Sunday, November 03, 2013

Review: Tales of The Batman: Tim Sale

Despite the somewhat awkward title, this collection is a pretty valuable one, compiling all of the odds and ends of artist Tim Sale's work on the Batman character that aren't already available in standalone graphic novels. His two long-form, "Year One" era mysteries with writer Jeph Loeb—The Long Halloween and Dark Victory—are both available in various collected forms, and the trio of Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween specials that lead up to those—1993's Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special #1, 1994's Madness and 1995's Ghosts—have all been compiled into Batman: Haunted Knight. The Long Halloween/Dark Victory sorta  spin-off, Catwoman: When In Rome, has also been collected.

This, then, is everything else, including Sale's earliest work on the character and rare examples of his work on the modern Batman, rather than the solo "Dark Knight" era Batman, so we get to see him draw the likes of Robin Tim Drake, Bane, Mr. Zsasz and Batgirl Cassandra Cain.

I've already read all of these stories repeatedly, and own them all in their original, serially-published format, but as I wanted to take a look at the "Madmen Across The Water" story from Showcase '94, I borrowed the trade for the library the other day and, as long as I had it, thought it might be worth re-reading some of those stories and discussing them here for anyone who wasn't an active Batman consumer in the early '90s, and/or love Time Sale but haven't got around to this trade yet (It does feature some pretty great work the artist and a few shorter works of particular note, but Long Halloween and Dark Victory, despite some of their plot flaws and logical shortcomings, remain Sale's must-read Batman work).

As an added bonus, each story has an individual introduction by Sale, and it's so thorough that it contains his runs as the cover artist for Detective Comics and Batgirl (Correct me if I'm wrong when I reach the end of this post, but I'm pretty sure this is everything Batman-related that Sale's done that hasn't been collected elsewhere, with the exception of covers from the line-wide 2001 "Last Laugh" crossover story).

Let's look at it, bit by bit.

COVER

This is a really strong image of Batman in action. I like how Sale draw's Batman so that his cape becomes a sort of flat, planar, design element, here trailing him like the tail of a black comet, and he's so small in all that red that he really pops out as a human in action in a big city (If you look at it from a distance though, it looks a little like he's swinging and trying to reach that DC Comics logo in the lower right corner).

Like I said, I don't really like that title much, but I'm not sure how to improve it. The Rest of Tim Sale's Batman Comics..? The Brave and The Bold: Batman and Tim Sale...? I don't know.

I feel a little bad that Sale is billed as "The Artist of BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN and TV's HEROES." That's a hell of a thing to have your entire career reduced to, contributing a tiny bit of work to that dumb-ass, boring, already mostly-forgotten show.

I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I spent quite a bit of time trying to puzzle out the credits of his co-writers at the bottom there, which, if you can't read the cover so well, say "with Darwyn Cooke, Alan Grant, Kelley Puckett, James Robinson."

Now, there were, in my mind, two basic ways to credit Sale's collaborators: Either by the amount of their contributions, or their perceived statue (You know, whose name would sell the most comics).

Grant wrote the most of any of the four, scripting three issues of Batman: Shadow of the Bat and the two shorter stories that make up "Madmen Across The Water" (about 90-ish pages, all together) closely followed by James Robinson, who wrote three issues of Legends of the Dark Knight (66 pages). Cooke and Puckett, meanwhile, only contribute one short story apiece.

And yet Cooke gets top-billing. So surely the relative fame or market value of the creator was their criteria, but, hold on, if so, why is Robinson billed fourth, below Grant and Puckett, two talented writers, to be sure, but neither of whom have amassed a body of works including as many hits as Robinson.

And then I realized they were simply listed alphabetically, and that I was an idiot.

"Madmen Across The Water"

This is the Arkham vs. Blackgate story from Showcase '94 I discussed a few weeks ago, written by Grant, inked by Jimmy Palmiotti and colored by Bernie Miereault.

For our purposes here, I just wanted to note Sale's introduction to the piece, in which he rather diplomatically discusses his trepidation about unearthing such early work of his for the purposes of the book. He does note that as much as his style might have changed over the years, he notes several instances where the choices he made penciling this early nineties story are the same ones he would make were he drawing it today.

