CRAPPING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL
A brief foreword, before we begin:
I wrote this article around six years ago. It expressed, at the time, some of my most strongly felt opinions regarding where the genre of superhero comics were then, and especially, the monumental contribution one person working in the field had made to that then-current level of quality in the field.
Despite the fact that I still feel strongly about these opinions, I nonetheless think they are reasonable and intelligent opinions, which I have articulated well and supported exhaustively with references and cited sources. I think, in fact, that the opinions expressed in this article are both lucid and correct, to the extent that any personal opinion can be lucid and correct.
In addition, I think the majority of interested and informed people who read this article will, on some level, agree with what it says, if not about the state of superhero comics as a whole, then at least, as it speaks of the relative quality of the creative work of the industry professional it primarily discusses.
Assuming any great number of people read it, I expect it to draw a relative flood of responses, the vast majority of which will be vehemently negative. Despite the fact that I think most people will accept that it is both right and true, I expect to be screamed at, insulted, and perhaps even threatened with violence over this article. Why? Because a great many people will not like what it says. And they will especially not like the fact that my arguments are cogent, I support everything I say with examples and citations, and, in the end, they simply will not be able to intelligently refute the substance of what I have said.
In point of fact, this article points out how foolish a great many people are, in terms that cannot be effectively argued with. And people really hate that.
In fact, this article has already been rejected by an editor who hated it so much that the first words of his rejection note were "I couldn't even finish it." As you will see, the article is as well written as anything else I've ever published, or more so; therefore, it's not the writing that's at fault. Apparently, this editor simply hated what the article was saying so much, he could not even force himself to keep reading. He would rather be so unprofessional as to reject an article he had not even read all the way through, than continue reading something that he could probably see was going to make him realize that at least one of his most treasured opinions was completely and inarguably wrong.
This is, without a doubt, a controversial article, and I've had at least one friend ask me why I even bothered writing it, since the pro in question, at least, according to him, is no longer either very popular or very successful. The answer is simple: this article is the truth as I see it, and I want it published. It almost certainly won't convince anyone of anything, but I'm pretty sure that the flood of angry email it engenders will prove that, at the very least, the pro in question is still very popular. Which is, in my opinion and as you will see, a great pity, and an even greater shame.
As an additional note, which I'm typing here in late-ish 2006, as I go though this article one last time preparatory to putting it up on this new Blogger site -- pretty much everything I predicted in the preceding paragraphs has happened since this article first appeared on the Internet back around 2000 or 2001. Not only did I get a great deal of hate mail about it, but entire chat threads and websites have been devoted to heaping insults and excoriation on me for having the temerity to write this article. And it's worth noting, I think, that from what I've read of the comments in these threads and on these sites, there are no actual responses to any of the criticisms I've made; the retaliatory statements on these sites consistent almost in their entirety of personal invective, often cross referencing various other posts I've made critical of various other pros whose work I don't like, which generally culminates with some sort of childish "see, look, the guy is just psychotic" dismissal.
However, I've also over the years received maybe three emails from people who told me that they'd read the article, and considered it, and found themselves in large part persuaded by and agreeing with it... and all three admitted that, prior to reading this work, they'd been pretty devoted and fanatical admirers of the work of the pro I'm writing about here.
For whatever that may be worth (and to me, it's worth quite a lot).
Okay. Next paragraph is the original start of the article; at the end, I'll have a few more words drawn from recent emails with a former big name pro who once worked with the person I've written about here, and who has a few interesting things to say about him.
I suppose we all have our touchstones, our quirky standards of judgment, our personal little litmus tests we use to make decisions regarding just how much we are going to like, respect, or admire another human being we've just become acquainted with.
I'm not talking about basic issues of fairly common decency like "Is this person a racist" or "have they been known to beat up women and children;" I mean more individual matters of taste and distinction, like "what pizza toppings do they like" or "are they into hip hop".
Most of us have our own peculiar array of foibles in this area, and when we meet someone whom we initially like, we invariably contrive ways to find out how well they measure up on our eclectic little barometers of compatibility.
Most of these weird little scratch and sniffs are things we can put aside if we find out that a new potential friend doesn't agree with us 100% regarding them If he likes alternative but isn't big on the rock and roll classics of the 70s and 80s, well, that's something we can live with. If she enjoys the mid-career movies of Martin Scorcese but has an unfortunate weakness for Chevy Chase... again, this is tolerable in an otherwise admirable person.
And, naturally, we're far more tolerant of these variances and regrettable lacks of taste and distinction in an attractive member of the distaff gender we're hoping to eventually bag.
However, above and beyond this trivial stuff, we all have our big buttons; those flashing DANGER lights we put up and bright red lines we draw denoting the absolute parameters of our own personal definitions of coolness. Across these, new acquaintances trample at their peril, or at least, at hazard to any burgeoning friendship.
My buttons are as strange and arbitrary as anyone else's. In fact, since I'm a lifelong geek/nerd getting up towards the age of 40, they're probably even more bizarre than many. Over the past ten years, I've found that I have two large buttons that, once a person presses them, there's pretty much no way I'm ever going to be able to have any respect for them again.
The first of these is Rush Limbaugh. If you like, respect, and/or admire Rush Limbaugh, I cannot help you, do not want you, and would prefer you find a planet other than mine own native one to inhabit. If we are forced to work together I will try to be pleasantly professional to you, but it will be a strain, because I will consider you in my heart of hearts to be a dumbass dipshit who should most likely be imprisoned in the nearest abandoned mine shaft, and that forthwith, for the state of all that is good and right and decent.
