These two words evoke all sorts of opinions and emotions from those who know anything about comic books, typically referencing Spider-Man: Chapter One and Uncanny X-Men within the same conversation. But unlike the mention of Rob Liefeld, Byrne’s work has spanned 4 four decades now and charts from the heights of comic book creativity to the bottom of the barrel (in some people’s opinions).
Byrne started out rather anonymously, working for Charlton in the mid-70s and then quickly moved over to Marvel, where he stayed and drew and persevered until his breakthrough work in Uncanny X-Men #108. His only criticisms tended to be that his hands were drawn a little funny. Blessings compared to the last five years.
His work on the X-Men (drawing first and co-plotting midway through with writer Chris Claremont) cemented his legend in the industry by the early 80s.
But his subsequent work on the Fantastic Four (#232-293) drove his star far above any of his peers for a time. His work was inspired and, as he’s heard other people testify, second only to Lee and Kirby’s trailblazing stories.
Not stopping at that 6-year run as writer & artist (with only one fill-in art issue by Kerry Gammill), Byrne set his sights on the big kahuna: refurbishing the Man of Steel’s tarnished books, post-Crisis. Byrne set the standard by which all post-Byrne Superman stories were written.
His own creation at Dark Horse, Next Men, gave him the latitude to work in darker and more realistic terms not permitted by any company claiming to work under the Comics Code Authority.
What goes up must eventually fall. Wonder Woman (#101-136) and Spider-Man: Chapter One were both lambasted as some of his weaker work, charges that Byrne chalks up to the Internet generation of comic critics looking for anything to say.
Byrne’s self-admitted lack of faith in humanity has kept him at arm’s length from some and some may take as a narcissistic conceit. He has many an opinion about the lack of vision and leadership for the comic book industry. He is well-informed, literate and not one to suffer fools well. He will discuss Shakespeare and, in the same breath, also why Iceman’s powers cannot work in this universe’s physical laws (the law of thermodynamics). And he doesn’t like to answer some questions, no matter how many ways you phrase it or try to cajole him.
But in Byrne’s corner is his endless ability to dip into the storytelling pool (whether it’s for Marvel, DC or his own creations) and draw out the best of the medium in the process. He is a storyteller that has honed his craft (in both writing and drawing) to a science of which some can only dream.
As a testament, he has found himself two books that seem to have reinvigorated his work. One telling a story gap that he’s wanted to do since coming to Marvel (X-Men: The Hidden Years) and another of a generation of heroes lost to antiquity without so much as a footnote (Marvel: The Lost Generation with writer Roger Stern).
And continues to find new projects to inspire, drawing from the infinite resources of two major comic companies and his own fertile imagination.
No matter upon which side you fall on the argument of John Byrne’s place in comics, one thing is for certain: as long as John Byrne is alive, he will be writing and drawing comic books that he enjoys.
Michael David Thomas: What do you like doing better: writing or drawing?
John Byrne: Writing is easier. Stories — or, more precisely, first drafts — just fall out of my head. Drawing is composed of two parts — inspiration and drudge work. The inspiration is the first sweep of lines across the panel or page, the layout. The drudge work is the tightening, the refining. That is much more time consuming and tiring than writing. But, then, I have always maintained that those who think writing is hard are doing it wrong!
MDT: You started doing your lettering about the time that you started Namor. What brought you to do that particular part of the comic book production process? Control issues? Efficiency?
JB: Getting a hand-lettering font for my computer was what really turned me into a letterer, full time. I’d lettered my work at Charlton, laboriously, the old fashioned way. By using a font and pasting in the lettering, I got not only better lettering than I could do, but an extra layer of control over the design of the panel and page. “Control” is the wrong word, really, as it has emotional baggage not applicable here, but it’s also the only word that seems to fit.
MDT: In some cases, you have opted to ink your own material. In most recent, you’ve let others ink your pencils. How is that decision made and use recent cases as examples (Al Milgrom and Tom Palmer)?
JB: I go through cycles. Sometimes I want to do everything. Sometimes I want to do as little as possible. Mostly I’m in the middle. Having someone else ink the books merely allows me to work different mental muscles for a while. I’m inking an issue of HIDDEN YEARS right now, #16, and I am seeing some interesting changes in my approach to the job, clearly in reaction to what Tom has been doing. It’s all part of an ongoing learning process.
MDT: Fabian Nicieza has said that the draw of working with corporate characters (i.e., Marvel & DC) is that you’re able to play in a giant sandbox, drawing from all sorts of characters and situations. Is that an accurate analogy? Is that your reason for coming back to DC/Marvel as often as you do?
