Has John Byrne's Reputation Hurt His Career?

Written: 21 November, 2000

Two of the current Marvel titles that I enjoy reading each month are penciled by John Byrne. I'm someone who tends to enjoy Byrne's more traditional style of storytelling, so that's hardly surprising. But while I had bought his Wonder Woman, Amazing Spider-Man, and Spider-Man: Chapter One, I didn't enjoy them as much as his two current series, X-Men: The Hidden Years and the mini-series (soon to be completed) Marvel: The Lost Generation.

I suspect that some people have been reluctant to try those two series, however, because of the presence of Byrne. I'd heard that some die-hard Spider-Man fans had been boycotting ASM as long as Byrne was involved with it. One cyberpal once told me that he had a negative opinion of Byrne's work based on some interviews he read, where Byrne came off bad. (This reminds me of people who disparage Jim Shooter's writing ability based on rumors that they've heard about his personal interactions with other creators.) Another cyberpal told me recently that he hasn't looked at X-Men: The Hidden Years (X:HY for short) or Marvel: The Lost Generation (M:LG) because he's been disgusted by the way that Byrne has massacred continuity in the past.

I can very much sympathize with those anti-Byrne sentiments, particularly those who are displeased with the changes he's made to characters. Heck, Byrne erased from continuity one of my all-time favorite characters, the pre-Crisis Superboy! I also thought Byrne wrecked his OMAC mini-series by the convoluted time-travel storyline which made me wonder by the end of it if beginning of the mini-series had even "really happened" or if it had all been "undone" by the changes in the timestream. I usually like time-travel stories, but not when they become convoluted and give me a headache!

But just because X:HY and M:LG take place in the past doesn't mean (as I suspect fans have assumed) that the two series are bogged down in continuity or massacring continuity. But they're not: the emphasis has been on plain old-fashioned fun and adventure, in my humble opinion.

Even though M:LG is being told backwards (#12, the first issue, takes place the most recently; #11 takes place a few years before that, etc.), it can be read on different levels. I'm not one of those types who is drawing up an outline of how all the characters and little references fit together. I'm reading it as simply a fun comic that is filled with a bunch of new heroes and villains, that is told in a self-contained story each month. I'm reading it more like a Mighty Crusaders comic that is allowed to use Marvel stuff from time to time (like the Yellow Claw and Sub-Mariner appearing recently). So, we get the best of all worlds: The reader who just wants to read a fun story with few ties to continuity gets to read about a bunch of mysterious new super-heroes, and the continuity freaks get to dig for references to help them see how all this fits together with MU continuity.

X-Men: The Hidden Years is even less continuity-conscious. It takes place in the past, and it feels right. Byrne was drawing comics in the 1970s, so if you happen to feel that his art has "de-evolved," then it should be just right for the time period it is supposed to evoke. (Actually, this comic is technically not set in the 1970s, because Marvel-time is like the old pre-Crisis Superboy time was...keeping up a few years behind whatever year the current Superman comics were on, so that Superboy wasn't stuck in the 1920s while the adult Clark Kent was becoming a TV anchor.)

Although there are occasional references to things that happened in comics of the period, if necessary for the story, most of the tone has just been that of a general meandering adventure strip. Byrne has the right storytelling rhythm going here. Whenever things might start to get boring (e.g. keeping up in the Savage Land too long, whatever), Byrne wraps up the storyline and then leads us into a totally different plotline full of new possibilities. In the current issue, Byrne wraps up the two most recent plotlines (one of which involved circus freaks attacking the X-Men, the other which involved Prof. X and The Beast trying to protect a young mutant girl who befriended a Sentinel) in the first 12 pages, and then the remaining 10 pages introduce us to a new storyline, where the Angel learns that his mother is (unsuspectingly) going to marry the man who murdered The Angel's dad. It's quite a change of pace, from super-heroes fighting off monsters to the last 5 pages of the comic where the group visit Warren's mother's mansion, and there's not a superhero costume in sight. It was a bit refreshing to see five straight pages (including the cliffhanger ending) where all of the characters are wearing normal clothing, talking in an ordinary-looking room.

I noticed the Statement of Ownership box on the letters page in the new issue of X:HY. It lists the Average Number of Copies printed, per month, as being 74,140 copies. I found that a bit surprising because I remember how Byrne used to boast that there was a core group of Byrne followers who bought whatever comic he did no matter what it was, so that any comic that acquired him as an artist could expect a jump in readership by so many thousand readers who were buying it solely because of him. Makes me wonder how many of those Byrne buyers are still sticking with him today.