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Man & Supermen

cartoon

Batman illustrator on the fine art of saving the world

By David Templeton

Like the superheroes they bring to life, comic-book artists tend to be a solitary lot. They work alone, occasionally in pairs, insisting on a privacy that renders them essentially anonymous. As with Batman or Superman or Captain America, the world may have memorized the color of their capes and the shape of their insignias, but few have learned the human face behind the hero.

And like such new-breed characters as Samaritan, Metaphysique, Winged Victory, and Kane, there is usually a depth of intellect operating below their carefully crafted super-surfaces: a roiling, boiling cauldron of self-examination and existential angst.

Consider illustrator Norm Breyfogle, the 36-year-old wunderkind (he published his first comic book, Tech Team, at the age of 17), known industrywide as the man responsible for Batman's mighty and muscled redesign a decade ago, and as one of the creators of Marvel Comics' inventive Prime series.

This multi-award-winning Sonoma County artist is as likely to mention chakras and the work of philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Alan Watts (references to those gentlemen are spread throughout his work) as he is to defend the cultural significance of Beavis & Butthead. In fact, after talking to him on the phone for a few minutes, one can more easily envision Breyfogle as a best-selling, New Age writer than a guy who draws spandex-clad mutants making sounds like "Pok! Whak! Buddabuddabudda!"

And he's a private person. In keeping with the reclusive example set by his pencil-and-ink creations, Breyfogle routinely swears reporters to secrecy before inviting them to his home tucked in amid the east county wineries. Upon arrival, however, one is treated with the utmost graciousness. "Would you like a Honey Bunny?" offers Barb, Breyfogle's longtime compan-ion, taking a quick break from Easter treat-making. Faithful readers of Breyfogle's six-part, mind-bending comic-book series Metaphysique (Malibu, 1995), which he wrote as well as illustrated, may recognize Barb from each book's "Prelude," in which the writer muses about his own metaphysical quests for truth, and thanks his partner for putting up with his "personal foibles."

Breyfogle leads the way to his tiny upstairs studio. On the table are pencil-sketched pages of his current project, a comic book featuring Robin, Batman's sidekick. "This one is listed as a 'Back to School Special,'" Breyfogle laughs, "But I don't know what that means. Maybe they're going to offer a pack of crayons with it."

He explains the illustration process. Working from a playlike script, written by a member of Marvel's stable of writers, he designs each panel to match the action described, leaving the dialogue boxes and balloons empty. Upon completion, the entire stack of sketches is sent to an "inker," who darkens the lines and adds the dialogue, and then to another artist who will color in the pages to Breyfogle's specifications.

So he hopes, anyway. "My last Prime book, a crossover with Captain America, was colored all wrong," he says, beckoning me to follow him across down the hall. "I'm happy with the way I did it, and I'm happy with the story, but when it came out, the coloring just wasn't the way I indicated. Would you mind taking off your shoes?"

We enter a carpeted room only slightly bigger than Breyfogle's studio. Dominated by a massage table (Barb is a professional massage therapist), the room also features a wall-mounted fountain, shaped like the head of a lion, and a couple of chairs that have somehow been squeezed in for us.

There are those, I mention, who assume that a grown man who spends his time drawing comic books must either be deeply in touch with his inner child or else be some kind of social reprobate who never figured out how to grow up. "The 'inner child' part is very generous," Breyfogle laughs, taking a seat. "I think I'm all of those things, along with most of the other artists I know. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, what else does our culture offer us? This is a job. We are in an era of extreme special-ization in the workplace, and drawing comics is just another specialty."

What about the age-old criticism that comic books, especially gory ones, are a subversive factor on the youth of America? "Subversive, how?" he asks. "Being subversive can be seen as a good thing, if there are parts of society that need subverting.

"Comics are gory, but I don't know how subversive that is. The gore is really just an advertising feature to draw teenagers. They're drawn to gore because they're not allowed to see sex. But they can see the bloody stuff, so they take it.

"Another famous criticism of superhero comics is that they glorify power," he continues. "I do think about that one a lot. These books are telling children that the ones that will win are the powerful ones. If the really graphic stuff isn't backed up with a moral story, I think there is a danger there."

He ponders this a moment more. "The entertainment industry, of which comics are a small, small part, cannot be blamed for all of the ills of society," he says, laughing. "Only about half of them. But you have to look at the whole Western industrial military complex. What has that been doing to the human consciousness for the last 100 years? Then evaluate how much comic books and TV and Beavis & Butthead are responsible for that. Even if Beavis & Butthead is the trigger, it's not the gunpowder.

"I actually like that show," he says, tangentially. "It took me a while to catch on. Now, whenever I watch it, I think deeply about society in general and where we're going."

Sort of a 'There but for the Grace of God go we" kind of thing? "No!" he counters, playfully. "More like, 'In spite of the Grace of God, that's where we're going.' I don't know. It's hard to say how things are going and how close we are to any kind of apocalypse or cultural breakdown, but it does seem as if things are coming to a head.

"Then again," he laughs, "Things always seem like that. Some days, I can almost be persuaded that things are getting better. There's the World Wide Web. The planet actually has a nervous system now. We finally have ground on which we can all stand and take a view of the world together. Instead of things coming to a head, maybe all that's happening is that we're discovering the depths of our cultural differences."

The storm before the calm? "Sure."

And if he's wrong, what? Will Breyfogle stay up in his studio drawing superheroes till the end comes? "I'll have to," he shrugs. "It's what I do best."

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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