Tim Sale will always be remembered as a comics legend whose art elevated the medium to new heights. In honor of his memory, Clover Press has launched a Kickstarter for a deluxe, hardcover edition of Billi 99, the seminal vigilante limited series co-created by Sale and writer Sarah Byam, now with colors by José Villarrubia. Originally published in 1991 by Dark Horse, Billi 99 confronts still-timely issues of government corruption and corporate greed. 

In Billi 99, Sale’s first graphic novel, eponymous teen vigilante Billi Chadam seeks to free her city from its oppressors. With her late father’s sword in hand, she tackles everyday monsters that are more vicious than the scariest myths and gives people hope even in constant darkness.

The Beat can exclusively share commentary from Byam about how Billi 99 came to be. She said, “From Piranha Press, my story story collection came to land on Dick Giordano’s desk. They were kind enough to invite me to New York, to DC, to discuss the possibility of placing an original character/s in the DC Universe. Keep in mind, that this evolved from an experiment that DC was considering. Just how far afield would fans follow the comics/graphic novel format from the superhero genre? I started out with a social worker and a detective, something I knew something about. But the story didn’t stop there.”

Byam explained that Giordano encouraged her to tighten up the story and find an artist. “I kept weaving these stories into a story about an interdependent community, still trying to keep the feel of a real place. And from there I found my heroes. The original short stories were a little darker than the final graphic novel. I was gently nudged towards something more of a fable and less ‘based on a true story.'”

Byam noted that she didn’t have a “comics habit” in her adolescence. “Even as a young adult, if it wasn’t in the library, I had no access,” she said. “So I went to a local comic book store and combed the backstacks. I told them what I was looking for and they were kind and supportive. For comics, it was a time of great experimentation. Concrete, Grendel, Moonshadow, Love and Rockets, Sandman—it seemed like you could tell any type of story in this amazing medium called comics. I thought it was a medium, not a genre. (Gene Colan was in place while the concept was still with Piranha. He even did sample sketches which are lost in the clutter of time.)”

She continued, “In Oakland, I was very lucky to meet Mike Grell and later I was hired to be his assistant, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to make comics. I was also lucky to have signed with Mike Friedrich. He is the only reason that we were able to retain the rights to Billi 99 when we accepted the offer from Dark Horse.”

On working with Sale, Byam said, “Tim had a wealth of comics continuity history and visual storytelling ability. This was my first attempt at writing anything longer than 24 pages. The story evolved, writing and rewriting. Billi 99 origin notes—when one stands up, 99 follow… As luck would have it, Tim and I lived in the same neighborhood. When he invited me to visit, I brought heavy stacks of my reference material. Photos of historical Detroit, and what it looks like when a city with such thriving work, art, music, and community comes to ruin.”

Byam continued, “We tried to create a place that seemed as real as possible, where the community itself was a character, and the people in that community were interdependent. Tim worked in an attic, and he worked his ass off. 198 pages of hand-drawn, lettered, inked, and two tones of duo shade. Subtle printing of greyscale back then was not as good as it later became. The duo shade was his effort to have more control over the final product.

“However, as the pages faded and discolored, reproduction became difficult. The man literally sweated over his pages, taking great care not to stain them. There is an image of Don hunched over his desk that reminds me most of Tim,” she said. “You can find it on the first page of chapter 3. Though we discussed the book as it came to be, as much as possible I wanted Tim to express the story through his own eyes, not mine. I think the result was among other things a fabulous portfolio piece for him at the time.”

So, why reprint the comic now? In a statement, Byam said, “A few years before Tim passed, he, editor Patty Jeres, and I tried to finance a hardcover, color version of Billi 99 and were repeatedly frustrated, but the idea of printing a definitive version of the book remained steadfast. Billi 99 was a favorite of Tim’s and it’s important to us to do it justice, as we introduce this early and important work to a whole new audience.”

“Tim and Sarah felt like there never was a version of Billi 99 that fully reflected their final vision,” said Clover Press publisher Hank Kanalz. “It is a great honor for Clover Press to publish the definitive edition of Billi 99.”

In addition to the story itself—now in color—the hardcover edition also features an essay by Sale’s widow, Susan Bailey, a portrait of Sale drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, and pin-ups by Andy KuhnRick HobergMatt Wagner, and Tomm Coker.

In her essay, Bailey writes, “Sarah Byam’s Billi 99 is a unique perspective on the comic book hero. It’s as fresh today as it was in 1991 when it was first published. You’ll see why Tim was proud to be part of the telling of this twist on the typical comic book hero, especially if you knew him personally, after reading the book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when Tim first introduced me to Billi.”

Bill Sienkiewicz's portrait of Tim Sale for BILLI 99 hardcover edition from Clover Press
Bill Sienkiewicz’s portrait of Tim Sale

Villarrubia, whose colors are featured in the hardcover edition of Billi 99, confessed his grief over Sale’s passing in a statement. “I had admired his work for years and had had the opportunity to work with him several times, including in Superman for All Seasons, SOLO, and Batman/Catwoman: The Wedding Album. I missed Billi 99 when it was first published in black and white. I am very thankful to Sarah for bringing me into this project. I think that readers are going to be very surprised by it. For me, this is a splendid opportunity to rend homage to a great comics artist,” he said.

The Clover Press edition of BILLI 99 is currently live on Kickstarter


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