Sunday, January 15, 2006

John Byrne Week starts with the John Byrne no one remembers

Much has been written about John Byrne as a person and given all that I have read about him I have a hard time in disagreeing that what has been said about him is not true. If all the stories about his behavior, ego and attitudes about women and ethnic groups were just from disgruntled or hateful fans I could easily dismiss them, much like I ignore the hurtful and fabricated anecdote about the sexual preferences of another comic professional some internet wit started a few years ago.

Unfortunately, much of the words and actual samples have come from the creator's mouth or drawing pen, so it is not so easy to dismiss. I am half-convinced that Byrne may be engaging in behavior similar to what multi-genre writer Harlan Ellison was infamous for in the late 70's comics journals, that of "making a big noise in print." The opinions of Byrne, like Ellison, seems to be all ego-driven to the point that they stop making rational sense, and they say things just for the controversy or to keep their names out in the public mind. It is like they are both poking a tiger with a stick because they want to see what happens next. The down-side to my awareness of Byrne's attitudes is that I can't read anything by him with out that getting in the way of the work a little bit and taking my enjoyment down a few notches. I can't enjoy a film with Sean Penn in it for much the same reasons. I personally find Penn so distasteful as a person I can't see past that to his film work.

Much of Byrne's attitudes that has been written elsewhere and at great length, and by people better at it than I, so I'm not going to go into it much. Nor am I going to defend him. I'll leave that to the apologists on byrnerobotics.

Instead for this entry, I am going to talk about the John Byrne I once met that people may have forgotten about or never knew existed.

Back in the very early 80's I met John Byrne at the San Diego ComicCon. At that time the X-Men were the hottest thing going in comics. The feuds between John and other comic professionals were thought of (if known at all) by industry outsiders as not much more than the minor creative differences that happen between peers who have another vision in mind for a piece of work. Back then the SD Con wasn't such a mob scene and most of the artists would be glad to talk to you (Brunner being the exception) as long as you didn't get in the way of their doing sketches, which when most pros were getting $200 a page for a book, was considerable income for them. The Byrne that I met was civil, patient with the odd or immature fans and told insightful industry stories and lots of jokes that were funny (and not just because he was surrounded by sycophants doting on his every word). Somewhere along the conversations the subject of Superman came up and you could tell Byrne was very enthused about the concept.

One of the things he mentioned he was very excited about seeing was Superman drawn by John Buscema in the upcoming second Superman & Spider-Man DC/Marvel crossover book to be published in 1981. Byrne was apparently very impressed by Buscema, and to understand that appreciation all you have to do is look at his long run on Conan and you can see why he and others felt that way. Byrne talked for quite a while about how great Buscema was and what he had done for the industry. I almost think now that it was John Buscema working outside the standard corporate template that got Byrne thinking about what he himself could do for the Man of Steel.

Much is made about exclusive contracts today but one has to remember that way back when, writers and artists pretty much worked at either one house or the other and did so for very long runs. In fact, comic conventions were almost the only place you could get a sketch with your favorite artists' interpretation of a character. An artist usually stayed with his stable of characters and rarely moved out of that area, with the exception of guest-stars in a title. The old Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One was a good book to catch back then because each month often featured different stars by varying writers and artists.

To most fans and other pros, John Buscema had never professionally drawn Superman, so it was actually a fan event to get a chance to see his take on the character.

Marvel Treasury Edition #28 (1981)
Look at that. Great stuff!

He had done work and character sketches but in the pre-internet days they were not widely seen by anyone. Buscema has been described as an "effortless draftsman". Not that art is easy, he just made it look that way because he was so skilled. I recall one apocryphal (but probably based in fact) tale where another artist mentioned he was having problem with the layout of a panel. He needed a dramatic pose for a scene where the character was shirtless, hunched over, 3/4 turned at the waist and was being looked down at from above. Buscema just whipped out a reference sketch getting the perspective, lighting and realistic anatomy perfectly, leaving his fellow artist in awe.

I thought it important to remind readers that right when he was one of the main creative forces in comics, John Byrne deferred to and gave a lot of respect to the skills of John Buscema. I think it was an honest admiration for a peer also. It probably isn't something we are likely to see much of given the way he acts these days, but that is the John Byrne that I try to remember.

Previous Byrne posts
John Byrne Week is coming! Maybe...
FF #253 and the Curling iron From Space
Why secret identities don't work

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