Norm Breyfogle: 1960 to 2018

It has been observed that someone’s favorite Batman artist is often determined by when they first began reading comic books.  That’s certainly the case for me.  There have been numerous talented artists who have rendered the Dark Knight’s adventures over the past eight decades, but two hold a special fondness for me: Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle.  When I began reading DC Comics regularly in 1989, Aparo was the penciler on Batman, and Breyfogle was the penciler on Detective Comics.

Jim Aparo, who had been working in the biz since the late 1960s, was what I refer to as a good, solid artist.  His penciling on Batman was of a more traditional bent, but his style perfectly suited the character.

And then there was Norm Breyfogle, the new kid on the block.  Breyfogle utilized a very dynamic approach to his storytelling.  His artwork in Detective Comics was filled with dramatic, innovative layouts that were possessed of both explosive energy and brooding atmosphere.

Batman 465 cover crop

Breyfogle had broken into the biz just five years earlier, in 1984, with a pair of contributions to DC’s New Talent Showcase.  Two years later, in 1986, Breyfogle penciled several issues of Steven Grant’s series Whisper for First Comics.  Following that, Breyfogle first entered the dark, moody world of Gotham City, becoming the regular penciler of Detective Comics with issue #582, cover-dated January 1988.

The following month, with issue #583, Breyfogle was joined on Detective Comics by the talented British writing team of Alan Grant & John Wagner.  Issue #584 saw the arrival of the last member of the now-regular creative team, inker Steve Mitchell.

Grant, Wagner & Breyfogle very quickly made their impart on the Bat-mythos, introducing new adversaries the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man, and the Ventriloquist & Scarface, the last of whom has become an iconic member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery.

Although Wagner soon departed, Grant remained on Detective Comics, penning a series of stories that were expertly illustrated by Breyfogle & Mitchell.  With issue #608, Grant & Breyfogle introduced yet another memorable denizen of Gotham City, the radical anti-hero Anarky.

Anarky profile pic

Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was incredibly dramatic, and is now regarded as one of the iconic interpretations of the character.  His Dark Knight was muscular but also lithe, grim & imposing but also human & vulnerable.  Breyfogle’s fluid layouts depicted a dark yet dynamic Batman acrobatically swinging across the skyline of Gotham City, massive cape billowing about.  It was absolutely incredible.  Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was *the* definitive one for me during my teenage years in the early 1990s.

The team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell remained on Detective Comics until issue #621 (Sept 1990) and which point they were rotated over to the Batman series with issue #455.  Their first storyline, “Identity Crisis,” ended with the new Robin, Tim Drake, debuting his brand-new costume.  Breyfogle stayed on Batman until #476 (April 1992), at which point he switched over to yet another Bat-title, the new ongoing Batman: Shadow of the Bat.

Although he only drew the first five issues of Shadow of the Bat, this certainly wasn’t the end of Breyfogle’s association with Batman.  He would return for the occasional fill-in issue here and there.  Breyfogle also worked on several Batman-related graphic novels.  Among these was the acclaimed Elseworlds special Batman: Holy Terror written by novelist Alan Brennert.

Detective Comics 616 pg 18

One of my personal favorite issues from the team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell was “Stone Killer” in Detective Comics #616 (June 1990).  In this story Batman faces an eerie supernatural adversary.  Breyfogle’s style was perfectly suited for this eerie tale.

Also noteworthy was Detective Comics #627 (March 1991).  This was the 600th appearance of Batman in that series.  To celebrate, this issue reprinted the first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bill Finger & Bob Kane, and a 1969 update of the story by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.  Additionally, there were two new interpretations of the story by the then-current Batman creative teams, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo & Mike Decarlo, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell.  It was interesting to see the same basic plot executed in four very different ways.

Detective Comics #627 concluded with a stunning double-page spread drawn by Breyfogle & Mitchell featuring Batman, his supporting cast, and many members of his rogues gallery.

Detective Comics 627 double page splash

Beginning in 1993, Breyfogle began working on Prime, which was part of Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse imprint.  He drew the first twelve issues, as well as stories for a few of the other Ultraverse titles.  Regrettably I did not follow any of these series.  At the time the comic book market had a huge glut of product on the shelves, and the Ultraverse unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.

I did finally have an opportunity to see Breyfogle’s work on the character a few years later, when the Prime / Captain America special was published in early 1996.  It was an odd but fun story, with wacky artwork by Breyfogle.  He appeared to be working in a slightly more cartoony, comedic vein.  I definitely enjoyed seeing him draw Captain America, who at the time was my favorite character.

