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Comparatively Speaking
By John Byrne


As many of you doubtless know by now, about a year ago I "ghosted" the pencils for 10 weeks of Funky Winkerbean, at the request of my buddy Tom Batiuk, Funky's dad. Those strips are now appearing, and out of curiosity I checked out a couple of Funky-related message boards to see what people had to say.

First thing that surprised me was the number of people who had "spotted" me, seen my style showing through Tom's inks -- though many of them did not know it was me, and simply thought Tom was aping my style.

The second thing I noticed, though, was something that made me kind of sad. Funky fans, it seems, suffer the same affliction I have noticed many times in comic book fans: the inability to be complimentary about something without slipping in some kind of negative comparison.

In the case of Funky, for example, one posted was very complimentary about the work, but noted that he had missed the first Sunday strip because his local paper didn't carry the Funky Sundays, "only the inferior Crankshaft."

Now, I ask you, what was that for? Why say "I like this..." and then tack on a completely unnecessary "...much more than..."?

Yet this I have encountered throughout my professional career -- the fans who cannot tell me they like my work without telling me it is "better than" someone else's work. Which seems kind of pointless, to me. Of course my work is better than some other work, just as some other work is better than mine. (Quite a lot of the latter, actually!)

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I wonder if this is, perhaps, another place where the Industry needs to take a big mea cupla? I have noted many times in the past how we (the industry) seem to have "trained" long time fans to a certain kind of thinking. Note the unwillingness of some fans to accept any story as being "finished," for instance. No conclusion is seen as final, simply because anyone who has read comics for more than 5 years (and possibly less) knows that another writer (or even the same writer) can undo practically anything. Sometimes cleverly, sometimes clumsily -- but pretty much count on any story eventually becoming fodder for another.

Then, too, part of the "training" has been the memorization process. The need to know more and more of the backstory in order to comprehend the current story -- and the need that seems to grow out of that to have even the most minute bits of trivia immediately at one's fingertips. Listening to some fans talk about their favorite comics I am sometimes overwhelmed by the degree to which they seem almost paralyzed by trivia, unable to get to their point without layering in as much detail as they possibly can. Showing off? Maybe. Or maybe aware that the people they are talking too may be at least as knowledgeable as they, and if all the bases are not covered, someone might call them out on an "error" of detail. (Out in the Real World I have a friend who has developed, over the years, a habit of putting more and more backstory into any anecdote he relates. I have kidded him about this, saying that I sometimes fear we will reach a point where in order to tell about something that happened to him this morning at the grocery store he will feel compelled to begin "First there was the Big Bang..." The sense at all times is that he somehow fears his listener(s) already know the story, and will fault him on any missed detail.)

Parallel to this, I have long since stopped offering lists of favorite artists, writers, stories, characters, etc., when asked, for the simple reason that such lists invariable leave off someone a listener or reader thinks is better than -- or at least as good as -- those listed. And there is a tendency that is all too common to "turn up the volume" when responding to this "slight:"

Me: My favorite characters are Batman, Captain America and the Thing.

He: Why not Superman? Why do you hate Superman?

So I wonder -- when someone says "I like Fred Fonebone --- better than Ralf Roundabout..." is some part of this born of the (unconscious?) fear that any comment will be dissected by the listeners in the same way we have "trained" those listeners (and the speaker) to dissect the comics?

Comparatives are always going to exist -- and some of them are quite valid. (We want to know which car is better than another, for instance. Or which store gives better service than another.) But here's my point: when we are dealing with something of a creative nature (comics, strips, movies, TV) should we hesitate, perhaps, before laying in a superfluous comparison? Should we assume -- give the benefit of the doubt -- that everyone is doing the best they can most of the time, and that the "difference in quality" between A and Z may be more a matter of taste on the part of the observer than any actual difference?

There's my plea: feel confident enough in your own opinion that you can say "I like (fill-in-the-blank)," without feeling a need to tear down something else to underline the point.

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.


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