Blind Byrne Worship

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Within the last few years, TwoMorrows has issued a series of books by Pierre Comtois reviewing the creative rise & fall of Marvel Comics, with each book in the series covering a different decade in the company’s first thirty years of existence. The latest (and final) volume in the series, Marvel Comics in the 1980s, inspired a recent post of mine on Rom, and also had some influence on my recent Vision post. Now I’d like to take a deeper look at the whole series, with particular emphasis on that final volume.

Marvel in the 60s

The first volume in this series, Marvel Comics in the 1960s, was released in 2009 and was a great read. There were a few points I might disagree with here and there, but it would be nitpicking. Comtois generally did a fine job covering the creative ascent of Marvel Comics through the end of the sixties.

…Okay, you want a nitpick? Here’s my nitiest of picks: Comtois offers his own unique delineation of Marvel’s creative phases, such as “The Grandiose Years,” “The Years of Consolidation,” and (in the 70s volume) “The Twilight Years.” These would have been fine if they were just chapter titles, but he uses them throughout the main text (sometimes qualifying them as the “Early Twilight Years” and such). In such context, these designations sound pretentious and feel rather pointless. I believe he would have been better served sticking with the traditional phrases (Early Silver Age, Mid-Silver Age, etc.), or just offering a simple yearly range (early ’66, 1967-68, etc.).

Again: Not a big deal, just a nitpick.

Marvel in the 70s

The second volume, Marvel Comics in the 1970s, is where the chasm between Comtois and myself really begins. A lot of this can be chalked up to simple difference of opinion (as in “I say to-may-to, you say to-mah-to”), while at other times my disagreement with him is a bit more serious.

Of course there are many points where our opinions still align. For example: He’s a fan of Frank Miller while at the same time noting (correctly) that, “Miller’s take on super-heroes would spread like a disease” throughout comics (p. 217) and that by 1979, “Marvel’s decline into creative bankruptcy began” (p. 221). I’m right there with him on these points.

Comtois is also a Gwen Stacy fan, declaring that the character’s death in ASM #121 “marked the climax of the whole Spider-Man saga. Everything that followed was at first anti-climactic and then, very quickly the book joined the company’s other flagship titles in the long slide into mediocrity” (p. 133).

Additionally, Comtois praises Steve Gerber at one point as a comics-writing pioneer preceding the likes of British imports Alan Moore and Grant Morrison by more than a decade (p. 160). Comtois also has many good things to say about artists Frank Brunner, Barry Smith, Neal Adams, Paul Gulacy, and Mike Ploog; and expresses admiration for Bronze Age classics like Deathlok and War of the Worlds. Once more, I am in complete agreement with all of this.

We begin to part ways with his stance on the Comics Code Authority. In the view of Comtois: “The weakening of the Comics Code became a factor in making these the Twilight Years, not only for Marvel, but for the whole comics industry” (p. 71). He would even go on to state that the code “helped to improve the content of comics themselves” (p. 152). While I agree that the creative slide for superhero comics (and Marvel in particular) began around this same time, I wouldn’t lament the end of the code and I certainly don’t believe it had any role in “improving” content of the comics. It was basically a censorship organization and censorship & art do not mix.

Comtois’s political views also don’t exactly align with my own. For example, in one photo caption he states, “Not exactly paragons of responsible citizenry, Cap [Captain America] had a right to wonder why he was risking his life fighting the enemies of freedom for carefree flower children such as those represented here!” (p. 43). This right-wing, “Faux News” style editorializing is not as distracting in this volume as it would become in the next one, but still—Comtois should stay out of politics and stick to the comics crit.

Then there are several comics titles he disparages that I’m rather fond of, to wit: “Ghost Rider was one of a string of bottom-feeding features…. Others, such as Son of Satan, Ms. Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Omega the Unknown, were simply head scratchers that soon sunk into the oblivion they probably deserved” (p. 167). Speaking of head scratchers, three of the four titles he just rattled off were written by Steve Gerber, a writer he was praising just a few pages earlier. Obviously I disagree with him here, though I can chalk much of it up to the old to-may-to/to-mah-to notion. (I still think Omega is one of the best comic series ever done, but even in my old review I acknowledge that it’s probably not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.)

Also: While Comtois is correct in stating that the stories in Ghost Rider during this era weren’t exactly classics (they would become such by the time we get to the end of the title’s run in the early 80s though), that concept and design was always badass and worthy of a look on that basis alone.

