James Donald Talks To Bookbag About The Death Of Norman Breyfogle

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James Donald Talks To Bookbag About The Death Of Norman Breyfogle

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Summary: One of the finest story tellers you've never heard of, who died in September 2018 at the age of 58.
Date: 1 October 2018

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The artist as a storyteller

One of the finest story tellers you've never heard of died this week. Norman Breyfogle was only 58. From the mid 80s until the mid 90s Breyfogle was one half of one of the most original, imaginative and consistent creative teams that the industry has ever seen. It is rare for Bookbag to discuss graphic fiction, so why should Norm's passing rate an article?

1) I want to discuss the role of the artist as a storyteller so that you have the tools to access this amazing medium.

2) I want to draw your attention to a charity that helps creators at their time of need.

Even outside of the comicbook industry there are some creative partnerships that have become widely known: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (or Steve Ditko) and Bob Kane and Bill Finger come particularly to mind. Whilst the writers and artists are both relatively well known, it is the former who tend to hog the glory and attention. Neither Lee nor Kane could ever have been described as shy and retiring and both ensured that their names were remembered above all else (in fact it was only with the release of Batman Vs Superman that Bill Finger was finally credited as co-creator of the Dark Knight, nearly 80 years after the event). Many feel that the role of the artist is to just reproduce what the writer creates, they are an extension of him or her, is this true?

Yes... and no. There are some extreme cases where a writer produces a script so dense and descriptive that artists are left with no wiggle room at all. The main perpetrator of this style is the legendary Alan Moore. Famously Moore's scripts for Watchmen were dense, unformatted blocks of text running for pages for a single panel. You could say that all Dave Gibbons needed to do was translate this into pictures. The argument goes that no one disputes Gibbon's talent but that he had very little to do with the story telling.

This is, if you'll excuse my language, bollocks.

Quite aside from all the creative choices that Gibbons had to make stylistically in order to develop the tale, he was also highly engaged from the start. Those dense scripts were write ups of long conversations that the two of them had. Watchmen is a tour de force because of the synergy between the story and the medium delivering it. Repeated motifs, colouring decisions and even the angle at which we view the image are all as integral as every word spoken by a character. This created a masterpiece that taught others what was possible in this medium. Neither the writer nor the artist could have produced this without a strong collaboration.

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At the other end of the scale we have Stan Lee... at the height of Marvel's popularity in the 60s Lee was writing practically every book the company put out. This feat would have been impossible if he were producing a script of Alan Moore-like proportions. It would have been impossible, in fact, if he were producing any script at all. Stan developed the Marvel-Method of storytelling. He would phone up Ditko or Kirby and talk about what he would like to see happen that month. They would draw this, and he would add a script for dialogue after. Often the discussions would end up being as detailed as any script would be but as the pressure mounted Lee got desperate. Famously he once just barked at Jack Kirby The Fantastic Four meet God, they fight and win. What was produced in the end was one of the most influential stories in the modern era. The coming of Galactus marked a huge step forward in what comics could do... but very little of it came from the writer. Lee had no idea where this strange surfing figure, made from chrome had come from. The giant purple figure with a TV aerial for a hat wasn't his either. It is true that he took these images and formed a story from them with dialogue but can you truly say it was just his tale alone?

And so we come to Norm Breyfogle and Alan Grant. Alan Grant was part of the second wave of UK talent poached from British comics like 2000AD in the 80s. Before becoming a writer Grant had edited girls' comics for DC Thompson in Dundee and when he decided to write for himself he used a sparse style of script. When I interviewed Grant several years ago he told me about how much he trusted his artists. Back then he could never be sure who would be illustrating his scripts so he couldn't play to their strengths. He decided that he would just trust them, and the editor, to ensure that what was produced would fit.

Coming to America Grant was given the historic Detective Comics to write for. Initially he was supposed to be doing this with his long-term co-writer, John Wagner but this quickly fell apart and Grant took over writing alone whilst his friend got partial credit in order to make the editors happy. It was in this period that he was paired with Norm Breyfogle. The two would continue to work together on Detective Comics, then Batman before finally being given their own, brand new title, Shadow of the Bat.

The stability of their team allowed Grant to structure his stories around Breyfogle's talent, but not always as he expected. Norm was so good that he kept on surprising and impressing his writer every time the issues came out.

