Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

A Profile in Superheroics: Norm Breyfogle

In my analysis of the Joker, I made brief mention of Norm Breyfogle, the masterful comic-book illustrator whose work graced the pages of, successively, Detective Comics, Batman, and Batman:  Shadow of the Bat between 1987 and 1992.  Mr. Breyfogle began his tenure as resident Bat-artist at a very exciting time for the Caped Crusader:  Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) had just rocked the comics world, heralding a brand-new era for both the legendary character and the medium itself, and Tim Burton’s Batman would go on to become the highest-grossing film of 1989, thrusting its titular hero out of the shadows of specialty shops and into the national spotlight, irrevocably changing both the comics and movie businesses in the process (probably for the worse in both cases, but that’s a subject for another article, I suppose).

Batman #244, September 1972, with pencils by Neal Adams

Batman #244, September 1972, with pencils by Neal Adams

Also at that time, the comics industry, in general, was transitioning from the so-called Bronze Age (1970–1985), which favored topical stories rendered in the realistic, anatomically detailed style of illustration that was the hallmark of such artists as Neal Adams and the late Jim Aparo, to the current “Modern Age,” marked by a trend toward psychological credibility, where the heroes aren’t all good and the villains amount to more than mere evil incarnate.  Mr. Breyfogle’s work represented something of a departure from the Bronze Age aesthetic that I can only describe as “magic realism”:  He brought to his depictions the careful attention to anatomical and environmental detail of Adams’ generation—even through their masks, his characters were broadly expressive—yet incorporated fanciful flourishes that allowed for a certain “superheroic dynamism” that helped retain the elemental joy of comics as their stories became progressively more grim and morally complex:

Norm Breyfogle's Batman: Note the exaggerated length of the cape in this panel

Norm Breyfogle’s Batman: Note the exaggerated length of the cape in this panel

In 1988, the second Robin, Jason Todd, met with his untimely and violent end in a storyline entitled A Death in the Family, written by Jim Starlin with pencils by Jim Aparo, whose Bronze Age realism was probably more aesthetically suited to this particular somber occasion than Mr. Breyfogle’s lively style might’ve been:

Batman #428, December 1988, with pencils by Jim Aparo

Batman #428, December 1988, with pencils by Jim Aparo

The following year, a new prospective Batman protégé, Tim Drake, was introduced in the five-part story A Lonely Place of Dying.  After a yearlong apprenticeship, Tim was ready at last to formally adopt the mantle of Boy Wonder, and the editors of Batman wisely decided that a new costume was in order for a new Robin in a new decade; Mr. Breyfogle was one of several artists solicited to conceive a redesign.  The challenge here was to reinvent an iconic, if hopelessly dorky, uniform with a modern makeover that could sufficiently honor the spirit of the original, which had stood for fifty years:

Norm Breyfogle experimented with several radical design concepts for Robin's new costume

Norm Breyfogle experimented with several radical design concepts for Robin’s new costume

Ultimately, an outfit was chosen that was recognizably Robin, but sleeker and more utilitarian:

Batman #457, December 1990, with pencils by Norm Breyfogle

Batman #457, December 1990, with pencils by Norm Breyfogle

My heart pounded, I’m not ashamed to admit, when that was first revealed:  Robin was cool!  This final version of the revamped suit is credited to Neal Adams, though the modified R emblem and Tim Drake-specific signature weapon (the array of staffs he keeps stowed under his cape as seen below) were incorporated directly from Mr. Breyfogle’s conceptual sketches.

Batman #465, late July 1991, with pencils by Norm Breyfogle

Batman #465, late July 1991, with pencils by Norm Breyfogle

Throughout the early nineties, without the media fanfare or controversy afforded to feature-film directors Burton and Joel Schumacher (who infamously augmented both the Batsuit and redesigned Robin costume with nipples), Mr. Breyfogle contributed to the Batman mythos with regularity and dignity, hand-painting the Ra’s al Ghul origin story Birth of the Demon and launching, with his frequent collaborator, scribe Alan Grant, the ongoing series Shadow of the Bat to coincide with the release of the big-screen sequel Batman Returns (1992).  He then did some work for the defunct Malibu Comics—Prime and Metaphysique—before returning for a brief spell to DC to draw the Batman spin-off series Anarky (1999).  At the turn of the millennium, Mr. Breyfogle found himself inexplicably blacklisted by DC and Marvel, for reasons still unknown even to him.  He put up for sale a number of his original pages of comic-book art; for our tenth anniversary, my wife surprised me with the inked and lettered opening splash from Batman:  Dreamland (2000), which hangs on my office wall to this day.  Almost thirty years after reading my first Norm Breyfogle comic, the man continues to inspire my imagination in my most hallowed creative haven.

Legendary Batman artist Norm Breyfogle

Legendary Batman artist Norm Breyfogle

It came to light over the holiday that Mr. Breyfogle has recently suffered a stroke, which is not only a devastating setback medically and vocationally, but financially, as well:  He requires costly rehabilitative therapy to regain mobility.  If you’ve at any point over the last quarter century been entertained by a Batman story, be it a comic book, video game, television series (the many animated incarnations, for instance, or the current Fox hit Gotham), or any of the cinematic offerings of Burton, Schumacher, and, most recently, Christopher Nolan, please take a moment to consider Mr. Breyfogle’s invaluable (and generally unheralded) contribution to our cultural heritage—Batman is immortal American folklore, after all—and perhaps make a donation to his recovery fund.

Calling all heroes!

Calling all heroes!

Just a few weeks ago, I’d mused to my wife about how cool it would be to perhaps commission Mr. Breyfogle, presuming his interest and availability, to design the cover to one of my upcoming novels—what a dream come true it would be to have his brilliant artwork serve as the visual representation of something I’d written.  I still plan to ask him.  So, for entirely selfish reasons, I wish him a full and speedy recovery; please drop him a line and wish him the same.  The man has spent the better part of his life bringing superheroics into our lives; like a beacon from the Bat-Signal over the Gotham City skyline, this is a call for us to return his wondrous gesture in kind.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for your kind words, Sean! One note: that youcare fund site opened for me by my brother and his girlfriend closed over six months ago. Thank you to everyone who contributed! It’s been a wild ride with its ups and downs, and the fan support has been critical in my recovery and it still is!

    • Norm!

      Thanks so much for weighing in! Can’t express what a nice surprise that is for me. It was my pleasure to contribute in whatever small way I could to the public awareness of your (now defunct) YouCaring campaign; you can’t imagine the hours I spent as a kid poring over the work you produced with Alan Grant in Detective, Batman, and Shadow (and Birth of the Demon is still such a gorgeous piece of work, twenty-plus years later; it sits on my bookshelf beside the Legends of the Dark Knight: Norm Breyfogle, Volume 1 hardcover edition DC released this past summer). I was genuinely devastated to learn of your medical setback — as I know legions of your fans were — and I hope you are on the mend, with your best creative days still ahead. Please keep me posted on your recovery and future projects; I’m eager to hear good things…

      Yours,

      Sean

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