(Lately, with the explosion of the conservative media movement in America, you could add any number of names to this roster of shame -- Hannity, Coulter, Malkin, O'Reilly, it's a depressingly endless list -- but Rush remains reigning king of the conservative shitbags, so we'll just stick with him as a general representative of the entire contemptible ilk.)
The other of these odd little litmus tests of human character I find myself using to judge others is... well... eccentric, to say the least.
There is a wildly popular comics pro whose work I simply despise. This puts me at odds with the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of avid, screaming, shrieking fans, nay, zealots, of this particular comics pro, who will buy anything he draws regardless of how execrably he writes it, said horde of slobbering halfwit adherents being such a commercial force in the relatively small field of superhero comics that it forces editors throughout the industry to accept and even solicit writing work from This Pro Wank that they would resolutely and immediately reject from anyone else. As with the Rush Limbaugh thing, nobody who ever stands up on their hind legs and proudly declares that they think This Pro Wank's writing is anything but swill will ever win my respect or admiration.
Now... there's a saying about letting sleeping dogs lie, and another one about not beating a dead horse. That there is wisdom in these old proverbs is evident by the fact I'm about to ignore them completely.
The comics pro I'm talking about has stirred up controversy in the past. In fact, the very first time we ever noticed his input into a plot he was drawing was when he changed things so that a particular, supposedly heroic, character snuck up behind a villainous guard and killed him, rather than just knocking him out, as had been directed by the putative writer of the series.
Of course, that was back when he was still considered to be primarily an artist. Since effectively blackmailing his way into the writer's chair (by withholding his astoundingly popular and commercially lucrative drawing talents from any project which he was not also allowed to write) he has enraged various other comics pros and large contingents of fans by his writing in such a way as to display his resolute disregard for any particular continuity he himself does not care for.
However, at this time, much of this controversy seems to have died down. The fans are grumbling about many things... Hypertime, the membership of the JLA, whether or not Grant Morrison should be allowed to write FANTASTIC FOUR (a question which, I think, goes wide of the mark considerably, as a far better one would be whether or not Grant Morrison should be allowed to write ANYTHING, at ALL)... but they seem to have fallen silent about this particular pro, despite the fact that he is currently engaged plying his egotistical brand of continuity revision and destructive historical rewriting on one of the most essential and beloved characters in the history of comics.
I should leave this alone, I know. But.
Much of what I'm going to discuss about This Pro Wank's career is, indeed, in the not so recent past, and it generated a lot of controversy at the time it appeared. But, as I said above, This Pro Wank is still working in the industry, still (it seems to me) wrecking the essential qualities of everything he touches, and, more to the point, still popular enough with a vast, large number of non-discerning fans (some of whom are certainly reading this article at this very moment) to go on destroying the best and most beloved character concepts in the industry for quite some time to come.
Although this guy is, frankly, a terrible writer, with no grasp on nor understanding of even the basics of good, solid, character driven storytelling, he is allowed to pretty much take over any concept he wants to, at either Marvel or DC, and extensively rewrite and restructure them to his heart's content.
You'd think it would be a wake up call that, in an industry where even writer-artists of as little creative ability as Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, and Jim Lee can publish their own, nominally 'original' characters, make a fortune off them, and keep them in print for nearly ten years to date, this particular writer-artist has never been able to come up with so much as one memorable 'original' character.
And it's not for lack of trying. In the same tradition as Liefeld and Lee swiping various X-characters and McFarlane cobbling up a bad pastiche of Batman and Spider-Man, so too has This Pro Wank also launched several 'original' series at various independent publishers, only to see them languish and die... not, I grant you, for lack of sales figures (This Pro Wank has a lot of fans who will buy anything he draws no matter how badly he writes it), but because the writer/artist himself has no creative stamina.
He doesn't enjoy actually CREATING anything for any length of time, even if all he's creating are blatant rip offs of X-MEN and FANTASTIC FOUR. All he really wants to do is wreck stuff. Blow things up. Tear things down. He likes to take over an established character, go straight to the essential heart of whatever that character's unique thematic concept is, and then torture that central essence to death.
This is where he truly excels. And I think it's interesting that no one else seems to have noticed that, in an era where the cheapest, schlockiest, most contemptuously blatant rip off flourishes and finds an audience, This Pro Wank can't come up with anything memorable to call his own, that he could honestly point to as even a spuriously original addition to the creative canon of comics in general.
I honestly feel that if I, or any of my wannabe comics pro acquaintances, were to approach a professional comics editor from Marvel or DC at a convention, and propose any of the various plotlines that This Pro Wank has inflicted on the superhero canon over the years, we'd get chucked out of their offices.
"What?" the hypothetical editor would say, appalled. "Turn Superman into an arrogant yuppie dick? Remove the Vision's humanity and destroy his marriage? Have Alicia dump Ben Grimm and slut around with Johnny Storm? Put She-Hulk in the Fantastic Four and then give her her own magazine? Establish that the Sub-Mariner is a manic-depressive schizoid, instead of just a hot-tempered young mutant with a legitimate grudge against the surface world? Get the hell out!"
It's a pity that This Pro Wank's plotting has never been judged by the same standards as any other aspiring writer's would be. Comics would have been spared a lot of not just BAD writing, but cataclysmically terrible writing, whose sole purpose has been the annihilation of any continuity or characterization that This Pro Wank finds personally distasteful... not because said continuity or characterization has arisen from bad scripting or unintelligent plotting, but, generally, just the opposite. Which is to say, This Pro Wank has never in his life read the work of a better writer he didn't yearn to smash into pieces with a ballpeen hammer, just to prove that he can.
