Tim Sale has put his stamp on a lot of comics’ biggest characters, his work with writer Jeph Loeb is amongst some of the best to come out of the printing press in the last 20 years. The work of the duo on collections like Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman For All Season, Spider-Man Blue, Daredevil Yellow, and their recently completed Captain America White, have not just satisfied comic book readers, but influenced the makers of the live-action movie counterparts of the characters. Talking to Tim Sale though, who appears this weekend at Fan Expo Canada in Toronto, you can tell that he’s a thoughtful guy that cares very much about the state of his art form. We talked about how the industry has changed for better and worse, his orderly way of managing his con commitments, and his memories of the dear departed Darwyn Cooke.
Nerd Bastards: I wanted to start with kind of a general question about going to cons like Fan Expo, what do you get out of it as a creator, and what do you get out of interacting with fans?
Tim Sale: It’s two basic things, one is making money and the other is interacting with fans. It’s also a good way to get out of my cubby hole and do some travelling; most of us who do this for a living are alone a good deal of the time. That really suits my disposition, but it’s actually better for me to actually get out a little bit. And it’s been a number of years now – about seven or eight years – since I’ve been up to Toronto, and it’s time to come back!
NB: That’s usually the answer whenever I talk to artists like you, because obviously what you do is very solitary, this is one of the few chances, on the job, that you get to interact with people.
Sale: Exactly so. When I go to a con I always work under a time constraint. Unlike other artists I don’t do a lot of drawing ahead of time, so I don’t arrive with a lot of commissions I’ve done for people. I do them all right there, and I do from five to eight a day, but it’s on a timer just so that I can make sure I get them all done. Sometimes that works in my favour and sometimes it doesn’t. You know when I started working on a timer, it was way back when I was working on the Heroes TV show, and there were a lot of people that wanted something, and it wasn’t always necessarily that they wanted anything big. I started with 10 minute drawings and that was a real exciting, but exhausting, experience by the end of the day because of how much you have to think before you get started. You can’t just jump into it and hope it turns into something. And you can’t get very elaborate.
NB: There are no erasers with water paints.
Sale: No there isn’t. Somebody also suggested to me that I hand out, like they do at Disneyland, a piece of paper at the beginning of the day, with a time on it, and you come back at that time and I draw for you right in front of you, and some people like to see that. So there’s a little sort of theatre to it sometimes, and people ask if I get nervous doing that and I don’t for whatever reason, but part of the reason is that I’ve got my head down, I’m not looking at them or anything. Sometimes I’ll look up, and other people just wandering by will stop and there will a crowd around, which dissipates immediately once that drawing is done, and the whole thing starts again. Another thing is that I’m not one of those guys that can talk and draw at the same time. So I set up different times during the day where I’m just going to be signing books, and not doing any drawing, and then I can talk. Stuff like that, the first hour and the last hour of each day, I set aside time to just do that. And depending on how the day goes there maybe time in the inbetween hours. Most of the time, I kind of hope not though because then I’ll be busy and do more drawings and make more money, and make more people happy.
NB: I think you sound like the most organized person in Artist Alley…
Sale: Well, I had to do something because when Heroes hit, it was nuts. I asked around, and this is somebody else’s idea not mine, to start it up like that and it really worked out. That’s died down because I was doing 15 of those a day. That’s a lot of brain work, and the most exhausting part is the brain work and not the drawing work.
NB: I did read an interview where you were with Jeph [Loeb], and I think it was about Captain America White, where there was some discussion about things that you couldn’t draw, and you mentioned how you had gotten a bunch of books for one of the series you did so that you could try and draw some thing accurately, but it sounded like you kind of gave up that idea…
Sale: I did.
NB: Instead, you said, you were going to focus on the spirit of a thing, can you talk a bit about that?
Sale: Sure. For instance, there was one book I did with Jeph called Hulk Gray where there’s an opening scene in a closed for the night gas station in the middle of the desert in Arizona or wherever the hell they were, and I wanted a kind of old fashioned, 40s kind of thing. So I went out and got references for that, and that was kind of fun, but it was one scene in a book that was essentially Betty and the Hulk in the desert for most of it. [For Captain America White] you look at World War II, and there are people that spend their lives in the minutia of what was on a German soldier’s uniform in late March, not early March, of 1941, and that eventually just wore me down and froze me for the reason it took so long to do the book until I finally came to the conclusion to just say, “get the feeling for it.” It’s like how I got the feeling for Smallville Kansas by looking at Norman Rockwell’s work. Rockwell worked in the northeast, but it had a lot of small town flavour and that’s what was important, and no one’s ever come up to me and said, “Dude, I’m from Kansas, this is nothing like Kansas.” It’s kind of like that line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the man becomes the legend, you print the legend.” We’re in the business of printing legends. Touches of reality can be a wonderful thing, but when you’re biting off something like World War II, it was just too too much.
