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...