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"Your Old Stuff was Better!" By John Byrne
I take as my title this time out one of the most useless comments any artist can receive about his work. And by no means anything new in the world. I imagine the first guy who daubed paint on a cave wall was told, when he daubed paint somewhat later, that his "old stuff was better."
I also don't know a whole lot of artists or writers who have not heard this at one time or another. (Myself, I heard it, via a letter from an irate fan, directed against my third job at Marvel!)
There are a lot of things wrong with this handy critique -- not the least of which is that is has become so darned handy! For some, it seems, all that is necessary to show how hip an' happenin' one is, how "in touch" with the ins and outs of the comicbook industry, is to rattle off a string of buzzwords or phrases. And this one is very popular. Wally Wood even satirized it in Big Apple Comics some 30 or so years ago. (A naked and downtrodden fan lies crumpled on the ground, a small clutch of balloons above his head saying "Kick me!" "Beat me!" "Sh*t on me!" "I love you!" Followed by "By the way, your old stuff was better.")
Wood may have come to regret that in later years. The strip he did in Big Apple demonstrated quite clearly that he had not "lost it" in any way -- but it also made that catch phrase freely available for perhaps the first time. Certainly it was not long after this that I started hearing it more and more and more -- and not directed always and only at me!
The main thing that that is wrong with this phrase, though, is that it is so utterly subjective. "Everyone is entitled to an opinion," you will hear, but as opinions go, this one is less than worthless.
Well, in my own case, as an example, I have never had two fans at the same time tell me that "your old stuff was better" and mean the same "old stuff." In fact, it sometimes seems that every fan out has a different idea of which of my "old stuff" was the pinnacle, which the point at which the "decline" commenced.
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There is a large consensus that my original run on Uncanny X-Men is right up there in the zenith, for instance -- but this is by no means universal. Many have told me (with just as much fervor as the X-Fans) that is was my Superman work that represented the top of the arc -- even tho this was done at a point deep into the period when "your old stuff was better" according to the X-Folk.
There is no doubt that every creative individual goes through peaks and troughs in his/her work. We are not machines, after all. We cannot expect to sit down at the drawing board and hit the same level (or better) every single time. I have experienced this many times. I have even left titles when I felt that I had hit a wall, and that the work was suffering because I could not get through, around, or over it. Alpha Flight, for instance. Never really wanted them to get their own title, never really plugged into the book when they did. Lot of floundering around, trying to find the right "voice," both in the writing and the art. But there is a legion of fans who will protest that Alpha Flight is among the best of my work, and far, far, far from the dark zone of "your old stuff was better."
Part of the problem arises in the fact that so many are resistant to change of any kind. An artist may, indeed, decline in quality of output -- but another may find a new plateau, a higher plateau, but "off to the side" of where s/he was before. Fans won't like it -- so "your old stuff was better."
In my own case, for instance, the first issue of Fantastic Four I ever read was #5, the first appearance of Doctor Doom. In all the years, and all the astonishing adventures and exploits that followed, as much as I loved the FF, the book never seemed to quite hit the pinnacle of that first exposure. That was "old stuff" that always seemed "better" to me.
"Shock of the new" has a lot to do with it. I was blown away by the X-Men when I met them in their first issue -- but they drifted away from me in the years that followed, and it took something truly radical (Neal Adams) to explode them out of their rut. I would look at an issue of X-Men (not yet Uncanny) and think (not quite consciously) "the old stuff was better." Until Neal created a new benchmark and a shadow none of use have been able to escape from since.
A note: For a recent birthday, pal o' mine Paul Kupperberg gave me a German collection of Neal's Batman work. Big damn book -- a veritable Guttenberg Bible, thick, heavy, and in glorious black and white. Flipping thru the many pages, I was struck by one thing: Neal was not as good as we thought he was. O, don't get me wrong! His work is spectacular. He took the industry by storm and rightfully so. He shook the who foundation of the enterprise and stood everything on its head. But what really made his work shine as brightly as it did back then, I realized looking at the beautiful black and white pages, was that it was so much better than what was around it. It was something of a relief to look at that work, from closing on 40 years ago in some cases, and realize that Neal is only human after all. Not a God among men. Just a really, really talented artist who came along at precisely the right time. Not that this realization lets any of us out of his shadow, mind you. Dammit.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. We all remember things from our past with greater fondness than they are, perhaps, due. That goes a long way when "your old stuff was better" is invoked. The shock of the new can only happen once. You can't read the first Spider-Man story for the first time again, after you have, well, read it for the first time. You can't ride the rollercoaster of some story arcs for a second time. Reread them, sure. But experience the same emotions? No one can ever read "The Dark Phoenix Saga" the way those of you did who bought those comics off the stands, one month after the next, 20 years ago. A trade paperback or an Essentials collection cannot impart any of those visceral responses -- especially since most readers know going in what the conclusion will be. Likewise, no one can ever "do" that story again. No one can ever create the same kind of emotional resonance, simply because it's been done. That Which Has Never Been Done Before cannot be done twice. The audience is primed. The wariness is up. Much harder to pull off a Big Surprise like that now. (Especially since it was as much a surprise for those who worked on the book as it was for those who read it! Try to recreate that deliberately!)
So -- the next time you find yourself thinking "his old stuff was better" when you look at the work of some writer or artists, think about who and where you were when you were first exposed to that "old stuff". I have challenged fans who have told me "your old stuff was better" to sit down and compare now with then, coldly and clinically, devoid (as much as humanly possible) of nostalgia. In most cases, they will admit (grudgingly sometimes) that my "old stuff" was not "better." Rather, they were younger, and the "stuff" itself was new and unfamiliar.
"Familiarity breeds contempt," so they say. Nowhere more true than in the comicbook industry, it seems. Couple that will the need for some to elevate themselves by knocking down others, and you have a recipe for disaster.
John Byrne is one of the industry's most noted creators. In almost three decades, he has completed work on hundreds of books, including most of the "Big Two's" major titles. His previous achievements include classic runs on X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, SUPERMAN, THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK, and an expansive five-year run on FANTASTIC FOUR. Byrne's latest creator-owned monthly series, LAB RATS, debuted April 2002 from DC Comics. His next project is a Superman comic, to be written by comedy legend John Cleese.