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What We Have Learnt: John Byrne and Secret Wars

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Over the course of the past four years (four years!) of running this blog a few things have cropped up again and again that I'd like to spend the next few weeks talking about, and the first one I want to discuss is almost definitely the most important. It is this: I was right all along.

I supposed I should probably go into a bit more depth about precisely how I was right! Over my many years as a comics fan I'd already read quite a lot of the comics in this corpus, so when I started going through them all again for this project I was expecting quite a lot of disappointment, as fondly remembered stories which I'd enjoyed at the time turned out to be awful. I was also hoping for some surprises, as others that I'd felt were terrible actually turned out to be great.

There definitely were some surprises, but these all came from weird little stories I'd never read before that turned out to be great, like Marvel Superheroes #20, , Fantastic Four #200, the Spider-man cartoon series, Emperor Doom and all sorts of others. However, contrary to all my expectations, the comics I remembered as being amazing WERE amazing, and the ones I remembered as awful were often even worse that I recalled.

The two great examples of this are John Byrne's run on "Fantastic Four", and the series "Secret Wars". A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation about John Byrne's use of previous events to enforce his "ownership" of Doctor Doom (you can read it yourself on UAL's outputs repository), and was amazed by just how much there was to say about it. Byrne does incredible storytelling work in every issue of that run, trying out new techniques, generating new twists on traditional storylines, generating new ideas and, of course, making everything look gorgeous. Yes, some of the dialogue is very hokey indeed but it always makes sense, is always exciting to read and, as I say, looks fabulous. Reading it all again as part of this I was if anything MORE impressed than I had been at the time, and can't help wondering why Byrne's work isn't more appreciated nowadays. In many ways I would have thought he's a prime candidate for being appreciated in academic fields where creators who write and draw (and in Byrne's case sometimes ink and letter) their own material are held in much higher esteem than "mere" writers and artists. Maybe it's his subject matter, which has doggedly stuck to superheroes, or maybe it's his own online remarks over the years, but I genuinely think his work is ripe for re-evaluation. Especially if it's me doing it!

On the other hand, "Secret Wars" is, to use a technical term, unforgivably shite. When it came out I thought it was awful, but decades later I wondered if maybe this was partly due to the fact that I was a teenager at the time. After all, the series regularly appears in lists of Marvel's greatest ever stories, is still referred back to - notably in Jonathan Hickman's reimagining a few years ago - and is constantly thought to be the basis of a movie in the future, so surely there must be something good about it?

No, there really isnt. There are plenty of terrible comics in this corpus, often the result of people having to finish them at speed to meet a deadline, or of creators trying to ape a new style without really understanding it, but rarely is there anything as nonsensical, ill-thought out, and unpleasantly cack-handed as Secret Wars. It was a real struggle to get through, and as close as I ever came to giving up!

Other comics were similarly as expected - George Perez is wonderful wherever he shows up, Chris Claremont is Not For Me, the second half of Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four run is just as incredible as everybody says it is, and comics overall really did start to get rubbish the closer they got to the 1990s. As I say, this last point was something I was ready to be proved wrong on but, from reading the last few years of this corpus and then reading some later titles to, it turns out that I was right when I decided to give comics up for the whole of the 1990s!

I don't want to dwell on the negatives too much here though, so next time we'll have a think about that Lee and Kirby run mentioned earlier, as well as the idea of collaboration in general. I'm pretty sure I'll be shoehorning The Beatles into it as well!

posted 29/10/2021 by Mark Hibbett

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Agree. Bryne is under appreciated.
posted 26/1/2023 by JAL

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A process blog about Doctor Doom in The Marvel Age written by Mark Hibbett