We lost Tim Sale this past week at the age of 66. It’s yet another reminder to appreciate the great ones while they’re around because you just never know…
I’m flipping through “Batman: The Long Halloween” today and soaking it all in again.
I haven’t read this book in twenty years, but it’s always had a place on my bookshelf. It survived multiple purges for a good reason: It’s a classic book from that era of Bat books. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale had some kind of alchemy that is rare amongst writer/artist pairings in comics. And when two creators click together like that, they tend to stay together.
And those two did, over several books between Marvel and DC.
The thing that made “The Long Halloween” so interesting from an artistic perspective is two-fold:
First, Tim Sale’s noir storytelling brought in a strong sense of shadows and negative space into a Batman comic, the perfect home for it. His storytelling was wonderful — bold, dynamic, energetic yet moody, well-designed, and more detail-oriented than you might consider at first glance. He could draw animated characters and great environments.
Second, he had the same kind of excitement to his artwork in this series that Todd McFarlane had in his “Amazing Spider-Man” run. The question was always “What will the next classic Batman villain look like when Tim Sale interprets him/her?”
You just didn’t know what you were going to get. His style was so personal and so unique in comics that every character looked new again when touched by his ink-laden brush. The chance to see a different villain every month for a year rendered in his style was a lot of the fun.
Quick tangent: There’s something magical about the art of sequential storytelling. That Joker double page spread only has three panels. Sale picked the right moments to show to put the whole sequence into your mind. You’re seeing three static images, but your mind is animating the whole thing. You can see the shreds flying throught the air. You can see the virtual camera cutting to the Joker’s face as those same shreds fall down the screen. It’s a little bit of magic.
And as memorable and as exciting as “The Long Halloween” was, “Superman for All Seasons” is the book that I’ll always see as his masterpiece. It’s the complete opposite, style-wise, of his Batman work. It’s all the colors and the bright lights. It feels very European, like there’s a bit of a Moebius flair to it alongside the Normal Rockwell Americana stuff. Its characters are delineated in thin lines with large shapes and huge physicality. Loeb’s story is warm and uplifting.
The fact that the same guy could have drawn both books is mind-boggling.
And then he went full into gray washing with “Daredevil: Yellow,” which is probably my favorite of his Marvel color books.
Back to the Bat-Beginning
Today, I want to go back even further. I want to go all the way to the beginning of Sale’s partnership with Jeph Loeb.
Wait, no, that would be “Challengers of the Unknown.”
OK, almost the beginning.
I’m talking about “Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special” #1. Loeb convinced legendary editor Archie Goodwin to release the book as a one-shot special instead of as issues in the anthology series, “Legends of the Dark Knight.”
Side note: Sale had already done a critically acclaimed three-parter story in that series with James Robinson, titled “Blades.” If you’ve never read that one, look it up also. Sale felt a bit constrained by Robinson’s script — in retrospect, it shows — but it’s still a good story.
The “Halloween Special” is the prototype of the Loeb/Sale partnership. All the pieces are there in this one story, but they have a few rough edges to shave off, first. Sale’s storytelling is there and his recognizably bold black areas stand out on every page. But his characters still look a little more cartoony, compared to what we’d later see him settle into. Faces are a little more narrow and long. There are some small attempts at crosshatching or more feathering of his lines, rather than the bigger, bolder black shapes we’d come to know and love later.
Layouts are also an interesting point to consider. In “The Long Halloween,” Sale stuck almost entirely to grids with white borders between panels. Even the biggest action scenes were squared off. Panels were rectangular and on a grid, but the characters inside that could be at a new angle or seen particularly close-up.
In the “Halloween Special,” he plays a lot more with adventurous layouts. The art bleeds out to the page edges and panels might float inset on top. A series of smaller panels create interesting effects.
Take a look at this one, for example, where Bruce Wayne is waking up to find a woman at his bedside, until his mental fog clears and he realizes it’s Alfred:
It approximates the feeling of opening your eyes and getting the effect of shutters opening as your eyelids slide open. And then, of course, reality hits and it’s Alfred. The continuity in the eyes from the woman to Alfred helps to sell it.
Sale doesn’t throwing panels around for the sake of throwing them around. He’s often using them for specific storytelling purposes. In his later works, though, he’d stick with more of a grid of rectangles and fit the story inside of them.
Sometimes, it’s just about having fun. Check out this spread from a party Bruce Wayne is hosting.
You can find where Waldo is in there, but also spot Milk and Cheese, Cerebus, Bone, Madman, Hobbes, Hawkeye, and many more.
