REFLECTIONS: Talking with Tim Sale

Reflections, Volume 3, Number 8

Hey guys, I'm back, did y'all miss me? For those of you who missed last week's edition of "Reflections" (God bless you!), the reason why you didn't get one of my trademark interviews is because I came down with strep throat. Seriously, CBR's head honcho Jonah Weiland was going to delay all other columns and articles on the Web site until the newest column came out, but then I convinced him how ridiculous that would be.

We tease because we love.

On a side note that has nothing to do with the column, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish the best of luck to Wizard's departing Editor-in-chief Pat McCallum. I interned at Wizard over this summer and Pat was one of the nicest guys you will ever meet, and his contribution to the world of Wizard will be missed.

Let's see…anything else?

Oh yeah, did I mention I interviewed Tim Sale for this week's column? Tim is one of my all-time favorite artists. His "The Long Halloween" was one of, if not the, first comics that I ever read and I've been consistently buying his phenomenal work since. Right now he's hard at work on the six part "Kryptonite" storyarc in "Superman: Confidential" and providing paintings and sketches on the megahit NBC series "Heroes."

Enough of the gabbin', onto the interview!

RT: How's life?

TS: Life is very busy and that makes me happy.

RT: Let's start off at the very beginning - why did you want to become a comic artist?

TS: I liked comics as a kid. I've always liked adventure stories, whether it's TV or movies, or certainly comics. I learned to read by reading comics. When I was six, my family moved from the East coast to the West coast and to keep me amused my father would buy me comic books.

I'd forgotten I knew this, but years later I saw a reproduction of the second "Spider-Man Annual," which had a new story starring Dr. Strange and Spider-Man by Ditko and Lee and also a bunch of reprinted stories from earlier issues. This incredible wave of nostalgia rushed over me and it all came back to me, that six year old boy in the back seat of the family car.

RT: Were you more of a Marvel guy or more of a DC guy?

TS: I was fanatically Marvel, a real Marvel Zombie. This was the late '60s and early '70s and Marvel just seemed so much more interesting art-wise and art was what drove me primarily. They were taking chances. This was the time when Marvel was putting out 12 books and Stan Lee was writing them all. Obviously what one does at that point is to have the artist tell a great deal of the story. That just freed people up who were great storytellers like Kirby and Ditko. Then there was the first new wave of Steranko and bringing back John Buscema, who was rejuvenated and eventually bringing in Neal Adams and people like that. I didn't see any of that over at DC. I also bought the Stan of it all, the whole "we are all family and all pals," all the answers to the letters in the letters section…all that stuff. I learned later how planned it all was, but it felt genuine, and part of it may have been genuine - or that's what the 13 year old in me still would like to believe.

RT: How would you compare Marvel Comics way back when to the Marvel comics of today?

TS: Honestly, I don't follow that many contemporary comics, so I can't really say much about that. I know Jeph [Loeb, Sale's longtime collaborator] raves about it over there and his closeness with Quesada and how the company is run. It's very much like how Jeph would run a company, and DC isn't, and that's part of Jeph's frustration at DC. But I can't compare Marvel of the '60s to what is happening today, I wouldn't know how. Also, I can't speak all that well about what is happening at DC, besides my own personal experiences, which have been great.

RT: You said you don't read many modern comics, so which ones make it into your longbox?

TS: I very rarely go to the store, so I rely on my comp list for DC, and what friends say you should check out. The last book I read was "Pride of Baghdad." And before that was "We3." My tastes run more toward collections. I like seeing how people design books. Plus, it's easier for me because I don't go to the store and get excited every week.

RT: Have you picked up Darwyn Cooke's "Absolute New Frontier" hardcover yet?

TS: Yes. There is a message board on my Web site and I go on there every day and interact with them. It's not a huge group of guys, but they obviously have incredible taste (laughs). I pick up some recommendations through that. All of them are much more hooked into the new comics coming out than I am. I ordered "New Frontier" off of Amazon and I wrote Darwyn about how great it was. I wrote my only fan letter ever to Dave Stewart and Mark Chiarello after picking up the first issue. Because I'm not plugged in, it was a thunderbolt for me to see it. I felt like I "discovered" it, and then I called Jeph and asked him if he'd heard of it and he said, "Yes. I work in the industry, remember?"

