Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

Tom Lyle: 1953 to 2019

I was very sorry to hear that longtime comic book artist Tom Lyle passed away earlier this month.

As with a number of other comic book artists who got their start in the 1980s, Lyle’s earliest work was published by Bill Black at AC Comics.  In late 1986, following a meeting with Chuck Dixon at a Philadelphia convention, Lyle began working for Eclipse Comics.  He penciled back-up stories in Airboy featuring the Skywolf character, followed by a three issue Skywolf miniseries, and a few other related books for Eclipse.Airboy 13 Skywolf pg 6

I personally didn’t have an opportunity to see this work until 2014, when IDW began releasing the Airboy Archives trade paperbacks.  Looking at those Skywolf stories, I was impressed by how solid & accomplished Lyle’s work was that early in his career, both in terms of his storytelling and his attention to detail.  In regards to the later, a good example of this is seen in the above page from Airboy #13 (Jan 1987).  Lyle and inker Romeo Tanghal do great work rendering both the airplane and the Himalayan Mountains.

The Skywolf back-ups and miniseries were all written by regular Airboy writer Chuck Dixon, who Lyle would collaborate with again in the future.Starman 1 cover 1988 small

In late 1988 Lyle, working with writer Roger Stern and inker Bob Smith, introduced a new Starman, Will Payton, to the DC Comics universe.  Although not a huge hit, Starman was nevertheless well-received by readers, and the title ran for 45 issues, with Lyle penciling the first two years of the run.  Starting with issue #15 Lyle was paired up with inker Scott Hanna.  The two of them made a very effective art team, and they would work together on several more occasions over the years.

Lyle then worked on a couple of jobs for Marvel.  He penciled an eight page Captain America story in Marvel Comics Presents #60 written by John Figueroa and inked by Roy Richardson.  This was followed by a three part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Present #77-79 featuring the usual teaming up of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos with Dracula.  Written by Doug Murray and inked by Josef Rubinstein, the serial saw the Howlers having to work with the lord of the vampires against the Nazis.

In 1990 Lyle worked on the five issue Robin miniseries for DC Comics, featuring Tim Drake’s first solo story.  The miniseries reunited Lyle with Chuck Dixon and Bob Smith.  It was a huge hit, gaining Lyle a great deal of attention & acclaim.  Within the story Dixon & Lyle introduced the villains King Snake and Lynx, both of whom would become recurring foes in the Batman rogues gallery.  Also around this time Lyle drew the covers for an eight issue Justice Society of America miniseries.Comet 3 pg 2Lyle’s next project was for Impact Comics (or, if you prefer, !mpact Comics) a DC Comics imprint featuring revamped versions of Archie Comics’ oddball line of superheroes.  Lyle was the artist & plotter of The Comet, an interesting reimagining of the character.  Scripting The Comet was Mark Waid.  Beginning with the second issue Scott Hanna came on as the inker / finisher.JSA 6 cover 1991 small

I was 15 years old when the Impact line started, and I really enjoyed most of the books.  The Comet was definitely a really good, intriguing series.  Lyle & Hanna once again made a great art team.  Regrettably, despite apparently having some long-term plans for the series, Lyle left The Comet after issue #8.  It fell to Waid, now the full writer, to bring the series to a close when the Impact books were unfortunately cancelled a year later.

Lyle’s departure from The Comet was probably due to his increasing workload on the Batman group of titles.  During this time he penciled “Shadow Box,” a three part follow-up to the Robin miniseries that ran in Batman #467-469.  After that he was busy on the high-profile four issue miniseries Robin II: The Joker’s Wild.  As the title implies, this miniseries saw Tim Drake’s long-awaited first encounter with Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime, the villain who had murdered the previous Boy Wonder.

