Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Back To Basics

In the mid-'70s, Marvel Comics created a fan organization called--I kid you not--"FOOM." Coincidentally (or not, depending on what you believe), a lot of Marvel's books at the time just happened to feature a lot of FOOM! sound effects, from which you could infer the name of the club was formed. It was an attempt to replace Marvel's first fan organization--the "MMMS" ("Merry Marvel Marching Society")--with a more contemporary club, but with a little something extra. The club would send you monthly fan magazines with original content from editors, promising artists, and, of course, fans. I wish I'd kept some of those magazines, because a few of them contained some of the earliest work of writer/artist John Byrne--and they'd probably be worth a pretty penny by now.

I've always had mixed feelings about Byrne--particularly his six-year run on Fantastic Four, which arguably is one of the best periods of the series. His stories and concepts are quite interesting, and he broke a lot of ground in some respects in the FF book. The only real frustration I had with his writing was when he felt a character's origin needed to be redone, effectively throwing out what had already been set in stone. In fact, if memory serves, my first exposure to this practice was with Byrne. It's one thing for a writer to make such "what if" musings in interviews, but imagine actually seeing it done in print. My first thought was, "He can really just do this?" Galactus, Ego, and other long-standing characters have all felt the tip of his eraser.

Byrne, to my knowledge, never put the FF through that kind of revision. If anything, he made an effort to bring them even further back to their roots. Reed became the skinny scientist again, speaking in a more formal style and playing far less of a "team leader" role, at least in the sense of barking orders. Johnny lost any semblance of maturity that his character might have gained in the last 200 issues, in both attitude and looks. Ben's change was almost predictable: once again, he brooded about being the Thing. And Sue--well, Sue he seemed to take in the opposite direction, strengthening her abilities and putting her on more equal footing with the team, while also emphasizing her status as a woman and mother. Given Byrne's treatment of the other three members, I half-expected Sue to return to constantly deferring to Reed and basically waiting for his cue to use her powers.

Byrne's style in Fantastic Four seemed to be to first develop the concept of the story, and then fold the FF into it as our eyes and ears. (His third FF issue, "The Man With the Power!", is a textbook example.) This way of shaping a story allowed us to see more expanded coverage of not only the FF's world, but also of their villains--particularly Dr. Doom, whom Byrne seemed to take a special interest in. That observation isn't made without good reason, as Byrne himself notes on one cover:

This particular cover, as it turns out, had even more meaning, in terms of fandom--with Byrne putting himself on the cover, it literally illustrated his growing sense of self-importance at now being the definitive FF writer/artist. It was unnerving to see, to say the least.

Byrne's artwork, of course, is how we first became introduced to his work. Before taking on Fantastic Four, he'd already cut his teeth on a successful and highly acclaimed run on Uncanny X-Men. But on the FF book, he would also ink his own work (in addition to scripting). It was quite a shift from the polished finishes that inker Terry Austin brought to his X-Men work, though not in a disappointing way. If I had a quibble with Byrne's artwork, I would say he's weakest at conveying action. Byrne has always been most adept at drawing mannerisms--gestures--setting the stage, rather than action sequences. With Byrne, you get a sense of a punch being thrown, if only because he seems to spend far too much effort drawing its path through the air--but you feel none of its impact. Characters are drawn in fights as if they were waltzing, moving in slow motion. Take the scene in Uncanny X-Men where Wolverine first storms the Hellfire Club, and taking no prisoners. He fights through groups of henchmen, confident and merciless--yet his sequences are drawn stiffly, displaying his fight but not giving us any sense of Wolverine's way of doing battle, aside from his imminent threat.

In Fantastic Four, both Sue and Reed are suited to this style--but not the Human Torch, who blazes into battle, nor the Thing, who is a born bruiser. Nor does it help that Byrne takes us too far back to Reed's earlier style of by-the-book management, forgetting how Reed has evolved from being simply a scientist to someone who actually does battle with murderous villains. In Byrne's eyes, Sue, Ben and Johnny have become Reed's personal team of explorers, helping him advance the cause of science. You have only to look at the Negative Zone arc (FF #s 251-254) to see Reed's vision, through Byrne, of the kind of team the FF should be.

Yet, I still consider John Byrne's tenure on the FF to be a distinguished one. I wouldn't have wanted to see his Fantastic Four as a template which other creative teams felt they had to stay true to--but it was a fine experiment that he should be quite proud of.


Kid said...

The one thing I didn't like was Alicia and Johnny becoming an item, but I loved it when he regressed Ben to his original dinosaur-skinned look.

Comicsfan said...

The whole Alicia/Lyja mess effectively ruined for me whatever history had built up between the real Alicia and Ben. Having Alicia turn out to be a Skrull probably wasn't the direction Byrne was going in, but I'm nevertheless not thrilled with him for getting that particular ball rolling. If we needed any evidence as to how contrived an Alicia/Johnny pairing was, Ben basically had to be self-exiled to another planet in order to make the whole thing happen.

But then you have developments like the Thing's regression to his more rocky state, which was just so intriguing and interesting. Whatever the verdict on Byrne's tenure on the FF, the guy certainly took us on one heck of a ride.

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