JB: Sounds like Fabian was quoting me! I’ve been referring to the “toys” and the “sandbox” for as long as I can remember. Basically seeking my own version of Orson Welles’ famous “greatest electric train set a boy could have” quote. There is an undeniable appeal, a kind of dream-come-true element to working with Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Superman, Batman et all that just does not come with creator-owned material.
MDT: Describe the difference between scripting say Spider-Man and scripting something of your own, like Next Men.
JB: The biggest difference, as I said at the time, comes when you get to the fifth issue and you can’t use Doctor Doom as the villain! Spider-Man has a rich history, on his own and within the greater tapestry of the Marvel Universe. The Next Men, like any creator-owned project not published within an existing “universe”, do not have this. They are a blank slate. Recently, for instance, I heard a fellow writer describe me as “someone who does not create characters”. I had to laugh, as, in the case of NEXT MEN, DANGER UNLIMITED, BABE, etc., every single character who appeared in the book, from the “stars” down through some guy walking on the street, was a pristine creation, never seen before.
MDT: What are the drawbacks to each? What are the advantages to each?
JB: They are sufficiently different entities that it very much becomes an “apples and oranges” situation. Each has its own advantages, each its own drawbacks. And, as is so often the case, their are drawbacks and advantages within each project, even within each book.
MDT: You have dabbled in novels. Any chances to see your hand at screenwriting?
JB: Sometimes I think I should write the screenplay first, and use that as the outline for my novels. But screenplays are somewhat terra incognita to me. I am not familiar enough with the “language” to be comfortable writing them, yet. I’m much rather have Hollywood pay me a million dollars to option one of my existing novels!!
MDT: Any new novels in the works?
JB: Always, though nothing presently in the works feels like “the next one”.
MDT: You are an outspoken critic of the comics industry and yet you work within the industry. How do you reconcile the fact that you criticize the industry from which you consistently receive a paycheck? Is it the mindset of changing the industry from the inside, rather than outside of the industry (like a Jimmy Carter of comic books)?
JB: Back that down a notch. I am not a critic of the whole industry, by any means. I am a critic of the wrong-headedness which sometimes — as now — comes to control the industry. To this end, in my little Jimmeny Cricket fashion, I like to keep reminding people of how much more successful the whole thing was, back when we were doing it right.
MDT: In what shape is the comic book industry today?
JB: Coughing blood in a corner. Raped and pillaged. And, alas, the rapers and pillagers are still in charge. They wear different faces, but the attitude remains the same.
MDT: In talking to Jim Starlin, he expressed seeing comics today more as a product. You’ve expressed nearly the same sentiment in saying that selling books is about marketing and not about content. Are those feelings still the same?
JB: In the sense that that seems to be how the Suits see things, yes. Obviously, our job is to sell comic books — but, for me, I’d much rather do it with content than with the latest stupid gimmick!!
MDT: Is there anything that would “save” the comic book industry? If there is no deus ex machina for the industry, then what things would help improve the market (say, to bring back Next Men)?
JB: A time machine would come in handy, right about now. Go back about fifteen years and shoot all those people who didn’t listen when I predicted the present state of the industry as the natural outcome of what the industry was doing, or starting to do, then. Basically — we must get the product back into the maximum number of venues, in cheap and accessible packages. Comics are primarily a cyclical fad, and they depend upon new readers being able to spontaneously discover them, on a spinner rack, at the drugstore, or the Mom & Pop, or the grocery story, or the bus depot, etc., etc. As long as new blood has to make a conscious decision to walk into a comic book shop, looking for comics, and as long as the comics we produce continue to be aimed at the wrong audience – witness Gareb Shamus and his insane attempts, of late, to rekindle the speculator mentality!! – the industry has slim hope of recovery, or even survival.
“As long as new blood has to make a conscious decision to walk into a comic book shop, looking for comics, and as long as the comics we produce continue to be aimed at the wrong audience…the industry has slim hope of recovery, or even survival.”
– John Byrne
MDT: People tend to get caught up in nostalgia and, in my generation’s case, that the 80s were some great time for (insert a comic book company here). Has the comics industry (practices, attitudes, work) changed that drastically that nostalgia is justified?
JB: The industry is always changing. Nostalgia is possible almost on a year to year basis! Certainly, the books being produced today have very little in common with the books as they were when I got into the biz, which were themselves quite dramatically different from the books I read as a kid.
MDT: If you were starting out today, what would your chances be that you would have the same success and longevity?
JB: If I was starting today, I probably would not be starting at all! There is very little in comics, today, that I find entertaining. I cannot see myself feeling particularly inclined to get into the business, if it would be to produce the kind of stuff that seems to be the bulk of the product nowadays.
MDT: You mentioned of competing against your own legend if you were to return to a book you’ve done before. Is that the kind of pressure you’re up against when you tinker with a major character?
JB: No. I have not “tinkered” with any characters with which I have previously been closely associated. The association usually comes from the “tinkering”.
MDT: Roger Stern has always been around writing many a title for Marvel and DC in the 80s and 90s. Apparently he will continue to do so. He’s been around for Kurt Busiek on Thunderbolts, Iron Man, and Avengers Forever. You and he are writing the Marvel: The Lost Generation maxi-series for Marvel. First, do you and Roger have more projects, post-MLG, in mind? Second, why is it that other comic book writers and creators look up to him? Are they the same reasons you tapped him to work with on MLG?
JB: Roger is a damn good writer, which is pretty much all you need to say about him. He understands storytelling, in the comic book sense, he knows the history of the characters and the “universes” with which he works and — most important, he knows that a writer should begin by asking “Can I write Captain Fonebone stories?” not “Can I use Captain Fonebone to write my kind of stories?”
MDT: From whom do you draw influence (any genre) when you first started? Are these the same ones you use today?
JB: Everything is an influence. As my accountant says, “Life is a reference”. Even stuff I don’t like influences me, as I try not to do that! There have been almost too many artists to name, down through the years, each of whom has had some kind of impact on my work. The earliest was probably my paternal grandfather, who used to hold me on his lap, when I was all of three years old, and guide my hand to draw on a small slate with chalk. The most recent would be — well, whoever I saw yesterday!
MDT: You have gone without a monthly title for stretches at a time. One question that I always wonder about with freelancers, how do you survive in the lean times? What do you do?
JB: While it may seem that I have gone without monthly titles, this has never really been the case. Sometimes there is a delay factor, a lead time, between one project ending and another beginning, but that is an illusion of publishing schedules, not mine. Except for the occasional vacation — once every ten years, whether I need one or not! — I pretty much always have the same amount of work in front of me, roughly sixty pages a month. Just doesn’t always come out on a monthly schedule.
As to lean times — well, I have never really experienced such, and I hope I never will. My calculations indicate I could survive in pretty much the manner to which I have become accustomed for about six years, with zero income. If I lived like a normal human being, I could last even longer. And, anyway, if I can’t find something else to do in six years, I’d take that as a signal it was time to go walk in front of a bus.
JB: First Marvel comic I was aware of as such. I’d seen some of the monster titles, at the barber shop, mostly, but it was not until FF5 that I really recognized that this was another publishing entity, though not yet as “Marvel Comics”. FF5 blew me away on a lot of levels. It was — again, something I would learn later — the first collaboration between Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott, for instance. The artwork is truly superb. Plus, with the combination of art and writing, the book had an “edge” like nothing DC was putting out at the time. And it was a time-travel story. I’m a sucker for time-travel stories.
MDT: Your run consisted of a little over 5 years worth of work. The only creator that’s lasted longer is Claremont on X-Men. What kept you going on FF as long as you did?
JB: Didn’t Paul Ryan do more FFs than I? Either way — the love of the characters was what kept me there. And, in many respects, it was what inspired me to leave. I felt I could no longer give the characters their due.
MDT: You left the series in the middle of one of the bigger storylines that was unfolding. Can you explain what happened at that time?
JB: A lot of factors, most internal office politics, contributed to my finding myself in a position, creatively, where doing the best work I could was simply not good enough. Not for the FF, anyway. I fear I am one of those artists who is heavily impacted by the environment in which he works. The work suffers if I am not happy, and in those final years of Shooter’s reign, I was most definitely not happy!
MDT: From your portrayal of the FF in other books you’ve written for Marvel, it’s obvious that you still have a place in your heart for the FF. What would prevent you from going back to the Fantastic Four? Do you still have stories to tell for them?
JB: I still have FF stories, but Thomas Wolfe said “you can’t go home again”, and I am inclined to agree. The FF was an important chapter of my life, and I am well pleased with most of the work I did there, but in the years since that work has taken on an almost mythic quality in the hearts and minds of many fans. “Second only to Lee and Kirby” I hear, often. So, if I were to return, I would find myself in the unenviable position of competing with my own legend.
MDT: What is your take on Chris Claremont’s run on the FF?
JB: I’ve read only one issue of Chris’s FF all the way through. I would say from that, and skimming others, that he does not have a very good grasp of the characters.
MDT: Can you give more of a concrete example of what Chris missed in his characterization of the FF?
JB: Let’s not turn this into a Claremont dissection.
