Volume Seven: John Byrne
Edited by Eric Nolen-Weathington and Jon B. Cooke
Duck and cover, people! The seventh volume of Twomorrow’s enjoyable Modern Masters series tackles (deservedly) one of the biggest and most distinctive artists in modern superhero comics, John Byrne. And perhaps I could have also switched “distinctive” with “divisive” and no one would have noticed, since it seems these days that everyone’s got an opinion on (or beef with) John Byrne. And sadly, very little of it has to do with his work. Byrne’s expressive, understated, highly-recognizable style of art has been responsible for the revamping/reshaping of some of comics’ biggest names. He’s had memorable, lengthy (if occasionally controversial) runs on X-Men, Superman, Fantastic Four (best of the bunch), Avengers, Captain America, Doom Patrol and the near and dear to his Canadian heart, Alpha Flight. Oops, and guess what, Byrne comes across as a perfectly nice, if opinionated and impassioned guy. Reminds me of a less manic Howard Chaykin. — hardly the raving asshole he’s been pilloried as.
The interviews capture a relaxed Byrne in the aftermath of his recent run on Superman with Gail Simone, solely working on the Demon series for DC Comics and enjoying himself away from mega-crossovers and flagship titles. The interviews are casual and conversational in style; however, the interviews admirably keep themselves out of the picture, asking the right kind of open-ended and leading questions to draw Byrne out on matters of both life and art. And, gee, does Byrne have a lot to say. Fortunately for the reader, he’s articulate, intelligent and occasionally witty (with a good sense of perspective and history of the comics genre), which makes the reading go by very quickly. As expected in the linear interview/retrospective format, they start at the very beginning with Byrne’s itinerant childhood and early introduction to comics via a glimpse of a Superman annual in a drugstore, and from there, they branch out through his whole life. His start in comics, first regular gig at Marvel (Iron Fist), the prolific partnership with Chris Claremont that redefined the X-Men (and that partnership’s dissolution), an equally talked-about revamp of Superman, trying to start his own comics imprint and what went wrong, and his various other endeavors at Marvel and DC through the years up to his present work on the Demon. The authors don’t shy away from Byrne’s more controversial stances, discussing his takes on the thorny issue of creator’s rights, John Byrne vs. the internet (har), his “decline” in sales, disappointment in the character of Wolverine, and the dreaded Jim Shooter. My highest recommendation is for the chapter on his creative process and working habits, great stuff.
Honestly, I can’t say anything bad about this volume because the whole concept of an artist, still creating, taking time to look back over his career and discuss his aesthetics is absolutely fascinating to me. I don’t know much about the backstage of the comics industry so his stories pretty much had me captivated as well. Add to that a great visual presentation of this information, peppered with a treasure trove of original art and sketches — man oh man. The sketchbook alone is worth the cover price. All of his “big hits” are well represented, but my personal faves were a two-page spread of villains (including the Silver Banshee, Batroc and Wendigo), a pin-up of the Justice Society of America, and his various renderings of Alpha Flight, which seemed to radiate a bygone joy, innocence and vitality.
The Modern Masters series is as close as mainstream comics journalism is going to get to the definitive “Rolling Stone Interview” format.