Saturday, August 13, 2011

Spotlight On: John Byrne

Doug: A couple of weeks ago, regular reader J.A. Morris made a comment on our Joe Sinnott spotlight that prompted this post. He remarked how different the work of John Byrne was during his tenure as writer/artist on the Fantastic Four, as compared with his first stint when he was a co-creator and inked by Joe Sinnott. That got me to thinking about just how truly different those two runs were; to see the later issues, it's quite possible that a non-observant reader might not have associated the artists as one and the same. Of course, we could also discuss here Byrne's credits as the primary plotter and scribe during his long run into the 1980's -- some have compared it to the phenomenal, seminal work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on the FF during the Silver Age.

Doug: And then we get to Superman over at DC Comics. Controversial? You bet. And Byrne just seemed to relish that role. It's funny to think now about how that franchise was just stood on its ear. Much as
Frank Miller had returned Batman to his Golden Age roots, Byrne did likewise for Clark Kent in the Man of Steel limited series. No longer possessing god-like power, this updated (or backdated) Superman was barely able to leap a tall building in a single bound. Legal issues crept into the stories, though, that were perhaps not executed in fine fashion -- the reintroduction of the matrix Supergirl comes to mind here. Just because the copyright had to be protected...

Doug: So what do you think about Mr. Byrne? Is he better left to his own devices? That didn't seem to work out too well for
our pal the Vision. Or, is he a better collaborator, instilling his ideas to meld with those of capable writers like Chris Claremont or Jim Shooter? And of his work, what's your favorite, and what didn't you care too much for?


Rip Jagger said...

I'm working through some of Byrne's earliest Charlton work right now, and his energy and spirit are evident throughout. Here's a guy who loves what he does.

His Marvel work had that fantastic energy, especially his FF run. I hold that as his best work ever frankly.

The last time alas that I fully was engaged by his work was his Next Men. Since then it seems while he produces professional enough material he hacks it out a bit, though at a reasonably high level. It lacks the spirit I detect in his earliest material.

He's never bad, but sadly in more recent years rather dull.

He's helped immensely when he's inked. Tom Palmer elevated the X-Men Hidden Years material, and all of his stuff at DC looked better under an inker's hand.

I respect his work, though the man can seem off the wall a bit these days.

Rip Off

Edo Bosnar said...

First off, I have to say that Byrne is my absolute favorite comic book artist, bar none. There's very little I've seen of his artwork, from the earliest Charlton stuff to the most recent IDW titles, that I haven't at least liked - but usually I love it. To address Rip's point above, which is a criticism I often see, i.e., that his more recent work is too sloppy, scratchy, hackish, etc., I obviously don't agree with that view. In fact, those IDW Star Trek titles he did are the first Trek comics I've seriously read.
That said, I don't idolize his writing in the same way, although I would honestly have to say he's still pretty high up on my list of favorite comic book writers. Obviously, I loved his FF run, really enjoyed Next Men, and I generally respected what he did with Superman. His Batman/Captain America team-up is one of my favorite Marvel/DC crossovers-Elseworlds, together with Generations (the first two anyway). However, I really didn't like X-men Hidden Years. The idea was great, but the execution was really off and the stories often seemed to meander pointlessly.
As to his controversial handling of Vision in Avengers West Coast: I guess I'm kind of an oddball among Bronze Age fans in that I was never a big fan of the Vision-Scarlet Witch marriage, but I agree that the way Byrne resolved that was brutal and way over-the-top. In fact, except for introducing the Great Lakes Avengers, his whole run on WCA was pretty bleak...

Doug said...

I think Byrne is at his best when his characters have some depth to them, as we are presently seeing in the X-Men issues we are reviewing. Terry Austin rounded out Byrne's figurework, which can tend toward elongation of the necks and torsos -- particularly when Byrne inks himself (as in his second tenure on the FF). Even though I've stated my general dislike for Pablo Marcos' facial inking, even the Count Nefaria Avengers issues we did featured some quite nice Byrne art.

As to his writing, one of the things that I've always enjoyed about his work is his use of subplots. His formula was to generally give a couple of one-page foreshadows that would evolve and eventually become story revelations at a later point. However, as has been said, it seemed that once into the 1990's he could tend to meander, seemingly noodling along with no real focus as to a pay-off. That is why I would have to say that he might work best as a co-plotter (although I don't want to denigrate his volumes of fine solo-work -- just looking for the best of both worlds I guess).

New Supergirl -- no. Vision -- while you can also count me as one who's never been able to get past the ickiness of Wanda's marriage to an artificial construct, I still don't like the way that was handled. Original Human Torch -- no. Very cool to think of the possibilities of his return, but not at the cost of the Vision. Next Men -- very fun. Wish I'd seen it through to its latest incarnation.

Keep 'em coming, folks!


William said...

I'm huge Byrne fan and have (in some form or another) just about every comic he ever did (at least for Marvel and DC anyway). He's not only my all-time favorite artist, but also one of my favorite writers as well. I personally consider him to be one of the best (if not the THE best) all-around comic-book storytellers in the history of the medium. He seems to share a lot of my opinions of what good comics should be. Clear storytelling that is fast paced, exciting and fun, paired with dynamic, clean and colorful artwork while maintaining a respect for the history and integrity of the characters.

Byrne was the first artist that I ever "recognized". Meaning when I began to realize that I really liked certain comics more than others I started to pay attention to the credits and noticed that JB was usually the artist.

In fact I now realize that a lot of the characters that are favorites of mine to this day are because they appeared in Byrne drawn comics that I read when I was a kid. Such as The Absorbing Man (Avengers #183-184), The Wrecking Crew (Iron Fist #11-12), Super Skrull (Marvel Team-Up #61-62) Havok (Marvel Team-Up #69)Scott Lang Ant-Man (Marvel Premier #47-48), Grey Gargoyle (Avengers #190-191), Super Count Nefaria (Avengers #164-166), etc.

Personally I think his best stuff (art-wise) is still his late 70's / early 80's Marvel work on titles like the X-Men, Marvel Team-Up, Avengers and Iron Fist. I also think his art usually looks best when inked by someone else (especially Terry Austin). That said I also loved his writer/artist stint on Fantastic Four and his Superman revamp. In fact the only time I ever regularly bought Superman for any extended length of time was during his tenure.

But, I don't automatically buy everything he does these days for the same reasons that Rip mentioned. I think the last thing he worked on that I bought regularly was "X-Men The Hidden Years". It seems in the last few years his stuff has looked a bit rushed and he seems to have lost a little of his passion for the craft. I pretty much always just attributed it to the natural process of getting older and a little Byrned out (oooo sorry about that). Kind of like an aging rock star. Mick Jagger comes to mind. Still rockin', but just not with quite as much energy as he used to.

Dougie said...

I was first aware of Byrne's pencils on Champions and I adored the two issues that I bought from the newsagent. But I was blown away by Byrne/Austin on the first Hudson/Weapon Alpha X-men issue. It became my must-buy title and remianed so for nearly 16 years, superceding the Avengers.
I was wild about FF from "Wendy's Friends" onwards although I felt the series ran out of steam around Secret Wars II. On the other hand, almost every issue of Alpha Flight was innovative and exciting.

I then followed Byrne to Superman but I found most of the stories somewhat pedestrian. WCA was the last series in which I felt Byrne could make really sweeping but logical changes to Marvel standbys.

What turned me off about Next Men, Omac and most of Byrne's work in the last couple of decades has been the bleakness and sadism: the torture of Jazz, Buddy Blank and the Chief and Etrigan's gruesome face-biting exploits being just some examples off the top of my head.

William said...

More thoughts on John Byrne...

I think that one of the main reasons that Byrne stood out and became my favorite artist when I was young (and one of the things that made him great) is that he is the first comic artist that I can remember that didn't use a "standard" body type for all his male characters. If you look at the other big artists of the time such as John Romita, John Buscema, Neil Adams, etc., they all seemed to draw just about every male character with the exact same basic body type. Characters like Spider-Man, Captain America, Daredevil and even Iron Man where all portrayed as having pretty much the same height and build.

Even in Cockrum's X-Men, characters like Wolverine (who's supposed to be short and stocky) and Nightcrawler (who's supposed to be small and wiry) had the same body type as Cyclops (who is supposed to be tall and thin). However, when Byrne started drawing the X-Men everyone suddenly looked much more like an individual. Wolverine was drawn like a pint-sized, hairy tank, Nightcrawler became a nimble, agile dark elf and Cyclops was "Slim Summers" once again.

And in other books like Marvel Team-Up and the Fantastic Four, when Byrne drew Spider-Man, for instance, he was always smaller and thinner than characters like Daredevil who, in turn, was slightly smaller than Captain America, etc. One of the earliest (and best) examples of Byrne's definitive Spider-Man was in Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man #58 (wherein Spider-Man fights the Ringer). Spidey had never looked better to me than in that issue. When I first saw it, I was completely blown away. To me, that WAS Spider-Man. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed that Byrne only stuck around for that one story. I read that one so many times I had to buy a replacement copy.

When he was at his peak Byrne seemed to just draw everything perfectly. I always marveled at how slick and super clean his artwork was. He never had a wasted line. But at the same time it was incredibly rich in depth and detail. IMO, it was that level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that elevated Byrne above all of his contemporaries.

MattComix said...

People saying "his old stuff was better" is something that really gets under Byrne's skin and understandably so, I mean who the hell would ever want to hear that shit from people about what they do?

But I think what people (myself included) are really trying to articulate is that they enjoyed something about the LOOK of his earlier work as opposed to his skill as an artist. They like the look of his X-Men and FF. They like the look of his Superman work (for me Byrne+Kesel).

Just as an example it really seems to my eyeballs like when he draws Superman now he's about a head shorter and a bit skinnier than the one he drew in the 80's. But I don't think Byrne had some calculated master plan for doing this nor did he just say "blah I don't care!" It could just be that he got used to drawing him based on Joe Shuster art when he was doing Generations.

At the end of the day that is what many of us are responding to, the aesthetic rather than anything the guy is doing in terms of actual drawing mechanics or draftsmanship.

Donkey Lady said...

Byrne = Mel Gibson

I used to enjoy his work, but having discovered how horrible he can be via his message forum, I can't make myself enjoy any of his work. Even the work I enjoyed previously! He's a commodity that we should know nothing about outside the comic page.

MattComix said...

Is he actually being horrible as in being rude or mean, or is he just being very blunt and honest in his low opinion of the current comicbook industry and how it handles superheroes?

I'm not asking necessarily to defend him but I know John's not a creator who feels any obligation to worship at the altar of Watchmen.

J.A. Morris said...

Sorry I'm late to this "meeting", been away from the net a few days.

I'll start by saying I'm a big fan of Byrne's work in general, his pencils looked their best when Austin inked them. I thought Pablo Marcos, Joe Rubinstein and Dan Green also did okay inking him.
With Sinnott inking Byrne, we got the traditional "house-style" FF, but you could still see Byrne's art.
Some inkers like Klaus Janson and Tom Palmer,IMHO, over-inked Byrne, to the point that his pencils were barely visible.

And I actually enjoyed the first couple dozen self-inked FF issues.

As a writer, I'd say he was good but not great. I think it also depended on the character. Most of his FF stories were good, but I don't think Alpha Flight was a very good series. Same goes for WCA. And I just bought the reprint of his She-Hulk series, that was lots of fun.

And I'll say it:His old stuff was better, but so what? Kirby old stuff was better too. Same goes for a whole bunch of other all-time great artists. When people think of Kirby, I'll bet they think of FF#1 or Galactus a lot more than they think of the Swine.

Donkey Lady said...

I don't like Watchman and I still think Byrne needs professional help. Matt, you've been a "believer" longer than anyone. Why haven't you tried to help the man with his problems?

J.A. Morris said...

@Donkey Lady, I know what you mean. I used to have an account on his message board and I couldn't believe the way he treated some of his fans, plus he seemed to believe there was a conspiracy of comic book shop owners to make sure titles like 'Lab Rats' and 'Babe' didn't sell.

For about a year or so, I couldn't read any of his stories, but now I'm able to step back and separate the art from the artist. I'd like to think the guy who did all that great work was a different/better person than the "get off my lawn" internet crank of today.

Sam King said...

Just a quick question. When I was a kid I collected Alpha Flight and I noticed JB hid his name in most covers. Did he do this for other titles or just Alpha Flight ?

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