Tim Sale

"Comics are all about exaggeration for effect."
Interview by Asher Penn

Tim Sale at Golden Age Collectables, Seattle, Washington

The comic book artist is appreciated by youngest of aesthetes. This would explain why at the age of 10, I was buying Batman comics because they were illustrated by Tim Sale. Coming to comics from the independent Black and White boom of the 80's Sale was launched into the mainstream with the best-seller Batman: The Long Halloween, made with longtime collaborator Jeff Loeb. Sale has since continued to work with publishers ranging from Marvel to Dark Horse bringing to each character and story his signature expressionistic dynamism.

You were born in Ithaca but you grew up in Seattle. What do your parents do?
When I was a kid my mom was a housewife—later she got active in feminist politics. My father was an English professor.
Were you encouraged to draw as a child? 
Yeah, I was encouraged to be creative. I was born in 1956, so this was sort of before parents started putting their kids’ drawings up on the refrigerator. I asked my dad to grade my drawings because he was a teacher. He always gave me a pretty good grade. 
How did you get into comics?
At first I was interested in adventure stories—vigilante characters like Robin Hood or Zorro. Then around ’62 we moved out to Seattle from Massachusetts. I don't remember it, but the story goes that my father bought me comics to keep my busy while we drove. I was in the back seat looking at pictures.

"Pebbles", 1976

Did your parents take you to art museums or stuff like that?
Not really. At some point in elementary school my parents enrolled me in campus art classes with other kids my age. They knew I was interested in drawing and thought I had something, but it was more just to be encouraging, good parents. It wasn't until much later that I was interested in art outside of illustrated children's books and comics. 
What kind of children’s books did you like?
E. H. Shepard who did Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows illustrations. John Tenniel who did the Alice In Wonderland books. Some of my earliest memories ever are of Beatrix Potter being read to me aloud.
What was your favorite Beatrix Potter book?
The Tale of Mr. Tod, which was scary. It actually gave me nightmares, but I was drawn to that. Even with Peter Rabbit there's tension because he's being a bad boy. He's told not to do something and goes and does it anyway. Then he gets in trouble, the farmer tries to catch him…there's a lot of drama.
Almost like a vigilante.
Well, running and jumping, trying to get away... Yeah, sure. 
Beatrix Potter’s drawings of animals were always very realistic.
She studied animals intensely. She didn’t make them anthropomorphic but imagined their lives as whatever creature they were. They were enhanced but still very much based on careful study.

Spider Man Blue, Marvel, 2002

When did you get into superhero comics?
At around 12 or 13. Before that, I had collected Archie. I remember being with my friends in the living room and getting antsy... “We have to go to the store, I've got to get some comics.”
Were you into DC or Marvel?
It was definitely Marvel. I made a personal decision after careful consideration that all the cool guys drawing worked at Marvel.
Everyone?
Everyone except for Neal Adams, which really pissed me off. I bought into Stan Lee’s, “We're good, they're bad,”line of bullshit and so I couldn't bring myself to buy anything that Neal did, which drove me nuts because he was clearly awesome.
What inspired you to pursue illustration?
When I graduated high school I went to University of Washington for a couple of years. I pretty much fucked around, except in the art classes, and really only the drawing classes. I loved life drawing; took to mediums like charcoal and disciplines like figure drawing. I think comics helped me a great deal with that. I was fascinated by the human body in a way that comic books really encouraged.
You moved to New York and went to SVA. What was it like there?
Well, I wish I had been a better student—I dropped out pretty quickly. My main reason for going to New York was to go to the John Buscema Art School, which was only a three month program. 
They would advertise in the back of Marvel comics, right? What was it? 
Well, Buscema called it a workshop. It was once a week and Buscema, Marie Severin and John Romita were the teachers. Each taught four classes, once a week, for a month.