And he has. And he still is, even as I type this.
I'm not going to say the name yet. Many of you have guessed it, but I want to keep the salivating, mentally flatlined fanboys who make up this fellow's Damoclean blade reading for as long as possible... and most of them are too stupid to have gotten who I'm talking about yet.
One of these fine fellows, in fact, just sent me a longish e-note explaining to me, although without bothering to go into any sort of detail to actually illustrate WHY, that in his view, the particular 'creator' in question was one of the finest writers in comics, as well as one of the finest artists. That he was well known throughout the industry as someone with a genius-level talent for taking old, worn out character concepts and regenerating them completely, breathing new life and modern potential into conceptual corpses ready for the circulation graveyard. In response to me specifically noting that this particular creator had cast rather a shadow on the basic character and sexuality of the Scarlet Witch when he revealed that the Vision actually had no genitalia, and apparently, had never had any, this particular correspondent snottily sneered, "Hey, buddy, [This Pro Wank]'s not the one who married her off to a toaster!"
I want us all to keep that particularly witless, drooling, brain-dead statement in mind. It's a very typical thing to hear from the fans of This Pro Wank. TPW says the Vision is a toaster so, well, the Vision is a toaster. Twenty years of work establishing the basic validity and humanity of the Vision, in one of the most uplifting and fulfilling and affirming sustained stories of character growth and self discovery in the history of superhero comics, under the aegis of master creators like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart notwithstanding.
Two hundred issues of Avengers, two separate mini series, a romance that fired the imagination of fandom everywhere, a marriage and children and the enthusiastic acceptance of the superhero community... all these factors speaking to the fact that this character is just as human and real and valid as anyone else...
No. This Pro Wank says 'he's a toaster'... and that's ALL that's important.
Certainly, there are a lot of people out there who do not agree with me that This Pro Wank is perhaps, in and of himself, the single most destructive force of everything good and worthwhile in superhero comics to ever be unleashed in the industry.
Still, just as I tend to shy away when I find out someone is a passionate Rush Limbaugh devotee, so too do I find it virtually impossible to have any respect for anyone who can write, not only with a straight face, but in tones of the most abject starstruck worship, that This Pro Wank's work on characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, Batman, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man 'breathed new life' into those tired, mined-out concepts.
I can honestly have more respect for those who adore Grant Morrison's every weighty, pretentious caption, or those who love James Robinson's every trendy, pop culture reference, or even those who insist that Todd McFarlane's SPAWN is the most astonishingly innovative superhero concept in decades, than I can for people who like, admire, and enjoy This Pro Wank's writing.
Now, I don't want people to think that I myself am as unreasonably prejudiced as This Pro Wank is. My hatred of this fellow's work, unlike his own apparently irrational hatred for much established continuity, is not unreasonable, nor does it spring full-blown from my brow like a modern day Pallas Athene.
I myself looked forward to seeing The Wank take over the Fantastic Four back in the early 80s. I was honestly willing to give him a chance and see if he could write, and I even more or less enjoyed his first few issues, although I noted to myself with some unease that the plots seemed rather pedestrian, his dialogue seemed a little bit flat, and as time went on, more and more of what was going on in the comic seemed to have little or nothing to do with the actual, essential core concept of the Fantastic Four itself.
Eventually, baffled by the fact that FF seemed like it really should be interesting but never actually GOT interesting, I gave the book up, just before the costumes changed, the team headed into the Negative Zone for a year long adventure in which the art was printed sideways for no good reason I could see, and Alicia Masters abandoned an absent Ben Grimm to schtupp the younger, cuter, far more shallow and easily manipulated Johnny Storm, who only a few issues before, strangely enough, the writer-artist in question had been drawing as if he were fifteen years old.
Oh, yeah, and one of my personal Most Loathed Characters Of All Time, the She-Hulk, joined the team, apparently so This Pro Wank could indulge himself drawing her as close to naked as possible in as many panels as possible while, presumably, enthusiastically earning the nickname I've given him in front of his drawing board and, doubtless, all over the partially pencilled pages.
Nice work if you can get it.
Looking back, much of the FF's subtext for the first year or so The Wank was on the book seemed devoted to a rather churlish and clumsy attempt at discrediting the Thomas/Englehart 'Vision is really the Golden Age Human Torch' concept that The Wank had apparently always virulently disliked. This was the 'creator' in question's first, bitter volley at the central concept of the Vision's humanity, and it was astoundingly out of place in FANTASTIC FOUR, but that didn't keep him from focusing much of his first year on the book there.
Let me stop the tirade, the rant, the diatribe, here for just a bit as I softly soliloquize on the nature of the Fan vs. the nature of the Pro.
We fans occasionally get weird ideas in our heads. Stupid stuff, like the concept that Batman and Robin have always been gay for each other, or that Spider-Man is actually a clone, or that Reed Richards and Sue Storm have never actually had sex and Franklin Richards is really the son of the Sub-Mariner. There's a guy with a very popular webpage who even seems to think that Dr. Strange should be a member of the Avengers, which is without a doubt one of the most idiotic concepts I've ever heard of.
I am even aware of one particular female fan who insists that Superman and Supergirl had been secretly married (by Kryptonian rites performed after a trip via time travel to Krypton itself, no less) for at least a year prior to Crisis, who will point to mountains of 'evidence' of her peculiar supposition, and who writes endless fan fic stories mostly concerning idyllic romantic interludes between the two mutually besotted cousins, set on distant, exotic honeymoon planets where the Kryptonian lovebirds can express their undying devotion far from the prying eyes of Earthly mortals who would not understand. (The stories are awful, too.)