A few other points of disagreement:

  • As mentioned in my Rom review, Comtois sees Bill Mantlo as “one of the company’s best writers” during the 70s (p. 196), a view I do not share.
  • He also calls Ross Andru’s work on ASM “uninspired” (p. 158). Now, as a kid, I’ll confess I preferred Sal Buscema’s more dynamic depiction of Spidey in the pages of Spectacular and MTU. But in hindsight, Andru’s work in Amazing was superb. He really put in a tremendous effort, one that is more readily recognized by my more mature sensibilities.
  • He believes Dave Cockrum “designed some of the worst examples of 70s super-hero couture” while working on the Legion of Super Heroes at DC (p. 188). I would like to point out that some of those designs were probably meant to be a bit on the wild side, as Cockrum was depicting a far-future and alien culture. In any case, I grew up on those funky costumes and absolutely love them.
  • Comtois denigrates the skills of Gil Kane at several points (pp. 186, 210), which was rather surprising. What’s not to like about the pencils of Gil Kane?
  • He characterizes Keith Pollard’s work as “merely serviceable” (p. 207). I love Pollard.
  • At one point he described Vince Colletta’s inks as “detailed” (p. 213). Really? Vinnie Colletta? The guy who infamously erased figurative (if not literal) mountains of background detail on nearly every inking assignment he ever took? This was bewildering.
  • Regarding Jim Starlin: “Jim Starlin created a trail of cosmic conflict that was likely confusingly complex for anyone but Marvel insiders!” (p. 91). I found this a bit perplexing. Some of the work of Englehart and even Thomas during these years was much more complicated and required far deeper comics knowledge. Starlin’s work was practically straightforward by comparison.

…But nearly all of the above can be categorized as quibbling. Now, however, we’re about to get to the outlandish.

Late in the book, Comtois calls George Pérez… George Pérez… one of Marvel’s “less accomplished artists,” drawing “awkward figures” and having an “over-rendered style” (p. 213).

Wow.

George Pérez is one of the greatest comic artists ever, particularly when it comes to superheroes. I’m fairly certain the vast, vast majority of fans would agree with me here, but okay—maybe his work simply doesn’t do it for Comtois. But even taking subjectivity into account, I don’t see any awkwardness in his figures, nor do I see his work as “over-rendered.” Guys like Jim Lee and Art Adams are often guilty of over-rendering, but Pérez? I just don’t see it.

Comtois’s criticism of Pérez feels even more bizarre when juxtaposed with his over-the-top admiration of John Byrne. At one point he praises Byrne’s “ability to design facial expressions” and how his characters possess “their own distinctive features” (p. 210). Now this is precisely the quality you should most admire about Pérez’s work; not Byrne’s. Even way back in the day, guys would joke that Byrne’s Lana Lang & Heather Hudson were indistinguishable. If anything, distinctive features and faces were Byrne’s weakness and Pérez’s strength. Comtois is just way, way off here.

Within the confines of this specific volume, it’s just one very bad misstep. When we get to the next volume, however, it gets a whole lot worse.

Marvel in the 80s

To start, it should be pointed out that Comtois confesses in the introduction to Marvel Comics in the 1980s that he really had no intention of writing this particular volume, as he doesn’t have many good things to say about this era. He relented in the wake of strong demand from nostalgic fans that remember this as their favorite time in comics.

Like the previous volumes, there’s a whole lot here I can agree with, particularly when he discusses the dark turn that Marvel (and the industry as a whole) would take in this decade. Among some of his more frank observations: “creators began to write more for each other than for their readers” (p. 7); that the industry began “churning out dark, humorless, even cynical product” (p. 22); that in prior years, “a fan might take a full hour to read his favorite comic, now he could whiz through the same number of pages in a couple minutes” (p. 41); and that “such bare bones storytelling would convince many that writers weren’t necessary to [make] good comics, that artists alone could do it all. It was a belief that would lead to the highest percentage of unreadable, disposable junk ever cranked out by the comics industry” (p. 194).

In reviewing Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, he notes that Gwen Stacy was “the girl Peter should have married!” (p. 187), which made me want to stand up and applaud. Comtois also gives a lot of love to Rom, though more the later issues than early ones, which I found puzzling. He’s also got good things to say about Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr., John Bolton, Star Brand, and The ‘Nam. Once more, I’m on board with all of it.

Then we begin to part ways again, only with this volume our disagreements are much greater in number and far more acute. First, there’s that right-wing political bias again, which became much more pronounced in this volume, to the point of distraction. Some examples:

  • Observes that Frank Miller’s work was “tinged with a neo-conservatism that would get under the skins of many of his fans who were considerably more… shall we say… liberal?” (p. 34). This level of snark—the whole line of observation, really—added nothing to the proceedings.
  • Notes that Rom’s “hippie-like, shoulder-length hair does present a jarring note when compared to his image as a battling spaceknight” (p. 145). The invocation of “hippies” here is just weird. And who cares how long a character’s hair is? He somehow can’t be a hero/spaceknight because of his hair length?
  • States in one photo caption that “Marvel’s X-books would be adopted by the homosexual community, which identified with its mutants’ status as pariahs. Little could anyone suspect in the 1980s that tolerance of the lifestyle would contribute to a movement for full and complete acceptance of the practice… or else!” (p. 203). Or else what? This sounds more than a bit homophobic. I’m actually shocked this made it past the editors at TwoMorrows.

…Then there are the actual comics. Comtois loves John Byrne’s work on X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk, West Coast Avengers, and his brief Captain America run with Roger Stern. He also loves Stern’s stuff on Amazing Spider-Man and Avengers. I agree with him on X-Men and Captain America (not coincidentally, Byrne was working with other writers on these titles) and Stern’s ASM. I found Stern’s Avengers to be merely okay/good, not great—certainly not worthy of the abundance of coverage it gets here.

