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Duet On ‘Solo’, Part One: Tim Sale

Published between 2004 and 2006, Solo was a DC Comics anthology series with an innovative twist: each issue was created from the ground up by a single cartoonist and collaborators of his own choosing. Edited by DC’s head art director Mark Chiarello (Wednesday Comics, DC: The New Frontier), the series offered artists a platform to control their visions completely in the form of original stories, unfettered access to DC’s library of characters, and without regard to continuity or other publishing concerns that affect the creation of a typical DC superhero book. Although Solo spotlighted the work of such talented and popular creators as Darwyn Cooke, Tim Sale, Paul Pope and Michael Allred, the series was cancelled after just 12 issues.

Even in a time when the superhero comics were experimenting wildly with structure and style, Solo stood apart and remains one of the best and most interesting mainstream series to emerge from the early years of this century. In this first installment of Duet on Solo, writers Sean Witzke and Matt Seneca take an extremely close look at the first issue of Solo, created by Tim Sale.Sean Witzke: Hey everybody, I’m Sean Witzke. Matt Seneca and I are going to spend the next 12 posts discussing all 12 issues of DC Comics’ 2004-06 anthology series Solo. Now ComicsAlliance gets to have its own version of the Anne Hathaway/James Franco 2011 Academy Awards:

Matt Seneca: Okay! So Solo! Do you mythologize the superhero genre in the mid-2000s the same way I do? Because I see this book as the crystallization of a moment that was really the high point as far as mainstream comics in the 21st century go. For The Uninitiated: Solo was the brainchild one of the smartest guys in the DC offices, art director Mark Chiarello, who pushed an auteur comic onto the stands underneath the DC logo every two months. 48 pages, no ads, $4.95 per issue and actual good artists with a relatively large amount of artistic freedom and unlimited access to the company’s library of characters. If it sounds good, that’s because it was. But you still didn’t buy it — at 12 issues and out, it was too good to be true for very long.

SW: No one bought all 12 issues. My shop stopped ordering it after issue #5. I think that happened everywhere. I don’t really think of it as a superhero book, really, it’s kind of just the most interesting/promising vanity project in mainstream comics, maybe ever? At least in the 2000s, it’s Chiarello trying to do as much good as he can with his position at DC.

MS: It’s important to note the milieu of the book — this is a superhero company’s release, with superheroes on the covers, and it wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a Batman story in almost every issue. What makes it special is that it managed to be so many other, probably more interesting things beside — but Solo is inextricably tied to the worst, schlockiest parts of corporate comics, and I think that background is what makes it so special. It’s like Tupac — a rose that grew from concrete.

SW: I think that is true, but what makes each issue interesting is that only two of them are really 100% superhero — Brendan McCarthy and Michael Allred, and I think those are probably the two most “whole” issues. But for nearly everyone else the superhero stuff is secondary to the stuff they really want to be drawing, or is done in such a fashion that it’s barely superhero. A lot of the Batman stories — Tim Sale, Scott Hampton, Sergio Aragones — are only there so they can do a screwball comedy thing or a drama, and editorial probably asked them for a Batman story in there somewhere, so they could reprint it in Batman: Black and White Volume 3 down the line. Tupac is a rose that grew from Digital Underground’s dance section.

MS: This brings me to the main bone I have to pick with what — let me reiterate! — with what I think is an absolutely wonderful comic series. So often in this book, the superhero material shines, or at least satisfies on all the levels it’s intended to (few though they might be). As it should: all these artists spent careers, or large chunks of them at least, figuring out how to do costumed action effectively. With maybe one or two exceptions, it’s why they all got the Solo gig. But when the material branches out into more personal, “pet project” type stuff, the results are a lot more… varied. Some of the most transcendent moments in Solo happen far outside the bounds of superheroes, but there’s some really wretched stuff going on in the same place. Those Batman stories, though? All at least solid. I think this is important to note because Solo is really really special as a superhero anthology specifically — definitely the best one of the modern age — but put it in the wilds and start comparing it to all the regular old “comics anthologies” you can find and it gets less impressive fairly quickly.