Following on from this, the team of Dixon, Lyle & Hanna worked on Detective Comics #645-649.  One of the highlights of this short run was the introduction of Stephanie Brown aka The Spoiler.  Stephanie would go on to become a long-running, popular supporting character in the Bat-books, eventually becoming a new Batgirl.Robin 1 pg 1After completing a third Robin miniseries, Lyle moved over to Marvel Comics, where he immediately established himself on the Spider-Man titles.  He penciled the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #27, once again working with Scott Hanna.  Written by Jack C. Harris, another former DC mainstay, the annual introduced the new hero Annex.

Batman 468 cover smallThis was followed by Lyle & Hanna drawing Spider-Man #35-37, which were part of the mega-crossover “Maximum Carnage.”  Lyle also penciled the Venom: Funeral Pyre miniseries, and drew a few covers for the Spider-Man Classic series that was reprinting the original Lee & Ditko stories.

The adjective-less Spider-Man series had initially been conceived as a vehicle for which the super-popular Todd McFarlane could both write and draw his own Spider-Man stories.  However he had then left the series with issue #16 to co-found Image Comics, and for the next two years the title served as something of anthology, with various guest creative teams.  Finally, beginning with issue #44, Lyle & Hanna became the regular art team on Spider-Man, with writer Howard Mackie joining them.

Truth to tell, this was actually the point at which I basically lost interest in the Spider-Man books.  The padded-out “Maximum Carnage” event, followed soon after by the meandering “Clone Saga,” caused me to drop all of the Spider-Man series from my comic shop pull list.  Nevertheless, I would on occasion pick up the odd issue here & there, and I did enjoy Lyle’s work on the character. He also did a good job depicting the villainous Hobgoblin and his supernatural counterpart the Demogoblin.

Spider-Man 48 pg 11Despite my own feelings about “The Clone Saga,” I know it has its fans.  Lyle definitely played a key part in that storyline.  When Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly returned he assumed the identity of the Scarlet Spider.  It was Lyle who designed the Scarlet Spider’s costume.  I know some people thought a Spider-Man type character wearing a hoodie was ridiculous but, as I said before, the Scarlet Spider has his fans, and the costume designed by Lyle was certainly a part of that.Spider-Man 53 cover small

Lyle remained on Spider-Man through issue #61.  He then jumped over to the new Punisher series that was written by John Ostrander.  Unfortunately by this point the character had become majorly overexposed, and there was a definite “Punisher fatigue” in fandom.  Ostrander attempted to take the character in new, different directions, first having him try to destroy organized crime from within, and then having him work with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight terrorists, but the series was cancelled with issue #18.  Nevertheless I enjoyed it, and I think Lyle, paired with inker Robert Jones, did some really good work drawing it.

Lyle next wrote & penciled a four issue Warlock miniseries for Marvel in 1998, which was again inked by Jones.  After that Lyle & Jones worked on several issues of the ongoing Star Wars comic book for Dark Horse.  He also worked on several issues of Mutant X for Marvel.

Unfortunately in the early 2000s Lyle began having trouble finding work in comics. Honestly, this is one of the most exasperating things about the industry.  Here was an artist who for over a decade did good work on some of the most popular characters at both DC and Marvel, and then suddenly he finds himself not receiving any assignments.  It’s a story we’ve regrettably heard variations of over and over again.  It’s a genuine shame that freelancers who time and again were there for publishers do not find that loyalty rewarded.

Punisher 15 cover 1997 smallFortunately for Lyle he was able to successfully transition into another career.  He began teaching sequential illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005, a position he remained at for the next decade and a half.

Tragically in September of this year Lyle suffered a brain aneurysm.  After undergoing surgery he was placed in a medically induced coma.  Unfortunately he never recovered, and he passed away on November 19th.  He was 66 years old.

The sad fact is that health care in this country has become more and more unaffordable for most people.  After her husband passed away Sue Lyle was left with astronomical medical bills.  Tom’s brother-in-law set up a Go Fund Me to help Sue.  I hope that anyone who reads this who is in a position to help out will contribute.

