It is unwise to annoy cartoonists
One does not discuss superhero comics without considering John Byrne most seriously. I’ve already mentioned my observations as a pre-teen in the mid-70s, saying to myself, “Hey, who is this artist,” scattered here and there across Marvel Team-Up, Iron Fist, and the Champions. The name didn’t stick in my memory for some reason. When I came back to reading comics in that strange ‘Verse-skipping way I did (see The river), my pals were all John Byrne John Byrne, and I said, “Who?” and then, “Oh! That guy!”
As for what was good specifically, well, this work was evidently not marking time or fill-in material, not even when it was for a fill-in issue. I could see the artist knew the existing characters and could step up their game, and could find the heart in new ones. It wasn’t just the characters, but also things and especially places; he was at ease with both wilderness and urban landscapes, and constructed fun set-pieces for each. Plus there’s the great anatomy, a break from the standard postures that were getting shopworn fast, and the entirely readable action both within and between panels. All the figures had a certain fluidity without a hint of expressionism – now that I think about it, almost a step up on both Neal Adams and Gil Kane, although “influences on Byrne” is a not-very-useful activity considering the look he made his own. I also perceived as a reader that this guy, whoever he was, had been a comics reader too and knew the characters from that end, oddly caring about their powers and personalities in a fashion I associate with Jack Kirby – he thought about the powers and what they might do, enjoyed showing these ideas, and didn’t mind going a bit nuts with them.
Don’t misunderstand this post. It is not merely a retrospective or summary of Byrne, and I’m not going for completism. I want to focus on how I experienced his work in a highly specific way, at a precise moment of the very late 80s, for which this opening material, and a little more to come, is merely setup. Please note as well that I am not discussing Byrne as a person or public personality. I’m talking about me as a reader engaging with the comics he did. Let’s stick with that as the core perspective even as I bring some comics industry history into it, mainly from Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
Little bit of history here. 1974-1978 are the years of editorial meltdown following Roy Thomas’ departure, concluding with substantial reconstruction under Jim Shooter. In this interim you have human Roman candles like Starlin and McGregor and Gerber going off unpredictably all over the place, you have Englehart writing stuff more-or-less across half-a-dozen titles at will, and collectively speaking, half of all this stuff is pretty good plot albeit scattered over hell and gone, half is progrock poetry, half is radical politics, and half is plain nuts. The bad thing is that deadlines are flatly tanked: fill-in issues are starting to be the norm and boy do they stink. Byrne stands out dramatically in not being a flake or a blazing ideologue, being perfectly capable of doing his job on time, and regarding that job, both writing and drawing circles around pretty much anyone else. He doesn’t get onto the X-Men right away but as the Shooter Marvel really comes on line in 1980-81, you can see why he’s handed major titles and told to go for it – he’s the one guy who can be counted on to bust it out without either giving Jim a headache or needing his hand held … or for that matter, tanking the title, far from it.
You can take all his great work in the X-Men (1977-1981) as a given, as I list some weird effects that lurked in there along with the verve and excitement. I implied some of it in How did I get these mutton chops?, indicating a dark side to liking the characters you’re writing and drawing – a tendency toward favoritism grading into Sue territory. There are also undercurrents of:
- a strange lack of heroism, in that the protagonists are full of energy, but with few if any depicted moments of doing something good for themselves or others
- a flatness to all the characters in terms of personal affect, broken mainly by smirking or scheming looks on villains’ faces
- occasional sadism going on in all directions, to anyone from anyone, the dark side of “what can these powers do,” almost an ickiness to the whole concept of superheroes
Perhaps those are only apparent in retrospect, and some might be ascribed to whatever was going on creatively between him and Claremont, and all of it pales in comparison to his long-running practical-ownership of the Fantastic Four (1981-1986), in which all those positives I listed were present for a high-water mark in all of superhero comics. Where shall I start … Knowledge of the subject. The willingness to move forward with the characters. Bringing in a more contemporary look for hair, clothes, and day-to-day activities without losing the personalities. Effective and interesting use for all the powers. Bad guys both old and new, bringing oomph to the former rather than “here again!” token appearances. The perfectly honest and straightforward inclusion of the characters’ sex lives, written as if by someone who knew what one was – the only one judging by most of the work at Marvel at the time. The willingness to experiment artistically, especially with panel layout and borders. And of course, including the great period of recapturing Kirby on this title without simply tracing/imitating him.
Say what you will, but at least in those days the She-Hulk was a fun, exciting, original, and interesting character, much like Thundra might have become given some thought and good writing. She reminded me of the genuinely good effort put into the Cat and Ms. Marvel which had foundered on all sorts of incompetencies and lack of support, but this time, sustained. (The topic of Byrne’s wide range of authoring female characters is for some dissertationist to consider. Lacking same, I’ll do it for significant pay.) She-Hulk as an FF character inspired trust in me as a reader – as with the title characters and many supporting cast members, I felt confident that Byrne would not write them badly.
Some of you will be pumping your fist in the air and hollering “Yes, Alpha Flight” about now, but I beg to differ. In fact it’s kind of important that we have two books both authored and illustrated by the same guy running concurrently, that were so different in fundamental power. I don’t think Alpha Flight was that good a title at all, more like a bunch of factory-flawed bowling pins with names, who needed no bowling ball but fell down and knocked down one another down, one by one, due to intrinsic instability. Not in an exciting or insightful way, either. The creeping flatness in the earlier X-Men run seems baked into Alpha Flight, like an exercise in how uninteresting – if visually striking – a superhero team comic can be.
I know I’m getting way too close to my usual no-go territory of a creator’s actual motivations, but I could not shake my suspicion as a reader of Alpha Flight – meaning, having been handed roughly his whole run (1983-1985) about exactly when it concluded – that the author simply didn’t like the characters, or value what they did as a get-go, or thought of “their story” in terms of what they wanted, and that he had lost interest in the title almost as soon as it began. As I mentioned, this was running concurrently with simply mind-blowing work on the FF, the last such stuff Marvel would ever do. What I do appreciate about Alpha Flight was a creator’s chance to do ambitious stuff … and yet, this freedom wasn’t yielding the same force that apparent love for the historically-constrained Lee & Kirby’s material was yielding. I see two kinds of audacity at work in Alpha Flight. The first moments were creative and fun, much like the FF, but it’s quickly eclipsed by the second, the almost bare-faced, “you’ll take anything and like it, won’t you” effect, which was suspiciously close to shucking the reader. I even think he managed both kinds simultaneously with the famous white-out fight in #6 (see this Comics Grid post if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
Then what happened: the shift over to the Hulk, 1985. Look, I’m not going to debate with you. I’m not talking about “oh no he changed a beloved character of mine,” or anything trivial. Nor am I saying that none of the ideas were good, as premises on paper. Nor do I have any beef about the art, appropriately bigged up and full of devastation and I believe including an enjoyable nod to Herb Trimpe, although I think the compositions were beginning to look canned. I’m talking about literally abandoning the fundamentals of telling a story. (and post-modernists can suck it)
- There’s no character to advocate for – the Hulk is an idiot and Banner is an asshole, and it goes down from there; Samson seems like he glances toward this direction for an issue but then it disappears.
- There’s no villain, or more understandably, no adversity that’s rooted in understandable human concerns
- no character’s passion corresponds to anything in the real world: Ross hates the Hulk because he hates the Hulk, the Hulk rampages because that what Hulk does, and so on and on; there is no discernible relationship between Banner and Betty.
- There are no politics, no context of real-world social policy or practices either to approve or to criticize, hell, even to recognize.
Remember my context, having mainlined all of his Marvel work from about 1979 to the present within a couple of months, a year before, now reading this. I remember getting a queasy feeling, that I could not after all trust Byrne as an author, that either he liked the book and liked the fact people were reading it, or he didn’t, and and you found yourself reading a fuck-you for buying this, and even more so if you bought the next issue thinking the one you had must be a set-up for the payoff.
[I can’t say much about his run on Superman (1986-1988) because my interest in the character was nil, and still pretty much is, a character flaw I will blog about later. Nor was I following the New Universe at the time (his time on Star Brand being … 1987-ish I think), although I would go on to read all of it a couple years after, also to be blogged later. Yes, I know what he did in the latter. So since these are outside my reading-autobiography, they can stay shelved in this post.]
Much more important, again, is the historical context of Marvel as a company, unknown to any of us at the time. This is late-stage Shooter in the looming shadow of corporate axeman Galton. Marvel is on the auction block to any number of grinning Hollywood buttholes. Here, it’s not really possible to avoid the personality-politics involved. The three-way acrimony among him, Shooter, and Claremont that led to his leaving X-Men is well-known. He was not a fan of the entire Universe-oriented, editor-ruled, rather regulated toy-selling machine Marvel had become, especially when someone would send back his entire first issue of the Hulk and say, totally, not like this, do it all over. But I really do want to focus on economics instead, and frankly, I can see why he’d be upset with the realization that his hard-won fan celebrity and reliance on editorial mutualism was sort of making him a chump now. Back in 1980-81, during the first public blowup about Kirby’s artwork, he was solidly a Marvel man with a worker’s job to do, but now, like Miller, he was playing DC and Marvel against one another yet also subject to the heaviest editorial authority he’d ever experienced and watching vastly less skilled practitioners vault into grinning top dollar pay brackets.
I think a skilled person in an imperfect world will accept lower pay in return for social remuneration in real respect and freedom to judge how the work is done, or will accept doing lesser work under more direction in return for higher pay. Byrne had been trapped between those variables.
Others will have to fill in more details like the Next Men series and whatever else was going on. I am only speaking of my own readings at the time, which included the start of his West Coast Avengers (1989-1990). What had appeared to be a war between love and contempt for the subject matter had now evidently been resolved in favor of the latter.
I don’t suppose I need to describe the contents of these issues to this reading audience.
“Everything you know is wrong! It didn’t happen like that, it happened like this!” is a powerful device. In real life about real-life stuff, it serves well to shake up one’s perspective, equally so whether to impose a profound falsehood or to remove it. In stories, the process and content are different, but it’s equally two-edged – you can be sure that what follows is either great or horrible, not least in how the past view is adjudged wrong.
Now let’s talk principles, and why this post is tagged in the ‘Verse series.
Howe talks about the illusion of change mandated by Lee in the early 70s, which is to say, ruin the character’s lives constantly but always conclude pretty much where they started – it’s soap-opera thinking, allowing any new writer to step in and just keep doin’ it. [Side point: editorial mandate or not, this is exactly what Lee as a writer did not do, at least not on his most important titles, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.]
From about 1971 on, though, I see two kinds of writing/editing at Marvel.
- One is the kind that settled right into this injunction, best demonstrated by Gerry Conway, Bill Mantlo, and perhaps Len Wein. I associate it with fill-in pinch-hit writing too.
- The other kind blithely ignored it and wrote in changes and consequences and arc-finishes all the time.That would be Thomas, Englehart, and intermittently, Starlin, McGregor, and some others.
(Some writers seemed to oscillate between the two kinds, like Tony Isabella and Marv Wolfman.)
The latter kind continually mined the past body of comics, absorbing what it found there, ignoring or not noticing tons more, and sometimes squeezing it to complicate things.
But none of this, particularly the tension between the two, is shared universe in the way that concept would be construed by about 1981. Looking at Englehart, after Thomas certainly one of the most … what’s the word I want? Enthusiastic? Egregious? nabbers of past material, both from Marvel itself and properties Marvel had access to, what I see is that continuity is not a matter of “everything that’s written is what happened,” but rather a huge banquet of availability, from which one may dine here or there as the mood strikes. Deciding what, either past or present, is valid, is what happened, is a matter for readers. As I wrote previously, in this case, the construction of canon is properly kept to connoisseurship, because back there on the writers’ end, changing stuff through the events of the story is evaluated strictly on whether it’s good. (or more often, given the crazydays we’re talking about, not evaluated at all, but that’s a different issue)
In this way of writing, it’s OK to fill in gaps, or even to designate something a gap when no one else would have imagined it to be such a thing. Fine, the 1940s Human Torch was an android; now we want an android character in the Avengers, so … hey! It’s the same body! Was there a gaping hole in the original Human Torch’s story that needed filling? Nope! Identifying it as a gap and filling it are the same action. Again, this is crucial, whatever you spot back there that you don’t like or whatever you don’t spot, period, doesn’t matter. Complete consistency – continuity – is not the point.
I submit that Byrne brought this mode of writing to a well-tuned and rather impressive level during his run on the Fantastic Four, with Doom’s face being a good example. I do not speak of whether you like the particular innovation in question or not, but specifically of how it’s done.
What doesn’t happen in this kind of writing is to negate something previously written – to tell you that, for example, this or that set of depicted events in the 1940s Human Torch stories never happened, or even more so, to tell you that he was a real live guy the whole time who merely thought he was an android.
Contrast all of this to when the rubric is now “official canon,” or ‘Verse, i.e. the Marvel Universe. “The illusion of change” isn’t the mandate any more; story arcs and sagas are now favored … but there’s a big difference, which I first wrote about in ‘Verse this. Consistency is no longer a matter of choosing something you like and writing consistently from there. Instead, completist continuity is itself a priority – even a commodity, hawked and highlighted. The production process now relies on oversight and accordance with purported bylaws regarding “can and cannot, did or didn’t, counts or doesn’t count” regarding all the body of work so far. Now change has to be proposed, not merely done, and to be used, evaluated strictly on whether the editor thinks your legalistic excuse (“we never saaaaaw the body!”) will go over big.
And the most blatant way to do this is to alter the standing material. To say, this whole thing that happened and having been narrated as thus-and-such, well, that was a lie. This tactic is really the ultimate legalistic dodge; just as I cannot prove that I’m not an alien masquerading as a blogger, you can’t prove that the events of, e.g., the first encounter between the Fantastic Four and Galactus were not a hallucination imposed by the Watcher, which means I can now invent and sell you the story of what rilly rilly happened. I say nothing of how sacrosanct the older material is supposed to be, or what sentimental value it may have for me – what I’m talking about is bad, lazy writing, plain and simple. (It also seems to me a case of confounding What If with the rest of the line.)
Consider now those middle to late 1980s … when !shocking! change is now tagged as the means to sell books, whether the spate of character deaths that underwent a weird shift with Electra a few years before, or finally altering the costumes of Captain America and Spider-Man, in the “black is the new black” phase. Combine that with the escalating competition among hotshot artists to sell books, thrown into the most volatile fan-and-industry form by the launch of Image, and then … … then you get stupid changes at dizzying speed, billed as canonical change, subject only to this fanwank-y legalistic pseudo-consistency with the past (i.e. the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe). And once you spot the “it was a lie” dodge, this very consistency is now your bitch.
The West Coast Avengers run shows how to ruin a title and more, its content, by using the ‘Verse editorial standard – I mean, a cynic such as myself says the titles are being ruined in this context anyway, but here I mean in a focused and rapid way that stands out structurally from any other kind of comics writing. I say it again: ‘Verse does not honor the past but instead imposes a legalistic standard, and only that standard, for altering it. Armed with the “it was a lie” dodge, you can turn every character and every year of Avengers heritage into steaming crap while nominally following every ‘Verse editorial rule and maintaining a little continuity halo over your head. Like the mess of fanwank-originated “but it happened this way” + social/editorial machination that had resulted in the Jean Grey resurrection-retcon, doing so seems to me to be spite in its purest form.
And yet there’s that concurrent dichotomy again too! All this is said in comparison with his Sensational She-Hulk title during that exact same time, possibly the last really funny book Marvel did, in which all the meta, “fourth wall my green ass” material was hilarious and often incisive regarding comics fandom and its creators. I don’t think I read much of it, including his later return to the book, but I did follow those first eight issues of his. Byrne certainly didn’t spare himself any lampooning along with everyone else, and a lot of the visual work – like Jen ripping her way right through the pages including a great faux-ad page, an unreproducible effect in reprint form – was simply great comics. Looking at the WC Avengers stuff at the same time, I felt an eerie repeat of the concurrent FF/Alpha Flight contrast, only more extreme.
Reading Howe’s account reminded me of something.
I think … I think Byrne got annoyed. The malicious frivolity that occasionally peeped from some of his work hopped a box to the right into frivolous maliciousness. That’s what jumps off the pages themselves. With the exception of those eight issues of She-Hulk, there’s something more than contempt, outright vengeful, about this body of work. Its effect on me in 1988-89 was definite. As of this writing, I can say with some detachment, I get it. Annoy a cartoonist and you get cartooned, as savage a method of retaliation as any known to humankind and far more so than many.
At the time, as a customer and reader, I looked back and forth between the apparent complete lobotomy evident in the X-titles of the late 1980s and this – I’ll say it – vicious blowtorching of the material in the work of someone whom I’d thought of as one of the few leading lights. Between them, I said my second gentle good-bye to following superhero comics as a regular reader, except for a few titles written by personal friends.
Links: Delusional Honesty (3rd in a series)
Posted on December 3, 2015, in Commerce, The 80s me and tagged 'Verse, Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, Hulk, illusion of change, Jim Shooter, John Byrne, Life in Hell, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Matt Groening, Sean Howe, She-Hulk, Superman, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Vision, West Coast Avengers, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.