An DCU:NG Email Interview with John Byrne
Sean: What first got you interested in comics, both as a hobby and as a career?
John: I was born in England, and spent roughly my first eight years there. Over there, in those days, comics were very different things from what we in America think of when we hear the word. They were large, tabloid formats, published weekly, more resembling the Sunday Funnies in the newspaper than comic books. It was through this format that I was introduced to the notion of sequential story telling, with weeklies like Robin, Eagle, and The Beano. When I was about six, however, "The Adventures of Superman", starring George Reeves, turned up on the BBC, and I was instantly hooked on the show. Shortly thereafter, I found a copy of one of the large, hard cover, black and white "annuals" which reprinted American comic stories, in this case Superman, and not long after that, discovered Batman by a similar method.
Sean: What was your first professional work in comics?
John: That's kind of tricky. Back in the early seventies there was a weekly tabloid fan newspaper called The Monster Times, a kind of precursor to Wizard and The Comics Journal. In addition to reviews and articles, it ran two page strips by various artists. The first comic work I had published appeared in that venue. However, TMT was not really a "comic book", so I did not think of it a truly my first professional job. That came when Marvel hired me to draw a short story called "Dark Asylum" for one of their black and white horror mags. Unfortunately, though, the were people at Marvel who did not like my work, at the time, so the story was inventoried for quite some time, as a result of which the Rog-2000 stories I did at Charlton after the "Dark Asylum" job actually came out first. So -- what was my first professional work?
Sean: Since this site focuses on the teen heroes of the DCU, let's find out your feelings on some of DC's teen heroes. Robin? Superboy? Impulse? Jurgen's Titans? Damage? Young Justicers like Secret, Wonder Girl, and Arrowette? CM3?
John: I think Jules Feiffer probably said it best, in his "Comicbook Heroes" book, published almost thirty years ago. The main problem with kid heroes is this: the adult heroes work hard for most of their lives (to that time) to become the heroes, whereas the kids seem to do it overnight. Batman worked for years to become Batman, whereas Robin is already Robin! Thus, it seems we have spent a lot of effort and energy, since the concept of kid heroes was introduced, to come up with a way of portraying such characters that does not diminish the adult heroes, and yet gives us an exciting character to work with. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say anyone has entirely succeeded in this quest. Yet.
Sean: Why do you think teen heroes (especially sidekicks) and young heroes (Gen Xers like Kyle Rayner and Jack Knight) are becoming popular again?
John: Probably for the simple reason that so few readers/fans seem to understand the concept of "comicbook time" -- i.e. the fact that no noticeable time really passes between issues, and characters stay the same age pretty much forever -- and so start thinking of the longstanding characters as being "old". Of course, it doesn't help when the folks at DC actually make the longstanding characters older than they need to be, as they did with the "green team" of Lantern and Arrow. The logic in that decision eludes me to this day! Thus, we get Hal Jordan and Ollie Queen, who were both young guys, suddenly being portrayed as older, and therefore having to be replaces with young guys! Ah, well!
Sean: You tell a different kind of story than a lot of the writers nowadays, hearkening back to the days when pages typically had more than 3-4 panels, and took more than five minutes to read. What makes you tick that way?
John: My approach to storytelling has been a quest for efficiency. How much can I tell in how little space? Thus, when I set up a page, I ask myself what "camera angles" can most efficiently portray all the information. (It is this which gave birth to what I have heard other artists -- including Walt Simonson -- call "a John Byrne shot", i.e. the "camera" looking down from an upper corner of the room, encompassing the whole scene in one shot.) I was talking to Paul Kupperberg, my former Wonder Woman and Fourth World editor about this just the other day, and mentioned a "challenge" I had come up with for fan artists who show me their work. Here's the scene: our four heroes (whoever they are) have just discovered a dead body in the living room of a small suburban house. An explosion outside catches their attention, and opening the door they see the main badguy swooping down the street, firing at pedestrians. How many panels is that? (Think about it. I'll tell you at the end of this Q&A session!)
Sean: How do you approach writing a story?
John: Each story is different, and has its own "drive engine". However, the most basic rule I apply every time is that the story must be driven by the characters. It must depend on who those people are, and what they do. Anything else is what I call a "Shoehorn Story", in which the characters are "shoehorned" into the tale the writer wanted to tell, whether they belong their or not.
Sean: Let's get into your addition to the Wonder Woman mythos -- Cassie, the new Wonder Girl. What were your intentions in creating a new Wonder Girl? Had you stayed on the book, what were your plans for her? How do you feel about her portrayal in Young Justice?