SW: I think a lot of that is because the people they chose were entirely selected as Artists first, and in the definition of artist split between the Corbens, Allreds, and Bernets who can do it all on their own, and the guys who are great at what they do but are freelancers who are used to working off scripts. So the nature of those two and bringing in writers and guys writing who have maybe never done it before – the quality level is going to get very uneven. Even the issues that are really great, with one voice, those are still uneven. No one here is used to delivering Eightball (to be fair Daniel Clowes was never used to it, but he was consistent). I think everyone approached this as an art showcase, and they mean art the way that a DC editor thinks of art, all of them finally getting paid big two money to mess around.

MS: Yeah, it’s got it’s share of the innocuousness that plagues all the modern superhero anthologies, for sure. Guys unsure of what they’re allowed to get away with but all visibly geeked to be drawing the Flash for real. Chiarello did a great job editing this book, don’t get me wrong, but I do wonder about the parameters he provided — how clear was he with the artists about what they were allowed to do? I guess it’s as likely as not in DC’s byzantine corporation that even he didn’t know.

SW: I think that Howard Chaykin and Richard Corben seem to have been given no direction at all and it really helps them. Those feel like Chaykin and Corben comics. I think that McCarthy knew he was going to be able to do whatever because it was getting cancelled. Everyone else, there’s a feeling that they’re unsure of the boundaries of the thing, or that they didn’t want to test them.

MS: Something’s being held back. Which, let’s be honest, is the case with 99% of superhero comics. But Solo, the very nature of the thing, makes its readers confront that fact, because it’s glaringly obvious. Which… maybe that’s a good thing? It doesn’t enhance the reading experience, but with something as seamy as superhero comics maybe it’s nice when you can see the seams in ways besides “they used how many inkers on this page?”

OK, so we both agree that this is a comic that was… well, inconsistent is putting it nicely, but we can also say Solo played host to plenty of bad comics. So why are we writing about it, why is it still so worthy of note?

SW: I think that it was always more good than bad. Even the worst issues, of guys who aren’t artists I’m interested in at all, do something interesting with their book. Like, I didn’t know that Tim Sale was actually a great colorist. First, I’d say that just the idea of a big corporate office wanting to put out great looking comics, that show off the people that work on them, is worth commending and noting. Secondly, I think at least one of these 12 issues is one of the best comics — period — released in the last ten years. And it is something that, in the light of what DC editorial is now, is long gone from the way they create comics anymore, despite the formula (and some of the team) actually paying off (in a different way) for DC in Wednesday Comics a few years later. This is a relic, from a time where editorial not only cared who drew these things, but gave them relatively free reign as long as Chaykin and Bernet didn’t draw any period sex or anything.

MS: Yeah, the notion that this was a company making a commitment to… if not “excellence,” then at least “really goodness” is what still keeps it important for me. Like I mentioned, I see the early- to mid-2000s as a time of great — and wasted! — potential for superhero comics, a time when a lot of different approaches were being tried and a lot of what had worked once but then stopped doing so was being discarded. It’s not the best corporate comic from that time period — if I want something that truly manages to transcend its dreary origins, I’ll grab All Star Superman. But that book is great just because they got great guys to do it. Solo is about the artists first and foremost, sure, but not exclusively. It’s also a big signifier that things weren’t always the way they are now, that just a few years ago they were making mainstream comics that prized aesthetics over anything else. Plus, those cover designs, son. Those cover designs.

SW: So for the first issue, Solo started off with Tim Sale. A guy who is known for collaborating with Jeph Loeb on superhero books, mainly on Batman comics that ran deep with noir-style imagery. Sale’s a weird choice to start the series off with, right? I always wondered if the release schedule of these things came from who delivered first.

