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Second That Emotion
By John Byrne


Time to talk briefly about telepathy again. Or, perhaps more correctly, empathy.

For years -- really since the beginning of my career -- I have been annoyed by those fans, retailers, self-proclaimed critics, etc., etc., who profess to be able to read my mind, or indeed anyone's mind. The people who say "Byrne doesn't care any more," or "Byrne is only in it for the money." I have never been able to determine precisely how these folk came to decide they were gifted with ESP (especially since they so clearly are not), but apparently there was some point in their lives when they assumed themselves to be gifted in this way. Stand back Charles Xavier! You have rivals all around you.

For what it's worth, the mind readers are always wrong. Whether they are talking about me, or anyone else I know in the Biz, their "misses" are 100% and their "hits" are zero. Even statistical odds should give them a better chance than that, but somehow this never happens. Not in any case where I know the actual thinking processes involved, anyway (my own, or those of close friends, for instance).

Recently, a near cousin of this telepathic ability has shown itself in various arenas, and that is the empathy to which I refer above. The folk professing this power do not claim to read minds. Rather, they claim to be able to tell another person's emotions at any given time. As in "You can see Byrne was really stoked on this job!" "This is the most enthusiasm I've seen from Byrne since (fill in a date)." Oh -- and that date, by the way? Different for everyone. Perhaps the multiple scannings of my emotional output is clouding their perceptions?

Anyway, as with the telepathy, these "scans" are always, always, always wrong. Case in point, the Robin book I did with Stan Lee a while back. When the pencils came into the DC offices there was an almost universal reaction of "Wow! Byrne is really turned on by this project! You can see it in the work!" When copies of the pencils circulated into the hands of some quarters of fandom, the reaction was much the same. "I wish Byrne would bring this kind of enthusiasm to his other work!"

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This reached a kind of fever pitch when the book came out, even to the point of people dissing Terry Austin's inks for "spoiling" my pencils. "Byrne was so turned on, but Austin just phoned it in!" "What a shame Austin doesn't care about the work any more! He really trashed the great pencils Byrne turned in on that job!"

Well, I can't speak for Terry's thinking as he approached the job (being neither telepathic nor particularly empathic myself), but I can speak for my own, and I can say this: it has been a long, long time since I cared LESS about a job than I did the Robin assignment. I was handed a plot not written with me in mind, and I simply sat down at the drawing board and set about working through the dynamics of the storyline to the best of my ability. No "WoW!! This is gonna be great!" No "I'm so glad I got picked to do this book!" Nope. Just a job. Interesting for the way it exercised certain artistic muscles, but nothing more. Did it mostly for the prestige of working on a Stan Lee book at DC. (The money was not bad, but -- again, contrary to the telepaths in the audience -- I do not do the jobs just for the money.)

Last time I approached a job with this kind of minimal enthusiasm it was a Sunspot story I did for (I think) Marvel Spotlight what must be close to 15 years ago. Did it as a favor to Bob Harras, then X-Men editor, whose young assistant had just sold his first story and, according to Bob, would be "thrilled" if I would illustrate it. So I did. Once again with nothing to draw me to the story or the character other than the chance to work some muscles other than the ones I work every day. Once again, the general reaction to the published work was that it was some of the best I had done since (fill in a date).

So, next time you hear or read some self-proclaimed seer assessing the emotional commitment of a particular talent to a particular work, think about the two examples cited above. Two jobs I did that were praised with great praise, yet for which I had virtually no enthusiasm other than what I normally feel facing any new project. (There is no zero setting on that scale. I would not take a job that scored that low.) Remind the speaker/writer that there really is no way to tell what kind of emotional state any artist is in as s/he works.

Either that, or maybe I should only take jobs about which I care as little as possible.

Whaddaya think?

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. Talk to John at his official message board located here.


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