INTERVIEW: "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" Hunt Rebirth's Oracle
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Norm Breyfogle, and the stories are “Pacer” in New Talent Showcase #11 and “Story” in Marvel Fanfare #29, the first of which was published by DC and is cover dated November 1984 and the second of which was published by Marvel and is cover dated November 1986. Enjoy!
When I first started buying comics, in 1988, I quickly got into Detective Comics, which was being illustrated by Norm Breyfogle at the time. I’m still convinced he’s one of the best Batman artists ever, and it’s a huge mistake that DC still hasn’t collected his and Alan Grant’s run on the Batman books, which lasted about four years and rarely had a misstep during that time. In recent years, I’ve read a lot more appreciative stuff on the Internet about Breyfogle’s art during the late 1980s/early 1990s (which, let’s face it, was a peak of Batman comics), so maybe DC will figure out that they should do some sort of Omnibus of his work. But that’s not where Breyfogle started, obviously! He began on DC’s New Talent Showcase, and then I’m going to skip two years to show his work on Marvel Fanfare. If I show two issues in one post, they’re usually pretty close together in time, so this is cheating even more than usual, but these are my posts, damn it, and I make the rules!, but neither of these stories is that long, so I figured it would be all right to combine them. Plus, I really, REALLY like Breyfogle, so I wanted to cram as much of his art as possible into these posts! So let’s begin with DC’s weird New Talent Showcase, which was just that – in the two issues that Breyfogle drew, we also find stories by Mindy Newell and Tom Grindberg, Stephen De Stefano, Eric Shanower (drawing a Newell story), and Stan Woch inked by Karl Kesel. There were plenty of creators who never amounted to anything, either, but that’s not a bad group. There was also a story about a dude called “21st Sentry,” and the fact that he never became a huge part of DC’s stable of superheroes makes me sad. But let’s check out “Pacer,” which was written by a high schooler and drawn by 24-year-old Breyfogle!
There’s old Rick Pacer himself, sitting at a bar drowning his sorrows. Dave Hudak, who wrote this, was indeed 17/18 when he cranked it out, and according to the biographical information in this issue, he had just graduated from high school. But we’re not here to talk about Hudak, we’re here to talk about Breyfogle! Notice that Breyfogle inks himself here (and letters the story), and we see some flashes of the artist he would evolve into. His figure work is a bit stiffer and bulkier than his later work, and his own inking work is much busier than in later years, but the faces in the panel are definitely Breyfoglian. Pacer is sad, so Breyfogle shades his face with a lot of hatching, and he’s in a dark bar, so we get a lot of lines on his shirt, too. Even in the background, Breyfogle uses a lot of hatching. It makes this story a bit grittier than what we would see from Breyfogle in later days, which suits the subject matter pretty well.
So a reporter named Ed Mitchell published a story about Pacer in which he accused him of killing a child while in Vietnam, and Pacer isn’t handling it well. Pacer, it’s noted in the story, is not exactly mentally competent, and some news story calling him a murderer doesn’t do much for his state of mind, especially when he loses his job because of it. Then someone paints “Babykiller” on his car, which makes him even more upset. A couple of things stand out in this sequence. First, I always thought horses were the worst thing for artists to draw, but recently, an editor mentioned cars as being the bane of artists’ existence, and Breyfogle proves him right to a degree. I mean, it’s obviously a car, but it’s very roughly drawn, and the flat tires are silly. It appears that someone placed the rims in concrete, even though if we think about it for a second, we realize someone slashed Pacer’s tires. But then we get Panel 4, which is a nice drawing (if a bit melodramatic). The biggest problem with it is that Pacer’s diaphragm is extremely rigid, so his stomach looks caved in a bit too much. The extra hatching there highlights it, too, which is odd. But the inking is dark because Pacer is out in the rain, and while I can never get lightning to flash and thunder to roar when I’m having a dramatic moment, Pacer doesn’t have that problem. I need a better director of my life.
So Pacer goes to Ed Mitchell’s house and takes him hostage, as you do. Breyfogle, as we see, wasn’t quite as good at action as he’d later get, but he’s not bad. His storytelling is fine – he makes sure to put a panel in of Pacer pushing the plunger down, although we don’t actually see a bomb underneath Ed’s car – and he angles the panel border, I think, so that Pacer can be bigger in Panel 6 and look more imposing. Ed’s car remains a bit boxy (although, you know, it was the 1980s, and my family was tooling around in an Oldsmobile Delta 88, which was not only a tank, but boxy as well), but he does a good job with the explosion – especially the inking – and the way Ed is thrown to the ground. He also does a nice job with Pacer in that final panel, as he backlights him dramatically so that he can use spot blacks to shroud his face, showing that he’s not quite in this reality anymore (he thinks he’s back in ‘Nam). It’s a clever trick.