More than just getting peculiar ideas that have no actual foundation in established story continuity, fans have a tendency to cling to these ideas regardless of any conflicting evidence. It doesn't matter how many girlfriends Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson have on-panel, the whackjob who just KNOWS that they're gay still insists that Silver St. Cloud and Starfire are merely bearding for the Caped Crusaders.
The nutball who is sure Sue's been boffing Namor for years because Reed's essentially pliable body won't let him get it up ignores all on-panel indications of a passionate relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Fantastic and points with a triumphant shriek at any panel in which the Invisible Girl and Namor exchange so much as polite pleasantries.
The gonzo-woman who believes the House of El is propagating itself forward endlessly throughout DC's Silver Age via enthusiastic first cousin genetic co-mingling (and she's written stories about the next generation of Super-offspring, too) points to Superman's tear stricken grief at Supergirl's death in Crisis, his similar grief in Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?", the infamous Larry Niven article "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex", and various other 'hints' and 'indications' scattered throughout various Supergirl stories, as 'proof' that her hypothesis is correct.
One of the essential differences between a fan and a pro is that a pro is supposed to have the native skill and talent, the knowledge of the various elements of good fiction in general and specific super characters in particular, along with the analytical capacity, to separate out the bad, hopelessly self indulgent ideas, whose implementation would defy all established character continuity, and actually damage the character's essential concept from that point on, from the good, innovative, interesting ideas that will actually develop the character in logical, interesting, and hopefully surprising ways.
In other words, the Pro, presented with any of the above ideas, would immediately and vehemently reject all of them. He'd know that establishing Batman and Robin as actually being homosexual lovers would not only render moot decades of characterization on both of them, but also establish Batman as a child molester, and cast a horribly sleazy light on the fact that he just keeps adopting new little boys to dress up in Peter Pan booties and scaly green swimtrunks.
A pro would similarly understand just how awful it would be to establish that Reed Richards is permanently impotent and that Sue has cheated on him for years with a manic depressive man-fish, or just what it would do to Superman's fundamental, incorruptible decency to declare that he's been essentially leading Lois and Lana on for years while slipping it to his naive, somewhat ditzy, hero worshipping, much younger cousin on the sly.
The fan conceives such blithering idiocy and hangs onto it like grim death, never admitting or even realizing that if such a thing was ever actually officially revealed about their favorite characters, they'd most likely lose all interest in the characters, as would nearly everyone else in the audience.
This Pro Wank, on the other hand... well, he just doesn't get this. ANY of it. He does not seem to understand that if he establishes that Batman should have retired after catching Joe Chill, then Batman is most likely an obsessed, violent psychotic, not an admirable, heroic champion of the helpless.
He does not comprehend that if a teenage Clark Kent uses his newly discovered superhuman abilities to become a high school athletic champion, he's a prick, not a superhero, and if after his first public superfeat he goes back to his parent's home and snivels "They all wanted a piece of me, Ma" over and over again, he's not only a prick, he's a big whiny babyboy that the REAL Kal-El should slap through a wall.
This Pro Wank doesn't have the vaguest grasp on the fact that the doomed, impossible love between blind Alicia Masters and a deformed, monstrous Thing is a poignant, classic, and ageless story element, while having Alicia dress like a skank, dump Ben, and date the much hunkier Johnny, is just tawdry and awful.
He does not seem to really be capable of understanding any of this, and these are all things that any competent writer SHOULD understand, almost instinctively, without being told.
Now, let's look at the Vision.
Under Roy Thomas, the Vision began a slow and often times painful search for his own essential state of being. The question he strove to answer was a fundamental one: was he merely a machine, or was he, in fact, in some way, a human being? The spiritually inclined would (and often did, on AVENGERS letter pages) characterize this as his 'search for his soul', and as such, it was a powerful, essentially reaffirming subplot throughout much of the Avengers continuity of the 1970s.
Under Englehart, the Vision wrestled with the question of whether he could feel true emotion or not, declared his love for the Scarlet Witch, and eventually discovered his heroic heritage, as he had been created from the unliving body of the Golden Age Human Torch.
This last story idea, originated by Thomas and brilliantly executed by Englehart, promptly became a constant and ongoing subject of vehement fan debate (I, myself, could never emotionally accept it).
Still, whether you accept the particular details of this troubled continuity implant (and, as I say, I myself could never emotionally accept that a synthetic humanoid capable of transforming himself into living flame, possessed of biological blood perfect enough to transfuse into another human being to save her life, could somehow be re-constructed into a just as clearly humanoid machine, made of plastic and wires, with the ability to alter his molecular structure at will and fire lasers from his eyes), the fact remains that throughout the 70s and early 80s, the Vision was clearly established, by many writers, in AVENGERS and two different mini-series, as being a fully human being, regardless of the material he was made out of, or the origin of his physical body.
He and his girlfriend, the Scarlet Witch, were shown to be deeply in love with and committed to each other, they eventually married, and years later, through an act of bizarre chaos magic, even had children.
All the Vision's fellow heroes accepted him as 'real', and, for that matter, so did we, as the writers were at pain to establish that he was, clearly, human... not that they needed to, because we, the fans, had known it all along.
I mean, of COURSE he was human, what kind of message would it have sent to fandom assembled if this valiant, heroic member of the Avengers had been ultimately labeled as nothing more than a soulless automaton?
Affirming the Vision's humanity reaffirmed the essential humanity and validity of all of us. The Vision was the ultimate outsider, just as most if not all comics fans feel themselves to be at one time or another. His search for humanity and acceptance was ours as well. It was a remarkably uplifting and sustaining saga, and one of the most transcendentally 'heroic' story threads of Marvel's Silver Age and Modern Era.
Now we return to that Fan vs. Pro dichotomy. Remember that? Where the Fan conceives of some utterly idiotic, absurd, nonsensical idea about a particular character and then hangs onto that ridiculous notion in the face of any and every shred of established evidence to the contrary?
So, we have acclaimed writer/artist John Byrne, who, despite everything that every other writer has ever established, is convinced the the Vision really is, after all, just a machine, and –
Yes, of course I'm talking about John Byrne. Who did you think I was referring to, Frank Miller?
Byrne's irrational belief that the Vision is only a machine, regardless of all other evidence to the contrary, seems writ large through virtually every project he has ever done for Marvel. In fact, he frequently mentions it during interviews. By Byrne's perceptions, Englehart committed a grotesque impropriety when he let the Scarlet Witch get married to 'a toaster', as Byrne and his fans constantly refer to the Vision.
In fact, Englehart carefully established that the Vision was completely human before he married the Scarlet Witch, but to such as Byrne (and his fans) this is a trifling matter. Remember, as we've seen above, if Johnny Redbeard says the Vision is a toaster, then THAT is very much THAT.
Such is Byrne's astonishing egotism that, even in the face of nearly 20 years of careful characterization and ongoing stories in which the Vision struggled to accept his own essential validity as a living being of artificial origin, written by a half dozen far better writers than himself, Byrne insisted on his own degrading, dehumanizing, destructive re-interpretation.
As soon as he got access to the character, he firmly established the Vision's essential inhumanity, regardless of the consequences that it had on the other peripheral characters.
Like a truly irresponsible fan suddenly given carte blanche to run amok among Marvel's continuity, he fully realized his own dark conceit, buttressing his new version of reality with absurd plot contrivances such as Professor Horton returning from the grave for one panel to declare that the Vision was 'not his work', and Wonder Man absurdly, and for no coherent or remotely sensible reason, refusing to contribute his brain patterns once again so that the being he had regarded as a 'twin brother' could be fully restored to life.
Byrne even wrote off the Vision's children as being some sort of individual shards of Mephisto's soul, which makes just about as much sense as it sounds like it does.
Possibly the largest and most egregious continuity and characterization abuse Byrne enacted on the Vision and the Scarlet Witch could not, due to the peculiar conventions of comic books, even be discussed in most published forums for fans and pros, and Byrne brilliantly exploited this.
With his shocking full frontal nude shot of a reconstructed Vision in WEST COAST AVENGERS, Byrne sniggeringly established, doubtless he thought for all time, that the Vision had no genitalia, with the obvious inference that he'd never actually had any.
It's worth noting, I think, that for the endlessly horny and endlessly adolescent Byrne, this is apparently the ultimate statement on the Vision's essential inhumanity. The presence of sexual equipment, it seems, is what inextricably establishes an entity as 'human' in Johnny Redbeard's lexicon.
Under Englehart and Thomas, the Vision found his soul, under Byrne, he lost his tallywhacker... and according to Byrne, this was all the evidence we needed that all the Vision had ever been, and all he ever would be, was a 'toaster'.
Of course, that the Vision definitely had human, male sexuality is yet another of those annoying, intrusive elements clearly established in all that annoying, intrusive continuity that Byrne didn't like.
Mainstream comic book convention forbids showing any sort of actual graphic sex scene, so naturally, no image of the Vision's bright red woody has ever graced an official Marvel comic. Nonetheless, many sequences in the past have clearly established that the Vision and the Scarlet Witch enjoyed a healthy and active sex life in their marriage and the implication that the Vision came complete with full masculine endowments (perhaps considerately Ribbed For Her Pleasure by an ever thoughtful Ultron) was obvious and inescapable.
For Byrne to present us with this blank crotch shot did not, in fact, accomplish his goal of effectively and irrefutably establishing that the Vision had never been truly human. What it established, effectively and irrefutably, was that Byrne was at heart a consummately unprofessional fan, and a petulant, childish, egotistical one as well, who felt no need to acknowledge the work of other writers if that work in any way conflicted with his own obsessive agenda.
This can also be fairly clearly discerned by the fact that, while Byrne clearly established that the Vision was NOT the original Human Torch, by reviving the original Human Torch himself, he never bothered to deal with minor, piddling little details such as the Vision's inexplicable claustrophobia, later revealed to have come out of the imprisonment traumas suffered by the Torch in his previous incarnation. Byrne happily tore down the Thomas/Englehart Vision continuity. He replaced it... as is usual for him... with nothing.
What Byrne did not seem to clearly realize, or at the very least, what he certainly didn't care about, was exactly the effect his 'revelation' would have on the characterization of the Scarlet Witch. Suddenly, Wanda went from being a woman with the courage to declare her love for an artificial man in defiance of all custom and convention, to being a woman who, after a long, turbulent childhood relationship with two separate domineering, patriarchial figures (her brother Quicksilver and her father Magneto), after undergoing a passionate crush on Captain America which she never attempted to pursue and experiencing the even more passionate attentions of Hawkeye the Archer (certainly a man not lacking in testosterone himself), had then chosen to commit herself in a lifelong monogamous relationship with the one ostensibly male figure she had ever met...
…who had no willie.
In fact, according to Byrne, the Scarlet Witch had later on used her magic to conceive children, all without ever having to inconvenience herself with that messy, icky thing known as 'sex'.