RT: It wasn't that big of a hit when it first hit stands, but then when it started to be collected everyone realized how amazing it was.

TS: I know what Darwyn wanted to do with the no ads and stuff like that, but it made that an odd beast for people. His artwork is tremendously alive and energetic and it reaches out to me in a very strong way. There is a niche of people who will say it's too cartoony, though, as though that's a bad thing. The subject or "cartoony" is a sore one for me actually, because the drawings of artists that are considered "realistic" - like Bryan Hitch, Neal Adams, Adam Hughes, all of whom deeply cartoon their work in their own special way - it's a silly argument, this is not photography, nor do we want it to be, right? Anyway, the breadth of what Darwyn can do is astounding. His love for the characters and comics in general is palpable. Even though I didn't know a lot of the characters when I saw them. Anyway, I wrote a letter to Dave and Mark and told them I hated them because it was such a wonderful book (laughs). For years, with every writer I have worked with, I have said that my ideal page layout is three horizontal panels a page. Most writers will tell me it's impossible to tell a decent story if that's all the panels you'll get. But Darwyn did it, and now if I draw that way I'm going to be accused of ripping him off! I hated him, but it was a wonderful book, and I hoped to work with him.

RT: And this pretty much segues perfectly into "Superman: Confidential." How'd you guys get together? Was it you two or the editors?

TS: A little bit of both. Darwyn saw my issue of "Solo" was coming up and wrote the Catwoman story in that; The first time he had ever written anything for another artist. I think he had the basic plot around and he pitched it to me and wrote it up a bit in a very minimal way. It was six pages and I doubled it. I had told him based on "New Frontier," based on his Slam Bradley and John Jones stuff, that if he ever wanted to do a noir project with me he should let me know. "Superman: Confidential" is Dan DiDio's brainchild. He went to Mark [Chiarello] to put us all together. Darwyn tracked down the original story from the comics and took it in very broad strokes and expanded it to six issues. It's really cool because it happens early on and there is a lot of relationship stuff between Superman and Lois. He doesn't really understand his powers and for the first time he's really vulnerable.

RT: What issue are you guys up to?

TS: I'm on four. There is a learning process for Darwyn and I. As I said, he's never written for another artist before. Every once in a while he'll tell me he has written a Tim Sale sequence. He knows what it is and that is what he tries to write. In the first issue, the sequence on the Eiffel Tower is a Tim Sale sequence. It's exactly the kind of story I like to tell and in the way I like to tell it. Darwyn also has this love of big and goofy, larger-than-life moments with giant robots and the like. Darwyn pulls it off, but it's a struggle for me to find my way with it. But in every issue there is something I cannot wait to draw.

RT: But there is also a great deal of noir in the first issue that seems right up your alley, what with the seedy underbelly of the casino and turning Clark, Lois and Jimmy into "untouchables."

TS: It's not really "noir" noir, but I know what you mean. That does fit right into my wheel-house and I look forward to those moments. We jump back to there every issue, but don't spend a lot of time there. I think one of my strengths is noir, but more so, people interacting with each other. There are a lot of different ways of portraying that, but you need to find the visual hook to make all that work and once you do, it's one hell of a lot of fun to do. And I certainly like the dark and gritty and sad of noir, I'm not saying I don't. It was important for me to not have "Superman Confidential: Kryptonite" look like "Superman For All Seasons." I wanted that look to be special for when Jeph and I do Superman, so I use a lot more black on Superman's costume and have made him more cut.

RT: It's not a striking difference, but you can tell the subtle changes in Superman, Metropolis and the Daily Planet.

TS: It's more in the inking than anything else.

RT: How much more time do you have on your DC contract? And do you intend to move over to Marvel to work with Jeph immediately afterwards?

