Wednesday, December 01, 2004


This (as always lovely) David Fiore post leads me to this Ian Brill post about John Byrne and outmoded comics, which got my juices a-flowin’. By way of quick recap (so you don’t have to follow the branching tree down to the roots) Joanna Draper Carlson started this train a-rollin’ by suggesting the approach to dialoguing in Doom Patrol #6 was “sloppy and boringly old-fashioned,” using the outmoded techniques of redundant description (describing stuff that you can see in the panels), and clunky character over-exposition (with characters completely restating what they know for the sake of convenience). Into this is stirred Dorian’s answer to Bob Layton’s open letter on the Death of Future Comics (to which the link is broken), in which it is noted that, despite Layton’s protestation to the contrary, Future comics went down because the comics stunk, they were expensive, and they were hard to order (in that order). During this preaching to the converted, the word old-fashioned is used again, along with “dated” and references to grandpa. Ian approaches this subject (old styles stubbornly refusing to die) seriously, as an admitted fan of older comics. He makes the good point that, in refusing to evolve, creators stagnate, and become irrelevant.

As you might expect from a confirmed “Byrne victim,” I think he misses the mark on what it is that Byrne is doing wrong. Brill writes –

“In the case of Future Comics, John Byrne and others we get creators who hit it big decades ago and apparently don’t feel they have to improve the skills they used in creating comics back then. To them and many of their fans the problem isn’t they fact they haven’t changed, the problem is the fact that the rest of the world has.”

There are two distinct concepts here – 1. Byrne and his ilk don’t feel the need to improve and 2. they view change from “the way things were” as a bad thing. I think there is something here, but it misses the point of where Byrne went off of the rails. Byrne began his carrer as an artist, but found great success in collaberations where he had some story influence. We all love Cockrum, but Claremont did his best writing along with Byrne, and this is not just in response to the art. Byrne had certain narrative abilities (finding the surprisingly interesting handle on the neglected character, stripping core concepts for reuse, etc.), and he used these to sucessfully launch from collaborative efforts to solo work. There was no looking back - from the moment he set foot in FF, he was (except for a few notable exceptions such as the Larry Niven and John Cleese collaberations and a brief reuniting with Claremont) a writer/artist, dammit. So far, so good.

It is the Byrne persona, however, that helped incite the development of the problems that Brill notes. Tracking the development of this persona is not that difficult, as Byrne did a lot of interviews in the 80’s, and his 90's columns (the Next Men’s “A Flame About this High” being the most prominent example) gave him a chance to state his beleifs and rail about this and that. So the foundation, and subsequent evolution of Ego the living artist is pretty clear. He stated pretty early on that the artist is the most important person in producing a comic, using the example that a good art can save a lousy story, but bad art can ruin a good story. This may be a good point in the currently writer dominant environment, but he repeatedly harped on this point during a period in comic history when the writer was all but ignored. Statements like this show that he, out of all the hot creators of the late 70’s early 80’s (Miller, Perez, Giffen, etc.) served as the most direct template for the attitude of the Image guys (an attitude still evident in McFarlane).

Two things seemed to happen to Byrne as the 90’s dawned. He became nummingly comfortable with his approach to the comic page (beginning to lock in his angulated approach to layout and the pencil/inking relaionship that caused the major fluctiations in his art during the 80’s), and he began to see himself as more of a writer (he bublished two novels around this time “Fearbook” in 1988 and “Whipping Boy” in 1992). He still appeared to have areas where he was trying to improve the art (e.g. the use of computer technologoies, mostly in backgrounds), but it seemed that he felt his primary area of growth as an “artist” was in trying to find his place as a writer.

It is my belief that the reason that Byrne has been having a bit of a problem being precieved as an creator of note lately is that his primary focus is on a certain kind of story, and he is just not that good or innovative in dealing with the subject matter he is trying to explore. In addition, and perhaps most crippling, he does not have the proper feedback system in place to acnowledge and react to this. Virtually everything Byrne has written since he returned to Marvel last time (in 1999) has been a rehash of the same kind of weak sci-fi plot ideas that he toyed with in the Next-Men phase (early 90’s) through the filter of his mid–late 90’s DC Legend-ized work (which was, in turn, the direct descendant of his 80’s FF and Supeman work). These plots, which revolve around attempts at structurally convoluted time travel, what’s-real-what’s-not virtual reality, and issues of memory/identity/humanity, were all better explored by episode 10 of the original Star Trek series, but Byrne approaches them as if he’s the first one in the territory. I think these topics still interest him, and he feels that he is trying to explore and perfect them.