Prime Captain America pg 8

After a short stint on Bloodshot at Valiant, Breyfogle returned to DC.  He penciled an Anarky miniseries, reuniting him with the character’s co-creator Alan Grant.  In the early 2000s he penciled several issues of the Spectre revival written by J.M. DeMatteis, which featured the then-deceased Hal Jordan adopting the supernatural role of the Wrath of God.  For Marvel Comics, Breyfogle drew the 2000 annuals for both Thunderbolts and Avengers, which in turn led to a three issue Hellcat miniseries featuring his artwork.

For a few years after the Spectre ended, Breyfogle unfortunately had some difficulty finding regular assignments in comic books.  Fortunately in late 2009 he began receiving work from Archie Comics.  Breyfogle was one of the regular artists on the wonderful Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg.  Here he was paired up with inker Josef Rubinstein.

Breyfogle’s work for Archie Comics really demonstrated his versatility as an artist.  As I previously observed, Breyfogle’s art on Life With Archie was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.  He certainly was adept at illustrating the melodramatic soap opera storylines in the “Archie Marries Veronica” segments.

Life With Archie 9 pg 3

In 2012 Breyfogle once again had an opportunity to return to the world of Batman, illustrating the “10,000 Clowns” story arc and several covers for Batman Beyond.  It was a wonderful homecoming for the artist, who seamlessly fit back into Bat-verse, this time giving us his depictions of the dystopian future Gotham City and its denizens introduced in the animated series.

Batman Beyond would unfortunately be Breyfogle’s last major work in comic books.  In December 2014 he suffered a stroke, after which he became partially paralyzed.  Tragically, as a result Breyfogle was no longer able to draw.  Nevertheless he remained connected to the comic book community, regularly communicating with fans via Facebook.

Norm Breyfogle passed away on September 24, 2018.  He was only 58 years old.  It was a tremendous shock, both to his colleagues, who always spoke very highly of him, and to the generation of fans such as myself who grew up on his amazing artwork.

For me Breyfogle will always remain one of the all-time greatest Batman artists.  He will definitely be missed.

Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 2

Here is part two of my look at the excellent Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg and published by Archie Comics.  Click here to read part one.

Before continuing on to the final two issues, I first wanted to point out something that I forgot to discuss last time.  One aspect of Kupperberg’s writing that I appreciated was that in neither reality was there any sort of fairy tale ending.  Both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” worlds showed that once Archie and his true love were wed they was still plenty of drama and tension and relationship problems.  One marriage was not any better than the other.  Rather, both realities were far from perfect, each with good and bad, with hurdles to overcome.

Kupperberg did an excellent job at developing the characters through various dramatic plot twists, very much making them come alive.  I became quite attached to the cast in both realities, and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.  I would definitely say that Life With Archie was on a par with the superb work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez on Love and Rockets.

Life With Archie 36 Francesco Francavilla variant cover

And so we now come to the final two issues of Life With Archie, featuring the death of Archie Andrews.  That’s not much of a spoiler, given the huge media coverage, plus the somber, atmospheric variant cover to issue #36 by Francesco Francavilla.  Wow, I tell you, that guy is prolific!  He seems to be doing work for nearly every comic book company in existence.

Previously in Life With Archie, Kevin Keller’s husband Clay Walker was shot during an attempted robbery.  Fortunately he survived, but Kevin learned that the weapon used by the holdup man had been purchased at a gun show, circumventing background checks.  Kevin decides to run for the United States Senate on a gun control platform.  He is elected, but his controversial stance, plus the fact that he is gay, leads a deranged gunman to begin targeting gay victims.

As issue #36 opens, Kevin is preparing for a fundraiser at the Chocklit Shoppe, despite the urgings of the FBI to postpone the event until the shooter is caught.  Meanwhile, Archie is taking a jog through Riverdale, his thoughts also running through memories of his childhood & teenage years, as well as pondering the possible future he might have if he and his wife might one day have children.

Life With Archie 36 pg 3

Looking back on his past, Archie reflects on how he was always trying to decide between Betty and Veronica.  And, yes, they were the two girls who always meant the most to him.  There was the other occasional relationship, such as Cheryl Blossom or Valerie from The Pussycats.  But in the end, for Archie, it always came back to Betty and Veronica.  Those two were central to his life.  Kupperberg, via a flashback to a young Archie and school principal Mr. Wetherbee, implies that it was finally making a choice between the two that was necessary for him to grow up and become an adult.

