Here Norm talks with longtime fan Richard Caldwell, about this and that.
Norm, in what part of the country were you raised? Do you consider yourself at all the product of your environment?
I was born in Iowa City, Iowa. After my parents' divorce when I was 3, my brother, sister, mother, and I moved to Illinois and we subsequently moved often, living in various suburbs of Chicago until I was 14 and we moved to Michigan. I lived there until I was 22, and right after college I moved to California, where I stayed for about 20 years. 10 years ago I moved back to Michigan to downsize and reconnoiter after being unceremoniously dumped by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. I've lived in Michigan since then.
We're all products of our environments, and our genetics. For a generation or more now, our environmental influences have widened far beyond our mere geographic localities. So, even though I have a lot of the Midwest heartland Plains kid in me, I was very early influenced by, for instance, the cultural revolution of the 1960s centered largely in California. By the time I'd reached adulthood I'd universalized my awareness to include, more or less, all of humanity... at least, ideally and in principle.
Like many children, you drew your own comics when you were young, but were there other forms of creativity that compelled you as well? Was there a singular moment when you were made aware that the realm of graphic arts was indeed the life for you?
You're right; I did draw my own comics. I'd wanted to draw comics ever since I was about nine years old, when I first became aware of Neal Adams' comics work on Batman. However, at that young age I didn't think about it as an actual career, but just as a fun thing to do.
I also felt attracted to acting and athletics while in grade school and junior high school. I also knew that a writer was buried deep inside my psyche.
As I got older, I developed an interest in science, and by the time I was 12 or so I wanted to become either a physicist or an astronomer/cosmologist.
There was indeed a very specific moment in which I decided to pursue visual art instead of science as a real profession. Because I'd continued to develop my drawing abilities all along as a hobby for my own pleasure, when I was 13 my mother started taking me to private art lessons with a commercial artist named Andrew Benson (not Andrew Benson the scientist, by the way; that's someone else, entirely unrelated). After a year of those lessons I felt compelled to make a decision, and because I was becoming a very religious young man at that time, and since I was torn between pursuing science or art, I prayed about it. See, I was afraid that art was too unimportant a contribution in comparison to science.
I know that your original Metaphysique books from Eclipse collected much of your college-era work, but what was your first actual published work?
I guess that would be "Tech Team," a one issue comic book which I co-plotted, wrote, drew, and lettered for Michigan Technological University when I was 17. Michigan Tech printed 10,000 copies of it and distributed it to high schools around the nation in 1978, as an advertisement to get graduating high school students to consider attending Michigan Tech. The original artwork for that comic book is still on file in the Michigan Tech Archives.
And as your work generally stands out for always being of the utmost highest calibre, do you feel your earlier contributions still stand well?
Well, I'm my own worst critic. I'd say that some of it stands up quite well, but even the best of it would be better if I did it now. I've often wished that I'd gotten the Batman gig five or so years later in my career, because it might well turn out to be the most popular work I'll have done in my entire life. Still, I did recognize the importance of it at the time, and it was a dream gig come true for me, so I put as much effort into it as I was capable of at that time.
Have your own standards changed much over the years?
Not really too very much, but a bit, yes. I've gained a much greater appreciation for simplicity of technique, and for more personal work. Also, my understanding of storytelling in general (and dialogue, and many other elements in the repertoire of comics) has radically improved.
What resources have inspired you in your approach to graphic storytelling? Your action sequences in particular have always been so marvelously well-thought out, though of course you have tackled a great number of different genres thus far. Are there authors you greatly admire, filmmakers who've influenced your perspective?
When I was a young comics fan and amateur comics artist, I was mostly interested in drawing super-hero action scenes, so much so that, early on, I was able to draw human anatomy in action at a much higher competency level than I could draw anything else. However, I was also always working on single image works of art (paintings and drawings of landscapes, portraits, buildings, science and sci-fi subject matter, etc.) so I also learned about light and shadow and perspective and drawing mundane objects of all sorts, and eventually this improved my comics art, too.
I mentioned that I was an athletic young man, and I loved martial arts films (along with movies of all types), so when I turned pro and drew Batman (for instance) I loved choreographing his fight scenes and exaggerating his cape and shadows for maximum dramatic effect. Martial arts films had an effect on this, especially those starring Bruce Lee.
Many comics artists also mention Sergio Leone's films as an influence, and I'd cite his work, too. Comics art -- especially adventure comics -- is all about maximizing contrasts of all kinds, and Leone excelled at that with his extreme close-ups contrasted against distance shots and with his pacing and with his build-up of mood via music and panoramic movement.
