A Conversation with Norm Breyfogle
Norm Breyfogle is a critically acclaimed comic book artist and is widely known for his work, with writer Alan Grant, on Batman. His work on Batman spanned six years (from 1987–1993), on Detective Comics, Batman, and Shadow of the Bat. While he is widely considered a “fan-favorite” Batman artist, he has worked on a multiplicity of titles over the past three decades, most recently drawing Archie’s new look, published in Archie’s Double Digest by Archie Comics Publications. He maintains a website and discussion forum at normbreyfogle.com.
Do you remember your first exposure to comic books?
I doubt I can. I must’ve been very young at the time. I do, however, remember my mom reading some comics to me before I could read very well myself. One of them was an issue of World’s Finest from around 1965 or ’66. I don’t recall the issue number, but it was an imaginary tale wherein Superman and Batman were brothers, both raised by the Kents, beautifully drawn by Curt Swan.
When did you first begin to develop a strong interest in art and drawing?
I noticed that in kindergarten I could draw a little better than my classmates. I was always encouraged in it, especially by my mother, so my ability continued to grow. My dad had drawing ability too, but since my parents were divorced when I was three and I rarely saw him after that and only saw a couple of his drawings, any influence there was possibly mostly genetic.
For the most part, I’ve been attracted toward more realistic or naturalistic drawing styles, though in later years I began liking the painterly abstract stuff often called “action painting”—no particular relation to adventure storytelling. I now appreciate a wide variety of types and styles of image making.
How would you describe your style?
I suppose I’d be in the classically illustrative, more or less realistic school, but with an added dash of modernism and abstract simplicity. I’ve always appreciated seeing evidence of the medium that was used in creating a piece showing through in the final work (e.g., seeing the brushstrokes and other elements reminding one that the image is actually pencil, ink, or paint on a surface).
How do you typically go about designing covers?
I prefer to first read the entire story of the book for which I’m doing a cover so that my art will be a holistic part of the final product. Then I draw a number of variations and let the editors decide which one they like best. I try to come up with a visually striking image that has to do with the essence of the story but doesn’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet.
But ultimately I’ll work however an editor prefers, within reason.
What about interior art?
I’ve been penciling my comic pages at a size of 4.5" x 6.7" for years now whenever I ink myself, which is just large enough for me to put in as much detailing as I need in order to ink it with little or no further penciling required. I combine the thumbnail, roughs, and final pencils into one stage. I then blow them up to full size on a photocopier and ink them on a large lightbox. It’s not perfectly ideal and it took a little while to get used to, but it saves me a lot of time, and there’s little to no resultant pencil lines or smudges on the final art to erase when the inking is done.
When I face the blank paper, I first read the entire script—if I can, if it’s available—and gather any visual reference I might require. Then I decide what panel or element on the page is the most important and/or the most dynamic and I try to envision a rough idea of the final page design with all the most important elements included and mentally prioritized, then I typically start roughing in the first panel of the page, attempting to keep that vision in mind. Almost every time, I’ll make some changes to my initial vision as the page works itself out on paper, and my 4.5" x 6.7" “finished” pencils usually are a combination of erasing and redrawing, cutting and pasting, or even sometimes photo collage.
I try to approach the entire page as one illustration rather than as a bunch of separate illustrations pieced together.
I’ll blow up my 4.5" x 6.7" pencils on a photocopier to full original art page size. But if I’m penciling for someone else to ink, I pencil in all the detail instead of inking it on the lightbox; which is why I prefer to ink my own pencils: because the time I spend on fully penciling on the lightbox is time I could just as easily spend inking on the lightbox instead.
You’ve worked in a variety of different genres over the course of your career. Do you find this challenging or relatively easy?
It’s always a challenge to start a new project of any kind—heck, each page is a challenge in and of itself—but it is a lot easier now than it used to be back when I was first starting out.
The short answer is that I can switch genres easily. I’m a pretty complete visual artist; I’m confident that I can work in all genres, and in practically all traditional mediums. The only thing I don’t do yet is complete illustrations entirely on computer, although I am using Photoshop more and more often in various smaller ways.
Tell me about how you came to work on Batman.
As soon as I picked up an agent—Mike Friedrich of Star Reach—and started getting work in comics, I let Mike know that I wouldn’t feel satisfied as a comics artist until I was working drawing Batman professionally. Shortly after meeting Dick Giordano—when he came out to California for some sort of business when I was living out there—I received the offer to do Batman, perhaps because DC was having some difficulty finding anyone to stick with the title in the wake of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series. It was really that simple, and of course I jumped at the chance to draw my favorite superhero comic title.
What about the creative synergy between you and Alan Grant?
How’s this, from my website:
Once upon a Dark Knight, love for the self-actualized ideal wove our professional paths together. Before I owned a computer, we fax-debated everything under (and infinitely beyond) the sun, and loved it; our differences were mostly semantic preferences. Hurting each other was no motivation; we lusted only after truth and enjoyed the chase.
On a battleground I’d prefer his will and tenacity at my back. In Utopia his fusion of logic and love is the membership prerequisite! As a friend, he’s loyalty, humor, compassion, and good times personified; I envy those who grew up with him or live in his proximity. As a writer and storytelling partner he’s my greatest old flame and has my highest respect; he’s suffered for his forthrightness as all who express their principles do, but nothing diminishes his spirit.
Someday, maybe humankind will be perfected. If so, that gleam in Alan’s eye must be the primordial spark of the coming superman.
Did you typically work from full script? How much input did you have into storytelling?
Always full script with Alan, though either of us could work either full script or plot first. Full script was DC’s method. Alan was very flexible with the storytelling, though I’d never change anything essential without first getting his and our editor Denny O’Neil’s approval, and I’d be hard pressed to remember much that I did ever change. Alan’s scripts were quite economical—they weren’t Alan Moore tomes—and left most of the visual details up to me.
What did Alan bring to the Batman mythology, in your view?
Solid, consistent, exciting, economical storytelling with an edge. And humor! Alan is able to synthesize widely ranging influences from just about anywhere or any genre and somehow make it appear seamless and effortless, all backed up by his profound understanding.
What was it like working with Denny O’Neil, as an editor and as writer on Batman: Birth of the Demon?
Denny was great. He allowed his creative teams great freedom while providing basic visionary parameters at the same time.
Tell me about the character of Anarky.
Anarky was just another character in one of Alan’s scripts, and neither of us really knew how important he’d become—although Alan must have had more of an inkling of that than I did. But Anarky’s philosophy was the catalyst for a long, faxed discussion between Alan and I wherein we debated philosophy, politics, religion, science, and just about everything else. We came to agree to disagree about some things, but we both eventually realized that our apparent differences were mostly semantic in nature.
Anarky embodies very subversive undercurrents. Did the two of you meet with any censorship at the editorial level, or were you essentially allowed to do as you liked, in terms of the character’s motivations, politics, and actions?
That’s an interesting question, and I can’t answer it definitively. My nagging feeling is that Anarky was eventually canceled and Alan and I were more or less blacklisted at DC Comics because of the revolutionary, anti-elite philosophy Anarky spouted. But like I say, that’s just a nagging feeling with very little backing it up as incontrovertibly factual or perfectly convincing evidence.
Still, it does nag. Alan could undoubtedly provide a much more in-depth answer to this question than I can, if he wanted to do so.
Many of the stories that you did with Alan addressed social and political issues that, at that point in time, comic books in general typically didn’t delve into. I’m wondering if you could please discuss this and share your thoughts and reflections on the types of stories the two of you did together.
I was just the artist. This question would be better asked of Alan, but I will say that Alan always had his eye on the future of human potential and he expressed this with a deep philosophical understanding in his Anarky (and other) stories.
Here’s an article I wrote—posted on my website—that address some of this from my point of view:
Anarky’s cancellation might laughingly tempt conspiracy theorizing. After all, the main character’s views are potentially politically sensitive. And you should see the two issues that were already completed but will now never see print! (I’ll just say two words: “East Timor.”) When all the smoke clears, however, the marketplace, for good or ill, whether manipulated or not, rules the roost.
Ultimately, unless proven to be factual, conspiracy theories are just mental exercises. They are fun or unnerving, depending on one’s attitude, but generally ineffective for real social change. This is why Anarky, though often thought-provoking, is mainly just plain fun. He can fulfill the theorist’s fantasy of acting in situations where we normally feel so impotent.
Alas, the topics Anarky addresses with such wish-fulfilling effectiveness may be somewhat unsuited for certain genres. The obvious trend for many “blockbusters,” with some exceptions, is toward more escapism and less social relevance. An alchemical mix of the two is far less commonly successful. For those who DO want anti-establishment politics in their comics, superheroes may seem a bizarre venue for it.
Anarky is a hybrid of the mainstream and the not-quite-so-mainstream. This title may have experienced exactly what every “half-breed” suffers: rejection by both groups with which it claims identity. Certain young aggressive bulls prefer straight energetic power-fantasy (a large part of the superhero fan base). These turks may be bored by anything even remotely resembling a political manifesto. Others write off the superhero genre as intrinsically juvenile. I personally enjoy full integration of both modes, but if Anarky’s cancellation is any indication, I’m possibly in a minority.
The battle lines between “escapist” art/culture and “relevant” art/culture were drawn long before Anarky was even conceived. Any character not immediately fitting in snugly with either faces an uphill battle. It requires time to build a fan base, something a periodical business is not liberally willing to put to risk. Alan and I knew from the beginning that Anarky probably wouldn’t last in this environment.
