foresight to better understand the future of conflict?

The inability to foresee or prevent 9/11 was called a failure of imagination. Imagination is the lifeblood of any creative endeavor, especially those that come from extrapolating “what ifs”. Using creative foresight can help one imagine the “unknown unknowns”.

When I think specifically of things like DHS’s Red Cell or The Art of Future Warfare that bring in creative people like me without formal military training, I think that our relative ignorance can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. An advantage because we are not bound by doctrines that were drilled into us. But it also limits us because I believe there are certain parts aspects of warfare that, no matter how much research you do, cannot be fully imagined unless you’ve been in the trenches.


As a writer exploring future threats and conflict, what are your biggest research challenges and how do you overcome them?

When I first started with Graveyard of Empires, the challenge was that, while there had been plenty of books on Afghanistan, very little was known publicly about what made the Taliban tick. I think there was maybe one book out at the time by someone captured by the Taliban, and another by a former Taliban prisoner whose work was translated for the West. Journalists still had the memories of what happened to Daniel Pearl. Not every question could be answered by Google or Amazon Prime.

Someone in the intelligence community was nice enough to point me to a book that in turn pointed me to some taped interviews by a Canadian journalist’s Afghan fixer. It was the first time I’d heard the Taliban speak about themselves in their own voice outside of propaganda videos.

With more recent work, I’ve almost had the opposite problem. There is so much media – books, films, podcasts, YouTube videos etc. — that the challenge has become not becoming utterly overwhelmed by it. My “to read” pile makes me shudder.

But the biggest challenge is that no matter how much research I do, I’ve never been shot at, fired a gun at another human being or made decisions that impacted the lives of men or women under my command. While I’ve been lucky enough to have veterans of the military and intelligence worlds open up to me, there will always be that gulf between my intellectual understanding and empathy and the experience of those that have served. With a volunteer army where only a small portion of this country is asked to shoulder the burden of warfare, I think it’s incredibly important that those who have those experiences be given the opportunity to share them directly.


How does working with an illustrator for a graphic novel influence the way you tell a story vs. a conventional written narrative? Is it similar to storyboarding a film or game?

If I were to show you my comic script scripts, I think more than a storyboard you’d see writing comics more as writing a screenplay than storyboarding, only with more detail. But unlike in film, in comics I’m more than just the writer – I can also be the director and producer. When I tell people I write comics, I think they assume I just put the words in the balloons and captions. In addition to conceiving the story, I’m describing what happens not only on every page but generally in every panel. Like a screenplay or storyboards, I’m ultimately writing a blueprint for a finished product, not the finished product itself.

In a screenplay I’d never tell a director what angle to film every scene from, or tell an actor what facial expression to make to accompany each line of dialogue. But in comics, if I don’t describe those things I run the risk of there being a disconnect between the writing and the art if I’m not descriptive enough. This is especially true when I do work-for-hire books for Marvel and DC like Spider-Man or Batman, where the artists are assigned to me, often artists whose primarily language isn’t English, and I’m likely communicating with them through an intermediary like an editor. In those cases, I want to create as detailed a blueprint as possible to avoid miscommunication.

At the same time, the more I’ve worked with artists, the more I’ve learned that I need to trust their instincts and view them as full partners in storytelling. (And when I say artists, I’m not only referring to the pencilers and inkers, but to the colorists, letterers and others than bring a book to work… it’s truly a collaborative experience). Returning to the film analogy, artists also share the directorial role, and also take on the role of cinematographer, actor etc. The more I make the script something rigid they need to follow, the less chance they have to bring their considerable talents to bear.

I still write detailed scripts. But, especially with creator-owned work like Graveyard or Unthinkable where the artist and I have chosen to work with each other, I now view my scripts as the starting point of a conversation. Their notes, character sketches, pages etc. are part of a back and forth that continues right until publication.


Put yourself in the shoes of Unthinkable’s protagonist, who would you assemble as a team today to predict next-generation threats?

This will sound like sucking up, but I’d definitely want you and P.W. Singer on it. I think you’ve both shown with Ghost Fleet, Wired for War etc. that you have that you have a potent combination of knowledge, experience and imagination when it comes to modern and future warfare.  But let me throw in some strangers to round out the list:

Michio Kaku is a physicist, futurist and popular science writer who has on the one hand, warned against nuclear proliferation and climate change. On the other, he’s got a remarkably optimistic view that mankind will be able to achieve seemingly far-fetched sci-fi mainstays like teleportation. He also built a particle accelerator in a basement as a kid and is the child of interned Japanese-American citizens. The former shows his genius, the latter gives him a special insight into how our country can overreact to threats.

