We’re not sure who first compared Tim Sale to Norman Rockwell, the 20th-century painter who captured the soul of America at its most idyllic. If the topic of Tim Sale has come up at your local comic book store or while browsing a longbox collection of treasures Batman or superman Problems in his memory, it’s probably not the first time you’ve heard it. And yet, looking at their art side by side is not an aesthetically obvious analogy. Rockwell’s attention to light and shadow, photorealistic detail, and angelic figures seem to have little in common with Sale’s daring, dramatic lines. But it can be this evocative power that invites comparison.
While Sale and Rockwell took different technical approaches to accomplish this, both artists shared the same mission: to express through art the indescribable sense of wonder and possibility associated with Americana. love of family; freedom of the press; the empowerment of women; the safety of our wayward children – these were all ideas expressed through Rockwell’s favorite themes. Whether these values truly represent America or just what we hope America aspires to is a thought experiment inspired by art itself. But these ideals of a caring, healthy America are precisely those embodied by our nation’s greatest icon: Superman.
Like Rockwell’s America, Superman doesn’t necessarily reflect America as it is, but America as it can be. For most of its existence, Superman’s name has been synonymous with “The American Way” because we believed in what America should represent: equality, honesty, and empathy for all. And if that’s the end goal of Rockwell’s art and Superman’s America, no one has quite grasped what it means to live in the world the Man of Steel has fallen in love with like Tim Sale Superman for all seasons.
Told from the perspective of those closest to Superman – Pa Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang –Superman for all seasons tells the story of a young hero who becomes disillusioned in his quest to help humanity on its journey to greater potential, only to find his love rediscovering his fear when he returns to heartland America. Superman for all seasons is an artist’s book that sells the beauty of America through its simple yet expressive, expansive landscapes and the expression of its characters’ simple yet emotional faces, always conveying emotion over pure realism. What’s Rockwellian about Tim Sale’s? Superman for all seasons is not his style, but what he achieves: art that reminds you of everything you’ve ever been told about what America was like and what America should be like.
Of course, Rockwell’s America was an imperfect, oversimplified picture that often failed to take into account the experiences of marginalized American communities and could justifiably be accused of glossing over both history and the reality of American life. Like many artists, Rockwell’s perspective was limited and could have benefited from a broader view.
Nor did Sale directly address the flaws in this whitewashed vision of America. That came later. But before Sale earned his reputation as DC’s Rockwell, he was a master of fear. While his Superman art is imbued with hope and optimism, the distorted, sinister forms he uses to illustrate Gotham City and its denizens tell a different story. As good as he was at conjuring up the American dream, Tim Sale was even more notorious for his ability to conjure up a nightmare.
Beginning with the annual Haunted Knight specials in Legends of the Dark Knight series, Tim Sale quickly became inseparable from Halloween in Gotham City, and that’s how we got involved Batman: The Long Halloween, a twisted thirteen-month carousel through Gotham’s greatest villains; and an intricately organized mob mystery that haunts Batman fans to this day. We felt the heat radiating from Johnny Vitti’s wedding as flames erupted around Selina Kyle and Bruce’s chemistry. We lost ourselves in the Joker’s jagged smile that seemed to darken his entire face. We even felt, perhaps for the first time, the wailing loneliness of canal resident Solomon Grundy. No wonder Sale had a relationship with him That Long Halloween spawned sequels and spin-offs spanning decades in his uniquely stylized Gotham City until just months before his death.
However, in my opinion there is only one comic in DC history that truly captures the breadth of Tim Sale. The hopeful highs of Superman and the murky lows of Gotham, all in one story – won that re-examines Clark as a symbol of America by presenting him with his identity as an immigrant.
It’s not as famous as Superman for all seasons or The Long Halloween. And how could it be? Both stories are at the top of any recommended list for readers interested in DC’s two most enduring icons. But once you walk through those front doors, look no further for the full sale experience Superman Confidential. The first arc in this series reunites Tim Sale with his close friend, the brilliant and deeply missed Darwyn Cooke, to apply the nightmares he inflicted on Batman to Superman’s sense of alienation and lost legacy. How does Superman deal with the fears and insecurities that defined the illustrated horror of The Haunted Knight? With fear and isolation taking root in his heart, can Superman, Sale’s artistic symbol of American idealism, continue to exist as he does? Or is it impossible to get a full picture of America and the values we instill in it without the immigration experience?
It is here, in a story simply called “Kryptonite,” where the artistic messages of Superman for all seasons and Haunted Knight find synthesis and present a message of perseverance and self-determination in the face of our greatest fears. Rockwell’s America may never have really existed, except perhaps in our own hearts. But it’s Superman’s symbol and his brilliant expression through artists like Tim Sale that makes us believe it can be possible if we’re willing to work for it. Let’s not let him down.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly “Ask the Question” column and writes for DCComics.com about television, movies, comics and superhero history. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find it in the DC community as a HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.