Reassessing John Byrne

I know it’s extraordinarily popular in some spheres to trash John Byrne. That said, at one time when he was utterly on top of his game as a scripter, plotter, character designer and artist, he had few peers and stood shoulder to shoulder with best of his precessors Stan Lee, Steranko, Ditko, Kanigher, Roy Thomas and yes, even Kirby.

He’s carved a unique niche over a long career, doing revamps, retconns and reimagnings galore. A bunch have been igmored, and rightly so. Which ones have stood the test of time?

  1. It was a Good Thing he did, bringing back Jonathan and Martha Kent for the 1986 Superman revamp. I didn’t like it at the time, but in the end, I cannot deny they’re a welcome addition to Clark Kent’s home life and one of only a handful of things he’s done since the retconn that survived.

  2. His revamp of Sue Richards as ultimately the most powerful and versatile member of the Fantastic Four.

  3. He wrote arguably the best Dr. Doom arcs since Lee/Kirby.

I agree with your list, and I’ll add his fourth-wall-breaking She-Hulk. Funny, well-done stuff.

Can you expound on Sue being the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four? Versatile I can understand as her powers have a wide range of utilities but the other three – Ben and Johnny, especially – all seem more obviously powerful.

IIRC, she took out the Hulk by putting a forcefield around his head (feats of superstrength use up a lot of air in a hurry), and threatened Doctor Doom into standing down by quipping that she could put a forcefield bubble inside his armor and expanding it. She’s basically a Green Lantern, only with invisible soldified energy constructs.

I thought it was over done. “Toad Men, Byrne! You’re giving me Toad Men!” made me bust my stitches, but once he got into the calm explanation that Louise aged only because her strip got cancelled, it was hard to keep my eyes open. And then it got worse from there (although IIRC, Byrne left rather early, so some of those later sins could be others failing to do the schtick as well as Byrne did in his early issues).

But anyways, his Alpha Flight was great – I really felt like I got to understand those characters as people, and I was affected by their tragedies. (Although it was never made clear to me why, when the government cut off Dep’t H’s funding, members of Alpha Flight and Beta Flight immediately banded together for good, while the heroes in training immediately banded together for evil.)

Of course, in large part everything we’re talking about here is writing that he did 20 years ago. Will anyone defend the writing he’s doing today? I have no opinion, as I don’t read it, but from everything I hear, it’s usually pretty shitty.

And I don’t think we can ignore the true reason why people don’t like him these days – he has his message board persona, and whether it’s an accurate representation of the man in real life or no, there’s no ignoring that, on his MB, Byrne comes across like a prick of immense proportion.

–Cliffy

For the most part, no. But I liked Superman/Batman: Generations, the unofficial sequel to the “also quite good” Batman/Captain America.

I thought his run at the Fantastic Four was… fantastic. He even made the cosmic stories and the Negative Zone interesting, something I thought was impossible.

Wasn’t he the first to make Galactus seem almost a sympathetic charactor? That counts for something.

With no time limits and color weaknesses or Guardians second guessing her moves. Her powers are also habituated and stamina-based, rather than strictly will-powered.

Her main asset is that, unlike her teammates, (save Reed) her powers can be used offensively, defensively and passively, often all at once. Byrne was the first to recognize that, with a hell of a lot less effort than Johnny and Ben, she can take out the Hulk all by herself.

Some of Byrne’s stuff was great - his reimagining of Superman and his She-Hulk, I loved.

Sometime in the 90s, he sort of went insane, and started believing he was The Best Ever. And his work suffered.

Even some of the work after that is pretty damn good - the first two Generations series were good*, for example. But, on the whole it seems like he began to think ‘I’m John Byrne, and anything I write is brilliant!’ and stopped putting any effort into actually MAKING them so.

  • The third one I couldn’t get past the second issue when I realised either the timeline or characterisation was becoming inconsistant. (Bruce Wayne doing something he could only do in his 20s, Lois Lane acting like she’s 12, and Clark Kent at a point in his Superboy carreer that would suggest being about 16.) Annoying enough when it’s a dozen writers in a shared universe over the course of more than half a century, intollerable when it’s one writer playing in his own sandbox over less than half a decade.

Byrne was the top comics artist from about 1980-86, and quite a popular writer as well. A few things happened to oust him from his peak: He insisted on writing nearly everything he illustrated, his writing was bogged down by his icky personal preoccupations (Distaste for fat people, fascination with abusive sexual relationships and pornography, etc), and he took a lot of shortcuts with his estimable illustration skills (Lots of double-spread pin-ups with surprisingly little detail, an issue of Alpha Flight with seven pages of dialogue and panel borders, but no art, lots of inked figures with no pencilled layout behind them, etc.).

Basically, comics’ Golden Boy was obviously and blatently whoring for the bucks and the readers felt shortchanged. He wrote and drew some non-Marvel/DC projects that made him wealthy, but nobody cared about them. He made some ill-considered public statements, slagging everyone from Jack Kirby to Jessica Alba, and was reputedly kind of a dick at conventions. His behavior at Marv Wolfman’s trial (making faces and sticking his tongue out at Wolfman from the gallery while Wolfman testified) made many people question his mental and emotional stability.

At some point in the 90s, he started to return to the types of project that originally made him famous. He did an X-Men title, The Hidden Years, that was quite good and fairly popular, but it didn’t fit in with the editors’ plans. Of the dozen or so X-books on the racks, they singled Byrne’s out as the one to cancel, and this was a baldfaced injustice. He drew a JLA story scripted by Chris Claremont, a man he has personal issues with but the two men are one of comics’ best and most popular creative teams, and launched a Doom Patrol title.

If you can separate the guy’s talent from his personal antics, he’s still as good as he ever was; it’s just that the bar has been set a lot higher in the last 25 years.

Tengu, while I agree with you, your post come dangerously close to nudging this thread into the kind of Byrne-bashing I want to avoid.

Or is it impossible to separate the artistic works from the actions of the artist?

Another thing I thought Byrne did well, that other writers failed to follow up on, was to set up storylines for Alicia and Johnny’s betrayal of Ben’s affections by having them sleep together. They’re relationship seemed genuinely affectionate even if Ben Grimm got the short end of it, and it annoyed me to no end when later writers tried to ignore it with a stupid revelation. I think they should have stuck with it rather than try to undo it with that ridiculous I married a Skrull wife storyline.

Agreed that The Alpha Flight run was great, and opened up (rather early on) characterization for gay superheroes with the introduction of Northstar. He did similar for lesbians in his Superman revamp with Metropolis’ MCU head, Maggie Sawyer.

Yeeesh, Krokodil. You’re as bad as Tengu!

Most of us understand that Byrne’s a dick. But is it possible to concentrate on the good in his character designs, stories and ideas?

Maybe I should have been clearer in my ground rules.

It most certainly is possible. My post was not about what he’s done outside of his writing. Except where that seems to have actually influenced his writing.

His massive ego is important because about when it started to show, his work rapidly declined - and it’s doubtful that it’s a coincidence, and even more doubtful that the people who see this decline are being influenced by his ego.

Appriciating his good work before he got lazy shouldn’t mean ignoring the downturn - in fact, it makes the downturn even worse, since he’s capable of so much better when he turns down the ego.

I agree with his work on Fantastic Four & She-Hulk. I also loved his early work on X-Men and his way-too-short stint on Captain America (Cap has never been drawn so well).

I agree with his work on Fantastic Four & She-Hulk. I also loved his early work on X-Men and his way-too-short stint on Captain America (Cap has never been drawn so well).

But I still hate Spider-Man: Chapter One

He writes best when he’s off in his own little universe (Generations, Next Men) though I was enjoying both his Doom Patrol and Demon books lately (I stopped for financial reasons).

I think he’s given in to artistic shortcuts and his best work (The X-Men issues early in his career) were that good because of the competitive dynamic between Byrne and Claremont, and the art was clearly influenced by Terry Austin’s inks, which Byrne has been the poorer without lo these many years.

I think when he’s on a monthly schedule, he just gets it done (which is what’s required) without being any better than he feels it has to be. I think he’s got some fairly low standards.

I’m not saying he’s without talent, I’m just saying he doesn’t exercise it much, opting instead to just do the job without any strong interest in the finished quality beyond, is it good enough.

Yeah, count me as someone who doesn’t give a fig for his personal behavior, I loved his X-Men run, heck I remember buying After Doomsday with the great back up feature Rog2000 at my local quickie-mart (damn I wish I’d kept those!).

I can’t say anything nice, so I will refrain from saying anything at all. See also: McFarlane, Todd.

Maybe, but what’s the point? If your project in this thread is to try and rescue the guy’s reputation, you’re going to have a hella tough row to hoe, because his reputation is deserved. And I don’t really think there’s much diversity of opinion about Byrne – mostly everybody agrees that he used to be a good writer, that he has always been a good artist but is lazy about it now, and that he’s a massive asshole. Trying to limit the thread to his artistic contributions and then, at the end of the discussion, thinking that you’ve understood something about the man is ignoring the elephant in the room – no analysis of Byrne is complete without understanding his personality, because that, I submit, more than anything is the most important facet of his career these days. It seems that you should have written the OP to read “Please say good things about John Byrne, and only good things.” Well, you’d be almost the only poster because while the rest of us do have good things to say about Byrne, they are only a piece of the whole, and not the biggest piece. And that’s not our fault – it’s his for being such a weiner that no reasonable man can ignore it.

In other words, feel free to reassess John Byrne all you want, but if you want that reassessment to ignore Byrne’s most conspicous feature, you’re not going to get the rest of us to go along no matter what ground rules you wish to set.

–Cliffy

Pwned!