Dan Carlin is the host of my favorite podcast, Hardcore History. He creates incredibly well researched, compelling audio accounts of millennia of military conflict, incorporating the views of generals, grunts and civilians alike. His podcasts have covered everything from how Genghis Khan reshaped the world to how the Spanish American War re-oriented American foreign policy. If you’re going to try and predict the future, it’s always good to look towards the past as well.

I’m not sure anyone knows more about the Middle East than Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg. And dipping from the same well, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahesi Coates has a unique and vital perspective on the threat posed by not addressing domestic problems like the deep racial divide in this country. (He’s also going to be writing The Black Panther for Marvel Comics, and Africa is perhaps the most neglected area on the threat matrix).

From the world of comics, the sci-fi oriented Warren Ellis is a no-brainer. From the film world, I don’t think that anyone has captured modern conflict better than Kathryn Bigelow in the Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.  And she’d help make up for the embarrassing lack of women on this list.

Film and comics are visual media, but I’d love a purely visual artist like the late Tim Hetherington. He was a photojournalist who was helpful to me in Graveyard of Empires and had a way of powerfully bringing the experience of war to life without a single word.

No one is responsible for more of my lost productivity than Sid Meier, creator of the Civilization series of games. He’s found an entertaining way of simulating the rise and fall of civilizations and I can’t think of anyone better to help wargame future threats.

And just to keep everyone else on their toes, Edward Snowden. Whether you think he’s a hero, traitor or something in between, who better to help secure this country than the person responsible for the greatest national security breach since the Rosenbergs?


What do you think your Unthinkable II dream team would come up with?

This is your hardest question by far. In part because I spent over a year trying to research threats that were deviously imaginative enough to shock in the way that 9/11 to, but plausible enough to worry someone at least reasonably informed. And also because I don’t want to give other writers anything to steal (I fear that more than I do terrorists implementing them, which probably says a lot about my narcissism).

Certainly the intersection of robotics and cyber would be at the top of my list of threats.  One of my upcoming books, WAR TOYS, involves how disruptive the domestic use of drones could be. There’s lots of talk about the NSA and metadata, but I worry less about the government and more about the coinciding trends of the rise of data collection and the decline of the nation state in favor of corporations and a scarily small ruling class not restrained by government at all. We’re all essentially cyborgs now, plugged into a Matrix nobody owns with our smartphones and digital identities, so I’d have to come up with threats that addressed the changing nature of mankind.

Obama was ridiculed for saying climate change is our biggest national security threat. Mother nature is less sexy than a human antagonist, so to help him out I’d conceive of terrorists who take advantage of the chaos it’s causing or perhaps accelerate its effects. Moving even further into the future, I’m fascinated by the possibility of bio-computers and the literally viral transmission of ideas, and nanotech-empowered individuals carrying out lone wolf attacks.

But once again, I think we also need to look to the past as well. As I write this, Russia is controlling Syria’s airspace and Saudi Arabia has just executed a Shiite cleric causing their embassy in Tehran to be firebombed. Every time someone brings up The Guns of August they’re told the sky is falling, but we could be the next Archduke Ferdinand away from a global conflict.


What are you reading, watching or playing right now that you cant put down?

I literally couldn’t put down The Power of the Dog and The Cartel by Don Winslow. Both novels are these crime epics that deal with our decades-long war on drugs in Mexico, and how it affects everyone from drug lords and D.E.A. agents to journalists and child soldiers. The parallels to the War on Terror are frightening. Lest you think they are the least bit dry or exploitative, Winslow’s books are as riveting as The Godfather and as socially conscious as The Wire.

As far as comics go, Brian K Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente’s The Private Eye is a twisty noir tale that takes place in a world that has disconnected from the Internet and, in doing so, shows us that the world we live in now is a digital dystopia. It’s collected in hardcover now, but you can check out the PDFs in a great “pay what you want” deal at

After finally weaning myself off Destiny, I’ve been utterly consumed by Fallout 4 lately. It’s post apocalyptic world of Super Mutants and exo-skeleton empowered Brotherhoods of Steel is unlikely to be very predictive but its open world is large enough to keep me wandering The Wasteland for some time to come.