Lyle was a longtime friend of June Brigman & Roy Richardson, who also got into the comic book biz around the same time. After Lyle passed away, Brigman shared a few memories of him on Facebook:

“Roy and I were friends with Tom and his wife Sue for, oh…about thirty years. Tom and I followed a similar path, working for Marvel and DC, then SCAD, Tom in Savannah, me in Atlanta. It was Tom who encouraged me to go for a teaching position at SCAD, an experience that I’m very grateful for. And it was Tom’s example that made me, at the ripe ol’ age of 59, finally finish my MFA in illustration. I like to think that we helped give Tom a start in comics. But really, all we did was give him a place to stay when he first visited Marvel and DC. He went on to become a rock star of the comics industry. And while yes, he definitely left his mark on the world of comics, I think his real legacy is his students. They were all so fortunate to have Professor Lyle. Not everyone who can do, can teach. Everything Tom taught came from his experience. He was a master of perspective, he had impeccable draftsmanship, and boy, could he tell a story. And, most importantly, he loved teaching, and truly cared about his students.”

I only met Tom Lyle once, briefly, and a comic book convention in the early 1990s.  Several years later I corresponded with him via e-mail.  At the time I purchased several pages of original comic book artwork from him.  Tom was easy to deal with, and his prices were very reasonable.  Regrettably over the years I’ve had to sell off all of those pages to pay bills, but it was nice having them in my collection for a while.

Tom Lyle was definitely a very talented artist.  Everyone who knew him spoke very highly of him as a person.  He will certainly be missed.

Happy 80th birthday Batman: How I became a fan of the Dark Knight

This week DC Comics is celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the debut of one of the most iconic comic book characters, Batman, the Dark Knight vigilante of Gotham City.

Detective Comics 27 cover smallBatman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, in the story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.  Detective Comics #27 first went on sale 80 years ago this week.  As Bleeding Cool observed, distribution throughout the United States in 1939 varied dramatically from one region to another, and in certain areas it would have hit the newsstands a week or two later than others.  Nevertheless, it is generally believed that March 30th was very likely the earliest date Detective Comics #27 was available anywhere.

I was born in 1976, so quite obviously I was not around to see the first appearance of Batman.  Like many future comic book fans of the post-Boomer generation, my first exposure to Batman, Robin and their colorfully demented rogues gallery was via the Super Friends cartoon series and reruns of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.Batman and Robin tv show

I began occasionally reading comic books in the early 1980s, around the age of seven.  My choices were almost always limited to whatever random issues my parents would consent to get for me, or that I would spot on a rare trip to the nearby Big Top Stationary in Scarsdale NY.  For whatever reason, practically all of these were Marvel Comics releases such as Captain America and Incredible Hulk.

Going by my hazy childhood memories, I don’t think I ever saw an actual comic book published by DC until around 1986, and most of those belonged to other kids at school who would let me read them during lunch.  Even when I did finally begin picking up DC books myself, it would be a Superman here or there, and even a couple of Hawkman issues.

I did not read my first Batman comic book until 30 years ago, in 1989.  That was the year the Tim Burton movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit the theaters, and a tide of Batmania to rival the mid-1960s craze swept over the country.  Batman was everywhere… t-shirts, posters, action figures, and (of course) comic books.  Somebody at DC must have realized the movie was going to be a hit, because suddenly there was a seeming deluge of specials and miniseries and high-profile story arcs and trade paperbacks for sale at the comic book stores. Batman assistant editor Dan Raspler even referred to it as “the Year of the Batman.”

In the midst of this massive hype, I remember one Saturday in May at the Dragon’s Den comic book store in Yonkers thinking to myself “Maybe I should check out an issue of Batman, see what all this fuss is about.”  I think at that time the current issue was the second or third chapter of the story “The Many Deaths of Batman” and I found the idea of trying to figure out what was going on a bit intimidating.  So instead I took a browse through the back issue bins.

Batman 431 cover signed

Amidst a longbox of mid to late 1980s Batman issues, one cover leaped out at me: a moody image of Batman hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the night sky around him filled with bats, the moon glowing behind him.  It quickly joined my pile of purchases for that week.

