The Norm Breyfogle Interview – Part 1

Norm Breyfogle broke into the big-time in 1987 drawing Batman in Detective Comics after starting out on some back-up strips and smaller titles for First Comics. While on Batman — in Detective, Batman and Shadow of the Bat — Norm worked primarily with Alan Grant. I’ve written a column elsewhere on this site about their first several issues together. Partly because of the success of the Batman movie, his work reached a wide audience, and Norm became one of the top Batman artists in many fans’ opinions. He left to work on Prime and his creator-owned Metaphysique for Malibu, and returned briefly to DC to work on some limited projects, including a run on a pair of Anarky series (again with Alan Grant) and the Hal Jordan Spectre series. His newest project, Relative Comics’ Of Bitter Souls, comes out in August. I spoke with him on May 15th, 2005 in Detroit.

Norm Breyfogle, May 2005

Norm Breyfogle, May 2005

Mike O’Ryan: What did you read when you were a kid?

Norm Breyfogle: A lot of science fiction. I read H.G. Wells. I read the classics: Call of the Wild, Black Beauty – I remember crying at the end of Black Beauty. I was a very emotional kid. Boy, you name it, I probably read it. I don’t have a list of ’em right in my head offhand, but it’s surprising when I look back. Whenever a new movie is made of some old classic, [I think] ‘Oh, I remember reading that.’ So, I was a pretty literary kid. I mean, I wasn’t extremely so, but I wasn’t forced into it either. I enjoyed reading.

MO: What was your first spark of wanting to do art?

NB: First one. Boy, I don’t know. That’s hard to say. It might come from my dad, because my dad had artistic ability. He still has artistic ability, although I’m not in touch with him. My mom and dad got divorced when I was three. Haven’t been in touch with him at all. I remember he would visit us for a year after they got divorced, until my mom got remarried. He did do drawings for me – did a Superman for me. I think it probably influenced me, because I was just a kid, and he was fairly decent at it.

The next thing after that would probably be seeing comic books.

MO: How early on were you exposed?

NB: I don’t know. Really early. Before I can really remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading comic books to me before I could read them. Superman and Batman. The TV shows reinforced the comic books. I watched the Superman TV show and the Batman TV show. I’d go out, and when I did see a spinner rack, that’s what I’d pick up. I didn’t really become familiar with so many of the other titles, or the Marvel titles, until many years later. I remember drawing Batman when I was in kindergarten. I remember that his cowl was conceptually beyond my ability to render. So I gave him a Robin mask instead! A little domino… [laughs] I wish I had those drawings now, I don’t.

I was a little bit ahead of my peers, I remember that, in kindergarten, and I kinda got praise for that. For my drawing ability. That encouraged me. Plus, it was something you could do alone, and you felt like you were in control of. It was pleasant too, because you felt like you’d achieved something. And you could show it to people, and say ‘Hey, this is what I did’ instead of something more abstract just floating around in your head.

MO: What did you like to draw?

NB: All kinds of things [grins]. Dinosaurs eating people. I remember when I was first learning to read, I started giving them word balloons, like ‘Look, Bob! AAGH!’ [laughs]. Yeah, I have almost none of those left either; they’re in my mom’s hope chest in my closet.

By the time I reached 12, I was developed enough so that my mom started getting me up Saturday mornings to go to a private art instructor, a professional artist in the area when I lived in Aurora, Illinois. He was in Carpentersville, so it was like a two hour drive. We had to get up really early Saturday, and I hated that! Because Saturday was my day off, you know. And I didn’t even want to do that for a living, I wanted to be an astronomer or something. I thought of art as kind of frivolous at that point; I was only 12. It was something I enjoyed doing, but I didn’t think of it as a career. But after studying with this guy – Andrew Benson, a commercial artist – for a year, I decided that that’s what I wanted to do, because it’s what I was best at. He’s the one who first introduced me to working in full color. He introduced me to pastels, which I never really liked because I don’t like having my hands all dry. He wanted me to be able to control it, and pastels are more easily controlled than watercolor or other forms of pigment. Then we moved on to watercolor and oil paint.