This story is also, apparently, the last time anyone has inked Sale's work, which for some reason I found sort of astounding. He compliments Palmiotti's work, saying that he gave Palmiotti a lot less to work with than pencilers usually give inkers, and he calls Palmiotti's work "manly" here. Which...well, I have to admit, as much as I liked the art in this story, when I read it in 1994 and when I reread it a few weeks back and every time I've read it between, I never really noticed any particularly manly aspect to the lines in it.

"Blades"

This is a 1992 three-issue Legends of the Dark Knight arc that Sale drew, working with writer James Robinson and colorist Steve Oliff (who, for trivia's sake I will point out, is the first colorist whose name I noticed, due to his skill and my curiosity about why the colors in a particular comic book were noticeably better than those in others; Todd Klein was the first letterer's credit I ever noted, although he didn't letter this comic. I'm just saying. He did letter the next one).

This is also one of the earlier LDK comics to earn collection, along with two other shorter arcs in 1994's Batman: Collected Legends of The Dark Knight, and also the only comic in this book that's already been collected elsewhere (to my knowledge).

I reviewed the arc recently enough that I don't want to re-review it here, but t I will simply point out the plot revolved around Robinson and Sale's reinvention of minor Batman villain The Cavalier in the continuity-light milieu of LDK's "Year One" setting. The character was distinct enough from the other Cavalier that it could be read as a retcon, making this guy Cavalier I, and the villain who looks more like one of the Three Musketeers Cavalier II.

The art in the story looks so much like Sale's that, at this point, it's easy to see that this is the very same artist who would go on to do Long Halloween.

"The Misfits"

The Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle creative team was my gateway into Batman, the DC Universe and superhero comics in general, and when Shadow of the Bat launched in 1992, I was extremely excited: Not only was this the first new Batman title in forever (at the time), it was apparently going to be one completely devoted to showcasing the work of that particular creative team month in and month out; at the time, I was still buying whatever I could find of theirs from the back issue bins, so I was happy to know I'd be able to get a fresh, new book from the pair every month...one that didn't smell quite so...aged.

Unfortunately, Breyfogle only drew the first five issues (The four-part "Last Arkham" arc that introduced Jeremiah Arkham and Mr. Zsasz, and "The Black Spider," which killed off the 1970s Bat-villain), and, eight issues later, would return for Shadow of The Bat #13, his last issue on the title.

I didn't generally like the other guys they got to draw Shadow arcs as much as Breyfogle, particularly at that time as a young, unsophisticated reader of comical books—Dan Jurgens, Joe Stanton, Brett Blevins—with a few exceptions. One was Vince Giarrano, and the other was this Tim Sale guy, who drew the title's second, multi-issue storyline, "The Misfits." (This is the one Todd Klein lettered; Adrienne Roy colored it).

The misfits of the title were a trio of minor, then little-seen old Batman villains—Killer Moth, Calendar Man and Catman (The latter of whom was appearing here for the second of his three post-Crisis, pre-Brad Meltzer appearances. Grant wrote him in a Breyfogle-illustrated issue of Detective Comics, and then later in a rather messy crossover between this title and Catwoman which involved Batman, Catwoman, Catman and The Ratcatcher).

Unable to make it big on their own, they join forces to execute an ambitious kidnapping plot, their targets being Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon and the mayor. Grant and Sale introduces a pair of new characters, neither of whom I think ever reappeared: One was Chancer, a super-villain with a dice logo on his chest who claimed to be lucky, and the other was Nimrod The Hunter (it's in the Bible), a vigilante with a Predator-style, light-bending invisibility suit and a vendetta against Chancer.
This story really instilled in me a curiosity about and love for Calendar Man, wearing a stream-lined version of his awesome costume (this was well before Sale would design a fey, tatoo-ed version of the character for Dark Victory, a version that seems to have become the preeminent one), and Catman, who was still wearing the Breyfogle-designed costume.