TS: I haven't counted it up exactly. It's kind of like three months or 3,000 miles, and at this point we've gone past the time limit, so we're calculating page count. There's somewhere between 80-100 pages in my exclusivity. My productivity has changed, slowed down, so I don't know how long that will take me. DC and I are talking about things afterward and there is the possibility that it will exceed page count. I've spoken to Jeph about Marvel, but I haven't given it any serious thought at all. I know what I would do if I went over there. It feels like a transitional time for me and I don't want to plan that far ahead. I know he is having the time of his life over there and more power to him. Jeph and my working relationship over the years has also changed. It isn't as compelling as it once was. I know that his life is fractured in a lot of ways, both personally and professionally, and as a writer you get to work with a whole bunch of people. You work much faster than an artist can. It has led to things feeling different in our working relationship.

There was a time when I couldn't imagine working with somebody else, but I now can.

RT: What other writers at DC are you wanting to work with?

TS: One of the best working experiences I've had from "Solo" was the story Brian Azzarello wrote. He likes to write noir and I like to draw noir; it's an obvious thing to explore. It would have to be the right project and the right money, but I could see that. For awhile I fought doing a lot of noir because I didn't want to get locked into it. But I inescapably love to draw it and it keeps pulling me back in. Putting together the "Absolute Batman: Long Halloween" has rekindled a lot of that. I've done some new story pages and that kind of thing…

RT: Whoa, whoa. You just said new pages for "Long Halloween?"

TS: Well, at the end of the hardcover there are thumbnail-sized reproductions of four pencils. When the body was found and also a two-page sequence in Arkham Asylum. Those have been uninked and unlettered, but they were always meant to be part of the story. Archie Goodwin told us he'd put it in the compilation, but the powers at DC decided that the backlash of people complaining that they didn't want to buy the compilation just for a few extra goodies meant the pages shouldn't go in, but put them as small pages in the back of the book. Darwyn added some story pages in his Absolute, so I've inked the pages and they've been colored and will be part of the story.

RT: How'd you get that project rolling?

TS: We got rolling because DC decided they wanted to do it. Bob Harras contacted Jeph and I. Because it was done when it was done, there wasn't a ton of extra work available. Back then I wasn't keeping sketchbooks and I would sell extra things when I needed the money, so it was a scramble to get those things. There is an interview with Richard Starkings, who lettered the book. We are using that as the backbone of a way to talk about different aspects of the art. There's been a lot of recoloring of background effects as we went through as well. The whole proposal that Jeph wrote is in there, too. There is also my sketches for the action figures as well as photos for the action figures.

RT: All this time later, what are your feelings about the project?

TS: I think it really holds up. One of the things that interests me is that, on a personal note, I very strongly look back on how excited Jeph and I were to be doing this. How concerned Jeph was about the plot and mystery, since he doesn't consider himself a plot guy. The big fear that we both had was that people would have figured out who it is and stopped buying the book. It turned out it all worked great. I can look at the book and see how I grew as an artist on the project. In issue 10 and 11 my art is much different than the beginning. It was a very important, real turning point for me.

RT: By extension, are you guys planning Absolute editions of "Dark Victory" and "Catwoman: When in Rome?"

TS: We'd love to do it. If it were up us we'd have put it all together in a slip case, and that may eventually be the plan. But that is a lot of pages. With "Dark Victory," there is more sketchbook stuff and by the time I was doing "Catwoman" there was a lot of extra stuff. But that is up to DC. I, for one, am curious why a Halloween book is coming out at Easter, though.

RT: Since we talked about "Long Halloween," let's talk about "Dark Victory."

TS: The process of doing it was my second-favorite experience in comics. Working with Jeph when we were both at the top of our game, and since it's a continuation of a story it doesn't have that excitement of something new happening, but I think we were better craftsmen at that point. One of the things I'm most happy about was how I challenged Greg Wright to use a different palette for the book and he knocked it out of the ballpark. I love how the book is colored.

RT: And "Catwoman?"

