PIPELINE RETRO: JOHN BYRNE’S “NAMOR”
“Heroes for the 90s.” In 1990, Marvel rolled out six new series in six consecutive months. “Robocop,” “New Warriors,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Ghost Rider” were in that class. The grand finale they were all leading up to was Todd McFarlane’s “Spider-Man,” which of course sold nearly two million copies.
In the middle somewhere came John Byrne’s “Namor,” the subject of this week’s Pipeline Retro.
Marvel is Timely. Comics are often a product of their time. Take a look at “Justice League International” or “Suicide Squad” for two obvious examples. So, too, was “Namor” a product of its time. Byrne has said that the idea of Namor as corporate raider was given to him by editorial. Combining the world of high finance with environmentalism was a smart melding of two popular parts of the zeitgeist of the time. “Greed is good” combined with “dolphin safe tuna.”
And since everything is cyclical, I have no doubt that, should I reread that far today, “Namor” #30 will have to be a treatise on the single payer health care plan that Atlantis’ residents enjoy. I’ll let you know once I get there.
Can Your CEO Pull Off a Speedo? There’s a lot going on in the first year of the title. First is Namor’s return to the living. (I’m guessing he died in “Atlantis Attacks?”) Two “bad guys” compete for attention — The Headhunter is a villainess who appears to cut off the heads of smart businessmen while keeping their brains alive to feed her insider information so she can get rich. (Remember that “Greed is Good” connection I mentioned at the beginning?) The second is the Marrs siblings, who are creepy in their own right, hanging on to each other at times like lovers, then smacking each other around like abusive spouses. When Desmond throws Phoebe off the roof, it’s not nearly as harrowing as when he backhands her into submission. The first time, he only did it to introduce her to Namor, who he knew would fly to her rescue.
For a series that’s about Namor as a CEO, there’s precious little corporate maneuvering in the series. It’s all about creating the set-ups for action pieces and villains to show up for Namor to fight. I think that just points up another difference in comics today versus yesteryear: today’s readers would demand to see the board room action. They don’t necessarily think a page or two of talking heads is boring. Ask the Brian Bendis fans, for starters. He seems to do OK with dialogue scenes.
Aside: For talking head boardroom scenes, though, I can’t recommend “Largo Winch” (from Cinebook) highly enough.
“Namor” tried so hard to skip that kind of material that it skipped over Namor’s arrest and subsequent freeing between issues #5 and #6, with an editorial note that such things are too mundane and boring to deal with, so they weren’t going to bother.
No, Byrne didn’t skip them so he could flashback to them in the next story to create a more dramatic narrative. He just overlooked the whole bit. It was, I’m sure, fitting for the style of comics at the time, but I can’t help but feel cheated in 2009.
Stilted Dialogue, or Style? There’s no debating that comics storytelling has changed in the last 20 years. “Namor” reads today to me like all those people who hated “Dawson’s Creek” sounded to them a decade ago — filled with language that nobody in “the real world” would ever dream of uttering. But you know what? That’s a big part of the reason I liked “Dawson’s Creek:” I liked the forced language styling. I enjoyed hearing people using words that teenagers who studied years for the SAT would often barely recognize. I liked hearing smart people, not “like,” “uhm,” and “you know”-laden dialogue.
I also like the way Edward De Vere’s characters all spoke in rhymic iambic pentameter. Nobody complains about that, hundreds of years later.
For that reason, the dialogue in “Namor” has a certain charm for me. Namor is, after all, an undersea king. He thinks quite highly of himself and is prone to anger and over-the-top reactions. It makes sense that he might speak in a holier-than-thou manner using language that seems almost too well considered for the moment.
Others, no doubt, will find it painful and will stumble over it. To each his own, I suppose. Just don’t read it out loud and pretend like you’re going to be starring on Broadway next week. It’s better internalized.
Previously. . . The other big storytelling difference is all the times “Namor” has to stop to recap the current storyline. With everything written for the trade today — and with Marvel including a text recap at the front of their books — you don’t see that anymore. The ultimate long term sales push for comics is the trade or hardcover collection after the fact. We mustn’t stumble over that in an effort to make a monthly read that’s accessible to one and all.