John: Working backwards, I have not looked at Young Justice, but Cassie being in the team/book is a complete violation of what I intended for her character, no matter what they do with her there. She was not meant to be a "team player". She was, in fact, a very conscious attempt on my part to do what I intended for Kitty Pryde, but which, because of how Chris chose to script the character, never had a chance to happen. I wanted Cassie to be a perfectly normal, perfectly ordinary teenage girl who, one day, happens to gain superpowers. Because of this the dynamic of her life is changed considerably, but she still has all the responsibilities imposed on a normal kid by her day to day home life. A friend of mind summed it up very well -- "Here to save the world, but first she has to finish her homework." Impossible to play her that way, of course, if she is running off to be in a super-team. The dynamic is destroyed.
Sean: In my opinion, you worked to restore a sense of "regal"-ness to Diana during your run on WW. Was that your intention?
John: Wonder Woman is part of the original triumvirate of DC comics -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman -- and yet, like Rodney Dangerfield, she "don't get no respect". And, oddly, when writers have attempted to bring attention to the character, they have frequently done so by "humanizing" her, by bringing her closer to the people, instead of emphasizing the one thing which is unique to her, her Amazon origins, her Royal status. I wanted to bring this back to the character as much as I could, in addition to emphasizing her enormous power levels, second only to Superman.
Sean: You've pretty much defined the young heroes type of role in your fantastic Next Men series. Will we ever get a chance to see that story picked up again? How do you feel about JBNM now that you can look back from a few years of distance between you and the series?
John: A few months ago I happened to glance at the trade-paperback collections of JBNM, which I had not looked at in a year of so, and found myself being drawn into the stories almost as if I was a "fan", not the creator. I was very pleased at this reaction, and it rekindled my desire to complete the series. (It has an ending.) There are about 20 issues worth of stories left to tell with Danny, Jasmine, Nathan, Bethany and Jack (not to mention Tony!), and, if the marketplace ever gets back to a point where I think I can put the book out again without it vanishing without a ripple, I will most certainly finish the tale. After all, since I approached this book as I do with all my writing, as I mentioned above, the stories came from the characters, and there is no way I could take what I have in my head and turn it into a Spider-Man story, or an X-Men story.
Sean: As you look back on your vast amount of comic work, what strikes you as your favorite stories you've written? The best stories (since the two may not always be one and the same)?
John: Glad you recognize the distinction! My favorites tend to be so for quirky, personal reasons that have little or nothing to do with what makes a story "good" or "bad" in the eyes of the readers. Unfortunately, this also makes it tough to pick out ones that I would stand above the rest on any permanent basis -- the list keeps changing. However, I will say that Batman & Captain America has "stood the test of time". When I finished it, I thought it was the best thing I had done, and two years later, I think it still is!
Sean: Which comics or characters would you most like to have a chance to do?
John: Hawkman springs to mind. The Doom Patrol. Doctor Strange might be interesting. And perhaps one of the swamp monsters, some time. Man-Thing, probably. Of course, since I am at heart always a fan, first and foremost, there is something appealing in just about every character. As Neal Adams so aptly put it, there are no bad characters, only bad writers.
Sean: Which creators would you most like to have a chance to work with? Who are your faves to work with so far?
John: I would love to work with Joe Kubert. He is a genius, in my opinion. Also, I would like to work again with John Romita Jr, who is brilliant, too. And I'd also like to work with his dad, if he's ever so inclined!
Sean: You're rather well known for being vocal about your opinions in comics writer circles. Do you feel like you're mis-portrayed by the comics mags often in negative ways?
John: In many instances it has been a case of "shoot the messenger". Quite without ever wishing it, I have sometimes found myself cast as a kind of "Jiminy Cricket" character, pointing out the excesses, the ways the industry has gone -- and, sadly, continues to go -- wrong. And, of course, there is that sad frame of mind one encounters everywhere, not just in comics -- "I have the right to my opinion and if you disagree you are an arrogant jerk!" Since my "insider knowledge" is so often at odds with what many fans think to be the situation, I have frequently found myself also at odds with the people themselves.
Sean: Any future plans or projects we should be looking for?
John: Upcoming are a couple of projects about which I am very excited: Marvel Universe - The Lost Heroes, and X-Men: Hidden Years. As the titles suggest, both are set in Marvel's past -- recent past in the case of the latter, a longer time frame in the case of the former. The X-Men project covers the period when their own title was a reprint book (therefore very literally "untold tales"), while the other covers the large "gap" in Marvel history that has been created by what we have come to call "Marvel Time" -- this notion that the FF went up in their rocket only a few years back. If so, what happened in the now 40-odd year gulf between the last appearance of Captain America and the first of the FF? Plus, DC wants more Generations, which I hope to get to some time in 2000!
And now -- how many panels were in that scene I mentioned? The answer is: ONE. A single panel, covering the full width of the page. One the left, the body is being found by one of the heroes, to the right of that, a second hero reacts to the sounds outside, to the right of that a third heros starts to turn for the door, as to the right of that a fourth has opened the door and is looking into the street to see the badguy. This is sort of a "trick question" of course, because it requires drawing fairly small figures, which too many younger artists are reluctant to do!