ComicBuzz Chats With Sarah Byam

With the Launch of the Kickstarter today from Clover Press for the hardcover edition of Tim Sale’s first full-length comic book work, the Eisner Award-nominated Billi 99. We are delighted to be joined by the writer of Billi 99, Sarah Byam.


Hi Sarah, it’s so nice to have you here with us.

We have to say that this interview has been a difficult one to do with Tim Sale having passed away. Talking about his work has brought back some memories of going into comic book stores and picking up the comics he worked on. We are sure his comics will continue to be loved by comic readers all over the world.


Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Sigh. The world is a smaller place without Tim in it, as a person, and an artist. That’s a tough place to start. Of course Tim is loved and mourned around the world.

There is a melancholy to realizing that there will be no more Tim Sale art.

But there are things yet to be discovered. His early work on Amazon and Grendel are worth collecting and this 200 pages of Tim Sale art, Billi 99 is not very well known. For a lot of fans, these pages will be entirely new. Looking at the visual storytelling, you can see how his art was evolving at the time. If you have read Billi 99, the colors by Jose Villarrubia will show you the book he wanted you to see.

I’m Sarah Byam. Tim Sale and I created Billi 99, which was first published by Dark Horse in 1991. I studied writing at Northern Michigan University, and fine art at the University of Michigan’s Center for Creative Studies. In 1987, I think it was, I found myself sitting in on an impromptu gathering of creatives, telling stories to the great William Messner-Lobes as he was drawing images of a frontiersman early in Michigan history. We were both fans of the oral storytelling tradition. After I finished one of the stories, he looked up and asked, “Do you have any more of these?”

I had a trunk full of them. Bill Messner-Loebs and his wife, Nadine, took me to my first comic book convention in Chicago. They’re pretty amazing people. They showed me a copy of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God which blew my mind.


Can you tell us about the origins of Billi 99?

My earliest memory took place in the middle of the 1967 Detroit summer uprisings. I was five, my brothers were toddlers, and my mother locked us in a car to stop a fight. Billi 99 is about a brave, foolish, and unstoppable young woman.

After more than 10 years of practice, Billi 99 was my first attempt at a novel about the places and people I grew up with, all tied together with the fortunes and misfortunes of Billi Chadam, the Sword of Toleado.


Who is Billi Chadam?

Billi was born into poverty and hardship, lifted up by Ray Chadam, and dumped right back into the cordoned-off ghetto just after his death. The only thing Billil left the mansion with was her father’s sword. As the Sword of Toleado, which she uses to protect her community, she is an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. We tried to make every character in the story as real, and individual as possible. Full of action, drama, mystery, despair, and just enough hope, Billi 99 is a story about a hero and her community.


Did you write a full script for Billi 99?

LoL, Billi 99 started out as a scrapbook. It was a pile of short stories and a stack of reference material. By the time Billi 99 was a manuscript, the dialogue held together but the panel descriptions were pretty thin. As Mike Grell’s assistant, I had the good fortune to transcribe Mike’s scripts from tape. Because he was the artist, his panel descriptions didn’t need to be very detailed. Mike already knew what he wanted to see.

By the time the Billi 99 script made it to Tim’s hands, it still needed better panel descriptions and layout. I don’t think in pictures. That was all Tim. Poor Tim, I drowned him in conversation, dialogue, photos, and reference books. He still pulled it off brilliantly.


How did Clover Press get involved with Billi 99?

Oh, that was a journey. I suppose every graphic novel is. In 2018, Tim, Patty Jeres, and I started trying to pull together a definitive version of Billi 99. Billi 99 is almost 200 pages of restored Tim Sale art that most of his fans have never seen. With a color, oversized, hardcover, square-bound edition, we hoped to create a version that would hold up on his bookshelf.

When Tim passed. We were so sad. I lost momentum, but Patty didn’t give up.