This issue was Batman #431, which had come out only a few months earlier.  ‘The Wall” was written by James Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest), drawn by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Dan Raspler & Denny O’Neil.  That striking cover artwork was courtesy of George Pratt.

At home, reading Batman #431, I was completely enthralled. Owsley wrote Batman as a driven, imposing, brooding figure (at the time I was already aware that Jason Todd, the second Robin, had died just a short time before, which explained the Dark Knight’s especially grim demeanor).  In this one story Batman was shown to be a brilliant detective, a master of disguise, a figure of stealthy infiltration, and an expert at martial arts.  Through both Owsley’s story and Aparo & DeCarlo’s art, Batman was a figure who was powerful & terrifying, yet also all too human.

Batman 431 pg 7

The issue was capped off by a stunning eight page sequence, mostly dialogue-free, that saw Batman fighting against a quartet of ninjas belonging to the League of Assassins.  It was an expert demonstration of clear, dynamic storytelling by Aparo. (The entire eight page sequence can be viewed in the DC Database entry on Batman #431. Definitely check it out.)

I was hooked.

The next week I was back at Dragon’s Den, and I bought Batman #432.  “Dead Letter Office” was by the same creative team as the previous issue.  It wasn’t quite as enthralling as the issue that preceded it, but I still enjoyed it.  I was especially struck by the powerful artwork of Aparo & DeCarlo.  They really made those two issues stand out in my mind, and all these years later I am still in awe at their work on those stories.

Batman 431 pg 13

By my next visit to Dragon’s Den the latest issue of Batman, the first part of the “Year Three” story arc, was on sale.  Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick & John Beatty explored the continuing effects of the second Robin’s death on Batman, while also providing the post-Crisis origin for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing.  George Perez provided the covers for Batman #436 to 439, and that might have been my first exposure to his beautifully detailed work.

Batman 436 cover smallAfter that I was a regular reader.  I was thrilled that, beginning with #440, Wolfman was teamed up with the returning Aparo & DeCarlo.  They made a great creative team, and told some incredible stories.  Tim Drake, soon to be the new Robin, was introduced, and fought Two-Face.  Batman encountered the NKVDemon, a disciple of his old foe the KGBeast. The Joker resurfaced for the first time since Jason Todd’s death.

During this time I also began reading Detective Comics, starting with issue #608.  The creative team was writer Alan Grant, penciler Norm Breyfogle, and inker Steve Mitchell.  Breyfogle was a very different penciler from Aparo, to be sure, but his work was absolutely stunning.  I enjoyed the stories Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell were telling in Detective Comics as much as I did the ones by Wolfman, Aparo & DeCarlo in Batman. The team in ‘Tec introduced the anti-hero Anarky and pitted Batman against the Penguin, Catman, and a variety of menacing, macabre foes.Detective Comics 608 cover small

As I’ve said before, a person’s favorite Batman artist is often very much dependent upon when they first began reading comic books.  That is definitely the case with me.  In my mind, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle will always be two of the quintessential Batman artists.  I realize this is an extremely subjective determination on my part, but that’s how it is.  Viewing their depictions of the Dark Knight will always give me that little extra thrill, that emotional charge, that comes from having read stories drawn by them when I was in my early teens.

Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Norm Breyfogle before he passed away unexpectedly last year at the much too young age of 58.  Jim Aparo is also no longer with us, having died in 2005 at the age of 72.  Fortunately I did get to meet Aparo once in the early 2000s.  He autographed a couple of the stories he had penciled, including my copy of Detective Comics #627.

Detective Comics 627 cover smallReleased in early 1991, the issue had both creative teams telling their own updated versions of the original Batman story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  It also reprinted the original story from 1939, as well as the 1969 retelling by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.

As an aside, Detective Comics #627 may have also been the first time I began to be made aware that writer Bill Finger was the (then uncredited) co-creator of Batman.  As I have mentioned before, I am glad that Finger is now publicly recognized for his vital contributions to the Bat-mythos.