Yes, I think that is a mistake. I think books like “The Walking Dead” prove that. You can create a book that reads best in a monthly format, complete with cliffhangers and characters recapping key plot points to one another, without losing readers, and while still selling a metric tonne of trade paperbacks. I wonder sometimes if we haven’t all willfully blinded ourselves to that, to the point where we can’t see the forest for the trees.
If you want to sell one complete story under one cover, make one. If you want a serial rise-and-fall of action and pacing, publish it that way. If you want it both? One will suffer. Life is full of little compromises.
The Changing Art of John Byrne. “Namor” represents a shift in John Byrne’s art style, in two very major ways. The most pronounced is his use of DuoTone (the stuff in the art boards that comes out when painted with a chemical), something that he played with on “Namor” and then abandoned afterwards. I believe he’s said that the rise of computer coloring and better printing processes made it useless or repetitive. I can understand that point of view, but I still enjoy the old school art feel of it. I like the way it might force a colorist to make simpler choices to allow the art to create the feel. And I just enjoy the uniqueness of the pages and the overall look that they have.
You can see Byrne learning how to use it as the issues go on. He abandons it in one issue almost at random, but I would guess that a tight deadline that month didn’t leave him time to DuoTone the entire issue, particularly with a double-sized twelfth issue in the pipeline. At first, he overuses it. That might be because some of the action happens underwater, where he can use it to great effect to create the movement of the water, and the cloudiness and waviness that one might believe would be there. Above ground, he uses it to great effect to create levels of shadows in city architecture and in large group shots and in night scenes. He also uses it exclusively in one issue to create a flashback look for the page that inevitably recaps previous issues, redrawing panels from previous issues solely in DuoTone.
By the end of the first year, Byrne has the balance worked out about right, to my eye. Today, Photoshop has killed DuoTone, but the ease of its use has yet to filter back into comics. It’s a technique that might work best in a black and white comic, and I hope to see someone using it — outside of manga — some day soon. We’re always looking for something different in our comic books. Right now, DuoTone effects would serve that purpose.
In a color comic, the artist would need to work with the colorist to make sure that one doesn’t overpower the other. In fact, I think a retro style for coloring would almost be a necessity, lest the gradients in the colors fight against the straight lines in the pattern.
Augie Gets His Lettering Geek On. The other major change in Byrne’s style is his computer lettering. Yes, this was 1990 and Byrne was lettering his comics with a computer. Almost. It’s not like it is today. He wasn’t scanning his art in, adding layers in Illustrator, and dropping the lettering and balloons on type before FTPing the pages to Marvel’s server.
No, Byrne was printing out his lettering onto stickers, and then sticking that on the pages, drawing in the balloons by hand. There’s something about Byrne’s straight-edges balloon tales that stands out nicely. It’s different from everything else out there without being distracting or ugly. I like the style.
Not that there weren’t problems. For started, the crossbar-“I” issue pops up on the cover to “Namor” #12, and Byrne also tries to use plain basic fonts — Times New Roman, perhaps? — as his caption box font of choice in “Namor” #10. I don’t think that works too well, though I can understand the attempt.
The Trouble with Reprints. I wonder how difficult it would be to reprint this series today. Many reprints of recent years have had problems with reprinting the finer line work of the comics. When original film isn’t available, the reprint department relies on scanners and meticulous spot corrections. Fine line work can be lost and thin lines can take on accidental weight. Then, the colors look horribly integrated with the final art, causing the work to just sit there, lifeless, on the page.
Is “Namor” worth reprinting today? If the original film is out there somewhere, perhaps it would be. All that DuoTone work, though, would need lots of special attention to survive a reprinting today.
Augie Gets His Letters Column Geek On.One of the great things about reading these single issues nearly two decades later is that the letters columns are included. You wouldn’t get those in a trade paperback, and you don’t get many of those in comics today. It’s through a letter in an early issue that I learned that the characters of Desmond and Phoebe Marrs are based on characters from the short-lived Ken Wahl drama, “Wiseguy.” (Pictured here.)That makes Kevin Spacey the influence on Desmond. That must have been a very weird series of episodes. . .
Byrne Having Fun. The series was melodramatic, make no mistake. In many ways, it’s emblematic for comics of its time, when action ruled over everything else and subtlety was not a selling point.
