I was pleased to be reminded today that DC have solicited an upcoming Legends of the Dark Knight hardback featuring a series of issues from Norm Breyfogle’s superb run on Detective Comics. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you have a treat in store, because Breyfogle is one of the best superhero artists to never really get the acclaim he deserved, as well as an artist whose work feels as fresh and vital today as it did in 1987.
For six years, Breyfogle, usually working together with Judge Dredd co-creator Alan Grant, turned out issue after issue of tightly-plotted, self-contained Batman stories that combined street-level crook-punching and high psychological weirdness. My personal favorite, if not objectively the high point, is the stunning Detective Comics 601-3, in which Batman teams up with Etrigan to fight a psychic projection in the form of a Buddhist demon that’s chasing loan sharks around Gotham City with a giant axe. Batman hits it with a wrecking ball.
It is every bit as gloriously bonkers as it sounds.
Grant, who worked with writing partner John Wagner on the early part of the run, is a veteran of the British comics scene, which was flooding American comics with writers in the late ’80s; despite the diverse nature of these writers, almost all of them share a facility with punchy, done-in-one storytelling. Grant’s bare-bones stories are some of the best straightforward Batman adventures of the modern day.
But the real standout, at least for me, is Breyfogle’s art; cartoonier and more impressionistic than the reigning style of the day, he created a fluid, dynamic, expressive Batman equally at home in a punch-up on a construction site and having an animated conversation. There’s a fantastic little mini-collection of Breyfogle facial expressions over at Comics Should Be Good, but I think my favorite one is this:
Breyfogle’s confident lines and use of negative space — like those blue highlights for the Bat-eyebrows — are a little let down by the printing, which is another reason I’m looking forward to seeing some of his art given the modern treatment. He did get a chance to shine in 1991’s Holy Terror, the first book DC released under the “Elseworlds” label (although the line was inspired by Mike Mignola’s moody Gotham by Gaslight). The story might seem repetitive to the modern reader, since it was basically copied by every subsequent Elseworlds book, but the improved print quality showed Breyfogle’s work to advantage.
There’s a sad side to Breyfogle’s story, unfortunately: he suffered a stroke in December 2014, losing much of the use of his dominant left hand. Although he survived and is recovering, it seems doubtful that he’ll ever draw in the way he did. A crowdfunding campaign helped deal with some of the medical expenses, but it’s still a tough blow for the artist. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is a familiar story in the world of comics, as anyone familiar with the tale of Rocket Raccoon creator Bill Mantlo knows.
Still, it’s good to see a new generation getting to see some of the best work of an often-overlooked artist. Breyfogle’s just one of many artists who turned in amazing work and never became as famous as he merited. Who’s your favorite unsung hero?