While many publishers were interested, at the time it became clear we would need to do fundraising for Jose to color the book. As an outreach to creators, we were invited to a dinner held by Kickstarter to share their support for small projects. Still, between us, Patty and I didn’t have the stamina to run a Kickstarter campaign. If Clover hadn’t wanted to help, we couldn’t have done this book. They have an efficient, expert incubation process as part of their business model. David and Hanna at Superfan Promotions handle publicity. At Clover Press, Hank, Robbie, and Kurtis manage social media, production, bonus rewards, printing, fulfillment, and more. Clover Press has a tight-knit relationship with Kickstarter. Everything runs quickly and smoothly. They remind me of a flash mob performance. It’s a quiet day, and someone shows up with a trumpet, a chair, and a music stand. Next a microphone. Next, a woodwind, some drums, more brass, and suddenly it’s a party with people dancing in the street! They are just that good.


How did Jose Villarrubia join the project?

Tim wanted Billi 99 to have a different color palate than his more mainstream work. Patty suggested Jose. Jose was so psyched, he was an instant yes! Absolutely! He and Tim had worked together before, not only did they love each other, but they loved working together. They worked together when they were young, and Billi 99 brought them full circle. As they were both masters of their craft, everything about their art evolved and yet they still worked together seamlessly.

To do a definitive version of Billi 99, we needed to put in a lot of elbow grease. Over time the duoshade had badly degraded, there was almost no original art left, and even the scans we had were uneven. Tim thought that Jose would be able to bring his sharp vision back into focus through his restoration and color art.


What was it like working with Tim?

A little intimidating. Tim, already on his way to being a master, was continuing to perfect his craft. As far as comics were concerned, I was just out of the gate. Yet he was kind and supportive. More than that, he was curious, which softened his otherwise sharp wit. And Tim knew so much more about comics and illustration than I ever will. He was also farther along as an artist. For example, my panel descriptions for the first few pages were simply “Billi rips down a wanted poster. She runs”. And our conversations went something like this:

TS: OK, but what do you want to see here?

SB: I want her to be moving powerfully, not out of fear.

TS: But what does that look like?

He poured so much of himself into Billi 99. Billi 99 was exhausting for him, but he never complained.


Was Tim happy with how Billi 99 turned out?

Tim loved Billi 99. It was the first comic of his that he showed to the woman who would become his wife. He was a feminist and very proud of it, but I know there were some disappointments. When the mini-series first came out, there were three Eisner nominations, one for best new series, but nothing specifically for his art. He deserved these nominations, and I should have made a fuss at the time.

Also, he wanted better production values. Tim was experimenting with painted duo-shade at the time. It was a halfway point in his painted art between black and white and the ink washes he would later become famous for. He painstakingly painted the two-tone duo-shade, but at that time, printing technology was not as advanced as his imagination.

With the chance to have Jose color Billi 99, we will finally have the version of Billi that Tim wanted us to see.


What can you tell us about the Clover Press edition of Billi 99?

We’re over the moon happy. This definitive edition of Billi 99 has great design elements, by Kurtis Findlay, with restoration by (Kurt, David, and Jose), lustrous colors by Jose, essays, tribute art, and a new cover illustration — they have even created a limited edition black and white to be paired with the color book as a package.


Do you have a favorite memory of Tim?

While we were working on the book, Tim, his then-girlfriend, and his parents came to my house for dinner. We were both pretty broke at the time, and we lived in the same neighborhood, so we met up in each other’s homes. I was especially impressed by how close he was to his folks. Dorothy, his mom, was a powerhouse. She was an activist for civil and women’s rights. So

strong! I think that’s what attracted Tim to Billi 99.

Years after the book was published, I started falling frequently. I broke my shoulder pretty badly. Out of the blue he reached out, asking “I heard what happened, what can I do to help?” I was taken aback a bit. We had stayed in touch off and on about Billi, but I didn’t realize that he was keeping tabs on me. That’s the kind of man he was.

Later, when things got tough trying to pull this version of Billi 99 together, Tim reminded me, “I am always Team Billi.”


Any message for the ComicBuzz readers?

Before Billi 99, one of my earliest friends in comics told me not to get swept under by the business side of the industry. “Whatever you do,” he said, “protect the art.”

We would like to say thank you to Sarah for chatting with us. We would like to wish Sarah and the whole of the Billi 99 team the best of luck with their Kickstarter.

Feel free to check out the Billi 99 Kickstarter.

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