MDT: Favorite Story? Favorite Character? Favortite Villain (besides Doom)? And the whys…
JB: The Thing is probably my favorite member of the FF, so I expect it would come as no surprise that “This Man, This Monster”, FF 51, is far-and-away my favorite story. The first Galactus trilogy is a knockout, too, deus ex machina ending notwithstanding. My favorite villain, other than Doom, is the Super Skrull, though oddly enough I did not use him in my run on FF. Used him in ALPHA FLIGHT and later in NAMOR, though.
MDT: A bevvy of writers have reduced Doom to cruel or simply without conscience. The great ones have given us many facets with which to view him, as I believe you have done in every instance, in fact believing one day you would revive Super-villian Team-Up or get Doom his own mini-series. What makes Doom such an incredible villain to write for most writers?
JB: Honor. Nobility. The dichotomy of his character. He is cruel and largely without conscience, and yet he can show passions, display curious, self contained virtues that set him apart from any other villain. Plus he’s really fun to draw!
JB: I was looking for a way to infuse some new energy into NAMOR. I’d been on the book for about two years, and I was starting to realize some of the limitations of the character. I suggested to Terry Kavanagh, the editor, that maybe a different artist would inspire a different approach. Jae Lee was Terry’s suggestion.
MDT: For a character that has been around since the 30s, Namor had always been stuck into the pigeon hole of the 3rd rate character. What was it that drew you to write/draw a new series around him?
JB: Just love the character! Always have, since I was introduced to him in FANTASTIC FOUR 6. Realized, though, that he is one of those characters like the Vision or Wolverine, who really works better in a group motif, not in a solo book. (One of the reasons I brought in so many supporting cast members, for NAMOR. Building a group book he could interact in!)
MDT: Did you find that you developed the spark of interest for him like the Fantastic Four or was it another Alpha Flight experience?
JB: Not as bad as ALPHA, by any means. After all, when I hit the wall on ALPHA, I was done. NAMOR, I just looked for another approach.
MDT: The one thing I always remember is the retro comic book that you published in the first 7 issues or so of Namor that depicted the 1930s exploits of Namor (drawn ala Bill Everett’s style and lettering). In the vein of your recent retro adventures, any chance of seeing a series focused on the First Son of Atlantis in past exploits?
JB: Doubt there would be much of an audience. That sort of thing is okay in its place – as done in that issue of NAMOR, for instance – but it would get old, fast, if it was the whole kit and kaboodle.
MDT: There wasn’t the greatest fan reaction when it came to Spider-Man Chapter One. Many have made reference to the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” in relation to your updates of the character and his supporting casts. Did the project originate with you? If so, why did you want to do this? If not, what was the overriding guidelines you were given?
JB: The project originated with Ralph Macchio, the Spider-Man editor, who thought it might be a good idea to tweak some of the more dated elements of Spidey’s origin. Nothing that wasn’t “broke” was “fixed”. The origin and the interpersonal relationships of the characters remained precisely the same. Only window-dressing was altered. Fan reaction, by the way, was much more positive than some seem to think. Sales were good, mail was good, and only a few loud and repetitive cyber-geeks gave the illusion there was any sort of wide-spread dissatisfaction. After all, Ralph asked me if I would like to do CHAPTER TWO – hardly an indication that the book had been less than what Marvel wanted!
MDT: Many made off-handed comments (and parodies) that you would work at reworking the Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, in reference to the revisionism of Spider-Man. What is your evaluation of the criticism you received for doing the mini-series? Were the criticisms valid in any respect? Anything in hindsight that you might have done differently?
JB: The references to WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT leave me somewhat mystified – this being the first time I have heard them – since each of them worked far greater changes on their character (the Charlton superheroes, and Batman) than CHAPTER ONE even began to approach. WATCHMEN, for instance, took the characters so far from what Dick Giordano considered their true centers that he had them changed into “different characters” and went ahead with the Charltom characters elsewhere.
As I said, above, however, the criticisms of CHAPTER ONE seemed to come mostly from people who had not read it, or had not understood what they read. Much like the tempest in a teapot that sprang up around MAN OF STEEL – which did far more alteration of the original text that CO even tried to do.
And, no, there is nothing about CHAPTER ONE I would have done differently. Nothing I could do differently, really, to meet the mandate presented by Ralph and Marvel.
