Friday, March 18, 2011

An Introduction to JBMN "Next!" letter column

Page 1 (Page 2 & 3 at end of post)
 In January of 1992, the first issue of John Byrne’s Next Men (JBNM) was published by Dark Horse Comics. It was in that same year that Image Comics broke, giving us Spawn, Youngblood, Savage Dragon, WildC.A.T.S. and many more. The idea of famous artists/writers leaving the "Big Two" and starting creator-owned books was a big thing in the nineties. For instance, in 1991 Frank Miller published one of his most well-known books, Sin City, under  the Dark Horse banner.

Recently, I started reading JBNM, and one of the most enjoyable perks of the books (not found in the reprinted collected material) was the letter column called “Next!” Keep in mind that these were the days before every kid had the internet in their pocket; the only way you could see into the mind of your favorite comic creator was at a comic convention. As Byrne states in this first letter column from JBNM #1:

“The answers in letter columns can be written by any of a number of people. The editor of the book, the writer, an armadillo - but it is more or less standard policy (at least at the Big Two) that whoever writes the answers assume an anonymous editorial voice…Not so here. Here will be my voice that speaks to you from the italicized portions of this column.”

And so began the memorable letter column we know as “Next!” and the even more memorable portion of said column entitled “A Flame About This High.” The letters column can also provide us an insight into the state of the comic industry as Byrne doesn't hold back while discussing hi colleagues and contemporaries. This is what I appreeciate about Byrn. Not that I agree with everything that he said in his column or that he even approached thing in the right manner. None of that is important. I strongly disagree with people that think you have to like someone personally in order to appreciate thier work. Besides, I've never met the man. I have no idea what he is really like outside of the statements put into print.

Before we go further though, let’s take a quick look at Byrne’s career leading up to the publication of JBNM #1.

John Byrne attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Alberta for three years before leaving without graduating. His first work in comics was with Charlton Comics,  co-creating and drawing the title “Doomsday +1”. Byrne first started working at Marvel Comics in 1975 where he began with the publisher's lower-selling titles such as Iron Fist, The Champions and Marvel Team-Up. It was on Iron Fist that he first worked with Chris Claremont.

It was with Claremont that Byrne hit the big time working on The X-men starting an impressive run from issue 108-143 (1977-1981). It was during this run that they created such classic story arcs as the “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.” These arcs are highly regarded by fans and critics alike. During his tenure on X-Men he not only helped to refine Wolverine’s character, but also introduced us to Kitty Pryde.

After runs on both The Avengers and Captain America, Byrne became involved with Fantastic Four. His six-year run (1981-1986) helped revitalize the series; he also reshaped Invisible Girl into Invisible Woman, changing her from a secondary-supporting-role figure into a strong female character. During his time at FF, he was also writing and drawing for Alpha Flight and The Thing. He even did a brief but memorable six-issue run on The Incredible Hulk. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Byrne's page production was (and still is) legendary.

In 1986, Byrne left Marvel and headed to DC to revitalize arguably the most popular superhero of all-time, Superman.  It started with the six-issue miniseries “The Man of Steel” where Superman’s origin was reinvented. Gone was the wimpy Clark Kent; now he was the star high-school football player. Also gone was the snoopy Lois Lane, always trying to prove that Kent and Superman were the same person. Byrne reckoned that nobody would suspect that Superman would even bother having a secret identity. In issue 2 of the new series, Lex Luthor’s high-tech computer even calculates that Clark Kent is Superman, something that Luthor dismisses as absurd.

Of course, Superman was the only book Byrne was writing at this time. Creating a mini-series based on the "Superman world" and even taking over the Adventures of Superman title, he eventually left DC on the grounds of a "lack of conscious support".

Back at Marvel, he worked with editor Jim Shooter and his New Universe title, Star Brand. After that book was cancelled, he went on to contribute to West Coast Avenger, The Sensational She-Hulk, Iron Man and Namor. This brings us to 1992 and the publication of JGNM.

Lets jump right into the letters column.

On page two, Byrne states what his typical productivity is:
“Perhaps it would help if I mentioned my basic working speed, which is three pages per day of full pencils (plus script) or three pages per day of pencils and inks, plus script. Obviously, when I ink my own work, I don’t do full pencils, since that would amount to doing the same job twice. I work at this pace five days a week (only rarely on weekends) from seven in the morning until about four in the afternoon, roughly twenty pages per month (sic-should be per week?) In other words, sixty pages over a month, on average, twelve months per year.”
Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Byrne's contemporaries at Image had a lot of difficulty publishing an issue per month and the nineties were renown for late issues. Something I cannot recall happening before the employees became the bosses. Nowadays, even the "Big Two" have late issues and even occasionally skip a month (Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, for instance).

Let’s take a look at this issue's “A FLAME ABOUT THIS HIGH…”, the first of many. A very tame feature where Byrne talks about the “origin story” in comics. He gives a brief history of it before explaining how he himself handled it with JBNM.
“Where we start is less important than where we go.”

I like that quote. Let's leave it at that, but first let me add a couple of notes: Firstly, I would like the "Comments" section of this page to be a place where people can discuss the letters; please feel free to do so. Secondly, for those of you wondering who ever won the "Be at John Byrne's Next Meal" contest? I managed to find the answer over at The answer came from John Byrne himself. 

"The winner was a guy who'd never read a comic book  in his life.  A comic fan friend told him there was a free trip to San  Diego in the offing, so he entered solely for that.  Dark Horse took him  as a guest to the Awards Banquet at the Con, and then he took off,  presumably to enjoy what the city had to offer."
Page 2

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