My Writers: John Byrne

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When it came to my comic book reading, I was always fiercely devoted. Completist tendencies are embedded deeply within me, which I directly attribute to my time perusing the unkempt racks of comics at the local supermarket or convenience stores, desperate to make sure I got every last issue of my favorite titles, handily numbered to help me track the the effectiveness of my efforts. While I was still comfortable in my tender youth when I started reading superhero comics — barely able to claim an age in the double-digits — I soon realized that being committed to certain series and characters was ultimately less valuable than locking in on particular creators. All this is a small enough speck in my rearview mirror that I’m speculating as much as recollecting whenever I try to settle on any statement with certainty, but I believe the first creator I followed relentlessly was John Byrne.

Byrne started his career with Marvel Comics as an artist. That’s arguably still the facet of the creative process for which he’s both best-known and most widely respected. And for many years, given the opportunity, I undoubtedly would have named him as my favorite artist without giving his efforts as a writer more than the most cursory praise, probably as almost an afterthought. That didn’t really reflect the approach I took to following him as he bounded around to different creative opportunities, with and apart from my initial publisher of choice. I may have coveted the X-Men issues he drew and co-plotted during the time that immediately preceded my plunge in superhero sagas, but my tenure as a Byrne reader truly began when he took over the writing duties, along with serving as penciler (and sometimes inker), on Fantastic Four. Even as I loved the way he drew the issues, I connected even more with the stories and the characterization, finding within his pages the version of characters that I instinctually knew was truer and more accurate than those I’d read previously (having no direct, personal experience with the foundational run by original creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the time). Byrne’s first issue was titled “Back to the Basics,” and that’s precisely what he delivered. Byrne clearly wanted to provide comics that reached back to the qualities that had enlivened him as a reader a generation earlier, while still given them a more modern tilt. He succeeded.

I’d soon follow Byrne just about wherever he went. Though there were occasional exceptions, I was far more likely to jump to where he’d journeyed if he was actually writing the title. Vivid as I found his art (to this day, most characters look most correct to me in renderings by Byrne), Byrne’s writing is what really spoke to me, positioning a comic series as deserving of attention, even when centered on characters that otherwise inspired only the most marginal interest in me. Any time I doubt my suspicion that I was more devoted to Byrne the writer than Byrne the artist, I need only remember that I bought and read both of his prose novels, Fear Book and Whipping Boy, a step I didn’t take with other comic book wordsmiths whose material I ultimately find more literary and rewarding. Byrne’s novels were pulpy and briskly compelling, recalling Stephen King’s work from around that era. That worked for me.

My journey as a Byrne fan has gotten trickier in recent years, in part because the more recent material I’ve read has lacked the zing and jubilant creativity I once associated with his work, and in part because his challenging personality, dispensed in his own online space with filterless toxicity, casts a pall over all his panels. It’s bad enough that he authoritatively expresses some appalling viewpoints and occasionally generates needlessly pissy spats with the few remaining pros who’d still defend him as a worthy collaborator following his years of setting bridges ablaze. It’s made worse that even the most tender counter-arguments are often met with apoplectic defensiveness that is almost painful to view. Byrne can still turn in a helluva drawing, but his language has picked up a touch of rot that has spread more widely than I’d like, if only because my estimation of him has taken more than a few body blows. I still prefer to see my fandom through to the end, even if it’s a little bitter. Sometimes, though, just cause arises to let a favorite creator be part of the past to free the strain of heavy disappointment on the present.

An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin
John Updike
Roger Angell
Bill Watterson
William Shakespeare
Sarah Vowell
Douglas Adams
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Clive Barker
Jon Krakauer
John Darnielle
Richard Price
Art Spiegelman
Anthony Bourdain
John Irving
Oliver Sacks

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