THE LAST GALACTUS STORY
MDT: The Epic Magazine folded due to many reasons, but one of its legacies it left dangling was the end of a story that never came: The Last Galactus Story. In a Marvel Age interview in 1988, you talked about the lingering nature of that story and about possibly publishing it at a later date. Then I remember reading about 6 years ago about how, because of continuity problems (Nova dead, Galactus’ history changed) in the current Marvel universe, that that story would never see an end published to it. Essentially making it like the joke without a punchline in Breakfast Club. Can you talk a little about how that story eventually fell into what seems to be permanent limbo? Has there been any talk of reviving it in the last five years? What would you like to see happen to it?
JB: “The Last Galactus Story” is pretty much dead, at this point. Too much has happened, since, as you note. Mostly, alas, writers playing off the cliché I was trying to undo – that Galactus always loses his Heralds for one reason or another. I thought it was kinda neat to show that Nova was still his Herald, billions of years in the future.
For the edification of your readers, though, this is how “The Last Galactus Story” ends”
Galactus battles the Watcher who showed up at the end of the last published chapter. This turns out to be the same Watcher who witnessed the “birth” of Galactus – yes, that was not Uatu – and who has been driven insane by his guilt over all the deaths that have happened because, as he sees it, he did not snuff out the nacent Galactus when he had the chance.
As the two battle, over millennia, the universe basically dies around them. The stars burn out. No “Big Crunch” of everything collapsing back onto itself to be born again. Entropy wins over all. As the universe verges on flickering out of existence, Galactus draws into himself the last shreds of energy, giving him just enough of an edge to defeat the rogue Watcher. But then Galactus and Nova are alone in an empty, endless void. The universe as we know it is gone.
Galactus finally understands what it’s all about. What he’s been doing all these billions of years. He cracks the seals on his armor, and all the energy he has absorbed spews out of him. He becomes, effectively, the Big Band of the next universe. Nova survives – and herself becomes the “Galactus” of that universe, the cycle beginning once again.
MDT: Next Men was a bit of a departure for you. It was a darker book that explored themes that you were not able to fully explore in corporate books. Was that an intent from the get-go or did it evolve that way?
JB: From the beginning it was my intent that NEXT MEN be “realistic”. I had grown tired of fans praising as “realistic” works which I thought were anything but. WATCHMEN, or instance. Brilliant, yes. Realistic? No. So I thought I would see what I could do with superheroes in the “real world”. Explore the impact their existence would have. Almost of their own accord, the stories took a “darker” turn. I suppose that plays to my own lack of faith in the basic nature of humankind. In my “regular” work I always writer about the inherent nobility of the human spirit. In NEXT MEN I let my true attitudes steer the book!
MDT: You were able to really spread your wings in the series and then it abruptly ended with a next issue at the end, but one that hasn1t materialized since then. In an earlier interview, you said you had the book vaguely plotted up through fifty. What are you plans for the Next Men? What has prevented you from bringing them back up to this point?
JB: I set NEXT MEN aside fully intending to return to the series in no more than six months. That was about six years ago. What I did not count on was the virtual collapse of the whole comic book industry, which seemed to occur at just the time I put NEXT MEN on the shelf. Mea culpa? In the present, very depressed marketplace, I don’t feel NEXT MEN would have much chance, so I leave the book hybernating until such time as the market improves.
MDT: Many lauded Danger Unlimited with critical, touting it as some of your best work to date. Are there any plans to resurrect that book also? Any plans to return to Dark Horse or any other indie publisher for some more creator-owned material?
JB: I would always be interested in doing more creator-owned work, but it remains a secondary consideration. I have much more fun playing with the “toys” that were so important to me as a kid, reading comics. And fun is what it’s all about, after all.
MDT: You’re now writing and drawing the “lost years” of the original X-Men (the time between X-Men #67 and Giant Size X-Men #1). What kind of perspective has this given you on your original run of the Uncanny X-Men (#108-143, with breaks) you drew (and co-plotted for the most part) with Chris Claremont?
JB: HIDDEN YEARS is the book I wanted to do when I started at Marvel, though not under that title, obviously. I would have loved nothing more than to have stepped right into the gap created by the departure of Roy Thomas and Neal Adams – but, of course, I was nowhere near competent enough to do so, even had Marvel had any interest in resurrecting the X-Men’s book. Which, at that time, they did not. Just as well, I think, since I’m much more capable of giving the characters the treatment they deserve now that I ever would have been then. As to any sort of perspective this gives me on my previous X-Men work – that’s not so easy to define. I am a better artist now than I was then, and my comprehension of storytelling is improved considerably. But those books were very much of their time and place, very much children of the circumstances under which they were created – the sort of “Gilbert and Sullivan” relationship with Chris, for instance – and it would be difficult to imagine them as existing in any other context, so, consquently, difficult to draw any straight parallels between the work then and the work now.