I was a painting major in college [at] Northern Michigan University. I graduated in 1982. I graduated as an illustration major. In fact I was one of the first illustration major students, because they didn’t have an illustration major there until 1980, which was my second year.

Retrospect

A self-portrait from around age 12, from Norm Breyfogle: Retrospect

I remember sending [samples] to Al Milgrom at Marvel Comics when I was in college. That was when there was still no overnight mail service, and he said you pretty much have to come to New York in order to draw comics. So I planned on making a trip out there, which I did. After my graduation I drove out there with the car that I got because my grandfather died and left me enough money to buy a used car. I went on a jaunt out there. I went to Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, I had an appointment beforehand, and I thought I was going to meet him. He was my big idol! Instead, his daughter came out, and she said he was too busy in the back, behind on some deadline. I was really disappointed, since I traveled all the way from Michigan to New York. Driving in New York alone… I didn’t know back then, nobody drives in New York except for the taxis. Finding a parking spot was just terrible. I’m sure it’s worse now, but it was bad then too. So she critiqued my work, and I was kinda unimpressed with that. But I got my revenge years later, when I was on my first year of Detective Comics. His daughter (again!) called me and said ‘Neal wants to know if you’d like to join Continuity Studios.’ But I was drawing Batman! I didn’t want to leave Batman! I was able to turn down Neal Adams. I remember kind of getting a little rush out of it.

MO: I recall as a kid already aware of your work on Batman stumbling onto your piece in an old Batman Family

Norms Robin costume from Batman Family #13 (lower left)

Norm's Robin costume from Batman Family #13 (lower left)

NB: Oh, the Robin drawing? [laughs] God, I was 14! There was a ‘design Robin’s costume’ contest in Batman Family, so I did a really large drawing, 18 by 24 or so, and I penciled and inked it. I was pretty good by the time I was 14. I colored it. But what they did, apparently, with a lot of the drawings if not all of them was they had some production artist redraw them if they didn’t fit their parameters. It was probably too large, and it was in color. They didn’t want to bother with a halftone shot for some amateur, and the contest was printed pretty small anyway. When I saw it in print I was horrified. I was like ‘Oh my God! What did they do? They redrew it!’ I was quite a bit better at that point than that exhibits. I thought there was some really good designs from some of the people that sent them in. I’d like to know how many of the other designs looked a lot better than they did in print too. I don’t have it now, so I could never prove that. I’ll always just be asserting it for the rest of my life. I’ve lost so many of the originals over the years…

MO: Your work on an issue of Detective was the first comic book that really made me pay attention to comic books. I was six. I memorized that comic.

NB: That was the impression that Neal Adams made on me with his Batman work back in the late ’60s. In fact, I credit his work for being almost solely responsible for me wanting to draw comics. That was when I decided I wanted to draw comics.

MO: Was it a specific issue?

Brave and the Bold #84

Brave and the Bold #84

NB: Yeah, actually. An issue of Brave and the Bold [84] where Batman met Sgt. Rock. It was a real eye-opening experience. I wanted to draw comics, but I was pretty young at that point, I was only about 9. And I even copied one of his covers – the cover to that issue. I wish I had that too; [I] lost that somewhere along the way. There’ve only been a very small handful of drawings that I’ve actually copied. Not traced, but copied. There was ‘Blue Boy‘ [by Thomas Gainsborough]. He was hanging on our fourth grade classroom wall. I remember Mrs. Vogen, my fourth grade teacher, even though she was teaching other subjects, she’d let me just sit there and draw that because of my ability [laughs]. So I felt really special.

Adams had that impact on me. It’s really neat to know that I could have had that impact on anybody else. That’s how the torch of passion for comics is passed on from generation to generation. Neal Adams is still very viable. He’s 20 years older than me, but he’s a very accomplished commercial artist. It’s almost impossible to get his services now.

