Thursday, 17 March 2011

Review - Namor Visionaries: John Byrne Volume 1

When I was a kid, I was John Byrne's biggest fan. His groundbreaking run on Fantastic Four remains my favourite comic of the 80s, while shorter runs on Alpha Flight and Incredible Hulk were equally well-received. I faithfully followed him to DC and he actually made Superman readable to me for the first time in my life, though I was more excited to see him returning to Marvel in the early 90s. But somewhere along the way, he started to lose some of that old Byrne magic, and gradually he went from being my favourite creator... to the man responsible for some of the worst, most insulting Spider-Man comics I'd ever read. What happened? That's a question for smarter minds than mine to ponder... but despite my disappointment at most everything he's done since, I still have a lot of time for his older work and will shamelessly throw money at anything Marvel collects pre-Spider-Man Chapter One.

The series Namor was originally released in 1990, shortly after Byrne jumped ship from Superman and swam home to Marvel. He was always better suited to the Marvel Universe and for the most part his work on this book demonstrates why. It doesn't begin well though - the first issue is full of clumsy exposition, with little in the way of action or drama, and amounts to nothing more than a half-arsed explanation of Namor's moodswings - why, after 50 years in comics, he's sometimes portrayed as a haughty yet heroic prince of the seas and at other times a psychotic nutjob intent on world domination. Turns out it's all down to the deep sea equivalent of midichlorians - George Lucas would be proud.

Thankfully, things rapidly improve with a series of exciting adventures that reposition Namor as business mogul cum eco-warrior. As with Aquaman, it's often a struggle to think up new angles for sea-based superheroes, but here Byrne effectively tackles oil spills, toxic waste and corporate greed in as intelligent a fashion as you'll find in a 90s superhero comic. While there's nothing quite as Fantastic as his work on the Four, it's still a damn sight more entertaining than most mainstream Marvel books from the decade taste forgot.

This collection also showcases another curious change that happened to Byrne's work in the 90s - the evolution / devolution of his artwork. The first couple of issues collected here are pretty similar to the work he'd been delivering throughout the 80s when he was arguably the best artist in comics. Bob Wiacek isn't necessarily the best choice of inker, and perhaps Byrne realised this as with issue 4 he starts inking himself, using a computer-shading technique he pioneered in his creator-owned title Next Men. It works well, though he doesn't stick with it for long, ditching it in favour of a clunkier, scruffier inking style that would dominate his art from then on. Worse still, he begins lettering his own work, and the effects are dire. Still, at least he finally addresses the issue of how to pronounce Namor's superhero name - and the fact that many people mistakenly call him (as I did when I was a kid) "Submareener" rather than "Submarriner".

I always feel bad criticising John Byrne. His good work far outweighs his bad, and though he's developed something of a curmudgeonly reputation in recent years, I still remember the time he sent me an autographed copy of his novel Whipping Boy as a thank you for all the positive fanmail I wrote back in my letterhacking days. As Jack Black puts it during his big Stevie Wonder / I Just Called To Say I Love You rant in the movie High Fidelity, "is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins... is it better to burn out or fade away?"

I didn't really buy Namor: Visionaries on much of a ration. I pre-ordered it from Ace Comics and got their standard 25% pre-order discount. It still cost me about £14 or so which isn't that cheap for a collection of 9 comics. Cheaper than Amazon though who are currently selling it for £15.99. Marvel only released one collection of Byrne's excellent Alpha Flight run, claiming it didn't sell enough to warrant a second volume. Maybe if the price wasn't so high, more people would have checked it out...


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  2. Poor old Rolbert. People still ask about you occasionally on the John Byrne forum, you know. As you say, JB is now the World's Greatest Miserable Bastard on his forum - which is what I go there to read

    I always thought the shading on Namor was done using Duo-Shade paper, not computers. I also remember painstakingly copying his lettering font, pixel by pixel, into an Atari ST program so I could use it for fanzines.

    Namor, as I remember (have the issues somewhere in this room), was a familiar journey through Byrne-trope-land - the giant mud-monster, the twins with the fractious relationship, the scientific projects wrested from their creator etc. Mildly diverting, but I think I ditched it after 6 issues for something else.

  3. You're probably right about the shading, Matthew - 1990 was pre-computers, wasn't it?

    You're probably right about most things... if only you knew HOW right.

  4. I was a big Byrne fan in the 80s and loved his FF and Thing runs but by the time he was doing this, I was gone. Later he did DC Generations which I remember being very enjoyable

  5. John Byrne's run on the X-Men, and his other work from the late-'70s, is what got me hooked on comics in the first place, and I loved his runs on the FF and (to a lesser extent) Alpha Flight, too. I lost interest in his work while he was doing Superman, and haven't read any of the comics he did in the '90s, but I still have a lot of affection for his work, even if he more famous as a grouch now, and often find myself tempted to buy stuff like X-Men: The Hidden Years when I see it on eBay.

    P.S. Those Visionaries books are expensive, aren't they? I have a few of them but I would buy lots if they were more affordable.

  6. Marvel seems to price older collections far more expensively than current stuff. Then they complain that it doesn't sell and refuse to release further editions... as has been the case with both Alpha Flight and Roger Stern's Spider-Man run. It's very frustrating. (And don't even start me on the Clone Saga collections - what, you're telling me that shit sells better than Stern & Romita Jr.'s original Hobgoblin saga would? Deep breath, deep breath...)