MDT: Are there any moments that you regretted leaving Uncanny X-Men? What kind of decision process did you go through to arrive at that moment?
JB: No real regrets, no. I’d reach a place in my life and my career that I needed certain reassurances. I’d become the Number One Artist in the business – deservedly or not – and I really needed to know if that was because of me, or because of the X-Men. Plus, I was increasingly unhappy with Chris’s portrayal of the characters, and his scripting of scenes, many of which I’d plotted. So, I decided to leave.
MDT: Chris Claremont has returned to the main X-Men titles (Uncanny and adjectiveless) after an eight-year respite. The inevitable question that you face every time is coming, but I1ll try to be a tad fresher. What would it take for you to return to the X-Men in the present? More money? More creative control?
JB: If you’re asking if I would work with Chris again, the answer is “Nothing”. There’s nothing that would make me go back there. It would just be too frustrating. He and I were miles apart even when we were working on the book the first time. That gulf has only grown with the years. If you’re asking what would get me back there on my own, without Chris, again, I can’t really think of anything that would serve as an enticement. The characters have been taken too far from the ones I know and like. The storylines have become too convoluted. Frankly, I would not be interested in doing all the homework necessary jut to catch up!
MDT: What’s your relationship with Chris Claremont currently? Is it a civil professional relationship or is it more friendly than that? Besides X-Men, has there been talk of you and he collaborating on any other project together: plots, characters, completely original?
JB: Bob Harras asks me to do something with Chris again about twice a year. Somehow he seems to think such a collaboration would save Marvel and the Industry as a whole. I think the opposite. My relationship with Chris is cordial and professional, but I have no desire to work with him again.
MDT: You had a brief return to X-Men (both books), albeit as what you refer to as a “hired typist,” basically, to come up with the words.2 And then when you asked for more than two days to script the art, you were fired and Scott Lobdell filled the vacuum. What kind of feelings did you have about your treatment in this situation? Has this sort of situation soured you on returning to those books (especially considering Bob Harras is still running the X-line of books)?
JB: It was a truly bizarre and frustrating adventure, that brief tenure as scripter on the two X-Men books. I’d need a dozen pages just to begin to explain how ridiculous it all became, trying to simply do the work, with Jim and Whilce plotting, and changing their own plots from page to page, as they drew, without warning. It was a nightmare. I should add that I was not “fired” by the way. That would indicate a much more “proactive” event that what really happened. I was kind of “nothinged” off the book. I didn’t even find out I was no longer scripting until Terry Austin mentioned that he’d heard it from a friend of Lobdell’s. No one at Marvel actually told me!
MDT: In light of Fabian Nicieza’s recent firing from Gambit (and seemingly to be replaced by Scott Lobdell [eerie parallels]), should he be surprised at this kind of treatment from Marvel? Has there ever been talk of creating a union of creators to prevent shoddy treatment of work-for-hire creators like Nicieza?
JB: Anyone who is “surprised” by shoddy treatement from Marvel, DC, or any other comicbook company, has not been paying attention. The industry does not take care of its own. Ask Steve Ditko.
MDT: You reworked one of the honest-to-God most screwed-up characters at DC and made a post-Crisis gem. Clean and devoid of the Super-(put your pronoun here) characters. Your rework seemed to mirror much of what Alexander Salkind did in the original Superman movie. How much of that film was an influence on your work? If not, what kind of approach did you apply to redefining Superman at the time?
JB: First, let’s give credit where credit is due. That would be Richard Donner’s movie, much more than Salkind’s. Donner was the director, and he provided the thrust. And, yes, he also provided a couple of important insights, for me, into the character of Superman. One was the absence of Superboy. So much of Superman’s personality and history made much more sense if, as originally presented by Seigel and Shuster, he made his debut as an adult. Then there was the preception of power. I’ve mentioned many times how very aware I was that, after seeing him push over mountains and lift the San Andreas fault, the theater audience cheered when they saw him rip of a car door. That was comprehensible power. Oddly, the one thing in my version that most people seem to think was heavily inspired by the movie, my portrayal of Krypton, was not at all. I came from an entirely different direction, looking for that “look”. I even went so far as to make “my” Krypton a desert work, so as not to be “confused” with the ice planet of the movie.
MDT: After your departure in Superman #22, most of those complications came back into play and have situated themselves back into the Superman mythos once again: Supergirl, Comet, Superboy, etc. Any thoughts on these post-Byrne additions?
JB: A real mea culpa this time. In doing Superman, I thought it might be fun to bring back a couple of the old bits – Mxyzptlk and Supergirl, for instance – but with different twists. Apparently, this opened the floodgates, so the writers who followed began dumping all the bits and peices back, pell mell, into the mix. I would not say it was entirely a successful operation, speaking strictly as a reader.
MDT: Can you talk a little about why you left Superman and the circumstances under which that happened?
JB: DC hired me to revamp Superman, and then immediately chickened out. They backed off at the first whiff of fan disapproval, which came months before anyone had actually seen the work. During the whole two years I was on the project, although nothing happened that was not approved by DC editorial, there was no conscious support. They even continued to lisence the “previous” Superman. At one point, Dick Giordano said “You have to realize there are now two Supermen – the one you do and the one we lisence.” Seemed counter-productive, to say the least, since far more people saw the lisenced material. After two years of this nonsense, I was just worn down. The fun was gone.
MDT: You’ve made the occassional Superman story (Generations the most recent), but, again has there ever been talk of your return to the title? Have there been offers on the title? If so, what kind of offers? If not, what would it take to lure you back?
JB: No one has offered me Superman, and I very much doubt I would take the offer if made. I prefer the “off to the side” stuff, like GENERATIONS and the planned GENERATIONS 2, upcoming. Places where I can practise my own version of the Hipocratic Oath: “First do no harm!”
MDT: If you can talk about it, what kind of plans are there for Generations 2? Is there a chance to see some preview artwork?
JB: GENERATIONS 2 will “overlap” – if that’s an appropriate word, in this context – GENERATIONS, taking place in a different set of years, again each separated by a decade. In order to maintain the “tradition” of G1, which came out in 1999, the year covered by the last “modern” chapter, G2 will start in 1931 and run through 2001. As before, the “modern” stuff will be the “future” predicted by the earlier issues. Nothing is on paper, yet, so I have no “previews” for you.
MDT: One of the shortest runs on a character that you plotted and sub-plotted for in those five issues. What happened?
JB: “Betrayal” would be an excessively strong word for what happened. I took on the Hulk after a discussion with Shooter, in which I mentioned some of the things I would like to do with that character, given the chance. He told me to do whatever was necessary to get on the book, he liked my ideas so much. I did, and once installed he immediately changed his mind – “You can’t do this!” Six issues was as much as I could take.
MDT: You returned to write the new series and then within the space of 7 issues were cut from the book. Can you talk a little about what happened in that situation?
JB: I was filled with trepidation, following in George Perez’s very large footsteps, even a decade after the fact. I had enjoyed about 90% of what George did with the character, and saw ways I could address that “missing” 10% without damaging what he had done. So I did!
MDT: Some fans were disappointed with the direction you took Diana. What was your reaction when you saw some of the negative press on this series that you obviously worked so hard on? Did you feel it was warranted? If so, why? If not, why not?
JB: The negative responses mystified me. Mostly they seemed to come from the “anything that is different is wrong” mentality, so prevalent on the InterNet – but sometimes they seemed to come from utter confusion. Nothing I did altered in so much as a whit what George had done – though there were some things people thought George had done, which he actually had not, that I treated as presented, rather than as they thought it had been presented. Those were viewed as “changes”, though in fact they were not. Mostly, my whole thrust was to give the character the kind of position she really deserved in the heirarchyt at DC. People would invoke the “Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman” triumverate, yet so often the fans dismissed Diana as a much-less-than-second rate character.
MDT: What was the reaction from DC on your work on Wonder Woman?
JB: I understand they have pretty much undone everything I did. Perhaps they want her a much-less-than-second-rate character.
NEW GODS/JACK KIRBY’S FOURTH WORLD
JB: Not precisely. I asked that the title be changed to JACK KIRBY’S NEW GODS, and someone at DC evidently decided a whole new title, and therefore a new #1, would be a better marketing ploy. I never much cared for the FOURTH WORLD title, as it made no sense to anyone not familiar with the characters.
MDT: Walt Simonson has taken over Orion and seem to make a good go of it. Any intention of drawing/writing some back-up stories in the vein of Dave Gibbons & Frank Miller?
JB: I’d talked to Walter about doing a backup, but nothing is definite.
MDT: Kirby continues to hold a position of great affection in your heart from the characters you choose at both companies (the original X-Men, the FF, Jack Kirby’s New Gods, etc.). What does Kirby’s work mean to you?
JB: Kirby is a synergism. The whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. There are people who are better writers. There are people who are better artists. There are even people who are better concept creators. But Kirby was all these things, and the parts feed each other in such a way as to create the comicbook equivalent of a Force of Nature. It is difficult to overestimate his importance in the history of the industry.
