When comics readers envision iconic characters, their definitive versions tend to be associated with specific artists. As someone who grew up reading comics in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, my Superman is the one drawn the late Curt Swan, for example. And when it came to Batman, for a long time, it was always the late Jim Aparo’s that came to mind. But then in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, someone else came along who offered such dynamic portrayals of the Dark Knight, he joined Aparo in my estimation of the perfect Batman artist.
Norm Breyfogle died Monday in Michigan, after a few years of forced retirement following a stroke in 2014. Stalwarts of the comic-book industry have already eulogized him online, and my thoughts on Breyfogle’s work will pale in comparison. I never had the chance to meet the artist, but his unique style really stuck with me over the years. I discovered his art on Detective Comics in the late 1980s, when I’d moved out of my parents’ home to attend university a province away. Due to a limited budget and the lack of a comic shop in the small town where I studied, my comics reading was incredibly limited, and I’d only pick up a handful of comics from a corner store each month when I had the chance.
A Breyfogle Detective cover — either one from the “Mudpack” storyline or the Batman/Demon team-up issue, I can’t remember which — grabbed my eye on an old-school spinner rack. I immediately became a Breyfogle fan. His elongated, lithe figures; the flowing but angular look of the Batman’s cape; the expressive eyes of the characters; and the exaggerated and striking designs for new characters — they all made his Batman stand out from all others. At first, I just found his Batman was sharper than those presented by other artists at the time, but over the years, as others have noted, his interpretation has stood out as one of the better ones from the character’s entire publishing history.
I followed Breyfogle’s career throughout DC titles, from Detective, Batman, Batman: Shadow of the Bat and even later to Anarky and The Spectre. I was so taken with his work, I made sure I picked up every issue of Prime, which he co-created with Gerard Jones and Len Strazewski. I loved the offbeat take on the Shazam! Concept, and it’s a shame that it’s faded into obscurity.
Breyfogle ventured into the world of creator-owned comics with Metaphysique in 1995, but that book didn’t last, didn’t find its audience. I suspect Breyfogle, like many other creators in the mid-1990s, ventured into creator-owned work at the wrong time. Sure, it came in the wake of the huge success of the Image Comics launch, but the interest in indy comics appeared to be limited to fare that reflected what popular artists had done at other publishers (especially Marvel). Metaphysique, published by Malibu Comics under its Bravura imprint, was certainly unlike what comics readers were expecting at the time. I suspect with the far more diverse and story-driven fare at Image these days, it and its creator would have connected much more resoundly.
It’s unfortunate that once he left the streets of Gotham, Breyfogle’s star status in the industry waned a bit. His talent never diminished, only his profile. He proved himself to be a versatile creator, from the painted art of Batman: Birth of the Demon to his work in the late 2000s, redefining the look of Archie comics. He achieved an interesting blend of the traditional Archie house style and his own unique approach. His lasting influence on the medium and its fans has never been more apparent, and it even led to The Washington Post to publish an obituary/profile piece this week.
I count myself lucky — especially now — to have added a piece of Breyfogle’s work to my collection of original comic art. While it’s not a Batman board, it’s a striking one from the best run on Black Panther, that of writer Priest. In addition to the titular character, it also features images of the Fantastic Four.
I’ve followed the artist on Facebook for the better part of a decade now, and I witnessed his emotional pain in the wake of his stroke that kept him away from a drawing table in recent years. I sympathized with him, but while open about his frustrations, there was also hope in his posts, and an appreciation for his fans. I hope that he’s at peace now, the pain behind him.
And I hope that somewhere, he’s meeting up with Aparo, comparing notes. Maybe even they’re hunched over drawing boards, trying to outdo and impress one another.