Killer Moth was portrayed as the least charming of the characters involved, and working on living up to his name. I didn't get his costume at all, which Sale really struggled with, essentially giving him some kind of big monster head (To be fair, his is a super-goofy costume, one few artists actually draw well).
As a showcase of Sale's work, I think this is a particularly interesting story because it was a pretty rare example of the artist working in-continuity; this is the only time I've seen him draw Robin Tim Drake, for example. You can see a bit of the later, Long Halloween Sale in the work here, particularly in the posing of the characters, and the urban playground look of Gotham City's rooftops and alleys: There are all kinds of balconies and ledges and fire escapes and fences and chimneys to run on, jump off or pose upon.

"Date Knight"

This is the Cooke-scripted short from Tim Sale's issue of the short-lived (and much-missed) Solo series; an 11-page romp in which Batman chases Catwoman all over Gotham City, which is exactly what she wanted him to do when she planned a crime to get his attention. It's a fun little story, one that is almost all Gotham-as-playground setting, despite a few instances of Cooke trying a little too hard for a joke (The story would work perfectly well without any dialogue).

It's also a pretty ideal demonstration of the Batman/Catwoman relationship, particularly as it's evolved over the last two decades, where she's become less of a criminal and supervillain and more of a Robin Hood-style thief and super-frenemy.

According to Sale's introduction to this piece—which was colored by Dave Stewart and lettered by Richard Starkings—this was the very first comic that Cooke had written for another artist to draw (The pair would later reunite for a problematic six-issue, 2007-2008 story arc in the short-lived Superman Confidential title, that I'm pretty sure they helped sink; it's perhaps most memorable for running in Confidential #1-#5 and then finishing in #11, with two other story arcs running between the penultimate and final chapters of their story).

This story is also noteworthy for featuring Sale's Catwoman in her current costume, rather than the modified "Year One" version he gave her in Long Halloween and Dark Victory. It is a costume that Darwyn Cooke of course designed, for the Catwoman title that preceded the current volume.

"Night After Night"

This was Sale's 2001 contribution to the second volume of Batman: Black and White, which he worked on with Batman Adventures writer Kelley Puckett. An eight-page Batman vs. Joker story, it is about as perfect a distillation of the pair's relationship as the preceding story was for Batman and Catwoman.

Aside from Joker's clever takedown of Batman ("You've really got to stop sneaking up on me. It's so predictable"), there's a bravura six-panels sequence in which Batman is caught in death trap with a bragging, braying Joker trying to goad him for a few panels, in which a silent Batman quickly turns the tables on him completely, Sale using only variations in the angles of Batman's eyes and frown to communicate his initial irritation with The Joker and then his smug triumphalism.

COVER GALLERY

Included in the back of the book are Sale's covers for Solo, Detective Comics (11 of those he contributed in 2003 and 2004, during Ed Brubaker's run) and for Batgirl.
The ones chosen are certainly the strongest, and it's interesting to note that with the exception of Catwoman, who appears in her Cooke costume, the villains he draws are his own versions, including the Joker with gigantic, domino teeth and the tiny little Penguin with too-few fingers and a mouth full of tiny pointy teeth.

Here are a few of the TEC covers that didn't make the cut and thus aren't included:




They're of note, I think, because they show Sale working farther afield than his normal place of strength, drawing characters he's not really associated with (Green Lantern Alan Scott, Stephanie Brown as Robin, Mr. Zsasz again, the female version of Tarantula that was briefly a supporting character in Nightwing and thus the rest of the Batman line; not sure why they didn't include the Mad Hatter cover, with its nice cover version of John Tenniel's of Jabberwocky)

There are also a handful of covers from the end of the 2000-2006 (Cassandra Cain-starring) Batgirl series, for which Sale drew the last five covers. Oddly enough, Sale did not provide the best covers of that series, as James Jean had a wonderful, 17-issue run as cover artist. Still, that's one of the weirder places I've seen Sale's cover work show up at DC, with the exception of, say, this:

2 comments:

Akilles said...

The black and white story is very confusing to me. The action isn`t shown clearly enough. But maybe I should simply read it again.

Will definitely borrow this from some place.

Also, I thought that the Jabberwocky was Man-bat...

Eric Lee said...

I love me some Tim Sale art. If given a choice between him and an ultra-realistic art style, I'd choose his stylized art.