MDT: Second now only to FF, this book was the closest thing to you it seemed: a super-hero team spread across the vast space of Canada and not just Canadian clones of the Avengers. At what point did you decide to give up the book in lieu of the Incredible Hulk (a comparatively short run)? Any regrets in the long run?
JB: ALPHA FLIGHT was never much fun. The characters were created merely to survive a fight with the X-Men, and I never thought about them having their own title. When Marvel finally cajolled me into doing ALPHA FLIGHT, I realized how incredibly two-dimensional they were, and spend some twenty-eight issues trying to find ways to correct this fault. Nothing really sang for me. If I have any regrets, it would probably be that I did the book at all! It was not a good time for me.
MDT: Any thoughts of reviving the team with your particular twist on them?
JB: Well, based on the above. . . .
MDT: What’s your take on the last incarnation of the team?
JB: Didn’t look. Saw a poster of them with steroidic muscles and constipated grimaces, and thought “Okay! No need to even open an issue!”
AVENGERS WEST COAST
MDT: You started out your run with a bang by breaking down and redefining the Vision. What kind of resistance did this meet initially?
JB: None. In fact, that was conditional to my doing the book. “Can I do my Vision story?” The editor said “Sure”, and off we went!
MDT: The goofy group of rag-tag heroes still survives today in various titles (Thunderbolts, Deadpool): The Great Lakes Avengers. Although now they’ve been renamed the Lightning Rods. For some writers at Marvel, they seemed to hold interest still. What was your intention for this team? Is there interest in exploring them any further than you have?
JB: I planned to do more with the GLC, yes. I wanted to “evolve” them into a real team, a worthy team. They would get proper names, instead of the deliberately goofy ones I gave them to start, and we would see more of their backgrounds.
THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK
MDT: With the work you did with this character in the FF and her own title, you obviously see something in her you like. Rumor always has it that you’re working up a new proposal for her. Can you lay some of that to rest, one way or the other?
JB: Rumor is, as rumor often is, wrong. I am not working on anything She-Hulk related, at present. I still like the character, but Marvel has no interest in a She-Hulk project. Not by me, anyway.
MDT: What haven’t you done professionally that you still would wish to do?
JB: I would have to say I have done it all. Everything I ever wanted to do. Now, the challenge becomes finding different ways of doing the same thing!
MDT: What creative goal do you have that you know no company would let you do?
JB: Hmmm! I don’t think there are any. I was never one to storm the barricades and tear down the establishment. I like playing with the toys too much to want to break them!
MDT: What character haven’t you tackled that you would like to and what kind of story do you envision?
JB: I’ve a fondness for Hawkman, but I don’t think DC is interested in anything I might want to do with the character. Likewise, the Doom Patrol. Dr. Strange is also more intriguing now than in the past.
MDT: Speaking of Hawkman, here is one of the oldest surviving characters that has never got any kind of critical/financial success anytime that a series has been relaunched. DC is looking to revamp and relaunch yet another one (from all indications) within another year or so. What kind of ideas do you have about his character? What has been the failure on DC1s part to ignite reader’s imaginations with this character?
JB: I’m not prepared to discuss what I might do with Hawkman – too many instances in the past of discussing plans in interviews, only to see them turn up later under another writer’s byline – but as to where DC has gone wrong, well, overcomplication would seem the most obvious. The Golden and Silver Age Hawkmen – Hawkmans? – were characters you could sum up in the traditional twenty-five words or less.
Something rather amusing, too, came when I was inking the Wonder Woman chapter for SERGIO ARAGONES DESTROYS THE DC UNIVERSE, and for the first time found myself working on what was the current Hawkman of the time, albeit as penciled by Sergio, and only in one panel. As I inked all the flanges and pouches and noodly stuff all over the character, I realized one of the single greatest failings of all the “updated” versions – none of them looked like a character who flew. They were all lumpy and bumpy, and not sleek or birdlike in any way.
MDT: You’ve always had a way of bringing out second string characters and making them viable and much less pathetic than their origins would have allowed them (Egg Fu, Some of the New Gods, Plant Man, Diablo). Is there something that draws you to bring these characters into your stories? Is it the challenge of making them viable that has you use them?
JB: Neal Adams once said there is no such thing as a bad character, only bad writers. I agree. When a writer says “this is a lame character” he’s really admitting his own failings as a writer. Every character has something good, something that can be mined and developed.
“His work was inspired and, as he will testify, second only to Lee and Kirby’s trailblazing stories.”
On Monday, the above statement was amended to more accurately paraphrase Byrne thusly:
“His work was inspired and, as he’s heard other people testify, second only to Lee and Kirby’s trailblazing stories.”