Norm Breyfogle was, first and foremost, a storyteller and one as worthy of recognition as any of the authors we champion on this site. Superficially his artistic style was a carbon copy of Neal Adams and Jim Aparo. He adhered to the costume style and visual dynamic that they both produced so well. Adams leaned towards a more romantic interpretation and Aparo was more of a realist. In some ways it could be argued that they were superior artists... but they were not superior storytellers.

I'd like to make a quick aside in order to make a point here. Kingdom Come is one of the most visually stunning works of graphic fiction ever produced. Alex Ross' art is, hands down, the best and most photo-realistic ever seen on the funny pages. There can be no dispute here. Go look it up and you will see why. Alex Ross is, perhaps, the greatest artist in comic book history but he is far from the greatest comic book artist.

Kingdom Come works because of the visual impact and the story. The style is a good choice because of the religious undertones and seriousness of the tale. It is, however, just a collection of pretty pictures and great moments on top of an outstanding script. The art does not pull you into the tale, it instead begs you to sit and admire it as a work of art.

Breyfogle could do that. Some of his covers can leave you slack-jawed and breathless but this wasn't his only skill. What set Norm apart from his peers was his sense of dynamism. His art moved smoothly from photo-realistic (or as much as was possible with the constraints of the printing at the time) to utterly surreal. Batman could be a man, broken, torn and bleeding or he could be a mythical shadow. One moment we had a solid object with weight and presence, the next we simply had a slash of lines, an absence of detail that sucked you in like a black hole... Batman could be Bruce Wayne, an orphan seeking to make things right, or he could be PTSD embodied, seeking to spread his own suffering to others... or he was just an idea, a myth, a concept. None of these things were in Grant's script. When others drew for him the tales were good but lacked the magnificence and depth that Breyfogle brought.

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Comics are not supposed to be realistic, they are fantasy. Many creators realise this and push the boundaries through wild stories of fantasy, deities and cosmic opera. This can be great but it is often difficult to follow and can turn some off. Grant and Breyfogle didn't do this (unless forced to by company-wide crossover). Decades before Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy they produced a grounded and realistic Batman. This character inhabited a relatable Gotham and fought against street level punks as often as he did against supervillains, yet it remained engaging and fanciful due to the synergy of script and art. A giant Batman could hover over his city like a hologram seen only to the reader to express a simple feeling. The cape and the shadow it cast could take on a life of its own. A monstrous block of metal became a Batmobile as impressive as any seen on screen. Realism could be thrown aside in favour of caricature or cartoonism if it advanced the story...

I started my journey into American comics with UK reprints of Detective comics from this era. I went on to collect the whole run from Grant and Breyfogle and I have, as yet, to find a series of comics, anywhere, that matches this consistency and excellence.

Most comic book creators are employed on a work for hire basis. Few see royalties for their creations (Breyfogle helped to create a slew of characters for the Batman mythos including some like the Ventriloquist and Zsazs who would go on to appear in the Animated Series and Gotham) and many cannot afford health insurance. When Norm suffered a stroke and could no longer use his left hand to draw, the Hero Initiative covered his medical bills.

The Hero Initiative seeks to help comic book professionals who have been abandoned without support. You can help them to ensure that creators who have brought so much joy to so many can maintain their dignity during times of need. If you want to know more, please visit www.heroinitiative.org/be-the-hero/

Norm Breyfogle turned the scripts of an outstanding writer into the greatest comic book run I have ever experienced. He is the greatest storyteller you've never heard of and he died this week aged only 58.

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Just after the above was published I received some shocking news. The news came first from a retweet of a Spanish language news site by comic book legend, Mike Collins. Soon after the news was confirmed by Pat Mills and others; Carlos Ezquerra, co-creator of Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha (amongst a long list of other key characters for 2000AD) had died at the age of 70. Carlos had just announced that he had beaten lung cancer so his death hit the industry like a punch in the gut.

In a career lasting over 40 years Ezquerra became known as one of the friendliest and talented men you could ever meet. The UK comic book industry are in shock. The friendly Spaniard was an inspiration and role model to generations of writers and artists.

I spoke above about the role of the artist as a storyteller and Carlos was one of the best. His long professional relationships with the previously mentioned Alan Grant and their mutual friend John Wagner (both of whom are well known for delivering bare bones scripts and trusting their artists) produced the most consistently excellent work that the UK industry will ever see. It is hard to imagine the stunning blighted post apocalyptic landscapes without Carlos' grim and gritty art. Carlos was a storyteller beyond compare and we are all the poorer for his loss.