Ultimately, though, I can't say that films had as much an influence on my art as did other static-art artists, from comics art to classical paintings to Impressionism and Expressionism to Modern Art, etc. Although there are some similarities between film and comics, there are just as many differences, and comics is its own art form, with its own rules and parameters. So, when it comes to the influences on my comics art, it's much easier to name other comics artists and illustrators of other types of non-moving (non-filmed) images.
As far as writing and stories goes, I've always been an avid reader, but my reading choices never really included comics very often at all. They used to a bit more than they do now, but that was only ever true for me because I wanted to DRAW comics, not really write them. The only comics that really engaged my writing sensibilities were the more philosophical stories I sometimes saw published in Heavy Metal magazine and other avant-garde books. I even loved writing those kind of comics stories and that's what my first version of Metaphysique (published by Eclipse Comics) contained. Sadly, there is isn't much of a market at all for that kind of comics, at least not in the USA.
Basically, what I'm saying, I think, is that my writing sensibilities may too esoteric for the comics market, but my drawing skills are ideal for it. although I love to write, I've never had any deep desire to write super- hero comics. But, I do love drawing them!
And your painting skills remain in a class of their own. Now to the meat and potatoes. In your experience overall, as a popular graphic artist of the field, do you consider your own growing spirituality as playing a cause in how the larger publishers have, thus far, handled your career? Do you ever worry that your own personal beliefs are exactly what is costing you mainstream gigs?
My spirituality was fully "grown" by the time I turned pro, so the answer to that would be "no."
Now, if you're talking political beliefs, that would be a different question. But, you didn't ask that.
Was it during a specific point for you creatively, when your own spiritual beliefs were no longer something one could so easily leave by the way side? I guess what I am trying for... so many of your fellow creators, by my count, seem to think the world of you and your efforts over the years. You are at least, accepted as well as respected, by so many. What could possibly be missing? Is it at all possible that your thorough spirituality in particular might well be what has cost you limelight from the larger publishers, as bland as they can often be?
I don't think my spirituality has had any negative impact on my career as an artist. I never mixed the two professionally, except once, in my creator-owned, written, and drawn Metaphysique. But that was all mine, and it wasn't so iconoclastic, anyway, arguably not even "spiritual" in any classic sense of the word. But especially, it never spilled into any of my other work.
Despite the big two's bizarre shutting out in recent years of numerous creators with incredible skill and experience, you have been meeting with a deserved attention for your more recent work with Archie Comics. Archie has always been surprisingly experimental, and their longevity speaks for itself. In the minds of some fans, your working on those properties fits like a glove, actually. Despite the many other major icons you've handled previously, does this chance to help tell the tales of Archie, Jughead and the rest appeal at all to your inner fan?
What caused Marvel and DC to boot me out of their fold is a mystery to me. On my website, years ago, I speculated about this in depth and I came up with nine or so possible reasons, but they were - and are still - all speculation. I HAD to speculate, because the companies never gave me a reason, and the things they DID express to me seemed quite self-contradictory.
Politics (not spirituality) was just one of my speculations. My liberal/progressive views might have seemed dangerous to the power elite after 9/11/01 (however, it seems I'm being proven more and more correct with every passing year). Other of my speculations included ageism, trendism, cronyism, personal grudges, page rates, and some others I don't recall off-hand. However, I don't know what the real reason is, and I probably never will.
As for Archie: I remember reading and enjoying Archie when I was a kid, but I was always more attracted to the adventure, heroic, and super-hero comics. I can't say that I was ever a "fanatic" about Archie like I was about, for instance, Batman. I never had a desire to draw Archie, either, because I wanted to draw in what I considered to be a more "realistic" and dramatic style, ala Neal Adams, et al. So, when I hooked up with Archie Comics via a chance meeting with Mike Pellerito (Archie Comics president) at a convention, I just saw it as a job opportunity, since the title I was working on at the time was drawing to a close and I anticipated needing the work.
Well, I've been very happy to discover that I enjoy drawing for Archie much more than I would have dreamed, for four main reasons:
1) I discovered that the Archie drawing style is much more malleable than I thought, and as long as one maintains the same basic formulas for the characters' faces and body proportions, everything else can be more or less realistic or dramatic and it will still look like classic Archie.
2) Now that I've professionally drawn thousands of comics pages over 23 years, I find that I can enjoy drawing "mundane" situations and "talking heads" scenes just about as much as I enjoy drawing cosmic battle scenes and muscular anatomy; the storytelling's the thing, and every page has its own dynamic design.
3) I didn't know when I started with Archie that the story lines from Michael Uslan and Paul Kupperberg were going to be so interesting and profound, nor did I know that we'd be getting published in a magazine format with such fantastic production values. I feel that we're really breaking new ground!
4) Archie is a quintessential American icon, with a great pedigree and publishing history, and they seem to really value my contribution.
I just think that success deserves to result from passion. While you have been passed over by the whims of the current powers that be at certain publishing houses, your work still speaks for itself, as does your ethic. And I think it does show in the Archie stuff, that on some level you do seem to be enjoying it.
Yes, there are other things I want to do professionally, besides comics. Mainly, I'd like to finish my prose novel, then illustrate it, then have it published, one way or another. Then, I'd like to finish writing (and then publish) a book of my short prose stories, also illustrated, then a book of my poetry, also illustrated. Someday sooner or later, I'll forego all my other paying work in order to concentrate on these projects.
I've also always wanted to paint fiction novel book cover illustrations. I've done precious little of that, so far. And, I've never worked for the movie industry in any capacity. Haven't even approached any film studios; never looked for that kind of work, yet.
As for Marvel and DC, I'd be happy to work with them again, when and/or if the offer came and if I was able to fit it into my schedule. To me, none of what happened is anything personal; I'm a commercial artist as well as an idealistic one, and when I'm being commercial, I accept any work that pays well enough. There's very little that I wouldn't do for the right compensation; I wouldn't illustrate porn or political or other manifestos which offend me too much but, otherwise, I'm easy to work with, and as long as my clients don't mind my honesty, we can get along just fine.
I wonder if maybe you are just too logical for the business. But if sequential art had not panned out for you at all, what do you imagine that the parallel reality Norm Breyfogle would be doing with himself? (Other than scribing poetry!) Essentially, what outside of the Arts maintains your interests?
What would be the most likely alternate reality Norms' professions? Here's some possibilities, in descending order of my opinion of their likelihood):
"fine" or "gallery" artist
athlete; then, physical education instructor and/or personal trainer
Something else I have wondered about- judging from your dealer's site, as well as the many goodies up for grabs through your own website, you seem willing to part with much of your work. Are there though, any particular pieces of yours that you are especially proud of- to the point of their remaining in your own collection indefinitely?
Simply put: no. Everything but my soul is up for sale, and I've already sold almost all of the comics work I produced up to about 4 years ago. I'm a working man. I have no support other than that which I can generate from my own work...no rich relatives, no stocks or savings bonds, no real investments at all at this point... just me. Been that way more or less for 25 years, except for my house I owned in California that I sold a decade ago. And, I'm not in debt; I paid all of that off, on my own. I refuse to immorally slough off my own debt onto others, as so much of our culture is willing to do.
Ya know, I've actually heard before that Hitchcock was one of the first major directors to utilize storyboards for his films, so he surely put tremendous thought into the construction of his visuals, even prior to actual filming. And it is one thing to succeed at survival, but to do so while bringing so much wonderful art to the world in the doing, well that's just incredible. I guess as our dialogue comes close to its end, one other bit I'm sure many fans would appreciate your sharing- what's your literal creative space like? Do you put together a specific atmosphere for yourself, movie in the background and a bowl of snacks, music and ambiance, etc? Are you the sort who can chat on the phone while inking, or does solitude play a bigger role in your practice?
I can't chat while working; way too distracting to me.
Norm, it has been a rock-solid honor and privilege to share these words with you. Thank you, sincerely, from the full A.N.A gang, for putting up with my infernal questions and sharing. Your many fans already know how much you have helped lead this medium in terms of graphic innovation, but your candidness and honesty are totally icing on the devil's food cake. Thank you, sir. But before we part ways so that you can return to your bread and butter and satori, what upcoming projects might readers look forward to?
My hands are chock full with 50 pages of Archie comics per month for an indefinite amount of time (basically as long as I wish to continue; they've expressed that they'd like to keep me employed for the rest of my life!), so, other than my eventual finishing of my novel, and short story and poetry books (none of which are on any kind of schedule), that's it for now.
And, it's been a pleasure for me as well, Richard!
To see Norm's latest work, check out the good Archie Comics.
To see some recent non-Archie work, enjoy the Munden's Bar story for comicmix.
For all else Norm, including commissions and forum fun, go to his website.