MS: On the contrary, I think Sale is a really safe choice. Too safe, probably, but I can see why they started it off with him. You mentioned it — he has the biggest DC backlist to his credit of anyone who worked on the series, he was the biggest known quantity… and he’s really artistically unthreatening. Paul Pope might have drawn close to the same amount of sales if they’d led the series off with his issue, but he’s “artsy,” and this was back before he had even drawn Batman for more than a few pages. I think the Sale issue is kinda taking one for the team, making the best appeal the book could make to the broadest possible spectrum of the superhero market, vaguely cheesecakey Catwoman cover and all. It looks like a pretty superhero comic, and I bet that’s what Chiarello wanted to rope-a-dope the biggest percentage of “DC Nation” he could into thinking this was.

The title page of this issue makes a point of the fact that Sale’s known for his “emphasis on storytelling.” Which… um, duh, you’re a comic book artist? But it pinpoints the historical moment Sale comes from, which is doing his kind of comics up against the ’90s Image guys, who probably gave the form the *least* emphasis on storytelling it’s ever seen.

SW: I’ve seen that phrase whenever they discuss Frank Quitely or Darwyn Cooke too. It’s DC copy for “no splash pages.” I’ll tell you, I do like that there’s a cheesecakey Catwoman cover and then the opening volley of this hard-to-sell, oddball in a corporate market series, is a screwball comedy thing that desexualizes Catwoman completely written by Darwyn Cooke.

Click to enlarge

MS: Yeah! You think it desexualizes her too, huh? I was noticing the same thing: there’s all this innuendo and double entendre as Batman and Catwoman chase each other across the rooftops, but it’s never actually referring to sex or even like, dating. It’s just weird linguistic ways of describing the action. What that story made me notice for the first time is how despite the fact of Sale’s non-Image-esque “emphasis on storytelling” (so weird typing that), he’s still following the Image artists as far as drawing people who are just not attractive in any way. It’s weird, because this Catwoman story, and a few others in here too, are totally done in the sleaziest PG-13, breasts-floppin’, cheesecake style possible… but it’s not like the drawings are remotely sexy. He draws people with weird faces, wildly inaccurate anatomy, and not going off the Jack Cole Playboy proportions either. It’s like he’s conceptualizing what we call “sexy” as grotesque. But maybe I’m giving Sale too much credit?

SW: Maybe. I can see the “storytelling” thing through because that Catwoman story, and everything in here, he actually deals with space in a really meat-and-potatoes way. There’s actual geography and the figures actually move around in the places he’s placed them, not sliding along backgrounds. I think the material here, pretty much all of it, is just so damn boring outside of the screwball short. There’s nothing to grab onto so you’re stuck with judging it by what he’s drawing and… well, he’s not really dropping any jaws with anything here.

MS: Yeah. I mean, it’s really pretty comics. His ink washes on the second story are lovely, and the color job he does on the Brian Azzarello noir thriller are amazing in spite of the fact that he’s colorblind.

SW: The colors are really great, actually. He’s great through the whole thing, I do have to say. That is insane. The watercolors in the Jeph Loeb thing, and the Ben-Day dots for Supergirl.

MS: Yeah! The way Dave Stewart upgrades the Ben-Day from Silver Age 16-color in the flashbacks to Bronze Age 64-color in the present-day scenes on the Supergirl strip is so wonderful. I think that’s the best thing about that story, actually. Great colors all around — I mean, if Solo was to just be the eye-candy superhero comic, this does the job perfectly. It’s fluffy and gorgeous. But those stories, oh boy. The Catwoman opener is just sorta mediocre, a throwaway, then you get a Sale-penned “noirish” thing that makes absolutely no sense, then a Supergirl story that treads on every last creaky floorboard of cliché possible, and by the time you get to Jeph Loeb doing an “outtake” from the two’s Superman For All Seasons collaboration it’s just complete and utter pap. Just pabulum. It’s so bad, like laugh-out-loud awful writing.