Naturally, Pacer is totally innocent, as he reveals here when he’s talking to himself. Despite the stiffness in the figure work that I mentioned above, this is nice work from Breyfogle – he has to cram a lot onto the page here, and he does it quite well. He still places Pacer’s face in the darkness in Panel 1, again implying that his mind isn’t in the present but stuck in the past, and then we get the flashback. I’m not really positive that you’d get those kind of deciduous trees in a tropical setting like Vietnam, but let’s ignore that. The placement of the caption boxes help us see the small panel underneath Panel 2, which shows the girl exploding. In Panel 4, Breyfogle uses thick blacks to show the charred bodies and the encircling darkness as Pacer is blamed so “some south Charlies could go free” (not sure how blaming Pacer meant some Viet Cong went free, but whatever), and then we get Ed, in the present, realizing that he wrote a false story, and he’s not happy about it. Breyfogle once again decides on melodrama, as Ed’s wide-mouthed reaction seems a bit much for his realization, but it’s a pretty good face. Once again, the excess hatching darkens the mood considerably, which the story needs. We even get a final panel showing one of the policemen sneaking toward Ed’s house so he can fire a gas canister into the room, knocking Pacer out. Yay, policeman!
One reason why I don’t mind showing Marvel Fanfare in this same post is because it doesn’t appear that Breyfogle did a ton of comics work in 1985 and early 1986. By the time Marvel Fanfare came out, he had just begun his first ongoing gig, something we’ll see tomorrow, but he really didn’t do too much before that, as far as I can tell. So he still didn’t have a lot of comics under his belt two years after New Talent Showcase, and I figured I could check out his Captain America story in Marvel Fanfare!
Breyfogle wrote the cleverly titled “Story,” but there are fewer than ten words in the entire tale, two of which we see on this page. We can see immediately how much better Breyfogle is than in “Pacer” – his inking is lighter (although this is printed on better paper, so everything is lighter) and his storytelling is smoother. He passes the time well in the first row (with the newspaper giving us a hint about what’s about to happen), keeping the “bully” in the same place as the kids run by until the “pansy” descends the steps. The “bully” pushes the books to the ground, and it’s interesting that the “pansy” is reading Call of the Wild given what happens at the end of this story, when the “pansy” decides to start working out. The row flows well, as Breyfogle rotates around the scene so that the movement in both larger panels moves from the left to the right. Breyfogle shows that he understands panel-to-panel movement, too, as the “bully” grabs the “pansy’s” arms in Panel 6 (and that’s a nice smile Breyfogle gives the “bully,” as it’s clear he’s unconcerned about the attack) and flips him down in Panel 7, which leads to the slap in Panel 8. It’s a well done sequence. Breyfogle ends the page with the car in the background approaching, and if you think “Colossal” Craig isn’t in that car, you haven’t been paying attention!
So Craig crashes his car and takes both kids hostages, but Captain America is inexplicably on his trail (I write “inexplicably” because why is Cap hunting down this low-level thug?). Breyfogle again does very nice work with the panel-to-panel storytelling – the way he structures a page is one of my favorite things about him. Craig runs through the halls and enters a room. As he moves from the left in Panel 3 to the right, he hears something rustle. In Panel 4, he turns and fires at the American flag, but Breyfogle keeps him on the right side of the panel and moves in for a close-up so that we follow the gun and the muzzle flash down his arm to him. While we’re there, the sound effect from Panel 5 intrudes on Panel 4, taking us down to Cap bursting through the other window, leading us back to the left, where Craig is befuddled. Cap’s arc and the arc of his arm take us down to his shield, and that motion leads us back to the small Panel 6, where the shield connects with Craig’s wrist and causes him to drop the gun. It’s just a beautifully choreographed page, and it’s something Breyfogle would get better at in years to come. He still inks a bit heavily, but more judiciously than in “Pacer” – the lines seem thinner, and the hatching on Craig when he fires the gun seem to occur because of the violence of the panel. When Cap bursts through the window, Breyfogle uses thicker blacks on his uniform to show the fabric moving while keeping Craig and the boys relatively clean. Breyfogle appears to be using lines in different ways than he had two years earlier while still retaining his style.
This is almost a proto-Batman page, as Cap battles Craig and eventually defeats him (but not on this page!). Once again, we see how well Breyfogle moves us across the page. Craig picks up a chair on the left side of Panel 1 while looking toward Panel 2, and then he raises it and rushes from left to right toward Cap. Cap reaches for the eraser, and Breyfogle doesn’t need to show him throwing it, as we see it hit Craig in the face in Panel 3. The circular motion of the first four panels isn’t confusing because of the way Breyfogle lays out the page – Panel 3 and Panel 4 are joined with no gutter in between them, and the motion of the eraser takes us back to the left, where Craig curses because he has chalk residue in his eyes. While Cap’s punch in Panel 5 goes against the reading grain, Breyfogle decides it’s more important to keep the two men on their respective sides of the panels, so Panels 5-9 show them battling without Breyfogle breaking the 180 Rule. His figure work here isn’t quite as fluid as it would become, but it’s pretty good. He’s still inking a bit more heavily than we see in later Breyfogle work, when he wasn’t inking himself (if I recall correctly, most of his famous ‘Tec work was inked by Steve Mitchell), but it does make Craig look a bit more lumbering, so we can buy that Cap is far quicker than he is but also that Panel 9 would hurt Cap quite a bit. The lack of backgrounds is something that Breyfogle would do a lot more in subsequent years – some people probably don’t like this, but I don’t mind it, as he usually just does it when two people are fighting, so it focuses us on the combatants. It’s not like Breyfogle never used backgrounds, but he ditched them at certain times, which is fine with me.
Cap beats Craig, the “bully” decides to start studying, the “pansy” decides to start working out, and all is right in the world. Breyfogle started a new gig on an independent comic, which we’ll take a look at tomorrow. Good times! Come back to see what’s what, or spend an afternoon in the archives! Or do both!
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