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On Norm Breyfogle: What would Batman do?

by  in Comic News Comment
On Norm Breyfogle: What would Batman do?

Spring 1992’s Batman #475 may not be all that important in the Dark Knight’s history, but it was a pretty pivotal issue in my own history with comics. It wasn’t just the first time I bought a Batman comic — beginning a growing interest in superhero comics that has yet to subside — but it was also the first time I encountered the work of artist Norm Breyfogle.

It was his incredible artwork that convinced me to purchase that issue over all of the other Batman comics on the stands and in the beat-up boxes of my local comic shop, and that fueled my many return visits, to buy new Breyfogle-drawn Batman comics as they arrived and dig out the dozens of earlier ones from the back-issue bins.

At the time, comics cost just $1 — a quarter of what the average issue costs today — but I was 14 years old, so my only income came from allowance, birthday and Christmas gifts, and what my grandfather paid me to mow his lawn. Comics were to me then, as they are now, a luxury purchase of sorts, something one spent one’s extra money on. As adults, that means they’re what we buy after we’ve paid the rent and utilities, bought groceries and filled up the gas tank.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that comic books, something on which consumers spend their disposable income, are the primary or only source of income for many of those writers and artist who toil over their production. For readers, comics are a fun hobby; for creators, comics are their livelihood.

I’ve been thinking about that incongruity a lot this past month or so, since we learned that Breyfogle had suffered a stroke that affected the left side of his body — including his drawing hand — and that his family was asking fans for help in reaching the $200,000 they expect him to need in order to recover.

Comics industry history is, in one sense, a chain of sob stories, one instance after another of an editor, publisher or corporation screwing over the creators who came up with the intellectual properties that powered the companies they worked for … going all the way back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, decades before comic book characters were even thought of as “intellectual properties” and film and television adaptations were making millions and billions of dollars.

This isn’t one of them.

I don’t know the circumstances of Breyfogle’s finances, or why he didn’t have health insurance, or the health of his relationship with DC Comics or Archie Comics, the two publishers he’s probably most associated with. I suppose I could ask his family and report back, but that doesn’t really seem important — not as important as the fact that a great artist who gave a lot of people a lot of joy is in trouble, and is asking for help.

I am dismayed that Breyfogle’s family failed to meet their initial $200,000 goal, having stalled out at a little more than $74,000, and have thus extended their effort for another month. I’m dismayed because as much money as $200,000 might be to most individuals, it’s nothing to comics fandom or the comics industry as a whole. Batman readers alone could meet that amount by pooling the change they find in their seat cushions and the cupholders of their cars.

In December, Batman was, as it so often is, the top-selling comic in the direct market. According to analysis by CBR’s John Mayo, Issue 37 sold nearly 115,000 copies; the title has been shipping more than 100,000 units — sometimes well over — since September 2011’s New 52 reboot. That’s a $4 comic book. So if everyone who reads Batman monthly simply donated half the price of a single issue of Batman, that’s $200,000 right there.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, and it’s really too bad. I know it’s not like readers necessarily owe it to Breyfogle to give him a couple of bucks just because they happen to read a comic featuring a character he drew so well for so long, but damn, two bucks is not very much money at all, certainly not for anyone who reads comics, which has become an expensive hobby. And for fans who collect comics and comics-related merchandise — I’m thinking variant covers and those $100-plus statuettes and busts and replica props that DC and Marvel sell — a couple of bucks can’t possibly be something they’d notice, let alone miss.

It’s disappointing Breyfogle’s family hasn’t met that goal yet simply because I want to imagine the world — or at least our corner of it, the one devoted to telling stories about justice, heroism and doing the right thing — is a place where people help those in need. Especially when it’s so easy to do so; there are so many people in our corner of the world world and there is so much money in it now — both the disposable income we readers spend on it, and the massive profits those publishers and corporations who own them make off us.

Norm Breyfogle spent about four years drawing Batman comics, from 1988 to 1992, which most of you will recognize as a particularly potent time in Batman history. That’s from just after The Dark Knight Returns (and Watchmen and Maus) shook the comics industry, just before the release of the Tim Burton-directed Batman film, and up until around the time its sequel Batman Returns was released.

Breyfogle drew Detective Comics from 1988’s #583 to 1990’s #621 and then moved to Batman from 1990’s #455 to 1992’s #476 (give or take a three issues here and there) and then launched a new, third Batman book, drawing the first story arc of 1992’s Shadow of the Bat. Almost every single one of those issues was written by Alan Grant, Breyfogle’s longtime collaborator, or Grant and John Wagner, Grant’s writing partner early in his Batman career.

During his time on the character, Breyfogle also illustrated the Denny O’Neil-written origin of Ra’s al Ghul in the fully painted 1992 original graphic novel Batman: Birth of the Demon, he drew the 1991 Elseworlds one-shot Batman: Holy Terror (written by Alan Brennert) and later reteamed with Grant for a pair of one-shots pitting Batman against the paranoid, “real-world” concept of aliens, in 1998’s Batman: The Abduction and 2000’s Batman: Dreamland.

In all that time drawing Batman comics, Breyfogle co-created the villains Mr. Zsasz, Scarface and The Ventriloquist, Anarky and Jeremiah Arkham, along with more rarely seen villains like Amygdala, The Ratcatcher and Cornelius Stirk.

He drew many of the earliest appearance of Tim Drake, including the character’s debut as the new Robin in his new costume in 1991’s Batman #465. (While Breyfogle was one of the artists asked to design the new Robin costume, it was a modified version of one of Neal Adams’ designs that won out.) He also drew the first appearance of Renee Montoya, prior to her introduction in Batman: The Animated Series. The latter occurred in … Batman #475, so maybe that comic was significant to Batman history after all.

I mention all of that because here’s another way the $200,000 goal could be easily met. While none of Breyfogle’s co-creations ever achieved Joker-level popularity, I think it’s worth knowing how many times characters like Zsasz and The Ventriloquist have appeared in comics, and thus how many different writers have written those characters, and how many different artists have drawn those characters and, therefore, how many other creators have gotten paychecks for using Breyfogle creations. And if we look at other media, The Ventriloquist and Scarface appeared in Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman, Anarky in Beware The Batman, Zsasz quite briefly in Batman Begins and, more recently, on Fox’s Gotham. All of them have appeared in one or more of those hit Arkham video games, meaning there are a whole bunch of other writers, actors, animators and programmers who have made some money off of Breyfogle creations.

Now, do any of these people owe Breyfogle anything? Well, no. But it might be nice for someone who’s getting paid to, say, write Zsasz or The Ventriloquist (a Ventriloquist?) into a Batman story to contribute a few dollars to the artist in his time of need.

Now, I don’t have $126,000 in disposable income, and I doubt any of you do either — even the wealthier among you, or those who have made the most money from any Breyfogle co-creations. But I know we all have a couple of extra bucks; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be reading comics in the first place. And it really wouldn’t take that many of us giving that much to help Breyfogle reach $200,000.

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