Hulk Gray, Marvel, 2003

What was it about Buscema that you admired?
His Silver Surfer was the first work I saw with movement and dynamism in the anatomy, the human form. You know, comics are all exaggeration for effect, and Buscema really did something with the body that I’d never seen. 
What did you learn about comics there?
One of the things I learned was that it was more than just drawing. Comics involved storytelling, which I just couldn't grasp—how people move around, where they are moving around in, getting from panel to panel, opening a scene, closing a scene, that kind of thing—it baffled me. I remember when I left New York I figured I’d just be an inker. It turned out I was terrible at that too because I just wanted to redraw everything. So I gave it up for a number of years. 
What did you do during your hiatus?
I moved back to Seattle and just did various jobs.
How did you get back into drawing? 
My sister. She was looking for something to do and decided to publish me in a series of Christmas cards and fantasy illustrations. This was the early 80s and there was a big fantasy market from Lord of the Rings, Ursula K. Le Guin, and things like that.
How did it go?
I wasn't very disciplined about getting into it. It also turned out that nobody wanted to buy a black-and-white Christmas card. Still, during that three or four years I did a fair amount of drawing that I'm still pretty proud of.

Grey Archer Press, 1982

You’re color blind, right? How did you discover that?
I always had a suspicion but people kept telling me, “You just need to learn.” They thought I was scared of failing, which was true, but I was failing a lot more than I was succeeding, especially in comparison to my drawing. Then, one year I made my sister a Christmas card with Robin Hood on it. She asked why Robin Hood was green… I thought he was tan. That really opened her eyes, and mine, to the fact that I was actually colorblind.
Were there any good comic stores in Seattle?
Golden Age Collectibles at the Pike Place Market was the first comic store in Seattle. It was definitely the first comic store that I ever saw. I was a regular and got to know the guys working there. They knew that I did some drawings and at one point told me that Elfquest was expanding to publish other magazines and was looking for artists. When they were in town promoting Elfquest I showed them some work and got my first job as an inker on a magazine called MythAdventures.
What was MythAdventures?
MythAdventures was a fantasy series drawn and written by Phil Foglio. I was given a week to ink 27 pages. Phil also decided that he wanted to work double size, which was a lot of work, especially because I was doing a lot of crosshatching. The next thing after that was Thieves’ World. That was the first time I penciled in and inked and lettered anything. It was a huge learning process. I'm not very proud of it, but it was a lot of work that got me better very quickly.

MythAdventures, WaRP Graphics,1984

How important is lettering to you?
I don't think many artists are interested or concerned with lettering. When I was a kid I was very aware of letters I preferred. I had very distinct opinions about it as a 10-year-old. When I did Billi 99 and The Long Halloween I lettered the whole thing, but it always looked stiff in a certain way. Around that time I met Richard Starkings who was the first really successful computer colorist and letterist in comics. Richard figured out ways to build little differences into the programs that would look more hand-done. Richard believed that lettering is design and a part of the artwork, and created fonts based on that artist's hand lettering. Everything in my comics now is lettered by Richard.
Were Thieves’ World and MythAdventures both black-and-white?
Yes. Two of the biggest influences on me—two of the biggest books around in comics at that time—were both black and white: Love and Rockets and Cerebus. This was during the 80s, a period that later became termed “the black-and-white boom.” People had discovered that there was an alternative crowd that was interested in different, non-superhero stories. It followed New Wave which followed Punk. Anybody could do it: it could be self-published because it's only black-and-white and not gonna cost that much. 
Dark Horse was a part of that, right? How did you meet that crew?
I met them at the San Diego Comic-Con. At that time it was just in the basement of a hotel, but it was the show to go to. The first show that I went to I met Matt Wagner, Diana Schutz, Bob Schreck, and Barbara Randall, all of whom I ended up working with.

Grendel: Devil Child, Dark Horse, 1999

What did you find in common with them?
We all shared a love of mainstream comics but also embraced what comics could do outside of that. Matt's career is a really good example: he owns Grendel and Mage, comics that he created in the 80s that have been running since. They’ve always been successful enough that people want to publish them.
The Grendel you did with Diana Shutz, Devil Child, is incredible. 
As far as I know that’s one of the few stories Diana Shutz wrote. It's like splitting bullets for her to write. She had the idea for Devil Child for a long time in her own head when she approached me to do it, and it actually took me quite a while to do.
How come?
I didn’t want to be exploitive. The intensity of the story in Devil Child is rooted in the horrific way people can treat each other—it's not titillating at all. I had to put it down for a while, but I'm tremendously proud of it.

From Sex Magazine #7 Spring 2014
Labelled Comics