Now, Wanda had always been somewhat troubled and complex, but this is a whole new low. Exactly what did the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants DO to her when she was a nubile young adolescent to make her so twisted? (Had Byrne stayed on WEST COAT AVENGERS another ten issues, I'm sure he'd have gotten around to showing us, in as graphic an amount of detail as he could have gotten around to.)
I honestly think that what primarily motivated Byrne in this, and what motivates him in virtually all of his 're-interpretations', is his desire to make an undeniable impact on his chosen field of effort. This is understandable; self actualization is a basic human need. The problem is, Byrne has an enormous amount of influence on comics, an enormous amount of ambition to make his mark on comics, and virtually no writing talent with which to do it. Therefore, he cannot really 'contribute'. All he can do is tear down the contributions of others.
Fortunately for Our Pal, the 80s were dawning, and he had a powerful, if unknown, ally waiting in the wings named Frank Miller. While Frank could script rings around Byrne in terms of actual writing talent, he shared much of Byrne's dark, pessimistic vision of human nature, even within the idealized context of an essentially heroic character.
Similar to Byrne, Frank Miller started out as a simple artist, quickly became enormously popular, and like a sought after actor who has always wanted to direct, used the popularity of his pencils to finagle writing assignments, too.
Between Miller's work, and that of Our Pal's, the moral spectrum of four-color funny books, at least at Marvel, darkened perceptibly over the 80s. Publishers discovered what movie producers had always known - fans like gore, and fans especially like ruthless, violent, amorally pragmatic heroes that were willing to wade into a fist fight and do actual, visible, lasting damage to the bad guys.
By the time the 80s were over, nearly every character at both companies had suffered some moral darkening, and the age of Image was nearly upon comics in general. Also, John Byrne's one undeniable area of writing talent, his capacity for taking noble, heroic characters and making them nastier and sleazier and more anti-heroic, had been shown to be commercially viable. And as so often happens, with commercial success came apparent creative success as well. Comic books that Byrne was writing were selling well, therefore, Byrne had to be a great writer, yes?
Now, I'm not the only one, by any means, who has seen through the sham of Byrne's often well-rendered pencils to the shabby storylines and unprofessional fannishness underlying them. Even such a paragon of professionalism as Kurt Busiek came close to actually snapping at Byrne when he heard that Byrne would be "Man of Steeling" away the events Busiek had depicted in his own UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN series. "I wish he wouldn't do that," the normally taciturn and easygoing Busiek all but snarled on an AOL posting board, and if you've followed Busiek's public statements over the years, you'll know that those six words are the equivalent of a full textual barrage from the likes of Peter David or Gary Groth.
Busiek's own recent collaboration with Roger Stern on AVENGERS FOREVER very quietly untangled much of the knotted, incoherent continuity detritus Byrne left in the wake of his destructive and mean spirited rampage through WEST COAST AVENGERS, while at the same time providing a textbook example of the phrase 'constructive criticism', not just undoing and explaining away much of Byrne's most egregious and irresponsible plot abuses and excesses, but also creating a large, positive addition to the specific continuities and historical traditions (past, present, and future) of the Avengers and the Marvel Universe in general.
Assuming Byrne has the brains to recognize good writing when he sees it (and he must, since he seeks it out and tears it down with such finely honed discrimination), I can only assume he's a positively toxic shade of green with envy.
(Busiek and Stern’s work on AVENGERS FOREVER is unfortunately flawed in many particulars, and I wrote an article about that, too, but let’s stick with this one for the time being.)
As I noted well above, I had nothing against Byrne's debut on FANTASTIC FOUR as both writer and artist. In fact, I looked forward to it. (Had you just suffered through Dough Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz's abortive run on the series, following Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard's just mindbogglingly AWFUL tenure, you'd have looked forward to it, too.)
Back then, I was more innocent. Image Comics was still ten years or more in the future, and I had not yet learned the virulent distrust for the artist who thinks he can write that I would later internalize.
And while there are several examples of artists who really can write well - Ron Randall, Scott McCloud, Frank Miller, Jack Kirby himself - for the most part, I have to say that it was Byrne who first taught me that just because someone can draw like a god doesn't mean they can write a lick, or should be allowed to have any actual input into the shape and direction of stories they're given to illustrate.
And I have to seriously wonder just how much of the untold and undeniable damage that has been done to the quality of comic book storytelling and the inherent splendor of the superhero concept itself would have been avoided if some editor somewhere had simply sat Johnny Redbeard down and said "John, you're a truly great artist, but just as Steve Englehart and Stan Lee needed artists to draw their scripts, so too do you need a scripter to write your plots and dialogue for you."
A look at Byrne's own frequently published early sketchbooks shows his preoccupation with sex and graphically depicted violence, and it should have hardly come as a surprise that once he was given carte blanche to alter the plots Claremont gave him on X-MEN, far more sleazy innuendo and dark, disturbing violence started creeping in. ("More sleazy innuendo" in a Claremont script is, I grant you, like adding more salt water to the Pacific Ocean, but still.)
It was Byrne's visual ad libs that turned Wolverine into a slaughtering berserker and Phoenix into a mass murderer, and the backlash from that haunted Marvel throughout the 80s... and STILL Byrne not only got work, but was rewarded with the writer's role on FANTASTIC FOUR... all of which, as I say, seems to have initiated the downward spiral of morality and ethics and heroic standards in superhero comic books, which seems to have finally reached its nadir with the relentlessly unheroic behavior of all of Marvel's first line characters in a poorly conceived, Image-'creator' driven publishing event.
Since then, the general tone and moral context of protagonist behavior in superhero comics has seemingly been turning upward again, with writers like Kurt Busiek helming the most positive, admirable, and truly heroic Avengers line up in years, Alan Moore presenting an old fashioned heroic paragon in Tom Strong, and even that old reprobate Grant Morrison giving us a more heroic than not depiction of a modern JLA.
Of course, Morrison has backslid recently with the debut of the morally repugnant Marvel Boy, of whom the best that can be said is that he's not as bad as his villains (and with his second issue, where he exerts mind control technology over a hapless crowd and uses them as cannon fodder to get a rampaging, Hulk-like SHIELD operative out of his hair, we can't even say that any more), but still, comics overall seem to be gradually getting back to depicting some sort of actual heroic ideal to look up to and admire again... no thanks to Byrne, who is currently depicting the early career of Spider-Man in such a way as to make Peter Parker seem like someone we can only hope a building falls on before the next issue comes out.
I shouldn't finish this article without noting that ever since Byrne started doing his own scripts, the quality of his artwork has gone in the toilet, too. This is hardly unusual when an artist starts providing his own story material, but it has never been more on display than over the last twenty years of Byrne's career.
Even Jack Kirby's best artwork was done when he was working with a scripter - or plotter, whichever Stan Lee actually was. (THAT simple statement is going to irritate a bunch of people, I know, but let's be serious. I love KAMANDI, too, but Kirby's artwork was simply better when he was drawing FANTASTIC FOUR, over Stan Lee's plots.)
When artists, even the best and most creative artists, start providing their own story material, they instinctively gravitate to the stuff they like best, which is usually (human nature being what it is) the stuff they can draw the most easily. Kirby began simplifying his artwork with his first issue of MISTER MIRACLE. Byrne went through a similar process, although his studied emulation of Jack Kirby's style in his first year on FF, and his brief assignment on Captain America with Roger Stern doing scripts, kept this from showing initially.
However, anyone looking over Byrne's body of artistic work since 1980 would be hard pressed to say with any sincerity that he has actually improved in any way since his late 70s and early 80s artwork.
In point of fact, even the most rabid Byrne fans, if they are honest, would have to admit that lately his artwork has pretty much sucked in comparison to what he once produced on books like IRON FIST and X-MEN. There is virtually no comparison between the lushly detailed and beautifully rendered work he did back then and the comparative stick figure thumbnail sketches he has turned in more recently on WONDER WOMAN and THE LOST GENERATION.
However, Byrne himself admits that he is deliberately simplifying his style, and using computer enhancement technology, in order to draw faster, so he can produce more work for his fans. We really need to examine his work on FANTASTIC FOUR and NAMOR to understand the effect that writing for himself has had on his art.
When Byrne drew IRON FIST, he basically had to teach himself from scratch to draw an acrobatic, agile young superhero. He pioneered a style that has been described in the past by adjectives like 'liquid', 'flowing', and 'fluid', virtually inventing the multiple image action sequence, the open panel border storytelling technique, and the faded, cut out dream image. He did these things because he had to; he wasn't in charge of story elements, he had to draw what was in the plots that Claremont gave him, and if he didn't know how to, he had to make something up.
When artists of the talent and brilliance of a Byrne or a Kirby are forced to make things up, the entire industry benefits from it; those techniques tend to become standard elements of visual storytelling from that point on, in much the same way the technique of having an actor look at something off screen, then cutting immediately to what the audience assumes the actor was looking at, was pioneered by D.W. Griffith and quickly became an essential part of the standard moviemaking ‘vocabulary’.
In FF, NAMOR, and WEST COAST AVENGERS, we can see that Byrne pretty much abandons any visual technique he would have had to work hard to draw. Multiple image action scenes vanish, as do, gradually at first and then with more frequency, any kind of detailed backgrounds that couldn't be laid in quickly with an Exacto knife and a roll of Zip-a-tone, or later, by a computer program. Byrne stops creating innovative visual storytelling techniques and more and more, we see his characters falling into stock action poses and postures that convey no subtle emotion or characteristic body language.
While Claremont as a writer never gave Byrne as an artist a huge gamut of sophisticated or subtle emotion to convey (Claremont's idea of interesting and colorful characterization, let's remember, is to show that Moria MacTaggert keeps a machine gun in her pantry, to sulkily inform fans at conventions that Colleen Wing is bisexual but Marvel won't let him put it in his scripts, and to establish that Jean Grey and Storm are extremely close and intimate friends by saying so in one caption in X-MEN #100, despite the fact that we had never seen the two characters actually share a panel previous to that one other than the big splash at the end of GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1), virtually ALL emotions except shock, horror, insane berserker rage, joy, and flirtatious coyness, vanish from Byrne's visual lexicon entirely as soon as he starts writing his own scripts... and if you don't think that effects the content and quality of the stories he's telling, then you don't know much about the basic elements of character driven fiction.
To be blunt, if all an artist draws is toast and jam, then the stories written by that artist are going to be pretty limited.
Byrne, the writer, simply didn't demand anything that Byrne, apparently an essentially lazy artist, didn't feel like bothering to draw.
The stretching of limits is the essence of the peculiar and perhaps unique collaborative effort that is at the heart of comic book creation and that was very nearly wiped out by the advent of writer/artists like Byrne, Miller, Simonson, Liefeld, McFarlane, Lee, and Larsen in the 80s and 90s.
A writer, given back artwork that brings his plot to life in a way he had never anticipated, may find himself scripting better dialogue than he otherwise would have; an artist, asked to draw something he's never tried to draw before, or even seen anyone else draw, will push himself to come up with some way to accomplish it successfully.