TS: It was not that much fun. I had moved to California form Seattle, where I had grown up, and it's still an adjustment, so all the Marvel books were done here and were affected by it. It was also affected by aging relationship with Jeph. And Jeph had to deal with his son Sam, who eventually died of cancer. And Jeph was really cranking up his TV career, and it all felt less involved than it once was. There was also a lot of work with the inkwash, and I got pretty burned out with that. And last but not least, my model for Catwoman was my girlfriend at the time and that relationship went sour and it remained very hard to make her look as attractive [laughs]. There were a lot of personal things happening at the time, and in my view, it's the least successful of the things Jeph and I have done together. And it's really too bad because it was Dan DiDio's idea and it was a really cool idea that made sense in the overall storyline. I just wish it had come together a little better. It was also my first time getting to work with Dave Stewart, though, and that could not have been a more pleasant and fulfilling experience.

RT: Who are your favorite DC characters to work with?

TS: With Batman, absolutely. I could work on Batman pretty regularly every year, not as a monthly title, but something every year. Superman, too, just not as often. I love how different they are and I'm very comfortable working in their worlds. I did a World's Finest page for "Superman/Batman" #26, and that is the first time I've ever had them together and I don't like mixing the two of them. I don't have a history with an awful lot of the DC characters as a fan, and I don't have a lot of history with the Marvel characters as a professional and that makes for an interesting balance. One thing I am always aware of is the privilege it is to be allowed to play with these great characters - they are not mine, they are owned and controlled by someone else and I'm just a hired gun, in many senses. I do my best to be a good hired gun, but at the end of the day, I am hired to fill a slot that will be filled by someone else if I don't and what I can do is my best to make the powers that be say, "We want Sale". There is stuff outside comics that might be fun. A lot of the pulp characters might be fun to do - Shadow, Doc Savage, John Carter, Conan, Tarzan. For years, Jeph and I have talked about doing a Spirit one-shot, called "The Christmas Spirit," based on a Kitchen Sink collection of Eisner's short stories with a Christmas theme. I think the combo of sentiment and drama and design that that would entail would be a blast. Obviously, given contracts and such, that would be a long way away. I'm also thinking about maybe doing some creator-owned stuff, too: a noir series. I haven't gotten very far down that road, but I've talked to a few writers about my interests. I know the kind of stuff I want to do and I know the kind of stuff I don't want to do. I think I have a pretty good handle on what I do well and I want to knock people out. One of the things that has kept me from it, and I'm not sure you know about it because you are pretty young, was the controversy between Frank Miller and I over "Deathblow.

RT: I had heard about the controversy, but I don't know the specifics.

TS: Well, it's an old story now and I feel like an old crone for telling it again, but the short version is back in the early '90s, Jim Lee and Brandon Choi were blown away by the first story-arc of Miller's "Sin City" and created an homage to that - at least visually - called "Deathblow." When Jim got too busy to work on the series, they hired me to continue, in the "Sin City" style. I did, had fun, but it seems Miller was upset that I (among a few other artists at the time) was emulating his "Sin City" style and called us out in a letters page. I had been given an assignment and had been assured it was all in good fun, as Jim and Frank were pals, and so I was surprised and hurt that the largest individual creative voice in comics was upset with me and in a very public forum. I just wish he had picked up the phone, that's all. No one's work is wholly original and I could list many direct influences I see on the "Sin City" style, all of those artists might have a beef with Miller, but that's not really the point. The handling of the misunderstanding is the point, that and the insulting implication that all I am is a Miller imitator, but there you go. Miller is nothing if not passionate, for better or worse. And now Darwyn, blast his eyes, has done with his three-panel page layout, something that has the potential for me to be accused of being a rip-off artist!

RT: I doubt that will happen. Okay, what were we talking about before that? Oh yeah, creator-owned noir.

TS: Noir fiction has a very narrow scope and has been done a lot of ways already. One of the things that is very important is getting a fresh take on it, and I'm in the process of figuring all of that out.

RT: Okay, we haven't talked about "Heroes" yet.

