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Too-Much-Reality Check
By John Byrne


The other day I was poking around online, and came across a fairly ancient "review" of my most recent work with the Spider-Man character.

Now, I've read lots of those, to be sure, but this one caught my eye for one reason in particular. After saying he was "glad" I was "fired off The Hulk," the writer went on to wonder why "Marvel is continuing to let (Byrne) destroy Spider-Man."

Why would this stick in my mind, you might ask?

Simple. It encapsulates in just a few words something that has gone very wrong with organized fandom -- and I don't mean that they seem to have forgotten that I bestride the universe like a god! No -- it's the disproportionate increase the shrinking audience base has brought to the know-nothings.

Now, pardon me while I ramble a bit. I promise I will get back to my starting point.

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People who talk as if they know what they are talking about, when in fact they do not, are nothing new, and certainly not the exclusive property of comic fandom. "Experts" abound in all fields of human endeavor, and actual knowledge of the field is only an occasional requirement.

There are two things wrong, primarily, with this "reviewers" comment (and I say "reviewer" in quotation marks cuz, let's face it, these days all one needs to claim that title is a marginal ability to type and press an enter key). One is the notion that anyone can "destroy" a character. Such talk -- representative of the kind of Absolutisms some "fans" seem to love so much -- demonstrates an appalling lack of awareness of the real history of this industry. (Appalling since it falls into that "know what you're talking about" region.)

Let's look at Superman, for a moment. How many times has this particular character been "destroyed" according to the definition of some "fans"? (Yep, did it once myself!) Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster created a character they called "Superman," but I would defy anyone to find much trace of that character in the comics being published today by DC. You'll find the names and places, mostly, but the character? Seigel and Shuster's Superman -- at least at first -- was basically a super-strong vigilante, not much shy of being a bully. He beat people up -- and one does not have to mention, surely, that the notion of "picking on someone your own size" does not enter into this equation. There was no one "his size." Not yet. He also killed people. Routinely and casually. Knocked airplanes out of the air. Tossed badguys literally over the horizon. In my favorite example, he picked up a gangster and hurled him into the path of the very bullets said gangster had just fired! Wow! Where's that Superman these days?

Well, like Mickey Mouse (who got famous and stopped feeding cats tails into meat grinders), Superman cleaned up his act once people started to pay attention to him. No so very long after all those scenes of him casually killing people, readers were being told not only that he had a "code" against killing, but that, in fact, he had never killed!

Can we imagine a 1940s Internet, on which the first of the know-nothings protested this "destruction" of Superman? Holy retcon!!

But this brings us around to the other point that seems to elude the K-Ns. The changes that happened in Superman's character happened because of editorial decisions. They were not slipped past the Powers That Were while they were napping after a five martini lunch. Nothing happened to Superman that was not calculated by a combination of editors, writers, artists and pretty much anyone else who had anything to do (professionally) with the character.

(Sidebar: In those days of powerful editorial fiefdoms, it is safe to say that nothing happened to any character without the editor who was "in charge" of that character knowing and approving. Unlike today, when story "bits" can get slipped past an inattentive editor by a writer or artist or editor working "down the hall," there would never be a case of Superman -- or anyone else -- doing a walk-on in another title simple so the editor and/or writer of that title could do the character his way. If the writer of, say, Wonder Woman did not like the latest issue of Superman, you would never -- never!! -- see Princess Diana, or one of her supporting cast, make a negative comment about the goings-on over in the Superman titles. No so today -- and by "today," I mean for the last couple of decades. I was even forced, on one of the titles to which I had been assigned, to do a whole unplanned story arc in order to "correct" a comment made by another writer, in another, unconnected title. The books are not bulletproof any more. Some writers, in fact, seem to delight in tearing down other writer's stories as they are happening! Imagine that in the "Golden" or "Silver" ages!)

