Thursday, April 10, 2008

John Byrne: "Respect"

Flipping through Wizard Magazine #200 today (my commentary on which I will provide tomorrow), I came across their "Most Controversial Persons" sidebars. One was for John Byrne.

And that brought to mind what a comics professional told me recently.

This person said (and I'm paraphrasing):

"You know, everyone can make fun of John Byrne and say stories about him and his message board. But the man has made an extensive contribution to this industry over a long period of time. He deserves respect. Respect."

I agree. Say what you want about the man, he has really contributed a lot -- a lot of it really good.

A lot of people I know have "Byrne stories." I only have one personally. I had lunch with him and my co-workers in an editorial meeting thing about five years ago. Really brief -- about an hour. At the time, I was really physically ill, but I just sort of put a happy face on it and soldiered on.

John was goaded to "let loose" on some Claremont stories, etc., but he sort of demurred on it and "held back." He didn't seem bitter or caustic -- he was pretty good-natured and friendly. He told us some good stories about the biz and his work in general. It was just all-around pleasant.

And I was glad and appreciative, because had it been some sort of gossipy, angry type of conversation -- had that negativity entered -- I don't think I could have held on with how sick I felt that day. Instead, I limped out of the lunch feeling cool because I just had lunch with a legend in the industry and he seemed nice and it was awesome.

See? That's not a memorable story. But it's a true one.

Here are the questions: Is there a level of respect that has to be given to the man, considering his body of work as a whole? Can we separate out the anecdotes from the work? Are we appreciating John Byrne enough now while he is still around and continuing to contribute to the industry? Or are the critics justified?


  1. Byrne is in the same boat with George Pérez for me on this issue. Both creators have made great contributions to comics in the past, however respect for this past work shouldn't give them an automatic pass on criticism for more current work.

    Byrne's style years ago, I dug it...but, it's just not the same as his style now. John's lines have gotten thicker and if anything he's taken steps back, played it safer. Byrne's current style is pretty much the reason I dropped All-New Atom after only a couple of issues. Byrne has not evolved. It's the same with George Pérez . Perez's art is good but....if you look at The Brave and the Bold now it's almost exactly the same in quality as his work from the 80s...there's no increase.. no visible sign that he's tried something new, or something better.

    In respecting great artists and writers within comics we have to remember not to let this respect of the old automatically dull our senses to their newer works. As readers we should be challenging writers and artists to always do new things and get better...not criticizing, not calling creators on stuff would be a disservice to them and us.

    Maybe I am just insanely rambling though, lol.

  2. I have to say that I was a Byrne fan for a long time, and I think like any artist, you have to take his foibles in stride. I don't read his blog or visit his site or message boards, so I have probably less bad Byrne stories.

    You do have to respect a guy that puts out consistant good work for as long as he has.

  3. I agree with Nick wholeheartedly about John Byrne and the respect issue. I could not disagree with him more about George Perez, though. I think Perez has gotten much better as the years have gone on.

  4. I remember struggling for a lot of years when the stories about Arthur C. Clarke were swirling around in the late 90s. It was hard for me because I admired the man's writing so much. It was important to me growing up, and here were all these stories about him and kids.

    It turns out they were false. But I think I'd made my peace before then. At some point you have to try and separate the importance of the work against the person who created it. You can love the work and respect that person while being deeply annoyed with the one creating it. I don't think that's an oxymoron.

    Not everyone is a saint. Lord knows Byrne isn't. And he's said a lot of things I disagree with.

    * He gave me my defining run of the Fantastic Four as a kid (being too young to appreciate Lee/Kirby's work). It still holds up well today.
    * The last year of Claremont/Byrne X-Men remain some of the finest super hero comics ever created.
    * Next Men was a hell of a lot of fun.

    And dozens of other comics that I loved and appreciated. The man deserves respect. I don't have to be a drooling fanboy over everything he's ever done or said. But I can certainly look back and go "If nothing else that man deserves respect for his story telling."

    Hell, even Peter David, not exactly Byrne's biggest fan because of all the personal things that have happened between the two of them, has said he would put down money if Byrne did Next Men again.

    So yeah, give the man the respect he deserves.

  5. I agree with nick's point: Criticizing someone's current work isn't the same as denigrating their entire history -- some people will, of course, but that'll happen.

    In the end, to use the Byrne example, I don't think that any final comprehensive profile on him will harp too much on what may or may not be wrong with his work on the new Atom title.

  6. Proportion is key. It's certainly true that iconic creators who really contributed to comics deserve a degree of goodwill... but that doesn't translate to a permanent Get Out of Jail Free card. Frank Miller, for example, has long since exhausted any leeway I might've given him in the past...

  7. I have been a Byrne fan since the Charlton "Space: 1999" days. And while I agree his lines may have gotten a bit heavier, I like that it hasn't evolved a lot. I like comics that look like comics. 'Course, I'm old don't like change anyway.

  8. By and large I like Byrne's work a lot. He's had misfires - like Labrats, the current FX, Spider-Man Chapter One, the third Generations mini - but they are more than made up for by the times he's hit the target; FF, X-Men, Next Men, Superman, Generations 1&2, Captain America & Batman (still my favorite crossover ever) - and so many more.

    I think he does deserve respect, and I still like a lot of his work. His Demon stuff a few years ago was insanely detailed at times. I think it's a shame that he seems to have burned so many bridges at the big two as I really wish he still was working on a number of their characters.

  9. Byrne has put out a lot of great comics. I was never a fan of his Superman and hated his reinterpretation of Doom Patrol, but really liked the FF homage Danger Unlimited.

    Ditto his artwork on All-New Atom. The book's visual appeal dried up once he left.

  10. I have a tough time dealing with Byrne the Internet personality. When I used to hang on his message board, he called me "Insult Boy" twice- and I wasn't trying to insult him!

    But as an artist? Hey, I really liked his work on All-New Atom. When he's just the penciller, his work is pretty damn good. And the stuff that he writes for himself- Next Men, etc.- is quite good.

    When he writes for corporately-owned superheroes nowadays, his work feels stilted, dated, and sometimes angry. As an editor, I'd probably assign him a good writer and a good inker, and let him focus on pencilling. He can pencil for me anytime, though.

    As long as he doesn't call me "Insult Boy" again...

  11. It seems that in this discussion some folks might be getting mixed up between "disrespect" and "criticism." Like every creator, Byrne has put out some below-par work. In fact, given how high the bar was set by his legendary work at Marvel, it's hardly surprising that people would criticize some of his later projects, and they may be right to do so.

    But, because Byrne has become a "celebrity" instead of just a comic creator (thanks in large part to John himself being louder than many other creators), and because the Internet is chock-full of people who find it entertaining to use a rhetorical nuke when a slap of the rhetorical glove would do, the line between valid criticism of a single work and disrespect for a career gets crossed.

    What's important is that people develop the tools to tell the difference and learn to disregard the "trolls" who just want to get a rise out of people (which is all the more entertaining if there's a chance a troll can get a rise out of a celebrity). No honest comic book fan/critic/etc. could look at Byrne's work on X-men, FF, Next Men, etc. (I'd also toss Namor and She-Hulk in there; some great stuff in both) and call him out on the totality of his career. That being the case, I, at least, don't pay a lot of attention to the haters.

    Short version: "Byrne's The Demon sucked!":"John Byrne's comics suck!"::possibly honest critic:troll

  12. Anonymous5:17 PM

    You can still respect the artist without respecting the man, can't you?? ;)

  13. Maybe because I'm a bit macabre, but this converstion really reminds me of the passing of Steve Gerber.

    All artists peak, there's always a specific time period where their work is at its height. It's almost a law of nature. And with the ebb and flow of what's popular and what's hot at the time and the passage of time artist that have been wildly influential in their medium can be forgot and in a way taken for granted. It's unfortunate that the majority of these "forgoten artists" aren't remembered or appricated until after their death. I can think of about dozen or so comic creators that were incredibly influential to a lot of the things we read today, but as influential as they might be nobody's blogging about their latest book.

    To me John Byrne fits nicely in this category. Wildly influential and ignored by a large portion of today readers. admitedly this is a terrible thing to say, but he probably will never get the respect he's earned until he dies.

    ... oh yeah him acting like a nutjob on his message boards doesn't isn't helping his current reputation. When an artist like him is percieved to have a chip on their shoulder I think it's much easier for most people to ignore their accomplishments. Doesn't mean those accomplishements don't exist, but as a society we're very much "what have you done for me lately?" and lately all he's done is behaved a little like a lunatic.

    (sent twice because of a browser error)

  14. I don't seek out stories about artists-- good or bad. The truth is, when we start judging artists by their personality quirks, we'll be more often than not horribly disappointed.

    Artist people tend to be incredibly insecure-- regardless of their success. And insecure people tend to be jerks, as a self-defense tactic. Doesn't make it any forgivable or justifiable, but it does explain the off putting behavior.

    Mozart was a jerk in real life, but he's unquestionably brilliant. And Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick are two of the greatest film makers of all time, but their personalities leave a lot to be desired.

    Of course, if someone goes out of their way to overshadow their artistic achievements with racism, sexism or pure stupidity, then screw 'em.

    But far as I'm concerned, Byrne is a living legend. And until he gets pulled over for a DUI and starts screaming about those freakin' Belgian bastards that are controlling the comic industry, I say he deserves our respect as a groundbreaking artist.

  15. Young John Byrne is a lot like Young Elvis or Young JFK. He is cutting edge and inspirational. The myths surrounding JFK and Elvis were spared the daily embarrassment of an aging creator who is getting out of touch and slipping into self-parody. The current John Byrne is the old man on his digital porch yelling at the neighbor kids and telling them how much penny candy used to cost.

    Byrne just needs to push on through to the other side and OWN the self- parody- ala Shatner.

  16. I agree that we should regard the individual and the individual's body of work separately.

    There's been many a man of whom could be said, "He was arrogant, rude, and usually drunk, but damn, could he sing the blues!"

    I'm just saying.

  17. I've generally steered clear of his message board, but the couple of times I went there did kind of sour me on John Byrne personally. But after a few weeks, that feeling sort of faded.

    I was a HUGE John Byrne fan back in his salad days, especially when he was doing Fantastic Four, and re-reading that via Marvel's Visionaries series I was pleasantly surprised at how well the stories and art hold up today. And I'd compare them favorably to Stan and Jack's run on the title- they're at the least the second best take on Marvel's "first family."

    I don't dig everything the guy does. His take on Big Barda was repulsive and downright hateful. But I think despite a lot of criticism of the "lack of detail" in his current style, he's still one of comics' solid storytellers. He's dropped out a lot of visual noise that many think of as detail- a lot of the crosshatching and feathering that really doesn't stand for anything- and pared his figures down to their more essential nature without giving up the ability to visual a character from almost any angle and still keep up consistency with his proportions.

    He also manages to keep the same relationship between figures from panel to panel. A rarity in today's slapdash "flavor of the month" art world where certain big names (who I won't name) can't seem to keep their figures from floating off the floor or moving in and away from each other randomly on a page.

    So yeah, considering all of that, he deserves respect for his legacy at the very least. But he shouldn't be exempt from criticism just because he's John Byrne. A lot of it he's brought on himself over the years- but I think the tenor and vehemence of it, and the personal nature of a lot of it and its kneejerk "Oh god, that horrible Byrne guy" is absolutely off the hook and ridiculous.

    So there. I still like the guy's work when he's on. I can still enjoy the old stuff. I respect John Byrne, but I don't worship him like I once did when I was a teenybopper.

  18. Oh... and I suddenly remember I've written a couple of snide things about him with the intent of being funny on my own blog but I regret doing that now.

    Not the trying to be funny. Just the snide, personal nature of what I wrote. And it was mild compared to stuff I've seen elsewhere.

    Still not cool to do, though. Trying to do better!

  19. One writer I had issues with in recent years was Orson Scott Card. Never met the guy, but I read some of his articles online. I strongly disagreed with his politics. I was in the middle of his Ender Quartet too, and in bitter turmoil regarding whether I should finish it. Not whether I wanted to, whether I should. In the end it was Peter David that changed my mind. He's spoken on numerous occasions about how he prefers to separate the artist from his work. At one point he even said that, despite his issues with John Byrne, he'd be the first in line when Next Men came back into print (or something to that effect). So I decided to finish reading the Ender series and to stop reading Card's disagreeable political commentary.

    aaron: "It seems that in this discussion some folks might be getting mixed up between 'disrespect' and 'criticism.'"

    A lot of the criticism I find on the message boards isn't very respectful. I think it's awful when a writer gets called a "hack," because it should be plain to see that most of the people in the industry are doing their best, and doing a whole lot better than any of us would when given the chance. There's this awful tendency for people on message boards to forget that they are dealing with human beings who have human emotions. Maybe I'm being naive, but I expect a tad more fairness and good will from people who grew up reading superheroes. Since when is being bitter and petty the right thing to do?

  20. About John Byrne....

    John Byrne the penciller is awesome.

    John Byrne the inker is...unpredictable.

    John Byrne the writer was pretty good years ago, sometimes bordering on brilliant. Lately, though, far as I can tell, the man's run out of stories. DOOM PATROL could have been the greatest book of his career, but was disappointing at best.

    John Byrne the man is a hypocritical, lying asshole.

  21. People don't respect John Byrne because they read what he says. His WORK deserves respect as he wrote and/or drew a huge number of stories that probably hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed; he should be proud of bringing entertainment to those people.

    But he as a person only deserves as much respect as he earns, like anyone else.

    I'd like to see a John Byrne who earns respect. One who refuses to badmouth his employers and colleagues, one who doesn't insult Jack Kirby while claiming to defend him, one who accepts compliments graciously, and one who doesn't insult and belittle his fans for having differing opinions.

    I'd like to give John Byrne respect now, while he's here and can appreciate it. But he's got to meet me halfway, and give me someone worth respecting.

  22. I respect John Byrne just about as much as I respect anybody who's made it their entire career to write and draw super-hero comics.

  23. The critics are justified. Byrne's day has passed. Judging his work apart from his behavior, and you still are faced with material that is lacking.

    His recent output: Lab Rats, Bloop of the Demon, Doom Patrol, FX, the Star Trek, and the pin-up sketch commissions have all been dated and plagued with problems with story-telling, anatomy, sketchiness, and a simple lack of energy.

    Respect the output that deserved respect.

  24. It can be very important in some instances to gain distance from the artist in order to better appreciate the art. I've never met the man, and I've heard stories that tell both good and ill of him. Ultimately all I have to judge him by is the work, where the best of any artist truly goes.

    Byrne was the first artist whose style I visibly recognized. One of the first comics I recall owning was Fantastic Four #259, and later Fantastic Four Annual #17 (one of the best FF stories -ever- in my humblest opinion) and later on when he rebooted Superman I was an avid reader.

    Respect is certainly due the creator no matter how iracisble they might be in the flesh. As long as the talent is there, I'll check out the work and leave my opinions at the door. I don't think I'd be able to enjoy some of the titles I do otherwise.


  25. Anonymous9:39 PM

    Oh yeah, but like Miller, Claremont and Chaykin, none of my issues with Byrne have anything to do with him as a person. I know nothing about them as people. It's just that I strongly dislike their recent work.

    Byrne at least can still draw. I just really wish he wouldn't write anymore, because there are so many characters, particularly at DC, whose back stories have become almost unworkable because he worked his magic on them. Oh, and I kind of wish he wouldn't ink himself, but that's strictly a matter of taste.

    That said, I really liked his run on Fantastic Four. Second only to Lee/Kirby in both writing and art. Much respect.

  26. For me, here's the thing.

    I started reading comics around 2000-ish. I was not, at that point, especially interested in reading a bunch of backissues - I just wanted to read that month's Batman. I wasn't really concerned with comics fandom then, either. I was pretty much your epitomal "casual" fan. I remained this way until just a few years ago, when Infinite Crisis started heating up.

    So my first exposure to Byrne was not through any life-altering super amazing comics work. It was, I believe, when I heard about the "I think blonde latina women look like hookers!" incident.

    I'm sure he's been a great influence on the medium, though being that I am not particularly enamored of comics history, not one that I know much about. Certainly he deserves a degree of respect, inasmuch as any human deserves it. And he probably doesn't spend most of his time saying ignorant or hateful stuff - if everyone who had an "I met John Byrne" story to tell put it out there, we'd probably find ourselves with...a very boring collection of stories.

    And I do agree with Scott; I respect his work and I am glad that he produced it as clearly it made a lot of people happy and maybe even changed some lives for the better.

    But in the end, as far as respecting John Byrne, the comics creator and guy on the internet? Well, when I see his name, it doesn't recall for me any mindbreaking images of Colossus or Mr. Fantastic or anyone else; it makes me think of mysterious Sambos and Jessica Alba and how the difference between "speech bubble" and "speech balloon" is really the same as the difference between "black person" and "n*gger."

    And the six-fingered Sue Storm, but that's more as a funny thing.

    He puts this stuff out there and he deserves to be taken to task for it, no matter how wonderful he is/was. So I can't say I have a problem with critics responding to him.

    If that means I'm not properly "respecting" him for changing modern comics or whatever, well, that's too bad. I guess I'm just one of the new kids that the old guard wants off their lawn.

  27. Respect from me. And fond memories. Byrne is a craftsman in the world of comics. He treats it like a serious pursuit, and has a purist's mentality for how comic stories and characters should be approached. He's "old school", and that doesn't alway co-exist with today's fluffier professional mentality.

    Some of my favorite stuff from almost 30 years of collecting is his - FF run, X-Men run, Cap run, Man of Steel and Superman reboot, Next Men, Superman/Batman Generations, etc.

    I don't know about all the other stuff, and don't really care. I care about Byrne as an artist and a storyteller, not someone who's coming over to raise my kids or tell me how I should think.

    I've never walked in his shoes - he is an older, accomplished creator in a business that is known to discard/ignore the old guard rather uncermoniously in favor of the new, hot thing. His perceived bitterness is probably a very human reaction to that dynamic.

  28. My personal Byrne highlights are FANTASTIC FOUR, ALPHA FLIGHT, and NEXT MEN. Honorable mentions go to IRON FIST, NAMOR, and X-MEN: HIDDEN YEARS. Based on those books and runs alone -- he's got MY respect for being one of the most important "pop" comics creators of all-time.

  29. I have to agree with Wishlist and Scott, I greatly respect the work he's done over the years, but as a person he's too quick to belittle fans who don't genuflect to his greatness and agree with everything he says, even to banning them from his message board.

  30. I haven't ever visited John Byrne's blog, and I really never listen to most of the gossip that goes on about the industry (except for now, after finding this site a couple of weeks ago). I can't comment about the criticism of John Byrne the person, whether it is valid or not.

    But as to criticism of John Byrne the writer/artist, I would say that "Respect" is the least that he should be shown.

    Let me put it into an example from an industry I was involved with a little while ago. Take for example..say...Roger Clemens (minus the current scandal, and if it is easier, substitute anyone of the following names: Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, etc). Roger Clemens, last season, was definitely not the Roger Clemens that won the Cy Young award, that dominated hitters since his arrival in the league. One could critique his performance as "perhaps he's coming close to overstaying his welcome in the bigs." But, even critiquing the athlete, you still show respect. You show respect for what he has accomplished. That same pitcher wasn't taking the mound last year. Last year was a pitcher who was old. Who struggled. His fastball wasn't catching the corners like it used to. (Byrne's lines are thicker than they once were.) Hitters weren't intimidated by the Clemens of last season. (Byrne's would be better off as an artist, given a writer and an inker, at this point in his career.)

    Valid criticism. But, respectfully given. Hey, I saw Clemens in Anaheim (which is not Los Angeles, no matter how geographically-challenged the Angels front office is) in his 2nd season with the Red Sox, and he made a believer out of me at the end of the evening. 14 strike outs. Dead on.

    With Byrne, it was the young Mr. Entertainment, going into Passport Comics, the first comic shop in the San Fernando Valley, and talking with the owner, Earle Bowman (who had appeared in a Marvel comic or two) about who I should read, if I wanted to graduate from "Werewolf By Night." And he turned me on to the Claremont/Byrne X-Men. And by the time Byrne hit the Fantastic Four, I was right there with him.

    Just because I respect the artist doesn't prevent me from criticizing him. Just because I criticize his current work (if I was going to), shouldn't prevent me from showing respect for all he's accomplished. Criticism and respect are not mutually exclusive.

  31. Byrne deserves respect for his work, sure, but that does not mean that he has to get a free pass. After all, don't many of the creators he likes to bad-mouth deserve at least as much respect? If he (or for that matter Quesada) disses Stan Lee (e.g. for daring to unite in marriage two characters that he, not Byrne, created), why should he be exempt from similar treatment?

    For me the problem is not the "what have you done for me lately?" syndrome, it is the fact that in the field of comicbooks most pros (with exception of the dwindling number of first-generation creators) are people who started out as fans and who to a great extent continue to think as fans, very often nostalgically. And when such people (Byrne is by no means exceptional) hold forth on how a series or character should be written, in 9 cases out of 10 it is how they remember them from the time when they read them in their youth (in the 10th case it would be as the series or character was written at the outset, but the pro in question is not old enough to have read them at the time). But here I see their opinions as no more valid than those of any other fan or reader.

    Discussions of the Spider-Marriage certainly provided examples. Marv Wolfman and Erik Larsen for instance argued that Mary Jane was unsuitable for marriage with Peter because of they way she was portrayed during the Lee/Romita Sr. run, effectively sweeping aside the evolution of her character since Gwen Stacy's death and insinuating that this evolution should be ignored. In the discussion in BACK ISSUE Wolfman clearly indicated that he thinks his opinion on the matter are made more valid than those of others because he is old enough to have read the pre-ASM #121 issues when they first came out.

    But I will say this: the passage of time also can bring people to reassess the quality of certain creators. Back in the 1980s for instance I looked on Roger Stern as the best Spider-Man writer since Stan Lee, but on reflection I now see Stern's weaknesses much clearer (for instance a tendency towards "antiquarian" storytelling and sticking to the stuff he knew of old instead of providing the kind of innovativion and originality that typefied Stan Lee's early Spider-Man and also Gerry Conway's ASM run) and now would rate him rather lower.

    In general I would say however that I find it sad that people who provide work of a consistently high standard over decades do not get the kind of recognition as those who have a brief burst of glory (for instance, look at the adulation Bill Watterson got in comparison to the likes of Charles M. Schultz and Garry Trudeau).

  32. After many years of promising to do so, I am reading Byrne's relaunch of Alpha Flight. He captures the feeling of Canada in the 1970s perfectly, without any of the characters feeling silly (and that's saying a lot when a character is a dwarf named Puck).

    He does deserve respect for his contributions, but that does not make him a god.

  33. What are you gonna do. He's one of the giants. Like all the giants he had a period of peak creativity followed by a long decline. Of course he deserves respect for X-MEN, FANTASTIC FOUR, etc., but if he's eroded his good will by acting like a jerkoff in public or on message boards, then he reaps what he sows.

  34. From what I gather from the 'Rama message boards, your average fan will treat creators disrespectfully for little more than a bad retcon or for going three consecutive pages without dialogue. Anybody who sticks his neck out *will* be disrespected. That's how the Internet works. That's how it works for comics, and that's how it works for every other fandom out there. I think before we pass judgment on people like Byrne, Quesada, JMS, Millar, Bendis, et al., we need to make sure we're not just looking for excuses to treat someone like crap just so we can feel good about ourselves.

  35. There would be no comics renaissance in the mid 80s if it wasn't for Byrne. He along with Miller poured the foundation upon which the late 80s writer/artist mindset flowered.

  36. I have nothing bad to say about John Byrne as an artist and as a human being.

    I don't like everything he's drawn, written or said but I think that's true of every artist or writer. Or human being.

    Personally, I haven't spoken to him in years, but when I have, he's always been gracious, intelligent, self-effacing and sincere. I also found him to be extremely generous.

    'Nuff said!

  37. I'm amazed that no-one has mentioned West Coast Avengers. 'Vision Quest' was a masterpiece! To me it was the next step on from his run on Fantastic Four (though many would disagree with me).

    I also loved Alpha Flight, Next Men and his reimagining of Superman in the mid-80s.

    At the time, no-one but John Byrne could have done as good a job recontructing the Superman myth and making it better than before.

    It's a shame that his more recent work on the more 'standard' superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Spiderman haven't lived up to his previous highs.

    He's still a quality comic creator though (thick or thin lines) and one day he'll surprise and delight us all again.