Jeph Loeb’s script works with the art beautifully. There’s dialogue for when things need to be explained to carry the plot through or to set a mood, but a lot of the dialogue in this book — and in future collaborations between Loeb and Spare — is spare. Things never stop moving. Your eye glides across these pages because the dialogue moves so quickly. A lot of character is shown in very few words.
It’s the best of both worlds from Loeb: His screenwriting skills came in handy to engage the reader with the dialogue, but not weighing the reader down with a ton of text. That’s the mistake so many Hollywood writers do when they become comic book writing tourists.
This also leaves the page more open for Sale to draw large images. Even on pages where there are 5 or 6 panels, everything feels bigger. Sale accomplishes that by either taking a long wide shot to show us an epic location or coming in very close to the characters and having them fill the panels.
If you read the panels carefully, too, you’ll see more than you might expect. I mention all these big characters and all the dynamic shadows, but Sale also found ways to add secondary movements and to create action where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it.
I love the way. he draws this light bulb being shot out. It doesn’t explode. It gets knocked to one side and glass shards go flying. The pull line to turn it on and off is also stopped in motion for the panel. You don’t see what broke the bulb and you don’t need to. It’s obvious what is happening.
It also looks a little bit like a Mignola drawing.
When Batman jumps down from the ceiling, look at the light fixtures behind him. His cape knocked into those on the way down, and that sends them flying, as well. He didn’t need to draw those at all. He could have drawn them still straight down. But he found it as another thing to add action to the page, and another point of interest in the panel.
Yes, that’s the delightful lettering of Todd Klein. Nothing against Richard Starkings’ work with Sale after this that helped define the feeling of his work for the next 30 years, but Klein’s lettering is always perfect. It’s a treat to see it anywhere.
As much as we think of Sale’s inky shadows and large figures springing into action or characters melding into the backgrounds, there’s something to be said for the way Sale could so easily establish scope and scale in an image. He could establish a place with a beautiful panel that quickly gives the reader the feeling of being in a place and standing inside of a large volume, like Wayne Manor.
Here’s a panel of Bruce and Alfred walking to the part I showed you earlier:
I love this panel. I love the way Sale inverts the walls in the background to make it darker. He doesn’t skimp on the details with all the stair lines or the tile floors. The details along the walls are blocks of geometric shapes, plus the outlines of some potted plants to break up the straight lines and the color monotony.
The posts in the railings are all there, but they’re scratchy simple hand drawn straight lines. They’re not perfectly parallel and straight. They’re not traced over a 3D model. (That wasn’t around back then, yet…) There’s a warmness to this art that comes from its imperfections. It’s a feature, not a bug.
Gregory Wright was the colorist on this story, so give him credit, too, for that glow from Alfred’s lightened how simply the rest is handled. The art shows clearly without the colorist trying to show off by making the dark scene too dark and muddied.
Sale will be best remembered for his noir-ish Batman art, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s his storytelling and his big characters and big locations and all that motion on every page. This is only the tip of the iceberg. I could write another, even longer article, about “The Long Halloween” or “Daredevil: Yellow.”
But, most of all, it’s fun to look back on Tim Sale’s artwork once again and appreciate it with fresh eyes.
This first “Halloween Special” isn’t the best Batman story ever or the most game-changing one. It is, however, a solidly constructed story with very nice art that makes for an enjoyable read. And as a precursor to a larger body of work, it’s fun to see where its creators started versus where they’d eventually end up.
This story appears in the collected edition “Batman: Haunted Knight.” The other two stories are insipired by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens.
To better appreciate the man and his work, I can recommend “Tim Sale: Black and White“. This was an interview and art book that Richard Starkings put together in 2004, spanning his career up to that point. It was re-issued in 2008 by Image Comics in an expanded edition that had a new color section and work from his time on the NBC series “Heroes.” It’s a beautiful oversized hardcover book with a great interview at its core.
After that, just pick up any of the other books I mentioned above. They’re all worth a read. Likely, you already have one or two of them in your collection.
Post Script: A San Diego Story
This is my hardcover copy of the original printing of “Batman: The Long Halloween.” I brought it with me to my first San Diego Comic-Con in 1999 to get signed by Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb. They were sitting next to each other in Artist’s Alley, as I recall.
I think Loeb signed it first, but he asked me if I wanted him to sign on the dust jacket or on the inside.
Me, being the young genius that I was, went for the dustjacket so the autographs would always be visible.
That was dumb. Dustjackets are relatively flimsy. I take them off the books when I read one. I should have had them sign it on the title page or inside the front cover where I’d never be worried about them getting ripped or stained or anything. Dumb.
But, I do have a signed copy of “Batman: The Long Halloween,” and I’m happy about that.
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