I have also met Mike DeCarlo on a couple of occasions.  A talented artist in his own right, DeCarlo was probably the best inker of Aparo’s pencils other than Aparo himself.  I know some others disagree with that assessment, but by my estimation the two of them made a very effective art team.  It was definitely a thrill to get Batman #431 and #432, those first two issues I bought back in 1989, signed by DeCarlo last year.

Detective Comics 627 pg 24 signed

By the late 1990s I stopped following the various series featuring Batman.  Part of that was due to their being too many crossovers.  Another part was that too many creators wrote Batman as an obsessive, anti-social control freak.  I also was getting older, and had begun gradually losing interest in superheroes.  Finally, I just got sick of the Joker showing up all the damn time.

From time to time I will occasionally pick up a comic featuring Batman, but that’s almost entirely dependent on who is writing or drawing it.  I’ve come to the point where I follow creators, not characters.

Nevertheless, I do still have a fondness for those Batman stories from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Yeah, a significant part of that is due to nostalgia.  But, even allowing for the questionable tastes of a teenage boy, re-reading those stories as a 42 year old, most of them are still pretty darn good.

Detective Comics 1000 cover small

I did end up buying a copy of the giant-sized Detective Comics #1000 anniversary issue that came out this week.  Yes, DC somehow managed to arrange things so that issue #1000 came out the week of Batman’s 80th anniversary.

Of course DC just had to release it with numerous variant covers, including a bunch of “store exclusive” ones, and all that.  Someone on Facebook commented, only half-jokingly, that Detective Comics #1000 had 1000 variant covers.  It’s not quite that many, but it is a lot.

The one that I did end up getting was the Bruce Timm one featuring Batman, Robin and the Joker that pays homage to Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson.  It is a great cover, and it reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, which Timm was intimately involved with.  The animated series was another huge part of my teenage years, and I watched it every day after I got home from high school.  Just like Aparo and Breyfogle, seeing a Batman by Timm brings a smile to my face.

One last note: Amongst the stories in Detective Comics #1000 is one written by Christopher Priest, aka the former James Owsley.  Priest is paired with legendary artist Neal Adams, who drew many of the classic Batman stories in the 1970s.  They are joined by letterer Willie Schubert and colorist Dave Stewart.  The story features an encounter between the Dark Knight and his implacable adversary Ra’s al Ghul, who Adams created with Denny O’Neil back in 1971.

Detective Comics 1000 pg 47

All these years later, it’s definitely nice to see Priest, the writer who helped get me hooked on Batman in the first place, back on the character.  And I was genuinely surprised to discover his story had a callback to Batman #431, the very issue that personally got me started on this journey three decades ago.

Happy birthday, Batman.  Here’s to the next 80 years, and beyond.  Our paths may not cross too often nowadays, and I really think you need to lighten up a bit, but I will always enjoy those stories from my teenage years.

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.

Happy Batman Day and Caturday!

Today is Batman Day, celebrating all things relating to the Dark Knight of Gotham City, one of DC Comics’ most iconic comic book characters.  Today is also Saturday, or rather Caturday, the weekly celebration of all things cat-related.

Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, published in 1939.  Catwoman, real name Selina Kyle, made her debut just a year later in the pages of Batman #1.  Both characters were created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane.

For nearly eight decades the grim vigilante Batman and the sexy thief Catwoman have had an adversarial relationship with heavy romantic undertones.  There was a mutual attraction from the start, one often undermined by the fact that Bruce and Selina have typically been on opposite side of the law.

Since this year Batman Day falls on Caturday, I am taking a quick look at the history between Batman and his longtime frenemy Catwoman.

Batman 65 cover

Creator credits in the Golden Age of comic books were unfortunately often sparse, but the GCD credits the cover artwork to Batman #65 (June-July 1951) to Win Mortimer, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Charles Paris.  Whoever drew it, it’s a nice cover.  Both it, and the story inside by Finger, Kane, Schwartz & Paris, demonstrate that right from the start Batman never knew if each time he met Catwoman she would turn out to be an enemy, an ally, or something in-between.