We can all agree, I hope, that superhero comics are works of fiction, and like all works of fiction, nothing happens in them but that the authors (defined here as the creative team, however extensive that might be) wish it to happen. The myth that the characters "write themselves" is really just an excuse some writers use to justify their own excesses. When the mojo is working, it sometimes really can feel like the characters are telling the writer what they want to do -- but that's coming from an understanding of the characters that comes itself from familiarity with "who they are."

It does not protect them from editorial excess, of course. Sometimes editors, writers, artists, etc., have really bad ideas. Can't be helped. Only human. And sometimes those really bad ideas find their way into print. Consider the "Clone Saga" in the Spider-Man books -- something that started out short and sweet but, because of a really bad idea -- this time from marketing, not editorial! -- ballooned into a lumbering behemoth that some will still reference as the "destruction" of Spider-Man. (So I guess I was "destroying" what had already been destroyed??)

However, whether the ideas are good, bad or indifferent, there is usually someone watching, someone guiding, someone who has the power to say "Yes" or "No" -- and yet there are some "fans" who still believe certain creators have the power to storm in and do whatever they want with the characters. (Note the dichotomy in the "review" I mention above: the writer grants to Marvel the power to fire me off one book, yet seems to think the editors are unable to stop my rampage on another.) And, perhaps most important, no bad ideas are foisted upon an unsuspecting public with the knowledge that they are bad ideas. Everything seems like a good idea -- at the time. (Some fans seem to have developed a three pronged attack: I don't like this! Therefore it is bad! Therefore it is bad deliberately! Seriously now -- are there really people who honestly believe any corporate entity in the business of selling a product would produce a flawed version of that product on purpose?)

This all comes from a dichotomy of its own: the fans who claim great insight into what is going on "behind the scenes," yet who really do not know nearly as much as they think they do. (Some of them seem to be claiming telepathic abilities -- but that's a whole 'nother column!).

I wonder, when I read these "reviews" and see these pontifications, what it would have been like had the kind of access common today be around when I was a teenager, reading the beginnings of Marvel Comics. Would my enjoyment of the latest issue of Fantastic Four have been heightened by knowing, for instance, that Jack Kirby plotted a very different story than the one Stan Lee scripted? Would I have looked forward to the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, hoping I might spot in its pages some of the tensions I knew to exist between Stan and Steve Ditko? Move that ahead a bit: would readers have enjoyed the Claremont/Byrne years on Uncanny X-Men had they known that Claremont and Byrne were spinning around in a kind of Gilbert & Sullivan relationship, almost constantly at war over who the characters were?

Perhaps I was staggeringly naive, as a kid, but I did not think much about who was writing and drawing the stories -- and I certainly did not read the latest issue of, say, Amazing Spider-Man and wonder why anyone was "letting" Lee and Ditko do the stuff I didn't like.

(Truth to tell, this is a bad choice, since they never did anything I didn't like! But no small part of that is due to my acceptance of the stories as What Really Happened. Even before Stan introduced into Fantastic Four the notion that the book was a "licensed property" and the "real" FF were monitoring the stories being told about them, there was never a question in my mind that any story was "wrong," or that it could have been told another way. There were different levels of enjoyment, to be sure -- but all of the stories were "real," even [to paraphrase Ned Flanders] the ones that contradicted the other ones.)

It all comes down to this: surely these stories are more enjoyable if they exist for their own sake, and not as part of some "larger story" that involves who's sleeping with who back at the office? Many a time I have told fans -- and many have found they agree, when my assertion is put to the test -- that they can increase their enjoyment level by avoiding all "previews." Stories are amazingly less "predictable" when one has not read about the issue three months before it comes out!

Same thing with the "behind the scenes" stuff. Is Marvel or DC "letting" a creator "destroy" a character? Should we even be considering what Marvel or DC are doing? Or what the creator is doing? Shouldn't we be looking at these things as what they are, serial fiction, and keeping in mind that, if things are happening that we don't like, it will pass? The characters are not real. The scars will heal without notice.

Provided we let them, of course.

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 GENERATIONS 3, also for DC.


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