Sabra comic 88 248.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the superhuman abilities of strength, speed and agility, this mutant superhero and former secret agent has one goal: the defense of her country. For Ruth Bat-Seraph, also known by her alias Sabra, that country happens to be Israel.
Marvel Comics created Sabra in the 1970s, but up until now she has appeared only as a supporting character alongside Marvel greats like the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men.
On July 1 this will change, with the print publication of Sabra's first headlining appearance in the Marvel anthology Astonishing Tales #6. In the story, which can currently be viewed in digital format online, Sabra is attending a diplomatic reception when she meets Yael, a young Israeli girl about to begin her military service. Yael reveres Sabra as a hero of the nation, and the two bond over the doubts that go along with being young and entering the army - as well as another hardship they share: the death of their fathers in the service of their country. Using her powers, Sabra gives Yael a taste of her chosen career path, an air force pilot, by taking her on a flight.
"Like many Israeli teens, Yael looks up to Sabra in much the same way patriotic Americans would [to] Captain America: she's someone who wears her country's flag to protect the world," explains Marvel editor Mike Horwitz.
Sabra's first solo appearance is the work of Matt Yocum, who by day serves as the US Air Force's representative to the Israeli government, and by night writes comic books.
Yocum says his love of comic books began early.
"For me, it was Iron Man issue 165, and I was 10 years old," he recalls. "I found it on a spinner rack at [US book chain] Waldenbooks. All I remember is that Iron Man stumbles out of the room with his armor half-melted and that it ends on a cliffhanger."
That was all it took, and he was hooked. Yocum, originally from Kentucky, says that while he has been a reader of comic books for over 20 years, his interest in writing peaked relatively recently.
After writing two novels, he became interested in comic book writing in 2004.
"I met some editors, proposed some ideas and struck out," he says. "I realized that everyone was converging on the same event and that I had to find a way to be recognized individually."
That was when Yocum came up with his plan to infiltrate the world of comics and become a Marvel writer. The comic book industry holds an annual online auction to raise money for pioneers of the trade who have fallen on hard times, aptly named "The Hero Initiative." The fundraiser auctions off comic book-related merchandise and opportunities. One item on the list was a private lunch with the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Joe Quesada.
The day the bidding was set to end, Yocum woke up early and ensured that his was the winning bid. What was originally meant to be an hour-long lunch turned into two-and-a-half hours, and he ended up selling a story to Quesada.
"I said to him, look, you know all about me wanting to be a writer, and I would be remiss if I didn't pitch stories to you. He followed up with me and ended up buying one story."
After selling his first story, which was an eight-pager about the Avengers, Yocum established contact with an editor at Marvel. He knew that his newfound fame could fade quickly, and took precautions to make sure that didn't happen.
"I came up with a whole bunch of stories on A-, B-, C- and D-list characters - Spiderman being an A-list character - to pitch to Marvel," he explains.
That was when Yocum's relationship with the character of Sabra began.
"I had to ask myself, what's an easy connection? Sabra is a natural fit," he says. "She by herself would not generate enough interest, but the writer is a guy living in Israel."
Sabra was created in the '70s, when the editorial staff at Marvel came up with a slew of international characters.
Yocum, who is not Jewish, has long been involved with the State of Israel. His first visit to the country was in 1992 with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and he spent four weeks living on Kibbutz Beit Ha'emek, close to the coastal city of Nahariya.
In 2002 he found himself in Israel again, this time as an exchange officer doing engineering for the Israeli government. Based on his previous experience in the country, Yocum was selected to come for a third time in 2006 to work in the attachÃ© office for the US Air Force.
Using three elements unique to his life in Israel, Yocum created a story about a member of the Air Force at a diplomatic reception in Israel, which sums up his existence here.
"I wanted to take the experience I had in Israel and bring it to the people who don't live here," he explains. "The vast majority of the people who read the story will not have been to the country, and they will not realize that there are things we take for granted here - one being that everyone has to serve in the army. In the US, less than one percent of the population serves, and here it's part of a natural dialogue with a high-schooler."
For Yocum, an important element in working with a character like Sabra was developing more of a background story for her.
"I expanded about her family by filling in bits and pieces about them," he says. "You meet her mom and her brother, and you learn that her father was killed in the Yom Kippur War."
Yocum, who describes Sabra as a "modern-day hero," was adamant that he wanted her sidekick in the story to be a girl, and not a boy, preparing to serve her country.
"I wanted a woman as the champion of Israel," he says.
Key to the process for Yocum was that the artwork in the comic be believable.
"I had to send so many reference photos, because whoever drew it was not going to know Israel," he says.
"At the end of the day, I don't think it's going to change any ideas about Israel," he says. "It shows a piece of what it's like to live in the country and what it's like to serve here."