That night, at the Chocklit Shoppe, waiting for the fundraiser to being, Archie and his old pals Jughead and Reggie are pondering how much things have changed, and the possibilities of the future.  It’s an interesting look at how, on one hand, these three have grown & matured over the course of the series and, on the other, how in certain respects they are still the same three goofballs that they’ve always been.

And then Kevin arrives, only for the gunman to reveal himself as the dishwasher at the Chocklit Shoppe.  The FBI agents attempt to grab him, but are hindered by the large crowd.  At which point Archie selflessly throws himself in front of Kevn, taking a bullet for him.  Lying on the floor, bleeding, surrounded by Betty and Veronica, Archie gasps out “I’ve always loved you” before succumbing to his injuries.

Life With Archie 36 pg 39

Issue #36 is supposed to be set in both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” realities, and Kupperberg does a good job at writing it in such a way that the events fit into each seamlessly.  Archie’s demise, even though we know it is coming, is nevertheless still very effectively scripted, a very tragic moment.  The artwork by pencilers Pat & Tim Kennedy and inker Jim Amash is very well done, giving Archie’s contemplations on life, and then the scene of his death, genuine drama and emotion.

Life With Archie #37, the final issue, is set one year later.  Kevin Keller is preparing for a ceremony memorializing Archie.  Since Kevin didn’t move to Riverdale until he was a teenager, he is speaking with those who knew him all his life, asking them to relate what sort of person he was.  Principal Wetherbee, Hiram Lodge, Reggie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica reminisce on various times in the past Archie was someone who helped out people and was there as a friend when you needed him.  We see that going all the way back to his childhood Archie, despite his moments of silliness and mischief, underneath it all was a stand-up guy.

Life With Archie 37 pg 15

Kupperberg’s script is simultaneously wistful and optimistic.  Despite the sadness, his story is at heart a celebration of the joy of life, the importance of friendship, and the possibilities of the future.  As Wetherbee himself comments at the memorial, “The order of the day is not to dwell on tragedy, but to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.”

Once again, the team of Pat & Tim Kennedy and Jim Amash, this time working alongside penciler Fernando Ruiz and inker Gary Martin, do great work.  They all superbly bring the characters to life, expertly telling the story and imbuing it with emotion and poignancy, as well as moments of real fun and hilarity.

Life With Archie 37 pg 35

Some might wonder why Archie Comics decided to bring Life With Archie to an end at the height of its success.  But I think it was a good choice.  There is something to be said with going out on a high note.  After all, there are numerous long-running comic book characters who’ve had decades of continuous, unending stories without any resolution or closure that eventually end up retreading old ground.  Additionally, in the “mainstream” Archie Comics titles, the Riverdale gang will always be teenagers.  So it is nice to be able to find out what could happen to Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and the rest of the cast as they grew up, a storyline that has a definitive ending.

As with the previous issue, Life With Archie #37 had several variant covers, all of which I liked.  Of course I couldn’t pick up every single one.  I decided to go with the cover by Jill Thompson .  The creator of Scary Godmother drew a beautifully nostalgic piece that recreates some of the classic, iconic images of Archie Andrews’ life.

Life With Archie 37 Jill Thompson variant cover

For those who missed out on Life With Archie during its original monthly run, the entire series is being collected in the Archie: The Married Life trade paperbacks. Archie Comics has four volumes out so far, which collects the series up to issue #24.  According to Amazon, book five will be coming out at the end of August.  I definitely recommend picking these up.  The stories by Paul Kupperberg and his various artistic collaborators are well worth experiencing.

Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 1

I’m sure that most everyone has heard the news that Archie Andrews, the popular redheaded star of the line of Archie Comics, has died… sort of.  That is to say, one version of Archie (okay, technically speaking two versions) is killed in the conclusion to the three year epic Life With Archie.  Running monthly since 2010, Life With Archie, written by Paul Kupperberg, chronicled two possible near future realities, one where Archie married Veronica and another where he married Betty.