With a writer/artist, this rarely happens. Byrne isn't the only one to show this problem; Todd McFarlane's SPAWN could be best be defined as having the power to do whatever McFarlane feels like drawing from one minute to the next. But Byrne has certainly evidenced it prominently over the past few decades.
It's hard for me to find a way to close this article neatly, most likely because I myself have difficulty understanding the John Byrne phenomenon. I have always read comic books because they were written well, rather than because I liked the art. On occasion, I've been lucky enough to find a well written comic that also has good art, but I've never been the sort of person who picks up a comic book simply because it's beautifully illustrated. (Recently I've made an exception to this in purchasing the collected graphic album of KINGDOM COME. While I consider it to be a shallow, wildly unlikely, and astonishingly unintelligent story, the Alex Ross artwork is simply brilliant. I also picked up the MARVELS collection recently for the same reason, despite the fact that I honestly feel the last two issues of the book substantially declined in writing quality from the standard set in the first two. However, by and large, I buy comics for the writing, not the art.)
However, even accepting as I do that for hundreds of thousands, the artwork is more important... for many, FAR more important... than what the characters are actually doing, the continuing popularity of Johnny Redbeard still astounds me. He's simply not doing very good artwork these days, and more and more often I'm running into these vehement Byrne fans who insist, often at the top of their physical or textual lungs, that not only is he a brilliantly gifted artist, but he is one of the greatest writers in the history of comics, too.
I note that these people can never actually, analytically, support their opinions... they can never list one coherent element of the writer's craft that they feel Byrne does well... but, nonetheless, they seem to sincerely believe that he is a truly gifted writer who actually deserves all the accolades that have been heaped on him over the years.
They're going to keep buying his work without ration or reason, despite the fact that his current artistic output looks a great deal like he drew it with his feet. I don't understand it, and that, of course, makes it hard to summarize everything up neatly.
It's also hard because, of course and regrettably, it isn't over. I'm writing about history, but Byrne is still a force to be reckoned with in comics, and the enormous amount of damage he has done to many of the characters I love the best is not yet done. He has an apparently endless yen to stomp his big ugly clueless dopey footprints into the clay of every major super-character and concept, and until and unless the witless legion of slope-browed mouth-breathers who follow him mindlessly from one book to another actually wises up and realizes that, well, he SUCKS, he's going to keep being given access to whichever character concept he decides he wants to desecrate next.
The best we can hope for, I suppose, is that good writers remain in comics as long as Byrne does, or hopefully longer, and keep walking around behind him cleaning up his messes.
Actually, I suppose Kurt Busiek could make a life's work out of it, if he wanted to.
As a little postscript, eight months or so after I first wrote the above words, I wanted to present some very short, fragmentary excerpts from a recent email correspondence with a one-time big name pro. During the course of our email, I mentioned how much I disliked Byrne, especially one of the projects Byrne had worked with under this particular ex-pro, back when he was a prolific, nearly ubiquitous, editor for one of the Big Two companies.
In response to my first statement of my low opinion of Byrne, the ex-big shot replied, in the apologist tone that ran through all his letters to me:
"John can't write, but he was a great co-plotter."
My response to this should have been 'if he can't WRITE, why did you PAY HIM TO WRITE?', but I tend to find it difficult to be actually rude to people who are being nice to me. Also, I was enjoying our email exchange at the time. So I didn't ask that. Instead, we discussed other subjects.
Eventually, he mentioned that his publishing company, and he as an editor, had initiated one particularly odd omnibus title, featuring a great many characters, because:
"John Byrne couldn't produce two monthly [Trademarked name] comics."
When I asked him why, in that case, he hadn't thought to actually hire, you know, a real writer to script another monthly [Trademarked name] title, he responded:
"It would have embarrassed John, and [his company] did NOT want to embarrass John."
Now, these are all relatively brief comments, and obviously, they are subject to some interpretation, and even more obviously, I am taking them out of context. Hell, I could be making them up, although, if I were, I'd more likely claim they were quotes by Jack Kirby or Will Eisner or Scott McCloud or someone guru-ish like that, and make them more directly insulting to Byrne.
In fact, they are actual quotes, from a guy who once worked very closely and extensively with Byrne, on what I think was most likely the worst, and probably best selling, writing of Byrne's career. (If said ex-pro ever reads this article, he's going to blow an aneurysm, especially since in his next to last letter to me before he decided he didn't want to write to me any more because I told the truth about how I felt about his editing back then in one of my articles, he mentioned kind of snottily that private mail is not to be used in published articles. Bugger THAT, I say; he knew I wrote articles about comics for webzines when he wrote to me.)
But my interpretation of the above comments... well... to ME, they seem to pretty clearly say that (1) a professional editor who hired Byrne to write and draw a very influential and popular comic book KNEW he couldn't write, and hired him anyway, and (2) he and his company were aware that Byrne could not produce two monthly comic books, and (3) he and his company were similarly aware that hiring someone who could write a second monthly comic about that character WELL would have embarrassed Byrne, and they couldn't have that, all of which means (4) they were aware Byrne couldn't write, and didn't care, because his work was selling well.
And I can't think of anything to say to that, except that in my opinion, comics has been and continues to be an industry where people who are terrible at a particular job get paid a lot of money to do it, by other people who know they suck at the job, but who simply want to take advantage of a stupid customer base.
To my mind, this seems like a bad thing. But I'll bet I get a whole lotta email that tells me different.
And now that this notorious and infamous article is once again available to Internet search engines, I’ll bet I start to gradually accrue flames in the comment thread below, too.