Detective Comics 211 pg 1

“The Jungle Cat-Queen!” is an exciting tale written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by Dick Sprang & Charles Paris, and appeared in Detective Comics #211 (Sept 1954).  Catwoman plays a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game” with Batman and Robin on a jungle island.  Sprang is considered the quintessential Batman artist of the 1950s.  I first read this one in the excellent collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

(Pay no attention to the contratually obligated Bob Kane byline.  Kane had nothing to do with this comic, or any other Batman story published after the early 1950s.  Unfortunately he loved to take credit for other people’s work.  At least nowadays we have a much better idea of who did what.)

Batman 197 pg 18

Batman #197 (Dec 1967) written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Frank Springer & Sid Greene sees Catwoman determined to marry Batman… whether he wants to or not!  Yeah, this one certainly won’t win any awards for progressive depictions of woman!  This was pretty typical of DC’s Silver Age superhero comics, the target audience for which was pre-teen boys. Oh, well… nice artwork by the underrated Springer & Greene, at least.

For an entertaining, in-depth look at Batman #197 by someone who read it when it first came out I highly recommend heading over to Alan Stewart’s excellent Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.

Batman 256 pg 14

Okay, this is certainly better!  Batman #256 (May-June 1974) by writer Denny O’Neil & artists Irv Novick & Dick Giordano, has Batman and Robin investigating whether or  not Catwoman has committed a murder at the circus.  Selina is innocent, of course, since she’s no killer, but she is planning to “liberate” the tigers from the circus, so she can return the large cats to the natrual world.  While Batman disapproves of Catwoman’s larcenous activities, he nevertheless admires her strong love for animals.

DC Super Stars 17 pg 30

DC Super Stars #17 (Nov-Dec 1977) featured the origin of the Huntress, heroine of Earth 2 and the daughter of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman.  This story, written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton & Bob Layton, opens with the wedding of Bruce & Selina, who at least in this dimension found love & happiness together for two decades, until tragedy eventually struck.  It’s a great story, so go find a copy and read it!

Detective Comics 569 pg 6

Meanwhile, back on Earth 1, Batman and Catwoman were still doing their will-they-or-won’t-they dance.   Mike W. Barr was one of the writers to delve into their rocky relationship, as witnessed in this scene from Detective Comics #569 (Dec 1986) expertly illustrated by Alan Davis & Paul Neary.

Batman 611 pg 21

In the post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, post-whatever other reality-altering mega crossovers DC has thrown our way in the past 30 years, Batman and Catwoman still had that mutual attraction going.  After numerous encounters that saw them working in various permutations of friends and foes, they finally officially became a couple in Batman #611 (Feb 2003) written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee & Scott Williams.

I am generally not a huge fan of Lee’s work.  I find his style too busy and hyper-detailed.  Having said that, this is a beautiful splash page which has become an iconic image.

Batman Catwoman Follow the Money pg 44

Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, or words to that effect.  Batman and Catwoman’s ongoing relationship has hit quite a few speedbumps.  One of the reasons for this is that the two come from very different backgrounds: Bruce is a millionaire, and Selina grew up on the streets of Gotham City’s poorest neighborhoods.  As a result the two have often disagreed over matters of crime, punishment and justice.  This was expertly illustrated in Batman / Catwoman: Follow the Money (Jan 2011) written & illustrated by Howard Chaykin.  It’s an enjoyable story, and I recommend searching out a copy.

I know a lot of people were upset that Bruce & Selina did not actually tie the knot during writer Tom King’s current run on Batman.  But, honestly, as you can see from the above, they already bicker like an old married couple, so at this point it’s really just a formality!

Batman Gotham Adventues 50 cover

I am going to close out with the cover artwork for Batman: Gotham Adventures #50 (July 2002) which features the animated incarnations of Bruce & Selina.  Illustrated by the late, great, much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this image is a beautiful snapshot of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman.