Saturday, October 18, 2008
Who's afraid of the Big Bad Byrne?
No secret to anyone who knows me, one of my all-time favorite cartoonists is John Byrne. I grew up with his comics and his influence over my cartooning is still great - probably too much, even.
Now, for all of you who are not in on the current vox pop of mainstream american comics, saying you like the work of John Byrne is about as politically incorrect as it gets - apparently, it kind of has the same effect on current american comic book fandom as saying you like the work of George W. Bush on a convention of the american democratic party. You see, this particular cartoonist has earned the reputation of a greedy old curmudgeon living in an ivory tower. Worse, a very vocal number of comic book fanatics despise his work as "old-school", telling stories of frightening encounters with him on comic book conventions and proclaiming his "old stuff" as better than his current art - something that leaves the John Byrne online personality completely mad.
Apparently, the two major american comic book companies currently see him as a persona non-grata, which, in a way, is reciprocal, as John Byrne himself has become increasingly critical of both Marvel and DC, bitting the hands that once fed him.
Things weren't always like this, though. Back in the eighties, John Byrne was one of the greatest american comic book superstars, writing and drawing both companies' major characters and publicly proclaiming to be a cog in the Marvel comics machine. Now, his comic books no longer sell the huge numbers they once did - which is true of most current comics anyway - and his most recent mainstream series have been cancelled after short runs.
So how does one of the great mainstream american comic book artists got to this point?
In my opinion, John Byrne has suffered from being controversial in his public opinions and from over-exposition (producing some forty pages a month since the late 1970s!) both as an artist and as a "public" figure to an audience that grew up with him and became waaaaay too familiar with his public persona, his art and his opinions, ultimately holding him, his art and his opinions in contempt - other less prolific, less forthcoming cartoonists get away with opinons just as controversial as his, or aren't as criticized for the changes on their art, after all. Quality becomes meaningless in such scenario - no matter how good John Byrne's work might become, or how bad it might get, this particular audience will always find fault in the art and the cartoonist, often confusing him - or his public persona and opinions - with the work.
Do I agree with everything he says? Far from it. People are people and ultimately, I'd say to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain - which is true of most artists anyway.
Do I think his cartoons got worse? C'mon, just look at the beautiful pieces he's been producing as commissions recently - as far as the drawing goes, he's better than ever, I think.
On the other hand, looking at the most recent years, I must be honest and say that I would've prefered to see him doing other projects, like his creator-owned characters, for instances, inking and lettering his own comics, working on other more experimental formats and genres beyond the traditional monthly comics of DC and Marvel... but this is just a matter of opinion really, as I'm sure other readers would rather have him back on the X-Men or the Fantastic Four or being inked by Terry Austin again... but you know what they say about opinions, right?
Still, where others might actually feel glee at this situation, I can't help but feel disappointed at the idea of there no longer being a new regular John Byrne book on the shelves of comic book stores around the world.
Fortunately, this last year, the good folks at IDW publishing started releasing some new comics from John Byrne, like FX - a series created and written by fan-turned-pro Wayne Osborne - and some pretty cool Star Trek stories, written, pencilled and inked by the man himself. There's even talk of him finally returning and concluding his Next Men, one of my personal favorite works of his... which is pretty much what this fan would like to see him doing! So for the foreseeable future it looks like some of us will still have our regular fix of JB's comics and, who knows, his magnum opus might be just around the corner.