Smash Pages Q&A | Sarah Byam on ‘Billi 99’

The writer of one of Tim Sale’s first comics projects talks about the new hardcover being crowdfunded by Clover Press.

Before Long Halloween, Superman for All Seasons or the various shades of Marvel miniseries like Hulk: Gray and Daredevil: Yellow came Billi 99, the first major comics work of Tim Sale.

The legendary artist teamed with writer Sarah Byam on the project, which was first published in black and white by Dark Horse back in 1991. The four-issue miniseries told the story of a teen vigilante, Billi Chadam, who took up her father’s sword to battle corporate greed and a corrupt government.

And now, more than 30 years later, Billi 99 is back. Clover Press is currently crowdfunding a hardcover collecting the almost 200-page story, with added color by José Villarrubia. The project has surpassed its goal by a landslide, and offers several editions and add ons in addition to the hardcover.

I spoke with Byam about the project, the addition of color, and what it means to see her and Sale’s vision for Billi 99 realized.

How did you and Tim Sale first meet, and what was the genesis for this project? 

In 1987, I sat in on an informal artists’ salon at a friend’s home. I was telling stories to a man practicing sketches of a pioneer woodsman. “Do you have any more like this?” asked the great William Messner-Loebs, to my unimaginable good fortune…

Billi 99 went through so many versions, but when I met Tim, it all came into focus. We talked about a hero with no power, a community in great need, and an environment that seemed as real as possible. We talked about people who didn’t look like one another. Tim took me to meet Mike Friedrich. I signed with Mike. He presented the concept to Dark Horse. Dark Horse allowed us to keep our property rights. I was very lucky to work with Tim, Star Reach and Diana Schutz!

What was the creative process like working with Tim Sale? Can you share any memorable moments or anecdotes from the creation of Billi 99 that stand out to you? 

LoL. Sweat. There was kindness, mutual respect, hard work, and a lot of sweat from both of us. Back when phones were plugged into walls and we used books for reference, I would drag my rolling book bag up to his sweltering attic studio where he was invariably leaning over his drawing table and trying not to drip on the pages. The most important aspect of Billi 99 was getting the people and places right. I have never had a more committed collaborator. I think Tim spoiled me because he put so much of himself into Billi 99

Tim Sale, as drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in bringing Billi 99 back to print, and how have you overcome them?

Ha! The original art was very hard to come by, and the two tones of duoshade did not survive well. Fortunately, we made high-resolution scans to print from. Tim, Patty Jeres and I went to a few publishers, but we needed color artist Jose Villarrubia on board. All of us wanted a fresh, color, hardcover version of the book

We couldn’t do it without crowdfunding. Fortunately, we found Superfan Promotions, Kickstarter and Clover Press. They made this whole project possible. We are now a pretty big team. Jose Villarrubia, Hank Kanalz, Robbie Robbins, Kurtis Findlay, David Hyde, Hanna Bahedry, Patty Jeres, plus my husband David Ingersoll, my brother Jay Byam, and most importantly Tim’s partner Susan Bailey. 

How did Villarrubia’s color choices and contributions enhance the visual storytelling of the comic, and what was the collaborative process like working with him?

Working with José is not unlike working with Tim. José is one of the kindest peers I have ever worked with, although color artists are as a group pretty cool people. Sulter, the community that Billi 99 was based on, is in Detroit, which is known for its music, art schools, and public work pottery projects. Jose and I talked about history and architecture.  Billi 99 is meant to be a noir story with a touch of hope. Jose’s color work captures that vibe of rebirth in decay perfectly. 

How do you think Billi 99 resonates with readers today, especially given its original publication in the 1990s?

30 years ago, we managed to capture the zeitgeist of our current reality. In every generation, millions scrabble for the basics of shelter, food, clothes, and especially a sense of belonging. This isn’t by accident. We work so much that our family and community time is being sacrificed to the needs of survival in late-stage capitalism. Tim and I told a story in 1991 that extrapolated where we would be in a few years… seems obvious now.  Tim did a great job of creating a timeless but familiar community.

With the Kickstarter campaign for the hardcover collection underway, what are some exclusive features or extras backers can expect to see?

Subtle, lovingly created color. Also, we will have dynamic guest pinups, prints, and stickers for fun, plus an exclusive collectors package of a pristine hardcover black and white version of the book, combined with the color version. We are pretty excited to see them side by side.

The publisher commented that up until now there hasn’t been a version of Billi 99 that fully reflected your and Tim Sale’s vision for the project. How has working with a publisher like Clover Press helped you hit that bar?

Kickstarter campaigns are hard for everyone and impossible for me. It requires a bit of being everywhere all at once. Clover came into the market at the perfect time. They treat comics like any other book they publish, and every book they publish is like a treasure. With as much experience as they have, they know how to incubate a project and let it fly at the exact right moment. None of this would have been possible without the help of the kind folks at Clover Press. They respected not only the art and the story but also the archival quality of this work in Tim’s career.  

Looking ahead, do you have any future projects in the works that you can share with us?

Lol! I have no idea if I will create another comic book project in my lifetime. I hope to, but I struggle with a number of health issues and do not know what I will be able to do in the future. I have lots of exciting ideas, but as we all know, ideas are only useful with sweat equity. 

You can read more about Billi 99 and support this project on Kickstarter.

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