Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Some of my Favorite Scarecrows #6: Tim Sale's

Now that the comics reading world has seen the actively irritating Superman/Batman, suffered through the early issues of Supergirl, had its collective mind boggled by the revelation that Wolverine is an evolved wolf genetically predisposed to hate blondes and giggled at the overwrought dialogue of Fallen Son, it can be hard to remember that Jeph Loeb used to write pretty good comic books.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure that’s true; having gone back and read some of his earliest work, I see that many of the tics that annoy me about his writing today were still present back then, just to a lesser degree. If I had to offer a theory as to what’s wrong with Loeb’s writing these days, I would take back my previous contention that he lost his mind somewhere during the prep work for Spider-Man: Blue, and offer a new theory instead: Loeb is simply a great case for the role a good editor plays in comic book production, particularly of the assembly line process, corporate-owned character type.

It can’t be a complete and total coincidence that all of his greatest work was edited by Archie Goodwin, can it?

My theory is that as Loeb’s star rose, he received less and less editorial interference, and decided he didn’t need to try quite so hard anymore. On the strength of his early works with Tim Sale (all of which are pretty decent; seriously, The Challengers of the Unknown Must Die!? Good stuff), he became a “name” creator, to the point where he was doing pretty much whatever the hell he wanted on Superman/Batman and continues to do so at Marvel.

In short, it doesn’t matter if his scripts are the work of a good writer anymore; they’re the work of a popular writer, and that’s just as important.

Anyway, that’s my theory at the moment. A popular one I’ve heard is that Tim Sale is just so goddam good that even Loeb scripts read like brilliant work when he illustrates them.

I don’t know, really. I do know that 1993’s Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special #1 knocked 16-year-old Caleb’s socks off, giving us what is, in my opinion, the very best of all the Scarecrow designs, and, not so incidentally, setting the Loeb/Sale team on the path to creating their later Batman epics.

This was the first of three LDK Halloween specials, each pitting a “Year One” era Batman against his redesigned-by-Sale foes. In 1994, it was The Mad Hatter; in 1995, it was a Christmas Carol riff featuring The Penguin, Poison Ivy and the Joker. From there, the pair added every Bat rogue and every holiday they could into the mix, giving us two year-long murder mysteries, Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory.

The story of the first special was entitled “Choices,” and referred to young Bruce Wayne deciding whether he should devote himself to a life of Batmanning or the love of a woman. Well, we know how that turned out.

Helping him decide was fearsome new foe, Jonathan Crane, who we meet on the first page, riding a horse through Gotham:


Let's take a closer look:

Tim Sale’s Scarecrow didn’t look much like the original “Year One” version of the character, nor any version drawn by previous artists. For one, he eschewed browns for a more stark black and white.

While it’s clearly a man in a costume—we see the bloodshot eyes through the holes in the mask, and his human fingers poking out of the finger-less gloves—the body shape doesn’t always reflect this, with the tattered bits of clothing and the huge, witch-like hat being stirred by and toyed with by winds that don’t necessarily play with the backgrounds or other characters. (In some panels, too, there doesn’t seem to be a human body in the costume, based on the way the neck disappears).

The Salecrow also seems to have whole head of straw hair, something you don’t see very often, and his face is sewed onto the outside of the mask, with patches of various colors forming a nose, and framing his human eyes (In the face, there seems to be a little bit of the Wizard of Oz scarecrow, and a lot of Disney’s Dr. Syn/The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh). He also seems to have a wooden frame in his shoulders, another thing you don't see often in Jonathan Crane designs.

Like I said, this is my favorite version of the Scarecrow, and in high school I used to draw versions of him all the time in the borders of my notebooks during lectures. There’s something enormously satisfying about drawing the stitching around the eyes and nose…

Loeb and Sale’s version of The Scarecrow wasn’t much like previous versions, and he spoke almost exclusively in nursery rhymes, to the point where it would actually be rather jarring when he snapped out of it and started talking directly to the characters again.

In addition to “Choices,” he played a role in both Long Halloween and Dark Victory, teaming up with the other “freaks” to make life hell for Batman and/or the Falcone family. (Loeb and Sale have a really nice scene where The Scarecrow and Mad Hatter are arguing with each other in nursery rhyme gibberish).

Given how popular those two stories are, I’m kind of surprised that the Salecrow version of The Scarecrow never became the preeminent version, and that Blevins’ design still seems to be the most influential one. The only other artist who seems to have taken cues on how to draw Scarecrow from Sale seems to be Sean Murphy, whose version from Year One: Batman/Scarecrow has a hat and fingerless gloves similar to Sale’s, plus some straw hair, but for all around creepiness and awesomeness, it doesn’t hold a candle to Sale’s.


Greg said...

Loving your Scarecrow retrospective, Caleb!! I was looking for the BLOTDK issue when I was putting together today's holiday merriment post...but since I didn't find it, I'm glad you got it posted here. I *always* carved a bat for my jack-o-lanterns' mouths after that issue!!

Happy Halloween!!

Tony said...

I may fall into the "Sale makes him better" school of thought. Long Halloween: Awesome. Hush, with Jim Lee: Not as good.