In 1985, John Byrne and Bill Mantlo famously swapped assignments, with Mantlo taking over on Alpha Flight while Byrne took the reins of The Incredible Hulk. Now the Hulk, as first conceived by Lee and Kirby, was sort of a mash-up of Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde. The Hulk was a misunderstood monster like Frankenstein, but the real engine of the narrative was the Jekyll & Hyde identity conflict between the Hulk and Bruce Banner. So guess what Mr. “Back to Basics” did once he took over?
Yep, he split Banner and the Hulk into two distinct beings, wrecking the whole Jekyll & Hyde paradigm. Yet again, this not a return to the original approach, it’s the exact opposite. Of course, Comtois sees this as “a solid start to what promised to be another exciting star turn by Byrne” (p. 139). It’s abundantly clear that Comtois is just drinking the Kool-Aid at this point.
Thankfully, Byrne’s tenure on the book ended after just six issues, and the Hulk’s identity conflict wound up being restored in relatively short order. Comtois chalks up Byrne’s exit to the fact that then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter “reneged on his assurances that Byrne could pursue his story ideas” on the title (Ibid). I was in high school at this point, old enough to recollect the chain of events pretty clearly, and that’s not how I remember it. As I recall, Byrne was angered by the fact that an all-splash-page story he had done was rejected. Either the editor, Al Milgrom, or Shooter rightly believed that the splash-page format was cheating fans out of getting a fair amount of story for their money. (Said story eventually saw print in Marvel Fanfare #29—which, strangely enough, was an even bigger rip-off, since Fanfare cost twice as much as a regular comic!) Byrne also—at the time—claimed to be quitting Marvel out of solidarity with Jack Kirby, whose original art was still effectively being held hostage by the company. Byrne then went running back to Marvel pretty much the second Shooter was fired (and his first order of business was to take over Shooter’s Star Brand and basically shit all over it, seemingly out of pure spite). The chronology of these events was pretty well covered by The Comics Journal at the time.
Some might defend the all-splash-page story as some sort of bold artistic experiment on Byrne’s part, but it was nothing of the kind. It was just Byrne being lazy, which he had a record of being at that point. For example, there’s Alpha Flight #6, the “white-out” issue, which had about six pages of blank/white panels with no illustrations, just captions and dialogue (because Snowbird was fighting a bad guy in the middle of a massive snowstorm). Then there are instances where Byrne dispensed with pencils altogether and rendered his work directly in ink. This happened most often with Alpha Flight (check out the cover of issue #8 for an example), a title Byrne clearly did not prioritize very highly.
West Coast Avengers
I already covered much of this ground in my Vision post a month back, but it bears touching upon once again for the purposes of this post.
Comtois notes that when Byrne took over West Coast Avengers, he wanted to get back to the Vision being “an artificial being struggling to discover its inner humanity…. A cold, emotionless being [as] set up by Roy Thomas” (p. 213). As stated in the aforementioned Vision post, the character was never a completely “emotionless” being. And even if you disagree, you can’t deny that Roy Thomas (Vision’s creator) was very purposely developing the character into a more complete being over time—a trend Steve Englehart (and many others after him) would continue—and that Byrne’s actions negated all the hard work of those creators that preceded him.
Did Comtois not review “Even an Android Can Cry” in the 60s volume of this series? Oh, wait—yes he did, actually, and he rightly praised the tale, going so far as to call it “a ringing endorsement of everything Marvel stood for, the essential worth of every living being” (p. 213). Now how can one recognize the merits of this original story and then fail to see how Byrne absolutely destroys all of it? This twisted version of the Vision Byrne offers is not a return to basics, but in fact (sing it with me kids!) THE EXACT OPPOSITE of everything the character was originally meant to be.
An Imaginative Writer?
I feel compelled to point out that the one Marvel book Byrne was writing but not illustrating back in the 80s was the Thing solo title (which was penciled by Ron Wilson). Comtois does not offer any reviews of this book, I assume because he recognized that these stories sucked (which they did). But if Byrne was the writer Comtois makes him out to be, surely one or two of these stories would have made the cut here, no?
Still, at various times in this third and final volume, Comtois praises the “fertility of Byrne’s imagination… his ability to spin a yarn” (p. 51), remarks that Byrne was “never at a loss for ideas” (p. 211), and was, in fact, “a regular fount of ideas!” (p. 214).
Remind me, please, what ORIGINAL concept did Byrne come up with that was great? What great, classic character did he create? What fresh storyline did he create on his own, from scratch? Apply the question to Frank Miller and the answers come all too easily: He created Elektra, Stick, the Hand, Turk & Grotto; he made the Kingpin great again; and he developed a storytelling style that quickly became the most imitated in comics history. But John Byrne? All he ever did was muck around with (and mostly ruin) classic characters created by others.
Let’s be clear: Taking someone else’s work and screwing around with it is not itself an “idea,” nor is it very creative, nor does it require much in the way of imagination. A true imaginative mind comes up with original material. Speaking of which…
Extending this line of thought, the book that should have been Byrne’s greatest triumph was Alpha Flight. It was a title that featured a team of characters that were largely original creations of Byrne himself. However, Byrne confesses, “Alpha Flight was never much fun…. Nothing really sang for me. If I have any regrets, it would probably be that I did the book at all!” (p. 80).
So basically Byrne is admitting he didn’t like working on his own original characters. He only got his rocks off screwing around with other people’s characters. Regarding the true depths of Mr. Byrne’s creative talents, I believe I can pretty much rest my case here with this.
Just as most writers can’t illustrate, most illustrators can’t write. Only the most exceptional of creators are masters of both skill sets. It is, however, much easier to sell stories if they include pretty pictures—particularly so with comics (and even more particularly so in recent decades). So the illustrator does wind up wielding an inordinate amount of power in the comics business. Byrne’s whole career is the perfect example of how badly this power can be abused.
In his review of Incredible Hulk #342, Comtois declares: “It begins here. Or around here anyway. The beginning of the end…” (p. 200). He’s referring to Todd McFarlane, artist on the issue in question, one of the eventual founders of Image Comics, and a chief culprit in the death of the comics industry as we once knew it. But for me it all started with Byrne. I know, technically, it started with Frank Miller, but I can’t fault Miller for having genuine writing talent and wanting to use it. His early work as writer/artist on Daredevil represents some of the best comics ever made. It’s not Miller’s fault that the industry was subsequently overrun with shitty imitators of his style.
No, Byrne is the true pioneer of this awful trend. He was the first “hot” artist with no writing talent at all that was still allowed to do whatever he wanted because his name on the credits as artist guaranteed sales—regardless of story quality. Once he took the reins of Fantastic Four, it was truly the beginning of the end.