But Byrne knew what he was doing and had fun with it. The best example of this is the opening to issue #5, where the first page serves as the recap page — done in the style of the classic 1960s “Batman” television series.
I love that page, in part because when you take a step back from the set-up for the issue, it’s so ludicrous that the tone is well deserved. After all, environmental extremists are blowing up a huge oil tanker in front of a soiree honoring its first cruise, including partying guest stars Tony Stark and Reed and Sue Richards. And Namor is wearing a false beard and glasses to cover his still hidden identity. But he saves the day with a previously unseen fish to absorb the problem. It’s up to you to determine if that’s a dues ex machina plot device, or a character-driven one, given Namor’s one-time status on the ocean floor.
But is it good? That’s the question, isn’t it? I have mixed opinions on it. I do think that I remembered it a bit too fondly, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It just means I misremembered something, 19 years on. There’s something too jumpy about the series for me. It starts off with a continuity implant, then tries to move into the world of megacorporate interests. But that never serves as anything more than the kickstart to the other plots, which go from solving problems originating in the ocean to getting the Invaders back together by whatever means necessary. The first year doesn’t have a strong enough spine to it to ever make me feel comfortable in the book. I don’t know if there were additional editorial dictates handed down that forced Byrne to change focus over the course of the year, or if the book just changed as Byrne did it. But the first year is a bit all over the place.
Still, it’s a lot of fun to see Byrne try new things with both his lettering and his art style. The DuoTone didn’t stick around long, but the lettering sure did. It added a new dimension to his art, at a time when it had been pretty well exposed for nearly a decade, both in “X-Men” and “Superman.” It’s a Byrne mostly restrained, not relying on flashy panel gimmicks, but solid draftsmenship, interesting angles, and straight-on storytelling. There are no diagonal panels in here, thankfully, plus some nice dramatic cityscapes.
Namor pops up in the occasional mini-series today, but I can’t help but wonder
Byrne stayed as writer and artist on the series until issue #25, then stuck to the writing chores while welcoming hot young artist, Jae Lee, onto the book, fresh off a story or two in “Marvel Comics Presents.” Lee was an immature artist at the time, and most of his art consisted of solid black silhouettes of characters standing around. Oh, how far he’s come since then…
MORE ONE LINERS
- Last week, I wrote:
If you are a publisher looking to get me to review your comic, the single worst way to do it is to refer to your new “property.” I like comics. I’m not here to discuss multimedia tie-ins to something you fabricated in the hopes of being the next King of All Media.
A few hours after that column was posted, I receive another offer from someone who wanted me to look at their “franchise.”
Tom Spurgeon reports on what might possibly be the new “Wizard.” What the backwards “D” in the logo represents is likely grist for the one-liner mill.
Gareb Shamus is more than welcome to rebrand himself and his business. The important thing is that, in the end, the product is better than what “Wizard” had become. Can he do that? I’m not holding my breath, but I’ll look.
- Also from Tom S., I learned that Bil Keane turned 87 this week. This, of course, happens on the eve of IDW’s first “Family Circus” hardcover collection, which I’ll be reviewing next week.
- Ross Richie is doing things with Disney Comics that have never been done before: He’s sneaking them into Disney Stores. I’m not saying this hasn’t been attempted before, but it’s about time someone accomplished the job of putting them in the right places. Read more about what and how he’s doing this at the ICV2 interview. I just hope the content is worth putting in front of a larger audience.
- If the website ever comes back up again, PhotoSketch could be the ultimate tool for customizing your own comic book. With PhotoSketch, you draw the layout you want for you page, paper, etc. and the site throws in the correct images. It could usher in a bold new era of fumetti.
John Byrne once espoused Edward De Vere as being the true author of William Shakespeare’s works in the pages of “John Byrne’s Next Men.” I mention that here to explain that paragraph back near the top of this column.
Next week: We look at comic strips! Here comes “Bloom County.” Here’s a quick spoiler: It’s a very very good presentation of the material. IDW did good.
My photoblog, AugieShoots.com heads to my daughter’s birthday party, ands then returns to nature
The Various and Sundry blog is at a standstill while I fix a pesky back-end issue I’m having.
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More than 800 columns — more than twelve years’ worth — are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically.