Which brings us to John Byrne…
Like I said earlier, I was a big fan of “E-Man.” I followed that book from the day I stumbled across it on a spinner rack inside the Rexall Drug store in Ft. Bragg, California sometime in 1974. “E-Man” was a terrific comic written by Nicola Cuti and drawn by Joe Staton and published by the now-defunct Charlton Comics (the folks that brought you Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, the Question and Yang, among others – many sold off to DC comics, years later). And, like many comics at the time, “E-Man” had back up stories. Some were pedestrian and some awesome. “Rog 2000” fell in the awesome category. “E-Man” #7 was my first exposure to “Rog 2000” and the titanic talent of John Byrne. “Rog 2000” ran in the previous issue, I later discovered, but I missed that issue, distribution being pretty spotty in those dark days. “Rog 2000” was written by Nicola Cuti and drawn by John Byrne, who appeared to have inked and lettered the feature as well, and Rog 2000 was pretty nifty stuff. He was a robotic cab driver with a somewhat ill defined origin (he visits his creator “Burns” at one point, but there’s no information spilled about how or why he was created or why his creator would live in the frozen wasteland of Canada while he drove a hack in Manhattan). But really, no explanation was necessary in order to enjoy “Rog 2000.” He existed and that was enough. The hows and whys were unimportant.
It’s a lesson many of us could stand to learn, John Byrne included.
I liked “Rog 2000” and I liked John Byrne’s art so I did what any devoted fan would do under the circumstances – I followed him around like a puppy. At Charlton I bought his issues of “Space 1999” and the marvelous post-apocalyptic masterpiece “Doomsday +1” and when John went to Marvel, I followed him wherever I could find him. I was there as John took on Iron Fist in the pages of “Marvel Premiere.” I was there when Iron Fist was awarded his own ongoing title. I bought everything he touched, from fill-ins on the “Avengers” to his run on “Marvel Team Up” and everything else. If John drew a fill-in on “Amazing Spider-Man,” I snapped it up. If he did layouts on the “Fantastic Four,” I was there. I bought them all and when John landed the assignment on a certain floundering bi-monthly mag called the “Uncanny X-Men,” I rejoiced.
There was something about his work. Something I liked. I liked the way he drew smoke and debris and the way he rendered forms and the way he’d compose a panel. I liked his machines and his buildings and the vast array of textures he employed. His storytelling was crystal clear and his heroes were heroic and his women were gorgeous. Yeah, he had a tendency to repeat certain poses from time to time, but most artists did find a way of drawing stoke faces and hands and go with what worked. John had a way about him and his work had a quality unlike all the other guys whose work littered the racks. John Byrne had the “it” factor and I was hooked hard.
My earlier efforts owed a lot to John Byrne. I struggled to draw like John. To draw machinery like John and hands like John and women like John. John drew these weird little rubber band mouths that disappeared into lipless slits when closed and they fascinated me. I tried to figure out how he did what he did and bring those elements to my own work.
And I failed miserably in the process.
John’s humble, almost apologetic please-don’t-hate-me note to the fans in an early issue of “Uncanny X-Men” as he tried to soften the blow that Dave Cockrum had moved on was both endearing and respectful. A portrait of howa well-mannered comic book professional should conduct himself.
I liked this guy. He seemed like a nice guy.
And it helped that John’s X-Men kicked serious ass.
Teamed with inker Terry Austin, John was a force to be reckoned with and as terrific as Dave Cockrum had been before him, Dave’s run was peppered with fill-ins and rotating inkers so he couldn’t compare with the team of Byrne and Austin. Terry added a sheen to Byrne’s work. He added zips and textures and added occasional backgrounds and other details that made the work positively sing. Other inkers on other books stepped up to the plate as well to show what they could do. Joe Rubinstein made his work on “Captain America” sing and Klaus Janson and later Dan Green did a terrific job over John’s pencils on the “Avengers” (and yeah, I know, I’m getting the chronology all screwed up here, but I’m off on an inking tangent and that requires some skipping ahead). Tom Palmer did a bang up job on a “Silver Surfer” one shot and Jerry Ordway was outstanding on the “Fantastic Four.” Throw Bob Wiacek, Joe Sinnott and Al Gordon into the mix and you can see that John was treated to some of the best in the biz during his first foray at the house of ideas (see what I mean about skipping ahead?).
Time passed and John moved from one assignment to the next. At one point John was drawing the “Avengers,” “Fantastic Four” and “Uncanny X-Men” – three team books at once! Wow! But that didn’t last forever.
There were a few missteps along the way, with his tremendous output it was inevitable that John would falter slightly here and there. I recall having read an issue of “X-Men” in which Colossus lifted the Blob using an I-beam as a lever and Wolverine as the fulcrum, but Wolverine wasn’t anywhere near the Blob and the lever, as demonstrated, and would have made lifting the Blob much more difficult than it would have been without this ill-conceived apparatus. Whether due to deadline pressures or other contributing factors, John increasingly opted to take the easy way out. Rooms would have bare walls, other dimensions would be void of backgrounds entirely and other choices were made that seemed to have been made not for aesthetic reasons, but rather for drawing ease. Granted, deadlines are important and they do take priority, but nobody forced him to take on such a workload so he can’t be held entirely blameless.
The comics he produced were still head and shoulders above most of the rest, but there were a couple hairline cracks in the armor. Byrne was human, it seemed.
In any case, I ate it up – all of it.
Then John started writing. He wrote a story where the modern Thing met the old lumpy Thing and cured him (see “Marvel Two-In-One” #50). John took a bit of trivia about the Thing having physically changed over the years and made a story out of it. He even introduced a way of dealing with time travel that was not only novel, but made a certain amount of sense! Ben Grimm went into the past to cure himself in an earlier stage in his own development and in doing so he inadvertently created an alternate reality. That concept of time travel was one I’d utilize years later in my own work. Thanks, John!
John Byrne left the merry mutants due to a creative dispute and the details were made somewhat public. Being a hardcore Byrne victim, I naturally felt sympathy toward John and when he started writing and drawing a lengthy run on the “Fantastic Four,” I rejoiced. John had a good feel for the Fantastic Four, I thought. The Thing sounded like the Thing and the others felt right as well. It helped that John was following a pretty lackluster run by another creative team certainly, but it was morethan just that – it felt right. Everything clicked.
The thing is – and keep in mind that I quite enjoyed Byrne’s run on the FF – that the hows and whys kept creeping up and getting in the way. The stories suffered because of the explanations.
This was all too apparent in the anniversary issue early in Byrne’s run (and how weird it seems now that the 20th anniversary issue of the Fantastic Four came out 25 years ago! It seems like just yesterday…) where Doom had trapped miniature versions of the FF in a tabletop town called Liddleville (the name Smallville had, apparently, been taken). What was an otherwise engaging and exciting tale of the FF got tarnished slightly with explanations that simply failed to pass the smell test. In the yarn, “normal” human versions of the FF, with no knowledge of their superpowered selves found themselves in a small town. Reed was an absentminded professor, Sue was a housewife, Johnny worked at a garage, Ben ran a bar and grill and he was married to Alicia who was (in Liddleville at least) no longer blind. The four kept having nightmares related to their origin and eventually it was revealed that nothing they knew was real. They were all “synthe-clones” and Dr. Doom and the Puppet Master were behind it all. Liddleville was a scale model and the group’s true bodies were held, helpless, their minds transmitted into their miniature versions. Eventually Reed and co. gave themselves superpowers and these mini-marvels escaped.
Now before anybody jumps up my ass, I’ll grant you it was a nifty story and it was loaded with terrific bits. Seeing the Things mutate from one version to the next in Sue’s dream still brings a smile to my face a quarter of a century later. And when I first read the story, I thought it was terrific and I didn’t give the faulty internal logic a whole hell of a lot of thought.
And no, I’d never suggest that I “could do better.”
But I’ll tell you this, if I had edited the book I certainly would have made a suggestion or two…
The explanations begged for an explanation. The idea that Synthe-clones would react to cosmic rays in precisely the same way as the original FF stretched credibility beyond the breaking point and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Where did the tiny little eggs on Ben’s tiny little grill come from? Tiny little chickens? Why wasn’t the water in Johnny’s shower pelting him like baseballs? A drop of water doesn’t change scale after all. Why did the robot Puppet Master get a black eye when Ben punched him? How could the Puppet Master “build a scale model” to Doom’s “specifications?” The Puppet Master couldn’t possibly construct a convincing scale village by hand with all of the accompanying plumbing and electricity! Did he hammer in all those itty-bitty nails by hand?
The more you think about it, the more ridiculous it becomes! And the thing is all of that could have been avoided if the explanations were not so specific – or even not there at all. And that’s a trap Byrne finds himself in time after time. The cures are worse than the disease.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy his comics – I did – but there were times where I had to roll my eyes at his pseudo-science that just didn’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Negative versions of the FF outfits would be orange and white, not black and white. I knew that – why didn’t John? (And yeah – the modified FF duds did look a bit like the black and white art turned negative, even if the “4” on their chests inexplicably didn’t play along – but these are color comics, after all, not black and white ones).
But regardless, I lapped it up. I bought every issue of the FF, I bought every issue of “Alpha Flight” – I bought his two issues of Indiana Jones – I bought every one shot or annual. If it had a pinup or cover and John Byrne was even rumored to have been in the room, I was there with money in hand ready to plunk it down.
Once the FF and Alpha Flight were going full tilt and he was writing, pencilling and inking both, it became obvious John had bit off more than he could chew. The backgrounds became sparse, the inks got that much chunkier and the shortcuts more apparent. “Snow Blind” my ass – it didn’t take a genius to figure out that John was cutting a few corners to keep up on his deadlines.
Not that I complained, mind you. Even “bad” John Byrne (and I use the phrase with some hesitation) was better than most of the other artists on the newsstands.
So, John stopped inking both books. That was a good move, I thought. His inks weren’t as strong as his pencils and the time saved allowed him to pound out more pages. That worked for me as well.
By this time interviews were popping up all over the place and John gave his famous “happy cog” spiel, which ultimately lead to a parody in “Destroyer Duck” by Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby. “Cogburn” was there, complete with removable spine. Byrne defended Marvel giving Gene Colan the old heave ho. He complained about Gene’s loose art and irregular panel borders, which looked to him as though they were put in after the art was drawn. He bellyached about Roy Thomas spending entire stories reconciling bits of trivial continuity that irked him. He complained about Bob Layton inks making characters he’d penciled look gay. I took it all in stride. So he had opinions – was there supposed to be some law against that sort of thing? And even if I disagreed with him on some small thing, what was the harm? It didn’t diminish the work he did! Who cared?
John took on the Incredible Hulk! I was trilled! And he was the first guy (as far as I can recall) to bring up the fact that the Hulk really was gray when he first appeared in the “Incredible Hulk” #1 – that it hadn’t been an issue-long coloring mistake – despite the fact that, up until that point, it had been re-colored green every time the story had been reprinted. The gray Hulk became canon. John took a bit of trivia about the Hulk having physically changed and made a story out of it.
And then I started getting work at DC as well. My years of toiling in the independents had finally paid off at last! I landed a fill-in here and an inventory job there and I wrapped up the “Outsiders” book and then – bam – my own regular series! My first regular gig at DC! “The Doom Patrol!”
Byrne’s “Superman” was pretty cool stuff.
I hadn’t been a regular reader of “Superman” prior to Byrne’s arrival. Oh sure, I’d buy an issue here or there. I’d buy them if there was a cool cover (like that awesome Neal Adams cover where Superman is infected with Kryptonite poisoning and is screaming in rage – every kid I knew that bought comics snapped that one up!) or if it was a special occasion or if there was nothing else on the racks or if I just got the urge, but I wasn’t a regular “Superman” reader. John Byrne turned me into a regular “Superman” reader!
And I liked it, but there were still these – things – these niggling little details that just didn’t work for me. Superman has this protective aura – which made no sense to me. How could he bathe and rub off his own stink with a bar of soap with that thing? John established that Luthor didn’t think Superman had a secret identity, but then why did Superman vibrate his face whenever he was being photographed? What was he hiding? And if Clark Kent as a teenager didn’t wear glasses and didn’t comb that “S” shaped lock of hair off of his forehead, why wouldn’t the residents of Smallville recognize him as an adult when he wore red and blue tights? In a world where a pair of glasses and combed hair is an effective disguise, why didn’t the people of Smallville recognize Clark as Superman and say to him when he was in his civilian guise, “Who the hell are you?”
It didn’t make sense to me.
And there were other things that worked about as well for me as Lori Lemaris’ two-wheeled wheelchair should have – there was a story where Lois was trying once more to get Superman to fess up to being Clark Kent and Clark’s parents offered up the explanation that the two were raised together in Smallville as brothers! Lois got pissed off at Clark for fooling her all those years, sure, but she didn’t think that scoop was worth reporting for some unfathomable reason! Here it was – the “real” dirt – straight from Superman and Clark Kent’s parents and it wasn’t worth her time! Unbelievable!
But I paid for it. Even though I was on the comp list – and got free DC books in the mail – I couldn’t wait that long, so I bought my John Byrne comics off the stands when I saw them.
And then came the thrill of a lifetime! A crossover between the Doom Patrol and Superman! And John Byrne actually drew characters that I designed! I can’t begin to articulate what a thrill that was for me! Yeah, he didn’t quite nail the costumes I’d come up with for the team but who cared? John Byrne drew characters that I designed! I was in seventh heaven!
John left DC. He went back to Marvel. And the assignments were not entirely what I would have expected from the biggest name in comics, but then, how do you top reinventing Superman?
Reviving the Blonde Phantom and the original Human Torch didn’t come close.
Now John had dabbled at Marvel when he was at DC. Once Jim Shooter was out of the picture at Marvel, John couldn’t resist taking on Shooter’s New Universe book “Star Brand” and showing the guy just how ridiculous his “real world” character was. It felt, honestly, mean-spirited. Not as mean-spirited, perhaps, as having a Shooter look-alike burn his own foot off in the “Legends” miniseries or ridiculing the Beyonder in Superman, but mean-spirited nevertheless.
And problems persisted. Bits of pseudo-science kept cropping up. And John started spending entire stories explaining away bits of trivial continuity that irked him. He used She-Hulk as a pulpit to making fun of characters he thought were silly and he even made fun of the way other artists drew, making digs at the young Turks that were getting more than their fair share of attention.
“What happened to that humble nice guy that followed Dave Cockrum onto the X-Men?” I wondered.
And then he was gone again.
There was, I’d heard, a dispute with Stan Lee over something – I don’t recall exactly what. I do remember John objecting to the name of Stan’s soon-to-be new character called “Ravage.” I recall John relating an incident when he was trying to explain to Stan why he found it objectionable. He’s equated it with rape and said to Stan something like, “What if I said to you that I was going to ravage your wife?” and Stan “didn’t seem to get it.”
The reason Stan didn’t get it may have been that John appeared to have confused the word “ravage” (which does not mean rape) with the word “ravish” (which does).
In any case, John used that no-longer-set-in-2099 story as a launching pad of sorts from which he developed a new kind of superhero team – a more realistic kind of superhero team. “John Byrne’s Next Men” was his and his only.
And I wasn’t too taken with it.
Much of the internal logic of the series was based on faulty pseudo-science and the instances where that sort of thing cropped up became more frequent. The inks seemed sloppy and heavy handed. That, and I could foresee where he was going with his villain right out of the gate so the big reveal really didn’t have the impact it should have for me. There were bright spots, to be sure, but somehow I just didn’t warm up to these guys. I just didn’t find the characters to be particularly likeable. The comic book was competent, sure, and I bought every issue, but I just wasn’t that into it. I was slightly more into “Danger Unlimited” and slightly less interested in “Babe.” The second “Babe” miniseries was the first Byrne comic that I didn’t buy, actually.
Something had happened.
By that point Image was up and running and there must have been something about our success that stuck in his craw because it came up on several occasions and his comments were, well, not entirely kind.
There was even a poorly reasoned explanation in a letter column attempting to articulate why our comics weren’t the cat’s pajamas (not that they were the cat’s pajamas, mind you, our company perpetrated some of the vilest comics ever printed, outdone only by the scores of imitators scrambling to keep up with us). I don’t claim to have the ability to read minds, but the words on paper sounded hurt and resentful to this fan and perhaps even just a wee bit jealous.
It wasn’t as though our popularity was a slight at him. But the seeming frustration manifested itself in a way that was less than endearing. His tirades against fickle fans and retailers that supposedly conspired against him came off like the ranting of a paranoid madman (I may be jumping ahead a bit here – I don’t have books out and open in front of me and I can’t keep all the chronology straight. Excuse me if I’m not entirely on the mark. I rely a lot on a memory that really has no business being relied on).
When Jack Kirby passed away, John wrote a column about why he didn’t deserve to be crowned the new “king of comics” even though nobody I knew of was even thinking of suggesting such a thing. Apparently his art dealer had brought it up, but it struck me as really strange and somewhat morbid and disrespectful and inappropriate that he even broached the subject. Yeah, John had produced a staggering body of work. Of that, there can be no doubt. But Jack Kirby did more than simply write and illustrate comic books – Jack created universes and populated entire comic book companies. John hadn’t done that. He’d drawn a mess of pages and wrote a mess of comics, but he hadn’t created a whole lot of characters.
I said at one point that “if creating characters was the barometer” that there was another comic book artist more worthy than John to assume the mantle of King. It wasn’t a serious suggestion by any means and the thought of anybody assuming the mantle, frankly, creeps me out, but it was enough to get John all fired up.
There was one slight dig at John that I lobbed but, again, it was more of a gag than a dig. In the “Savage Dragon/Megaton Man” team up that I concocted with dandy Don Simpson, I needed a group of bad guys for Dragon to be chasing that looked heroic enough that Megaton Man would come to Image Earth and mistakenly take on the Dragon thinking he was the bad guy. I cobbled together Johnny Redbeard’s Nixed-Men, a group of characters loosely based on characters from books John had left. There was a She-Hulk type and a Superman type and a Namor type and an Invisible Girl type and some flying girl that really didn’t belong in the group, but I’d inked already before deciding what this group would be and I didn’t feel like changing her ’cause she was pretty cute. Readers could assume she was the Wasp from the Avengers, I supposed. That was it – the whole gag.
Sometime later I introduced the physical personage of Johnny Redbeard, but I really didn’t intend to have him be a character that poked fun at John – I used the name because I had used it before and was stuck with it. I changed the name sometime later to “the Creator” and got rid of the character altogether after that because people kept assuming I was slighting John and I really wasn’t intending to do that. The gag was supposed to be just in the one issue – nothing more.
“John Byrne’s Next Men” did reasonably well. If a book sold that well now, folks would be singing in the streets. But as time went on, sales did go down gradually and eventually John moved on from Dark Horse and the “Next Men” came to an end.
John went back to DC and drew “Wonder Woman” and I bought every issue. I wasn’t thrilled with it – I didn’t care for Wonder Woman’s new shorts and I didn’t care about her new supporting cast – but I bought them regardless. John’s attempt at drawing in a pseudo-Image style was a little embarrassing. This guy had serious storytelling chops – why was he sticking in jerk shots and the like? It came off like an older guy trying to show the youngsters that he was still hip (like DC did in the swingin’ ’60s by adding “go-go checks” to the tops of their covers) and he really didn’t need to do that. John was better than that. Or at least, I thought he was.
Somewhere along the way John started lettering his own stuff (I forgot to mention that earlier – it was a few years earlier at Marvel, I think…) and he wasn’t particularly adept at that. He had a tendency to put balloons in front of some things and behind others in such a way that he compromised the illusion of depth that the pictures should have had. He did a similar thing when he broke panel borders. Often background elements appeared to be in front of foreground elements because of the way he placed things in a panel. He also started drawing comics full-bleed and he struggled with that as well, often bleeding every panel on every edge of every page and that tended to run things together at the spine and facing pages that weren’t supposed to read as double page spreads looked like they should be read as double page spreads as elements in one panel were too similar to those in others and panel gutters ended up getting aligned.
John took on Jack Kirby’s Forth World and it – well – it wasn’t Jack.
Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Jack’s Fourth World books to begin with (insert audible gasp here). I thought there were outstanding individual stories – really amazing stuff – and a lot of excellent ideas, but I also felt that it was too scattered and sprawling and unfocused. Jack had a million great ideas and he wanted to get all of them on the page immediately and the end result was a bit of a mess. An amazing mess – an outstanding mess – a mess that included some of the best stories and art ever committed to paper – but a mess nevertheless.
John’s was more focused, but dull. He copied or traced panels from Jack’s comics in flashback sequences, but it didn’t make it any more electrifying. I’m not sure where it went wrong, but it just wasn’t all that exciting. Jack’s a tough act to follow. I can’t fault John for that. He tried. Others have tried as well and the end result is always the same…the book inevitably ends. And “Jack Kirby’s Fourth World” ended.
And then John left again.
Back to Marvel and the X-Men and Spider-Man.
“Chapter One” was a misstep. The first issue was artistically strong, but the plot holes abounded and the attempts to fix things that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did made matters worse. The first issue was a disaster and while dredging up trivia about the Thing being lumpy and the Hulk being gray worked well before, reminding people that the spider on Spider-Man’s back had been colored blue in the pages of “Amazing Fantasy” #15 (and in none of the reprints of the same that I’m aware of) was trivial beyond Roy Thomas’ wildest dreams! Reader reaction was vocal and loud – and John’s pleasantries in the letters page couldn’t help drown them out. Readers did not want their Spider-Man being screwed with and John’s insistence that his version was Stan and Steve’s version did not sit well with a lot of readers.
By this time the Internet was in full swing and John was more accessible than ever. The reasonable, humble man was now being harassed and berated and challenged on a regular basis. John stuck to his guns, but the guns weren’t always worth sticking to. He’d get backed into a corner and he’d argue and fight and if he was ever found to be wrong, he’d start ignoring those particular posts and Byrne’s supporters would come in and they’d fight and the end result was really, really ugly. I found myself getting caught up in stuff as well. I’m as anal as the next guy and when John said that the blue in Spider-Man’s outfit contained a percentage of yellow, I had to let him know it didn’t and then the fight was on and I didn’t want a fight! I was a fan, damn it – I was a huge John Byrne geek that followed him from book to book and company to company! I bought his art from his art dealer and I had his books all stored in long boxes grouped together and all the rest. This wasn’t what I wanted! I wanted to be a contemporary! I wanted to be his pal!
Sometime later I got a call from Andy Smith. Andy had worked with me on a “Deadly Duo” miniseries at Image. He’s a hell of an artist and a good guy and when he’d heard that Bart Sears was going to have to miss an issue of “Spider Woman,” Andy called me to see if I could do it. No, Andy wasn’t the editor of the book, but he was a pal of Bart’s and he knew the editor and he had suggested me as a possible candidate to pinch-hit for Bart. As often happens in comics, Andy ended up playing go-between – the comic book equivalent of the girl passing notes in class. The editor had him call me to break the ice and see if I was interested in batting out a comic book in an unreasonably short period of time. Needless to say – it was a story written by John Byrne so I jumped at the chance and, truth be told, I had a ball doing it. Just the thought of it gave me that same “Doom Patrol” thrill I’d gotten a decade and a half earlier. I drew little caricatures of John and myself as best pals throughout the story just for fun. Some of them even saw print.
I have no idea what John made of it. More likely than not he thought it was awful – and I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t my finest moment. But they needed it in five days and they got it in five days. The book looked like it had been drawn in five days – of that, there can be no doubt.
And life went on.
John started doing looser art and irregular panel borders, which looked as though they could have been put in after the art was drawn, just as Gene Colan had done years before. John ended up leaving Marvel for DC once more and John found himself creating new books like “Lab Rats” or reviving books like “The Demon” and “Doom Patrol.” He’d had some success when he did books featuring Batman or Superman or both, but without those two, sales were disappointing.
I can’t help but feel that John could have used a few words of advice. I think the full-bleeds got in the way and that if you’re going to revive the Doom Patrol that you really need to pick a version and go with it. To redesign characters and add members to the team really wasn’t the way to go (especially outdated characters that were supposed to look contemporary). If John had just used the original team in their longstanding threads, he would have at least appealed to those readers that yearned for the classic team. The attempt to try and appeal to readers, young and old, ultimately fell flat. The Doom Patrol was a family as much as the Fantastic Four and readers of the FF want Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben. Sure, they’ll put up with Crystal, Medusa, Luke Cage and She-Hulk for a short while, but the characters they really want to see are Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben. Had John given us the real Doom Patrol fighting familiar faces, some readers would bellyache about it being too retro, but those people were going to bitch because John’s not Grant Morrison regardless of what he did!
John had fallen in a bit of an artistic rut. He kept drawing characters running in an almost-comedic slipping-on-ice way and fight scenes seemed to no longer hold his interest. He’d use stock poses and throw in cartoon stars where cartoon stars really weren’t called for. Often panels weren’t composed with as much thought or planning as they could have been for maximum effect. Negative space was underutilized. Faces looked slapdash and distorted. Tangents abounded. It was as though no thought or planning went into anything. Inkers felt the need to embellish or even redraw panels entirely. Seeing the before and after shots on his website was traumatic. I’m reminded of that note teachers would put on report cards, “Johnny seems like a bright kid. I just wish he’d apply himself.”
The thing is, it doesn’t strike me that John is very receptive to hearing that sort of thing and I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t be very receptive to hearing it from me.
I dunno. Maybe I’m being too critical. I mean, a person can pick apart most anything Stan Lee ever wrote and there are carloads of comics, chockfull of pseudo-science and illogical logic. Why pick on John Byrne?
Part of it may stem from the way he’s portrayed himself and sold himself – as a guy who’s never wrong and his legion of lemmings chirping in certainly don’t help in that regard. But that’s not it, really. I guess that, given it all, I expect better and I’m disappointed when it isn’t better.
The thing is, John has serious chops. He can really draw – and in many ways he’s better than ever. When you see his art in person, stacked high at a convention and page through them, you can’t help but see how his drawing ability has grown over the years. Many of his “Alpha Flight” pages pale in comparison with his “Demon” and “Doom Patrol” pages.
I’ve had people ask if I’d publish a John Byrne comic and my answer is simple, “in a heartbeat.” You’d be astounded at how often his name comes up in conversation with the other guys at Image and the mutual admiration we have for his work. I’ve heard Todd McFarlane say on numerous occasions that he’d “love to ink Byrne’s stuff and try to give it that juice that Terry Austin used to give his stuff.” I can’t imagine what that might look like.
I’ve never met John Byrne.
He was attending a San Diego convention that I was attending and I saw him from afar. He was signing at the Dark Horse booth and there was nobody there and it baffled the hell out of me. I mean, I’d never seen him in San Diego before and I’m sure the room had thousands of unsigned Byrne comics in it – why weren’t there throngs of people there? I couldn’t understand it.
I didn’t go over. I didn’t introduce myself. And I’m a little sorry and a little not. In the end, I decided it would be better to think of him as that guy that wrote that humble letter in the X-Men all those years ago. I didn’t want to spoil it. I didn’t want to find out that he was any different than that. A friend came up to me and said that he just met Byrne and that he was a dick to him. I don’t know if John was a dick to him or not. He may have heard what he wanted to hear. I know plenty of people have come away from having had contact with me for a fraction of a minute and formed opinions based on a half dozen words spoken in between signatures that weren’t entirely flattering and I was willing to give John the benefit of the doubt.
Eric Stephenson at the Image office says he’s talked to John at length over the phone on several occasions and that they got along just fine.
I’d like to think we’d get along just fine.
I still can’t get over having seen him there. This guy was the king of the world – the big wheel. What happened? Did people overlook him somehow? Was there some sign up that I didn’t see telling folks he was off duty or not to be bothered?
I wish there was something I could do.
The maddening thing is that there are a lot of us that would love nothing more than to have John be back on top again – to have him be the big man on campus once again. And there are guys only to willing to give advice and lend a hand to help make that happen. The truth of the matter is that I want to love John Byrne comics again! I want to breathlessly await the next big project and the next smash issue! Seriously.
But what’s a fan to do?
I know how these things go – people reading these words tend to pick and chose which ones they want to hear and which ones they want to dwell on. Folks tend to hear the negative and ignore the positive. And I’m sure I’ll hear a lot of guys say, “how dare he say that” and “who does he think he is” and “what makes him think he’s so great?” (Even though I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t think I’m “so great”). I expect I’ll hear fewer voices focusing on how much pleasure I’ve gotten from this man’s work over the years and how terrific I think so much of it is. True, I think he’s a stronger plotter than scripter and a stronger penciller than inker, but make no mistake – I think John is one of the best in the business and it’s been a real joy to watch his work blossom and mature over the years. I’ve been there from “Rog 2000” to “The Atom” and everywhere in between. He’s done a large body of work and I’ve purchased and enjoyed the vast majority of it.
I still think he’s one hell of a comic book creator.
But that’s one fan’s opinion. You may feel otherwise.