NB: I do always wonder, and I guess it depends on the artist, where you draw the line where you get so obsessed with the accuracy that you’re getting in your own way. I remember when James Cameron’s Titanic came out and he was talking about how he got the dishes in the dining room from the same company that made the dishes for real Titanic, and I thought to myself that’s a great detail, but if James Cameron didn’t tell that to a documentary crew, we wouldn’t know that.
Sale: Yeah, maybe half a dozen people on the face of the Earth would even guess that is true, but if by becoming obsessive it helps their art then okay, but it can be an overkill. I know people who are anti-gun, but have pistols in their house to use as reference. I know that Frank Miller has a collection of model cars because he thought he was terrible at drawing cars and thought it was a way to get better and see them 360 degrees, which I think is great because I hate drawing cars too. It’s a balance, little touches of accuracy I find is what really works. The rest is to try and get the feeling of it being accurate.
NB: You’ve had a fairly long career in comic books, and I’m trying to get a feel for how the industry has change because so many things have happened in the last 10 years from the shift to digital to the explosion of comic book movies, from your own point of view, how have things changed?
Sale: Well, I think those are all good points, and I agree with them. For me, I don’t colour, and I don’t draw with the computer, so my interaction with the digital is to use the internet to look up reference material, and to scan art. As far as the other points you brought up, the other thing is I don’t read comics anymore. I’m one of those people that has been driven away from comics, primarily by the big two doing what they’ve been doing for, in my view, short term gains. You’ve got Rebirth now, and look, I love drawing Batman, and I’m getting to do Batman variant covers, but how many of these have we got to go through? I find nothing that connects me to what I liked about comics in the first place. Everything’s too busy, everything’s too big, or the panels are too small with too many words, the artist is all over the place, storytelling is not a very high priority. So because of that I don’t get to the store much, but I’m sure there are other comics outside of the big two that I would really enjoy, I just don’t find them, and what’s really common in the industry is that many artists are the same way. It’s different with the writers I would imagine because they’ve got to have their finger on the pulse and things that we don’t. I feel very spoiled by all my time with Jeph. Jeph knew how to tell a story well, he knew the importance of storytelling in comics as it’s particular to comics, and he knew that I was good at it as well. He would leave a lot with me because he knew I could pick it up and run with it, and I just don’t see that in superhero comics very often. I was going to talk about the passing of Darwyn Cooke. He was the last guy that really got me excited, because he was a forward thinker but he had a retro feel and approach to his work ethic, which was tremendous. He had just rock solid sense about how to write a story, what was important and what was superfluous. And just the joy in it.
NB: It must be kind of hard because I can’t remember if Toronto is Darwyn’s hometown or not, but he’s certainly associated with the town because he’s a big, Canadian comic book talent, but that must make it hard coming up to Fan Expo too because he was usually there.
Sale: Yeah, I can’t remember where he was born, but he spent a good deal of his years in Toronto. A very proud Canadian, and we got along really great. I wish we could have worked together more and been a little freer in what we were able to do than the one Superman book we did together. I miss him terribly, but he was the last guy that really excited me.
NB: And I remember reading Superman: Confidential and thinking how well you two complimented each other. It’s not like you had exactly the same style, but it felt like you had that one foot in the past, while having the other in the here and now, you both had a similar voice it felt like.
Sale: And he believed, as did I, that comic books are mostly about the art and not about the writing. Of course the writing is terribly important, and he used to lecture that if you take the comparison of the movies, movies are written like the comics are, but the artists does the lighting, the electrics, the props, the wardrobe, and everything else that goes into making a movie. And all that’s true, but some people are better at some things and not as good as other things. A writer ought to be able to recognize that and not just write what they’re going to write for anybody and write to an artist’s strengths and not their weaknesses or things they fucking can’t stand to draw. That was also hard for me, through no fault of Jeph’s, but there was always a lot of people to draw on Captain America, and I don’t like drawing crowds. (Laughs) It was pretty tough getting around it.
NB: So what is that you look at when you’re approached about a new project? What challenges are you looking for as artist? What gets you excited?
Sale: Well, a lot of that is something I can’t put my finger on, but there are a few things. One is a sense of heart, which includes heartbreak, but it’s more an emotional reason to care about what’s going on. And just in the nuts and bolts of it, just a visual noir sensibility. I’ve always wanted to do a longer form noir book, which would probably mean a creator-owned book, in a kind of 1940s milieu with heartbreak and drama, and beautiful women and tough men, things like that. There are clichés to that form of film noir with femme fatales and the dumb men that fall for them, and I’d like to play around with that. Plus, I think you have to balance whatever kind of drama and darkness there is with a sense of humour.