Not many creators can lay claim to being a true successor to the legacy of Jack “The King” Kirby. John Byrne, through his decades of impressive output as both an artist and a writer/artist, is one of the few.
Byrne, British-born but Canadian-raised, began his artistic career humbly enough. In the mid-’70s, he worked for small publisher Charlton, drawing a back-up strip called ROG-2000 and illustrating some of their licensed books like WHEELIE AND THE CHOPPER BUNCH and SPACE: 1999. His work on these titles caught the attention of Marvel Comics, who brought him on to tackle some of their floundering titles, such as MARVEL TEAM-UP and IRON FIST. Even then, his dynamic, naturalistic linework stood out above many of his peers, and began to elevate these low-selling titles to sales levels they hadn’t experienced before. But it was his work on another of Marvel’s titles that would produce the first landmark work Byrne’s artistic career.
In the late-1970s, Byrne took over the art chores on THE UNCANNY X-MEN from Dave Cockrum. Cockrum was the artist since the title’s relaunch in issue 94, the first issue featuring the “all-new, all-different” X-Men. Byrne came aboard as of issue 108, and his star and that of the title rose higher nearly overnight. The creative team on this book, writer Chris Claremont, Byrne and inker Terry Austin, produced one of the most classic runs in all of comics, still the yardstick by which all subsequent X-Men comics (and movies) have been measured. During their tenure, the team defined the character of Wolverine, making him one of the most popular characters in all of Marvel; they produced “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” a truly epic and shocking story that inspired the plot of the recent big-screen movies; and they introduced the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight, a team that would eventually spin off into its own title written and drawn by Byrne.
Byrne is an opinionated, outspoken storyteller, and was involved in much of the plotting on X-MEN. When he ultimately disagreed with the editorial decision to kill the Phoenix, he left the book soon after that storyline was complete. Nearly every title Byrne worked on at the time became a fan-favorite—his work with Roger Stern on CAPTAIN AMERICA, while only nine issues in length, is one such effort. But he would take his next huge step forward when he began a lengthy run as both the writer and artist on FANTASTIC FOUR.
While Lee and Kirby produced 102 consecutive issues of the title, Byrne stuck around for 62 issues (plus a few annuals he either wrote or drew or both). In that time, he returned the title to a prominence it hadn’t seen since the Lee/Kirby team broke up, and which it arguably hasn’t seen since Byrne left.
Byrne’s work on FANTASTIC FOUR showed his strength as a writer right from the start, and also began his habit of introducing lasting changes on a title, a move that would both win over and alienate fans in the years to come. Here, it worked masterfully, as he created characters and concepts that not only epitomized the anything-goes era of Lee and Kirby but also moved the title forward, emphasizing both the familial aspects of the team and the huge, innovative ideas that had been long missing from the book. It took him five issues to fully make the book his own — while his first few issues were serviceable, it was the title’s 20th anniversary issue, FANTASTIC FOUR 236, that clued people in that he had bigger things in mind for his run. The extra-length story, “Terror in a Tiny Town,” spent as much time developing the family dynamic of the characters as it did introducing an interesting new threat from a perfectly characterized Doctor Doom.
Byrne took the team in directions that felt organic to what had come before while also being truly innovative. He further mutated the misshapen, tragic Thing; he turned the Human Torch’s girlfriend into a herald of Galactus (it worked well, really!); he even managed to juggle a light storyline like adding She-Hulk to the team alongside his most serious direction for the title, a sensitively handled miscarriage. Nearly the entirety of Byrne’s FANTASTIC FOUR run have been collected in trade paperback form now, and all are well worth your time.
When Byrne left the title under circumstances that have never been fully explained — he left his final storyline midstream — he brought this same revisionist talent to DC Comics, who had just produced a miniseries that effectively reset their universe. Byrne was hired on to relaunch Superman in the form of a miniseries called THE MAN OF STEEL, and then a new SUPERMAN title or two to follow. Byrne’s retelling of Superman’s beginnings updated some aspects to the origin laid down a half-century before but it also changed some aspects of the character that fans didn’t appreciate. And so it would go for him.
In the intervening decades, Byrne would alternate between Marvel and DC, revamping titles like WEST COAST AVENGERS and SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK for Marvel and WONDER WOMAN, NEW GODS and DOOM PATROL for DC. He did return to the X-MEN titles as writer, too, but his run there was rather short and unremarkable.. After working on other Marvel titles like NAMOR and IRON MAN, Byrne left behind work-for-hire jobs and created some characters of his own.
Byrne headed to Dark Horse Comics to help kick off their burgeoning Legends line. His post-superhero title for this line, JOHN BYRNE’S NEXT MEN was a true return to form, an advancement of his previous work on superhero titles even as it told a more mature story than people had previously seen from him. The complete series has been collected in two volumes and is an excellent showcase for Byrne’s many strengths as a creator.
Byrne again returned to Marvel, this time in an attempt to give Spider-Man his own reboot and makeover. The result? SPIDER-MAN: CHAPTER ONE, a book that managed to change the ‘62 origin in unnecessary places while at the same time staying too slavish to what Lee and Ditko created to actually make any substantial changes that mattered to fans. But you can’t win ‘em all, especially in a career that has lasted over three decades.
Byrne has produced an amazing amount of pages in his career, working at a pace that allowed him to finish two or three pages per day. He has written the majority of comics he’s illustrated since originally leaving X-MEN, and at times he’s even lettered his own work, too. His tendency to change elements in long-running characters (he’s working in an industry built on maintaining some form of the status quo in its characters, after all) as well as his outspoken, forthright personality has worked to his detriment at times, but in these days of Internet anonymity and an impassioned fanbase, that’s not unexpected… or even uncourted by Byrne every now and then.