Thursday, October 25, 2007
Some of my Favorite Scarecrows #1: Jim Balent's
These days Jim Balent is probably best known for his Tarot bad girl comics, of which I don’t even know enough to feel comfortable even attempting a joke about, as I’ve never read a single issue. (In fact, I don’t even know of anyone—either in person or that I’ve encountered online—who reads Tarotcomics, save Chris Sims, who seems to have been reading them simply for blog fodder, until even he lost patience with them).
Whatever your opinion on Balent’s current output, it is remarkable how long he’s been at it—I just saw on his site he’s up to #48 of Tarot, writing and drawing the thing himself—and if he’s making a living doing what he wants and no one’s getting hurt, then that’s cool for him.
Before he started doing his own thing at Broadsword though, Balent put in an utterly remarkable stint on DC’s previous volume of the Catwoman ongoing. It launched with Balent as pencil artist back in 1993 (sort of spinning out of the “Knightfall” storyline), and it looks like he was on board through 2000. That’s seven years, and about eighty monthly issues (counting specials like #0 and #1,000,000 and so forth). I didn’t personally read it monthly, save for Devin Grayson’s run (the high point, if you ask me), so I’m not 100% positive here, but I don’t think Balent ever needed fill-in artists or took any story arcs off, even during crossovers with the other Bat-books (I could be wrong though; I didn’t check every single issue on comics.org).
He lasted through a small stable of different writers (Grayson, Jo Duffy, Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench, etc) and was eventually removed from the title simply because he had been there so long. I remember the online interviews at the time saying that Balent was awesome, everyone liked him, but the editors worried the title was getting stagnant with the same artist month in and month out. So they replaced him…and about a year later it was totally cancelled.
Now, there’s a lot of room to make fun of Jim Balent when it comes to the obvious pleasure the man took in drawing Selina Kyle, giving her a pretty ludicrous Barbie doll figure that didn’t look remotely like the kind of body that should be able to manage all the crazy climbing, swimming, gymnastics and fighting she did in her advetures. (This was also the unfortunate period of Catwoman costuming too, during which she wore that purple suit with the open back for her long, flowing hair. Me, I always preferred the gray-suited version, with the whiskers and tail, and the short, spiky hair underneath).
But Balent also drew a pretty nice Batman, one that was big, scary and covered with sharp points. And he drew a pretty good Robin. And Azrael. And Alfred. And Gorilla Grodd. And Razorsharp and the Psyba-Rats. I know the guy tends to be thought of as a one-trick pony in a lot of corners these days, but the truth of the matter is he’s not such a bad artist.
Flipping through some old Catwomans recently, while thinking about the current trend in DC comics to get “hot” artists with a lot of surface pizzazz and not much foundation (Ed Benes, Joe Benitez, Tony S. Daniel, etc.) to draw top-tier books, I became even more impressed by Balent’s old Catwoman work.
I mean, Balent and Benes may both draw super-idealized (to the point of somewhat repulsive) female forms. But Balent is a much better “actor” than Benes when it comes to emoting, and there’s much greater variety in his designs. Plus, he draws backgrounds and panels full of things. Plus he doesn’t need a fill-in every couple of issues. Jesus, if DC wants to make sure JLoA is full of boobilicious women not wearing any pants, why the hell don’t they just hire Balent? At least the comics wouldn’t hurt my eyes as much to look at.
Anyway, you know who Balent really draws a nice version of?
The Scarecrow, as he demonstrated in 1998’a Catwoman #58-#60, a three-part story written by Devin Grayson that pits the feline fatale against Jonathan Crane.
To my knowledge this is the only time Balent’s drawn the Scarecrow, and it’s a pretty idiosyncratic version.
Let’s look at some pages:
Note how the Scarecrow costume itself seems to belong to a different comic all together, as it sort of behaves according to its own rules and physics—the point of the hat and the corners of its brim forming little curly cues, while nothing else on those pages has such playful stylization.
It’s clear that Balent’s Scarecrow is just a man in a costume—when we first meet him in the story, it’s as Jonathan Crane sans costume—but when he’s got the costume on, it seems to have expressions of its own, the stitched-up mouth and eye holes moving as if the suit itself were alive.
There’s something pretty Seussian about Balent’s Scarecrow, but the more obvious inspiration is the design sensibility of Tim Burton. Balent’s Scarecrow has a very Jack Skellington sort of face, and his leggings and gloves have that horizontal stripe pattern that Burton and his fans so love…in Halloween colors here, of course (I like how the motif carries over to Crane’s dart too).
Balent’s version of the character apparently wasn’t all that popular—I don’t think any future Bat-artists kept any Balent’s tweaks in tact for their own versions—but it’s almost ten years old now, and it’s still one of my favorites.