But cheer up, Anarkists. Anarky is not “really” dead. He’s still in the DC universe. He’s still camped out underneath the Washington Monument. He’s still hunting down, exposing, and ostracizing the shadier and more taboo villains that the other superheroes generally fear to touch: those parasites cloaked in the guise of the respected elite. View his absence from comics pages not as an extinction but as symbolically fitting. After all, if someone were really exposing corruption in high places, would his adventures be available in a monthly forum? Superman may be dramatically saving the planet from destruction (and more power to him; I’m a fan) but I consider Anarky still working to make this a better, freer, and more just place to live. Consider him on a highly secret case, and we just don’t have a “need to know.”
And every now and then, maybe an adventure or two of his will see the light of day…
The Joker being Anarky’s father—whose idea was this? Please take me behind the scenes here.
OK, this was difficult to remember until I pulled out the actual art and could see the original issue numbers as I wrote them on the tops of the pages as well as the new issue numbers as they were renumbered by DC right next to or on top of my original numbers.
I first drew five issues; #4 and #5 became the unpublished issues. Joe Rubenstein, the inker on the series, must have been an issue or two behind me in the inking, which helps to explain why the unpublished issues weren’t ever inked. Then DC decided they wanted a new first story arc, so they had Alan Grant and I do a new #1, #2, and #3, which automatically renumbered our original #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5 as #4, #5, #6, #7, and #8. But then DC wanted a Haunted Tank cross-over, so that became the new #7.
Then we got word of cancellation, so instead of publishing the first part of an intended three-part story arc (our original #4 and #5 and intended #6, now the unpublished #9 and #10), we did a one-issue closing story in which the Joker is revealed to be Anarky’s father—my idea, by the way—which became #8. So the two issues that were originally to be #4 and #5—now the unpublished #9 and #10—never got inked or published.
It’s always seemed to me that DC pulled all these shenanigans to prevent our original #4 and #5—and the intended but never written or penciled #6—from being published because that three-part story was about a touchy political issue: the USA’s arms sales to Indonesia’s repressive government. I still have most all of the pencils to those unpublished Anarky issues scanned and posted on my site’s Gallery, and the originals are for sale.
Anyway, I figured that because Anarky represents the epitome of reason, one of the biggest crises he could face would be to discover that his father was the exact opposite: a raving lunatic!
How has Batman changed over the decades, in your view?
I first started reading him in the 1960s, so he’s changed a lot since then (but at base he’s still really the same character, of course). He’s become more violent, grittier, less of a family man and more of the psychologically obsessive personality he’d more realistically be if he were to ever actually exist.
Your Batman work with Alan has been widely celebrated and embraced by Bat-fans and industry professionals alike. Will the two of you be returning to Batman at some point in the future?
That’s up to DC Comics. Both Alan and I are more than willing to return at any time, and we’ve made that clear to DC. In fact, after recently requesting a Batman proposal from us, they subsequently turned it down after we provided it! And it was a fine proposal. Go figure.
What are your thoughts on the corporate marketing mentality that seems prevalent within the industry today?
That’s not my area of expertise. All I can say is that I have no real problem with it as long as it doesn’t adversely impact the quality of the characters or the books.
As an artist, what can you tell me about Jim Aparo’s vision of Batman? How would you define it, say, in relation to how Frank Miller and Marshall Rogers draw Batman?
Aparo’s 1970s Batman art was a revelation to me at the time. I was a teen fan then, and it was a big influence on my development as a comics artist. He was the first one that topped Neal Adams for me. What I liked best about his art was his detailed, realistic backgrounds and his design sense, which especially came through in his fluid depiction of characters in motion.
Miller’s stuff is more economical in line and somewhat more cartoony, and Rogers’ stuff was highly technically in orientation. I’ve highly appreciated all these artists—and many more.
Your pick for best Batman story of all time?
I guess it would have to be Frank Miller’s first Dark Knight series. At that point, Frank had a perfect grasp of Batman.
How prevalent is spin and perception management within the contemporary comic book industry, in your view?
More prevalent now than ever. The entire culture is being hypnotized more and more, as if we’re in a “They Live” scenario. To paraphrase Anarky: Just about everything the common person “knows” about the world’s (human) power structure is actually a lie. And we’re reaping the harvest of what we’ve sown in this ignorance.
Last question, on the theme of superhero romances. Wonder Woman as a potential romantic partner for Batman. Does this work, to your mind? I’ll add that John Byrne feels it does.
It could work. Like any other idea, its aesthetic success would depend entirely on the writing and artwork. I will say that any nonsuperpowered man would have to be pretty darn brave or even foolhardy to consider intimacy with Wonder Woman.-- Jeffery Klaehn