On the title I’m working on now, Of Bitter Souls, Chuck [Satterlee, the writer and publisher] had the idea of getting [together] an all Bat-artist issue. He asked Dick Giordano to do a pin-up, he asked Gene Colan to do a pinup, and he asked Neal Adams to do a pinup. Gene Colan asked for $2,000 for a pinup, which was just way too much. Dick Giordano, on the other hand, maybe in part because he’s kind of a friend of mine – I’ve known him… I can’t say we’re personal or anything, but I’ve always liked him and he’s always liked me. We worked for the same company and I saw him a number of times – he was willing to do it for three hundred something, which was very reasonable, considering that he’s working steadily on his advertising work. Neal Adams, however, implied that he’d charge five to ten grand. Which is too bad; it would have been neat to have Adams do a pinup for Of Bitter Souls. But I emailed him anyway; I told him how big an influence he’d been on me, and hopefully it was clear there were no hard feelings at all. I mean, if you can make ten grand for an hour of computer animation for a TV commercial…

When people point out [Neal Adams’ influence] I’ve always been proud of the fact that people can see it.

I used a similar pose [to a famous Adams pose — Batman against the moon] in a number of issues. There was one also with the Penguin [in Detective 615], where Batman rode on a police car to get to the scene of the Penguin’s jewelry theft. He flips off the police car, and when he landed, he was in a very similar pose. That was consciously done.

MO: Who else was an influence?

NB: Jim Aparo was a big influence on me. There’s a certain fluidity in my work that I think was influenced partly by Aparo. Even through Aparo didn’t have as good an understanding of anatomy – in fact, the stuff that I really love, when he was in his prime, I look back on it now, and I see all kinds of anatomical disfigurements that I didn’t notice at all back at the moment because he had such a fluid storytelling dynamic and it really influenced me. Joe Kubert, of course. Basically, all the big stars of the 1970s. Nick Cardy was a favorite of mine, although I didn’t see enough of his stuff. I only picked up back issues of his Teen Titans stuff later. The best stuff he was doing was right at the end when he stopped doing comics, if you ask me. Some of the Batman stuff I saw was just breathtaking. Bernie Wrightson was a big influence. The last really big influence would really be Frank Miller, for his storytelling and his dramatic aspects. After that, I was pretty much already formed as an artist.

Burne Hogarth was a big influence because of his anatomy books. In fact, outside of Adams and a handful of other people, and my own experience drawing anatomy and drawing from life, Burne Hogarth’s books probably really jump-started me more than almost anybody. He simplified the anatomy in such a way that I could grasp it and retain it. For one period, when I was 13, I’ve got some Batman stuff at my place on lined paper that I did in felt-tipped pens, 8 ½” by 11″ – I had no idea how big comics originals were back then – you can see the definite Hogarth influence. Just as you can see the Neal Adams influence for the lager part of my formative years.

For me, Batman hit a very boring spot for quite a number of issues before [Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers] took over in the ’70s. They rejuvenated my interest in the character. I’m sure a lot of people felt the same way.

I’m not really that impressed with manga or anime or even the ‘Image style’ that came out. Anime is an animation style, developed because of the greater simplicity necessitated by the many thousands of drawings required. It’s inappropriate for comics. Why should comics try to compete with animation? All it does is suggest that comics lacks something that animation has, when in reality comics HAS something animation DOESN’T (among other things, more complex illustrations). I like classical illustration – the older illustrators who adhered more to classical and neo-classical ideals. A certain stylistic flair is nice, but it has to be grounded in some kind of a sense of classical reality. Although Alex Raymond – people like him (earlier than the 1970s, before I was born) – I didn’t see a whole lot of their work, and so they didn’t influence me as much until a while later.

My brother [Kevin], who’s an artist — he’s three years younger than me — was so heavily influenced by Joe Kubert that [his art, when he was 12] almost looked like a drunken Joe Kubert [laughs]( … I mean, a lot of the Tarzan stuff Kevin was doing back when Joe Kubert was drawing Tarzan).

Continue to Part 2

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