The series actually spun out of a six issue run by writer Michael Uslan and artists Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith in Archie #s 600 to 605.  Uslan postulated two possible scenarios where Archie finally chose between his rival teenage sweethearts.  In the first one, which ran through #600 to 602, Archie proposed to and married sophisticated raven-haired socialite Veronica Lodge.  In the second one, in #603 to 605, Archie pledged his heart to sweet blonde girl-next-door Betty Cooper.  The entire storyline was collected in the trade paperback The Archie Wedding.

The Archie Wedding cover

Following the success of this storyline, Archie Comics decided to publish an ongoing title set in these two alternate worlds.  In the pages of Life With Archie, Kupperberg and a line-up of talented artists chronicled the dual paths that Archie took in “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty.”  Kupperburg’s two tales were sprawling and ambitious.  He revealed how that one simple decision impacted the entire town of Riverdale and its much-loved inhabitants as they grew older, setting everyone on very different paths in these two realities.  It brings to mind the old saying about how a small pebble dropped in a lake will cause ripples that will emanate outwards and bounce off the shores in various directions.  By choosing Veronica in one world and Betty in another, Archie creates two very different sets of ripples that affect the rest of the cast in dramatic & unexpected ways.

My girlfriend Michele has been a fan of Archie Comics since she was a little girl.  She picked up the collection The Archie Wedding and enjoyed it.  When Life With Archie began shortly afterwards, she became a regular reader, only missing a handful of the issues over the next three years.  I read a number of these and I also enjoyed them.  Truthfully, I sometimes had some trouble following the story and character arcs in the two parallel worlds, and more than once I wondered aloud at how Kupperberg kept everything straight in his head.  Maybe he had some flowcharts or diagrams that he drew up?

A good example of how events could be both similar and different in these two worlds is with the character of Jughead Jones.  In each of them, not surprisingly, he ended up becoming the proprietor of his favorite hangout, the Chocklit Shoppe.  However, in one reality circumstances eventually lead Jughead to wed Ethel, and in the other he and Midge are married.

Life With Archie 16 coverOne event that took place in both realities was Kevin Keller, now a military veteran, married his boyfriend Clay Walker in Life With Archie #16.  The two had met after Kevin had been wounded on the battlefield and Clay was his physical therapist.  There was, unfortunately, somewhat of an uproar in the real world among certain “conservative” segments when the news of this was announced.  However, to their credit, Archie Comics still went through with it.  I certainly do not agree with every business decision that the company has made over the years.  But at least they seemingly do have an approach that can be considered “progressive,” and they recognize they possess a diverse readership.  In any case, it was a very nicely done issue, topped off with a lovely cover by Fernando Ruiz & Bob Smith.

An aspect of the series that I found intriguing was the role of Archie’s former rival Reggie Mantle.  In the “Archie marries Veronica” reality Reggie begins dating Betty.  In the “Archie marries Betty” world Reggie becomes involved with Veronica.  It is a bit sad to think that Reggie, who in both storylines is seen growing & maturing beyond his former snooty, sarcastic self, is left with the girl who Archie let get away.  The four of them really do have something of a bizarre love quadrangle going on.

There were also some odd shenanigans going on with scientific genius Dilton Doiley traveling back and forth between the two realities.  I really didn’t follow the series close enough month-to-month to fully understand precisely what was going on.  However, aside from that one subplot, Kupperberg eschewed from fantastical elements and stuck to events that were grounded in reality.

Life With Archie 12 cover

Art-wise, it was interesting and cool to see Norm Breyfogle’s work on a number of issues of Life With Archie.  Breyfogle is generally considered to be the best Batman artist of the late 1980s through the mid 1990s.  He did really amazing work on the various ongoing titles and specials of that time.  Unfortunately since then Breyfogle’s work has been somewhat sporadic, as he has not really had too many ongoing books to work on.  More recently he’s once again been doing great work for DC Comics on Batman Beyond.  Before that gig finally came his way, Breyfogle was working at Archie Comics.  I really enjoyed his art on Life With Archie.  It was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.

The last several issues of Life With Archie have boasted some really great variant covers by several great artists, including Stephanie Buscema, Dean Haspiel and Robert Hack.  One of my favorites was Chad Thomas’ “sci fi variant” for #35, which depicts Jughead as “The Beast That Won’t Stop Eating!”

Life With Archie 35 variant cover

Having taken a cursory overview of the entire Life With Archie series, in my next installment I will be looking at Paul Kupperberg’s two part conclusion to his dual sagas, and the tragic demise of Archie Andrews, as featured in issue #s 36 and 37.  Stay tuned!

Click here to read Part Two!