Norm Breyfogle has died.
I did not know him. In fact, I hardly knew anything at all about it. I never met him. I never interviewed him over the phone or email. I never saw him speak at a comic book convention panel or in a college auditorium. I didn't follow him on Twitter, if he was even on Twitter, so I don't "know" him in the way that I now know dozens of other comic book creators by virtue of being exposed to their postings regularly. Come to think of it, I've only seen a handful of images of Breyfogle, and most of those were self-portraits rather than photographs.
So I feel a little strange about the sense of loss I felt upon hearing of his death, a sense that is still lingering like a particularly persistent fog around me. I suppose it comes from knowing that someone has died who I didn't know personally, who I barely knew much of, but who nevertheless had an enormous impact on my life.
Although Breyfogle drew comic books for major publishers for 30 years, he was by far best known for his work on Batman. That is where I first encountered his work, and it was Breyfogle's Batman that stoked my interest in the character and the medium, an interest that determined the direction of my life and made me what I am, and put me where I am now--for good or ill, I suppose.
I don't want to overstate how important Breyfogle's work was in getting me into comics. Had he never drawn Batman, then something else--Tim Burton's 1989 movie, Kelley Jones' covers, those weird Tom Taggart multimedia covers for 1992's Batman #477 and #478--would have eventually lured me into Gotham City. And, likewise, Jan Duursema's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would have likely gotten me into comics, it just might have taken a little longer, as I would have had one less draw.
When I first became a fan of Breyfogle's work, I doubt I could have explained what I liked about it so much, or why I preferred his Batman comics to those of his peers...although I am sure there are embarrassing letters to the editors in which I attempted to in the backs of many Batman comics of the mid-1990s.
Now I know that a large part of it is in the construction of his pages, and they way he drew action. It is apparent in his very first comics work. Look at this cover, wherein you can see he still hasn't mastered Batman's form and costume.
Breyfogle drew that Batman. Breyfogle's Batman was definitely human. His always visible muscles could be seen moving, bulging and straining under his costume, which at that point was just spandex, rather than the head-to-toe body armor he now wears. He would get hurt...a lot. His costume would rip. He would bleed. Memorably, one of his ears might get chopped off or bent in particularly savage fights. Usually from the neck down, he was an undeniably physical presence, a human being like all the others in the comics. But his head and cape, the "bat" parts of the Batman, were often inky black--this was when Batman was still wearing blue and gray, remember--as shadow would fall on him. In the distance, in the shadow, when he was trying to look imposing or scary or threatening, he would be half-transformed into an angry, jagged black shape with narrow, sharp, white triangles for eyes and, perhaps, equally white gritted teeth.
When I think of Batman, the image in my head is of Breyfogle's Batman.
By the time I had gone off to college and buying comic books was becoming a weekly habit and ritual for me, Breyfogle had left Batman and pursued work for other publishers, none of which I read, although he would occasionally return for a Batman story here or there, he re-teamed with Grant to try and make Anarky into a solo superhero, and then he would show up in often unexpected places at DC, and a few pages of Breyfogle art would end up being a nice surprise I wasn't looking for, but was always happy to get.
By the aughts, I honestly felt kind of bad for Breyfogle, like he wasn't getting the attention and acclaim I felt he deserved. He might draw the Justice League for a few pages in Anarky or a one-shot or part of a multi-artist, event miniseries, and I would find myself taken aback by how good he was, and wondering why he wasn't on JLA, or one of DC's highest-profile books. Whenever there would be a sub-par issue of Batman--of which there were many in the aughts, and Grant Morrison's run on Batman included some shockingly poor artwork for the publisher's highest-profile books by one of the industry's highest-profile writers, I would wonder why the fuck Breyfogle wasn't drawing it.
I was genuinely surprised when he started working with Archie Comics on those comics set in possible futures where Archie married Betty or Veronica, because it seemed like such a weird place for Breyfogle's talents--no capes, no acrobatics, no flying kicks, no dynamic action scenes--but he rather remarkably managed to draw them in such a way that they kept the house style designs of the characters while still looking like his work.
When he had his stroke in 2015, and it was subsequently revealed that he would likely never draw again, I was surprised again--and now I felt more than kind of bad for Breyfogle. I honestly can't imagine how devastating it would be for an artist to lose his ability to create art, as I have to imagine drawing wasn't what someone like Breyfogle did for a living, but was something he did because he loved doing it. It was a vocation and what he was great at, and now he couldn't...? I tried to do what I could, but I am not nearly as rich as I would like to be, and I would like to be rich in large part because it means I can't help I want to help as much as I'd like (Honestly. My college loans are all paid off. I'm terrified of all forms of travel. I have extremely cheap taste in clothes, cars and the things rich people might normally spend money on. I have no significant other, no children, no pets. I want to buy a house and, after that, um, I don't really need much more money for anything other than giving it to people who can use money).
It's honestly been a little sad to be on the Internet at all this week, in part because of Breyfogle's passing. I was heartened, and a little surprised, to see how much love and affection for his work appeared in my Twitter feed and elsewhere on the Internet. My appreciation of his work was hardly unique, and I was hardly the only person in my general generation of comic book readers he had an incredible impact on. I lost count of how often I saw the same four images this week: Batman standing in an alley during a thuderstorm, his billowing black cape becoming an abstract black cloud on the cover of Detective #587; Batman standing dramatically with his back to the viewer as he faces Big Ben, a flock of bats flying out to meet him from the cover of Detective #590; Batman swaddling himself in his cape as he stands in a dove-filled graveyard, Breyfogle's own name on a nearby tombstone from Detective #610; Batman and the new Robin, Tim Drake, caught in a spotlight atop a roof (in perfect update of the cover from Batman #9) on Batman #465. They are all indelible images, and they are just a handful of those Breyfogle crafted.
Now, it occurred to me this week that many of the people expressing their sadness at Breyfogle's passing and their appreciation for his work are all from the same generation, and there's a good chance that there are many, many fans of Batman comics and DC's other super-comics who aren't at all familiar with Breyfogle's work, or perhaps have only seen the 20 pages or so of it that appear in the Batman: Knightfall omnibus, for example, or maybe the Holy Terror "chapter" in Batman: Elseworlds Vol. 1.
As I am not in a position to do anything else of value to mark Breyfogle's passing then, I figured I can at least do this, and so I've put together a reading guide of sorts for those who might find themselves wondering about this Norm Breyfogle character and what makes him so special. Below, in roughly chronological-ish order, are the books and comics the curious can seek out, in formats that should be the easiest to find at your local comic shop or your local library.
I am restricting it to his DC work, which is perhaps unfair to his versatility (and to the other publishers he worked with), but that is mainly because he is best-known for his Batman work, and the bulk of his work (and the bulk of it that has been collected) was for DC. Aside form the Archie comics mentioned, Breyfogle also drew Prime and Metaphysique for Mailibu, Mr. T for Now Comics, Bloodshot for Valiant/Acclaim, an American Flagg back-up for First Comics, a couple of short Marvel comics and work for several smaller publishers.
If I remember interviews I read years ago correctly, the two British comics alumni weren't too terribly immersed in DC continuity at the time, and as a result found it easier to create their own characters for Batman to fight and interact with than to get up to speed with what Ra's al Ghul and Man-Bat or whoever were up to the last time reader saw them. And so the Grant or Grant/Wagner-written comics collected herein--'Tec #582-594 and #601-607--were often short, done-in-one stories featuring Batman out in the city, not unlike a beat cop, encountering crimes that needed fought and people that needed saved. The villains were mostly new to Batman and new to readers, and several of them would become recurring characters (although, among the ones in this volume, it was mostly Grant himself who used them on a repeat basis).
These issues of 'Tec, all drawn between 1987 and 1989, featured brand-new bad guys The Ventriloquist and Scarface, The Ratcatcher,The Corrosive Man, Cornelius Stirk and Mr. Kadaver, who had a cool look to go with his name, but wouldn't make any return appearances. There are two longer, four-part stories, both of which are excellent, and among some of my favorite Batman comics of all time.
here, as well as posting some rather poor scans of some rather amazing art).
In addition to drawing the ultimate Batman, Breyfogle drew what I would consider the best Demon...if anyone other than a character's creator can truly be said to draw the best version of that character, of course (My second favorite Demon? John McCrea's). I'm not sure if this storyline was intentionally created to serve as a launchpad for Alan Grant's The Demon ongoing or not, but not long after Etrigan got his second and longest-lasting ongoing series.
In addition to all of those Detective issues, there's material from a pair of Batman annuals in this collection, featuring Robin Jason Todd (Breyfogle's very first Batman-related work) and The Penguin.
I've written at length about before (that's the issue for which Breyfogle redesigned Catman, giving him the best of his costumes, even if it proved to be short-lived).
The Batman issues revolve around Tim Drake, and his rescue of Batman from the clutches of The Scarecrow, after which he dons his new Robin costume for the first time (These issues of Batman have already been collected in Robin: Reborn, discussed below).
The issue in which Commissioner James Gordon has his heart attack is included in this batch too; I recall that reading particularly preachy to me when I was a teenager, so I assume it will only seem more so now that I am an infinitely more jaded and cynical adult. On the other hand, Gordon seems to have taken up smoking again, so maybe it's still a timely reminder to not smoke and take care of yourself...hell, maybe Jim should read it himself.
This volume will include the end of Breyfogle's run on Detective, and get us pretty near the end of his time as a regular artist on the Bat-titles. There will certainly be enough for a Vol. 3, as there's a dozen issues left of Batman, his portion of Detective Comics #627, some nine issues of Shadow of The Bat, a couple of one-shots discussed below, the Retroactive special, some short stories...hell, there will probably be enough for a Vol. 4, if DC desires to do one.
This collection, the first of a new line collecting writer Chuck Dixon's run on the character, includes 1990's Detective Comics #618-621 and Batman #455-457 by Grant, Breyfogle and Mitchell. In the former, new villain The Obeah Man kidnaps Tim's parents in Haiti and Batman goes to rescue them; Tim's mother dies, but Tim's father survives, albeit in a coma. In the latter, Batman faces the resurfaced Scarecrow, and Tim has to decide if he should disobey Batman's orders to stay in the Batcave in order to save Batman's life, even if it means giving up his chance to ever be his partner.
Is that the scariest image of a Robin ever drawn? I think it might be. I like how Breyfogle managed to make Robin look both menacing and mysterious--in part to not reveal the new costume, designed by Breyfogle's own influence Neal Adams--the figure looks, but also how frightened The Scarecrow seems to be of Robin appearing in the window. And I can't imagine it was easy to depict fear in a character whose face is completely hidden by a featureless mask like The Scarecrow wears here).
The rest of the collection is devoted to Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle's original Robin miniseries. Though Grant and writer Marv Wolfman wrote the first Tim Drake and Robin III stories, it would be Dixon who would spend the most time on the new Robin character, and first Lyle and then Tom Grummett who would be the artists most associated with the start of the new Boy Wonder's career.
Contained within are two reprints and two original stories, all of four of them using the same plot of "The Case of The Chemical Syndicate." The reprints are of the original 1939 Bob Kane and Bill Finger story (of course) and a 1969 cover version of that story by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown and Joe Giella, commissioned by editor Julius Schwartz to celebrate Batman's thirtieth anniversary. The two new stories were by the modern Batman creative teams, telling their versions of the original story: One by Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo, and the other by Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle and Steve Mitchell. Sort of like Rashomon, only with a Golden Age Batman strip, only not really.
The graphic novel, which was originally published in 1992 and then republished in 2012, was of a slightly bigger, more album-like size than your average Big Two comic, and Breyfogle employed a rarely used style, in which he painted over his pencils (generally, this is only seen on a handful of the artist's covers). The result is kind of incredible, as the character designs and their movements are familiar from dozens and dozens of Batman comics, but their texture, their sheen, their mood is totally different...moodier, more dramatic, more "important" looking.
This book is also somewhat noteworthy for the fact that while it's still technically a Batman comic, the bulk of it is spent in centuries past, in an unknown Middle Eastern kingdom whose name was carefully removed from history by Ra's, and Breyfogle thus spends a lot of time drawing desert sands, horses and what looks like a combination of Hollywood Biblical epic trappings and oriental exotica of a past age's pop culture. In other words, like the art style, it is both incredibly familiar, but just as incredibly different, simultaneously.
It was originally published as a standalone hardcover, but in 2012 all three "...Of the Demon" books were collected under the umbrella title, and a new, Andy Kubert-drawn cover was slapped atop it. If your local library doesn't have the original, it should at least have the omnibus collecting all three books. (I previously reviewed Birth of The Demon here, if you're interested.)
That is followed by done-in-one "The Black Spider." Breyfogle would return for #13 (Collected in Batman: Shadow of The Bat Vol. 2) and #50. Grant would remain, and work with some pretty great artists. The rest of this volume includes the one-issue "Ugly American" with Dan Jurgens and Dick Giordano, the three-issue arc "The Misfits" by Tim Sale, the one-issue "The Thane of Gotham" by Mike Collins and Steve Mitchell (featuring one of my favorite of Brian Stelfreeze's covers for the series), and the two-part "Human Flea" by Vince Giarrano (Aside: I loved this character so much, and had DC Comics hired Teenage Caleb to write for them, he would have become a recurring member of Tim Drake's rogue's gallery before ultimately joining The Teen Titans, I think).
The Ghost In The Bathroom know I was particularly phobic of Gray aliens and the idea of alien abduction for a big chunk of my life, so, as I probably wrote in letter to the editor to DC Comics back in the day, this comic was literally the stuff my bad dreams were made of. There are lots of trippy visuals, and in one hallucinatory scene, Batman fights Bruce Lee. The book must have proved as financially successful as it was creatively, as it was followed in 2000 with another prestige-format one-shot by Grant and Breyfogle (here inking his own work), Batman: Dreamland, in which Batman pursues a killer into Area 51, and similar, paranoid millennial subjects are covered and themes pursued. The pair of these would make for a pretty good trade paperback collection, as neither seems to have been collected or republished before.
I wrote about it at the time for Robot 6. (A lot of what I say in this post I said previously in that piece.)
Not only is the book unusual for being a Grant-less Breyfogle comic and for giving him a relatively rare chance to draw others of DC's more iconic characters (even if they don't much look like themselves here), but it's a lot more political than your average Batman comic, either by the standards of the early 1990s or today, where things like the Waynes assisting in abortions would probably generate a lot more fuss in those pre-social media days.
The collections also features stories drawn by Jerry Bingham, Howard Chaykin, Mark Chiarello, Bo Hampton, Kelley Jones, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, P. Craig Russell and Alan Weiss in which Batman is a cowboy, a space man, a Green Lantern, various monsters and a contemporary of Houdinis'.
The third volume of this series, Batman: Elseworlds Vol. 3, includes the Doug Moench-written 1995 comic Brotherhood of The Bat, in which Breyfogle is one of the many Batman artists to draw a chapter, along with just about every other Bat-office artist from the first half of the decade: Jim Aparo, Jim Balent, Bret Blevins, Vince Giarrano, Tom Grummett, Mike Manley and Graham Nolan.
In 1999, writer Pat McGreal and Breyfogle collaborated on this three-issue Elseworlds miniseries, which imagines a world in which The Flash saved President John F. Kennedy from the assassin's bullets...but the Scarlet Speedster ended up in a wheelchair as a result. I have not yet read this--those Stuart Immonen covers fooled me, I guess--but it appears to feature not only The Flash and some of his villains and supporting cast, but also much of the original Silver Age Justice League line-up. It has not been collected by itself, but it will be collected next year, in Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 3, along with Conjurors (featuring one of the proto-Shdowpact/Justice League Dark teams), Evan Dorkin and all your favorite artists' Superman and Batman: World's Funnest (which is the best ever), the Kevin Maguire-drawn what-if-all-the-dudes-died story JLA: Created Equal (featuring Green Lantern Barbara Gordon!) and Green Lantern: 1001 Emerald Knights, which, with Flashpoint, is the only one of these that I've never read before.