Cartoonists of My Youth
I remember fairly clearly the moment, as a youngster, when I realized that I enjoyed the work of certain artists more than others. For years, I followed characters. If it had Spider-man in it, I wanted it. Cyclops. The Beast. Superman. I would pick up whatever I could with these guys featured in betwixt the covers.
And then came Uncle Walt.
I was a fan of the original X-Men, so if a book had Cyclops, The Beast, or Iceman, I was reading it. CLASSIC X-MEN and X-FACTOR were my Dirty Mutie books of choice, and while both were good, when Walt Simonson took over the drawy chores on X-FACTOR, my wee heart took notice. There was something in his scratchy (yet deliberate) linework that resonated in my pre-teen brain. After that, I started reading the credits of my funnybooks more closely, and following certain artists with obsessive aplomb. I was lucky to have a quality comic shop nearby, so I was exposed to a wide variety of cartoonists, and before I was ten I was treated to the likes of Dave Sim, Bob Burden, and Howard Chaykin, as well as the more mainstream work (at that time) of Mike Mignola, Arthur Adams, John Byrne, and the aforementioned Unca Walt Simonson.
So over the next few weeks, I will recount my childlike love for these Few and Proud, and bring the world up to date with the current status of my love. We will start with a little controversy:
Remember fondly, I do, NAMOR, in his zip-a-toned incarnation as a businessman with a pet gryphon (or whatever the fuck it was). I remember digging out back issues of that book at CENTAUR BOOKS AND COMICS, with frantic anticipation, as I had come to it late in the game and I had no clue whatsoever what was going on. Namor is rich? Why is he not crazy? Who are these vaguely incestuous twins? To this day, I have no answer for those questions.
(Which is weird, because I eventually tracked dow a full run- maybe the questions were more memorable than the answers.)
Anyway, I think my first exposure to the work of Byrne was in his ill-fated SUPERMAN redux MAN OF STEEL. (I say ill-fated, because let's face it, Superman as a character has sucked ass ever since, and like it or not, Earth 2 Supes is coming back to kick ass as we speak. I could give two shits about INFINITE CRISIS, but it's nice to see that a version of Superman that isn't a cry-baby yuppie piece of shit is gonna throw a few punches here shortly. NEW FRONTIER only made me long for Cool Superman even more than usual... but I digress.)
I was unfamiliar with "re-booting" as a tot, so all I could think as I read MAN OF STEEL was that Superman's parent's were sure dressed awfully funny, and whre the hell are they that the buildings look so weird? Accustomed as I was to the Flash Gordon style trappings of Krypton-that-was, all the talk of "gestation matrixes" and "exposed flesh" was awfully strange. But when Kal-El hit Kansas, all was well, and I enjoyed that year or so of Superman ala Byrne. It was fun, as I recall; lots of solid action and ridiculous psuedo science and art that I still hold up as "classic" Superman in many ways.
I was also (as mentioned above) and avid reader of the Marvel reprints. CLASSIC X-MEN was chock full of vintage Byne goodness, and as soon as I put two and two together, my life was all about trading for CLASSIC X-MEN on the playground with the other nerds. Finding old issues of his FF run was a mission as well. The melodrama of it all was spellbinding when I was eleven, and the cosmic wildness that swim around his best issues was dizzying. Also, lest we forget, he could write and draw DOCTOR DOOM second only to the King himself.
After Superman, he spent some time at Marvel doing things that never grabbed me ('cept for NAMOR, which still gives me the weirdies), and then came NEXT MEN, birthed fully formed from his woolly head like a derivative, mostly boring Athena.
I bought NEXT MEN, month after month, hoping that something would happen. Something new and crazy, at least. I was a hopelessly naive young man, and for the most part, comics and the artists that made them never failed to make me giddy. But here I was, getting.... goodness forbid... well, bored. It was a new experience. I was actually deciding to give up a book by an artist I loved, because I wasn't into it.
(Of course, since then, I've become so used to disappointment that being snarky and critical and bitter fits like a sweet tuxedo. Good times...)
I haven't looked back since. His SPIDER-MAN relaunch was hard to take and immediately forgotten by the whole world. In my worthless lil' opinion, his illustrations have lost much of what I loved in the first place; nuances of character and an even balance of subtle and dynamic storytelling. When comparing his current work to something from say, 1986, the current style looks like layouts for something better to come.
Then there's the sad state of DOOM PATROL, and his willingness to dismiss one of my most favoritest books ever in one fell swoop.(If he thinks that a Leatherdaddy Negative Man is more interesting than the REBIS, the world is a sadder place for it...) His forum is notorious as a Bad Place, where he holds court with strange, mean opinions. It's hard not to let his internet persona taint the reading of his work. I guess there is more charisma to his anti-social rants than there is in his comics, because one sure outshines the other. It's a strange state of affairs; CEREBUS, as I read it, suffers not at all from the knowledge that Dave Sim is probably no one you want to spend time with socially.This no doubt speaks to the terrible, awesome talent that burns up the newsprint of CEREBUS as you tear through it like delicious candy. Sim is a master cartoonist, and he transcends the medium despite himself. (Maybe this is why Roman Polanski's movies have lost nothing despite him being a pederast and rapist. A fucking pederast! But KNIFE IN THE WATER never goes sour. Talent can overcome the social ills of an artist... and vice versa.) Of course one hates to judge someone's work based on an impression created by message board posts, but for fuck's sake, getting mad about people calling Superman "Supes"?
Just think about how fucking ludicrous that is for a moment. Just let it sink in. Now get depressed.
His fans (well, two or three loud ones) are a whole other ball of painful wax. They can be so onerous and tiresome that it's hard to count yourelf among them.(Again, it's unfair to judge the world based solely on that forum. I apologize. I'm an asshole.)
And there we are. It's 2005, and with several Byrne books available every month, I read not a one. But goodness gracious, do those glory days of the late seventies and early eighties hold up. They still yield tasty reads, and his Galactus haunts me! I love me some Alpha Flight, and for my money, no one else need ever draw GLADIATOR. His run on STAR BRAND was easily the brightest highlight of the New Universe, and GANTHET'S TALE is one of my favorite Green Lantern stories, based damn near entirely on his incredible sense of pacing a page.
So thanks, Mr. Byrne, for kicking the awesome superheroics at me like a football when I was a younger man. It was great while it lasted.
Next time... Walt Simonson. From X-FACTOR to ELRIC and getting tastier like fine wine.
(subbing for alex)