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.

6 comments:

Matthew J. Brady said...

I probably shouldn't admit this openly, but I've read several issues of Tarot. I didn't pay for any of them, but I downloaded a bunch of issues out of curiosity a while back, and once you start reading them, it's hard to stop. You just have to see what sort of ridiculousness Balent will come up with next, whether it's Tarot's boyfriend being raped by a octopus woman who has tentacles come out of her bathing suit area or a gingerbread girl planning to cook Tarot and eat her, stripping her naked and decorating her with frosting on her nipples and crotch. Talk about your guilty pleasures. Man, now I'm embarrassed. Oh, and the character names Balent comes up with are just gloriously bad. At one point, he did a spinoff miniseries called 3 Little Kittens which featured three spy girls who dressed like cats. Their names were Catress, Jaguara, and Kitty Pop. Wow.

Okay, sorry about that. As for Scarecrow, that is a nice design, although I can't tell what is going on in that scene. At one point, Catwoman appears to throw Scarecrow out a window while holding a burning book in her mouth. Weird.

Pastor Gavin said...

Balent's scarecrow was great. But what I really liked was his Az-bats. I think he had the Az-bats look down and by far, he was the best artist to do Az-bats. Now, I'm not a huge fan of that take on Batman, and the costume really wasn't something I though much of. But one thing that can be said for it is that it was definitely harder to make look good than Batman's normal look. But Balent really actually made it look good.

Tony said...

I didn't realize Balent's versatility until I read this post. I thought he could only do massive, perfect breasts until I saw that woman in the first page. I stand corrected.

Caleb said...

Matt,

Huh. After reading your paragraph, I think I woulnd't mind reading, like, an Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe-style thig about Tarot, where they summarize in prose all the dumb shit that's happened, but you don't actually have to read the comics and experience them first hand.

Those pages I posted may not be in order--the first one is from pt. 1, I think the rest are from pt. 3--but yeah, she does throw him out a window while holding a burning book between her teeth. And it looks like a heavy book, too.



P.G.,

Yeah, being able to make Az-Bats look good is a test of a true artist, since you're working against such a handicap (I really liked Vince Giarrano's too...he did, like, one or three issues of SOTB with Az-Bats, I think).


Tony,

Looking at Tarot online and then back at Catwoman, I guess Balent was actually conservatively endowing Selina.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Caleb, your "Official Handbook of the Tarot Universe" idea intrigued me, so I googled around a bit to see if there were any websites that had done something like that, but unfortunately, we're not that lucky. Even the Wikipedia is fairly simplistic. If you're interested in finding out about the hilarity of the book, the various posts Chris Sims has done about the book are probably best, or maybe this page on a site called Comic Book Lesbians. Too bad.

Ehecatl said...

People get so offended because he drew Catwoman with big breasts. And I have to wonder-- why? Of all the female characters, she makes the most sense to portray in a smolderingly beautiful way. She's Catwoman, femininity, class, and sexiness defined. Of course she's gonna look like a bombshell. This is the woman who can make Batman swallow his tongue by just a bat of the eye-lashes and a little hip sway. Considering how many model Bruce Wayne dates, I expect Selina to be exceptionally beautiful and I don't think it's remotely degrading to women to portray her as such.

I will never figure out why people hate on Balent. His run of Selina wasn't just gorgeous. She was witty, she was fun, she was charming, she had depth. But no, people see the breasts and they assume "big breast = no depth".

And they idolize people like Miller, people like Bronwyn, people like Cooke and Brubaker who DEGRADED the character with that god-aweful street trash back-story and making her into this depressed, damaged, cynical victim. They completely stripped the character of all joy. Oh yeah, but they were heroes to the republic, championing the cause of women everywhere. Right. And Balent's a villain because... he's a man and he likes breasts. How dare he...