When we get to Thor late in the book, I was a bit taken aback to see Comtois describe Walt Simonson as a “third-rank artistic talent” (p. 85) and that he was not impressed with his run here, neither as writer nor as artist. I agree that Simonson’s writing talents were a tad overrated by fandom (though I still enjoyed much of it), but his artwork has always been stellar, in my opinion.

Comtois also liked Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme, comparing it at times to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Now many others have also done this (the two series were released at nearly the exact same time and share some overlap in premise), but it’s a ridiculous comparison, critically speaking, as Gruenwald is simply nowhere close to Moore’s class as a writer. He had some good ideas and could write superheroes, but not human beings. Moore’s characters in Watchmen, however, have depth and humanity; Moore gave them personal lives and histories apart from their lives as superheroes. Gruenwald’s characters, on the other hand, are as flat as ten-year-old soda pop. Squadron Supreme isn’t a bad series, but it’s not exactly great either—and certainly not in the same league as Watchmen.

Back to Miller

Here’s another shocker: Comtois still has a lot of love for Frank Miller in this volume, but not Elektra. What makes this such a shocker for me is that I have always considered the original Elektra arc to be Miller’s masterpiece. But for Comtois, “the whole Elektra arc” served as evidence that “Miller was far from perfect” (p. 49). At first blush it appeared this was because he never bought DD’s feelings for Elektra, as evidenced by his remark, “we’re told that he loves her… shrug” (p. 50).

Later, it would seem he simply does not like the character of Elektra at all, for whatever reason. When he gets to DD #181 featuring the big showdown between Elektra and Bullseye, Comtois declares that “in real life, no woman, no matter how physically fit or trained could last more than a few minutes against a male antagonist of anywhere near the same age and fitness” (pp. 49-50).

First, I’d really love to see him say this to Ronda Rousey’s face. Second, this is a superhero comic we’re talking about; it’s a fantasy; none of the violence is remotely like “real life.” It’s like criticizing a Superman comic for showing a man flying through the air or lifting a bus over his head. Yes it’s unrealistic, but that’s part of the very premise—again, it’s a fantasy. This is when it became clear to me that Comtois just has an irrational dislike of Elektra (much like Gerry Conway with Gwen Stacy) and he was fishing for any excuse he could find to knock her. The loss is his.

NEXT: John Byrne & Galactus

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2 thoughts on “Blind Byrne Worship”

  1. Fully agree with your take on Byrne. I loved his art on Iron Fist & X-Men and his other collaborations with Chris Claremont, but his writing tended to put me off and while I’d been collecting the FF regularly for about 10 years when his run on that title started, about a couple of years into it I stopped. Admittedly, by the mid-80s I’d stopped buying a lot of titles I’d been getting regularly since 1973. Simonson’s Thor I stuck with, even after he stopped drawing it, because I loved his stories and when Sal Buscema took over on the art he actually adopted a reasonably good approximation of Simonson’s style. But over on Byrne’s FF (and Alpha Flight), however good the art was and while I did like the “Terror in a Tiny Town” anniversary special, so many of his stories just felt wrong to me and I really didn’t like the reveal that Ben’s Aunt Petunia was a beautiful young woman who just happened to be married to his much older uncle. On reflection, it seems a bit of a replay of the MJ scenario over in early Spider-Man wherein Peter Parker thought she must be a dog from the way his Aunt May kept trying to set him up with her but even though Ditko never showed her face he did very much provide evidence that she was a very beautiful woman so that famous panel by Romita wherein Peter finally does meet MJ face to face was not a shocker to anyone paying attention except to Peter! There was never any indication by Lee or Kirby that Ben’s Aunt Petunia was anything but his elderly aunt who had a lot of whimsical sayings ingrained in Ben’s memory from when he was a young child. It just doesn’t work that she is a generation younger than he is and married to an uncle who is a generation older (and I’m speaking a 55 year old man with a 37 year old stepmother (she’s about 40 years younger than my dad). And the Galactus story???? After all the fuss about Phoenix having to be punished because when she was out of her mind due to the manipulations of Mastermind she destroyed one planet full of intelligent beings but now Galactus, who has destroyed numerous such planets must be saved? It is absolutely ridiculous and seems akin to the idiotic notion that Captain America, created to be a super-soldier to fight in World War II, never ever purposely killed anyone in combat under any circumstances, well, aside from the time he decapitated Baron Blood in a classic Stern/Byrne story. And as for re-establishing the status quo in Latveria with Dr. Doom in charge, I missed that particular story but it seems out of character that the FF would help Doom restore his absolute dictatorship or that Dr. Doom would even want or need their help to do so. I entirely missed Byrne’s run on West Coast Avengers and have no regrets about that.

    1. “Admittedly, by the mid-80s I’d stopped buying a lot of titles I’d been getting regularly since 1973.” Sounds like you jumped ship at just the right time, Fred. I could weep when I think of all the money I wasted on crappy comics in the late 80s & 90s that were never read more than once– and I can’t get rid of them now because their resale value is literally zero. On the flip side, I find that I can re-read nearly all of my classic Bronze Age comics again and again without ever getting tired of ’em.

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