Byrne’s imperviousness to feedback is sad, but not unprecedented. Many great artists, writers, and mucisians have been felled by the lack of an editor and insulation from criticism. Stephen King, who is a pretty good writer (really, I believe this) has written only a small number of books of note since1990, and I attribute this to the fact that he has no editorial influence at all other than his wife. He has some good instincts, but he has mostly given himself over to stylistic bloat. Byrne seems to get most of his ideas on “how things are” from his own head, without any additional strengthening of his position through debate with dissenting voices (this has been going on for a long time – see any of the afforementioned columns – but has worsened). The JB message board, with its squelching of dissenting voices and syncophantic chorus, is not a competitive environment in which to grow strong ideas.

The other issue, that of older professional’s view that “things shouldn’t change,” is harder to defend, as I think there is a component of thought on Byrne’s (as well as Layton’s) part that modern storytelling has abdicated some positive storytelling values. But it seems that the old fashioned feel of these comics come predominantly from blind spots – things (like that expository scripting and overuse of internal monologue thought baloons) that these creators have done for so long they no longer even comprehend that there is a different approach possible. New approaches are not so much less valued, but simply not comprehended.

So, to disagree, I don’t think that Byrne has given up on improving (although I think he is “happy” with his rendering and layout style, which means he has gotten a bit static and, thus, boring), just that he has focused his attempts at improvement in an areas that he’s not that good at (e.g. sci-fi plotting), or that are process concerns that don’t significantly affect the story experience (e.g. computer modeling for backgrounds). He does not, as Brill suggests, refuse to evolve, but believes he has evolved (and is still evolving appropriately) - he has just done so in a fashion perpendicular to the rest of the comics industry (although he thinks the comics industry has evolved perpendicular to him). To put it another way, Byrne hasn’t stopped moving, he’s just been moving on different vectors than the audience (whicle standing still in some axes that the audience has moved on), and thinks that’s the audience’s problem. Popular musicians who do this kind of thing wind up with rabid loyal followings and, like Byrne and Claremont, do “reunion tours” from time to time, filling bigger arenas by doing so. And I don’t think Byrne necessarily feels things were “better back then,” but simply has some ingrained anachronisms, and a (possibly partially healthy) view that just because it’s new, doesn’t mean its better.

So that’s my defense of Byrne (like my previous defense of Dave Sim on the old fourcolorhell, with people like me defending you, who needs adversaries).


At 10:43 AM, Blogger David Fiore said...

Well put Todd--it resets the parameters of the discussion in a way that helps us to understand what Byrne's doing, without in any way letting him off the hook for what he hath wrought... He's not some "retro-monster"--he is "moving forward" (and of course that must be true! Why else would he go on working?). He just happens to be boldly going to places that very few of us want him to go, and without the proper equipment to make a success of his assorted ventures...


At 8:54 PM, Blogger Ian said...

I like the response, Todd!

You're assessment of Byrne makes a lot of sense. I stressed in my essay about how important it is for a creator to question his/her work. Byrne has evolved in his own way but you make it clear he feels he shouldn't have to dare, dare, question himself (and if you question him on his message board it's lights out).

In that way Byrne comes off as another talent that I feel did some great work in the 80's but has since fallen from grace, Prince. When Prince ditched the Revolution there was no one there to rein in his worst tendances. That's how you end with stuff like NEWS instead of Dirty Mind. It's worse than the corporate raider that surrounds himself with Yes Men. In this case, the Yes Men are inside the artist's head.

Everyone evolves but in the evolving process an artists should never fall in love with his/her work so much that they end up making the work they love worse (paging Mr. Lucas, Mrs. Wachowski).


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