TS: Jeph worked 25 years ago on "Teen Wolf 2" with a young screenwriter named Tim Kring. Kring is now the creator of "Crossing Jordan," one of the few long-running hits on NBC. He had the idea for "Heroes" and knew who Jeph was, knew who Damon Lindelof was, know their background in comics and how his idea had, for the lack of a better term, "comic bookie" themes, so he talked with both of them about it. They each pointed up similarities to characters and themes covered in comics already, and Kring stewed about that for a bit, and wisely, in my view, chose to say that his plots and characters had enough charm and individuality of their own that they would stand the test. History, thus far, has said he was right. All I know is that I got a call earlier this year from Jeph telling me that there was a screenwriter/producer he knew that wanted some drawings to illustrate a pilot script that he'd written, and that Jeph thought I would dig it, and to give this guy a call. I did, and did the drawings, the pilot sold, Tim Kring is a genius, I did some art for the pilot, that led to conversations where I might be doing art for the character of Isaac, and that worked out too, and history was in the making. It's become bigger than anyone thought it was going to be. Not just the success of the show, but the amount of the show that is driven by the artwork and the precognizant aspects of all that.

RT: How many pieces have you done?

TS: There are two things, one is the comic book panels and the other is the paintings. The painting are created as black and white pieces and paper that are colored by Dave Stewart and then blown up and put on canvas. I've done maybe 25 of the paintings and, not including the artwork for the promo giveaway comic, maybe 30 comic book panels. It's been a fair amount of work.

RT: What are your favorite paintings?

TS: There are three or four, at least of the one's that I am able to talk about! One is where Mojinder, the Indian narrator character is emptying ashes into the water from an urn. From the pilot there is an overhead show of a trainwreck on fire from where Claire goes in and rescues the fireman. That was the first one Dave colored and he pulled it all together. There is an overhead shot on the amphitheater steps of a shadow attacking a cheerleader. It's very existential/German-expressionistic and it looks like Nosferatu coming to get her.

RT: I like the one where the two characters are kissing under the umbrella.

TS: Thanks, that was a sketch. There are comic book fans on the show, but most of the people driving the show are not comic book people. They are learning to work with what I work well with and what I don't and how I can help and how I can't; it's a learning process for both sides. The Umbrella sketch was pitched to me as Peter and Simone kissing under an umbrella in the rain, and it had to be them, and it had to be drawn before they filmed the scene.

Truth is, I'm not great at likenesses, so what was I going to do? I turned to Jeph and said, "Maybe I'll 'Eisner it." He knew what I meant, being a comic book guy and Eisner fan, and told me to go for it. It turned out the important thing to get across was the mood, the red umbrella and see that it is two people being intimate with each other. There didn't have to be a great likeness. Jeph's daughter, Audrey, turned to her father after seeing it on TV, and asked to get the artwork, so I made a gift of it to her.

RT: Ready for the lightning round i.e. the "Inside the Actor's Studio" questions?

TS: Sure. Fuck is my favorite swear word.

RT: Well, I wasn't going to ask that one, but thanks for sharing. What was your first comic book ever?

TS: I suppose what I mentioned before would be the best answer, "Spider-Man Annual" #2, Lee and Ditko.

RT: What is your favorite comic book of all time?

TS: Can't do one, let's start with five. "Fantastic Four" #84-87, Lee and Kirby, when the FF go to Latveria and meet Doctor Doom. "Spider-Man" #47, Lee and Romita, Gwen and MJ and Spidey and Kraven and, and and and... "Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD" #1, Jim Steranko, doing it all, and changing comics, if only for a sadly short time. "Grave Undertaking," Archie Goodwin and Alex Toth, a seven-page story from "Eerie" that was very much like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Body Snatchers." I love making lists!

RT: If you could only draw one comic for the rest of your career, what would it be? I'm guessing you are going to say "Batman."

TS: Until I start my creator-owned book, it would be "Batman."

RT: Who would be your writing partner?

TS: Jeph.

RT: If you could only be remembered for one thing in your career, what would it be?

TS: It would be the seriousness with which I have taken my craftsmanship. Comics and TV are collaborative, and because I don't write, I don't originate the stories. My contribution is in the shaping, the editing, the way the story is told, and I take that all very seriously. I try very hard to fit what I do to the best interests of the story, and I hope I do it well.

Next Week: Rubén Procopio

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