SW: I think the Azzarello short plays to his strengths really well even though it’s not a remotely decent story. I think I like the Catwoman piece more than you because it’s so light and a Catwoman/Batman story should be something light and fast and fun, especially in the climate of ultra-serious Batman this came out in. I think the Azz story also has the best payoff, with that last image.

MS: I agree that it picks up toward the end, and there is some really stunning imagery in that Azzarello story. My favorite piece in this whole comic, though, is actually the last story, this three-page throwaway romance thing. The whole issue feels like Sale trying to just do romance comics, but he has to do it through all these genre filters, and that story… it’s quiet, the blacks are spotted really well, there’s this unobtrusive two-tone coloring, and I mean, he actually hits something genuine, beyond just genre clichés. Not some amazing note of human truth, but when I reread that story for the first time in a couple years, I was like “oh yeah, that’s happened to me since I read this comic last.” I think that short is a really good comic for what it is.

SW: Yeah, everything here is kind of romance — Tom and Jerry, Young Romance, Tales of Love Gone Wrong — and the last one is kind of an autobiographical vignette. I can’t really say the last piece stood out much for me, especially because I think that in Dawyn Cooke’s issue he does something really similar but in a much more successful manner. It feels pretty cliché, next to the rest of the clichés in this thing. I think I might have just been tired of them by the time I got to that story.

MS: Yeah, and not for nothing, but this comic is a grind to get through, even though it’s so pretty. It’s the kind of thing where you just wish they’d do a version without the words. Sale’s a good enough storyteller that material this well-worn would still come across that way.

SW: I think it’s a good baseline for the series because there’s a lot of cliché coming, really. I mean, even the best work here, there’s not much twisting of material that’s going to happen in this series. Everyone kind of sticks to the standards, if we’re going to go with Jazz metaphors.

MS: Appropriate enough. I think Sale’s issue is also a pretty good example for the artists who came later. I mean, every page of this thing is ready for the gallery, and the book is totally set up to accommodate that, with the sketches featured on the stories’ title pages and everything. It’s almost more like an exhibition catalog than your typical “one man anthology,” at least in the way we use that term now with Clowes and Michael DeForge and whoever else. It’s like a primer on “here’s what Tim Sale does in brief, and here’s him doing it really impressively.” Dude doesn’t write comics, and he doesn’t draw ones that are particularly deep or meaningful either. But he makes great pictures, and that strength is isolated and amplified. It’s the best thing about this comic, as it should be. But the promise is there for the guys who’d come later: if you do things besides draw pretty, we can make that happen for you too.

SW: It is a total showcase. And as the series goes on, it’s interesting to look at these things from an auteurist perspective. I think Pope, Cooke, and Chaykin are the only guys who do the entire book by themselves (though Pope has color-assists), but I would also say that a bunch of the other issues are single vision books, for better or worse. Sale’s issue, you see the template. I don’t think anyone else even tried to do the chapter titles. Everyone tackles it differently. As the series goes on, everyone starts taking the chance to talk to the reader as well, which is something I think that Sale would have never even thought of including in his issue. Things get a lot more playful, with content and with the form.

MS: Like I said, this feels like the “carrot” issue. We get the stick later, but for now it’s pretty straight ahead. “See, wasn’t that nice, an extra long comic full of your favorite slightly misogynistic clichés as illustrated by one of the fan-favorite artists who’s actually got chops?” Maybe that’s too mean. This isn’t bad, really. And it’s actually admirable, in a weird way, the approach that Chiarello takes. He gives Sale the Batman story, the Loeb collaboration, the noir stuff. He could have stretched it, maybe tried bringing in a more adventurous writer or pushing Sale to take on a type of story he hadn’t tried before. But then this wouldn’t really be a Tim Sale comic. The best editors understand their contributors’ strengths and allow them to really be known. It’s almost immaterial that this comic isn’t better, and not just because “how much better could it really be.” It respects the audience by giving them what they expect in high style, and it respects its artist just as much.

SW: And in the next issue, things get real — real fast.

Solo #1: Tim Sale can be found in back-issue bins in finer comics shops everywhere.

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