John Byrne’s Next Men: How The Comic Looks after a 15 Year Hiatus
The hiatus: an unfortunate necessity in the world of creator-owned comics. Health issues, scheduling issues, burnout, needing to do work that actually pays once in a while… All frequent reasons for extended breaks in production that drive big pointy knives deep into the comic reader’s very soul, which as we all know is made out of nougat. Several excellent comics have gone on vacation over the years: The Invisibles took a break between volumes two and three while Grant Morrison recharged his batteries; Planetary took a two-year hiatus in the middle of the series, then another couple of years between issue 26 and the series’ finale; Astro City was placed in deep storage while writer Kurt Busiek dealt with the effects of mercury poisoning; Stray Bullets continues to sit on the shelf while David Lapham cavorts with licensed properties, selfishly trying to make a living and support his family.
Hey, I even took a hiatus of a week or so between the last sentence and this one. Holiday joy overdose.
The hiatus for John Byrne’s Next Men would swallow all the other hiatuses combined and poop out the three months of vacation time that Europeans get every year. With IDW’s recent publication of JBNM #1, a production gap of fifteen years is finally broken. That’s right. Fifteen. Years.
So many questions arise with the series’ return. Does Byrne, a creator simultaneously respected and villainized, think he can just leap back into the story and take everyone with him? How can a story interrupted in the Clinton administration – first term Clinton administration – hope to have any relevance when picked up again 1.5 decades later? An entire generation of readers has never heard of Next Men, probably never even read any John Byrne – is it even possible to find new readers under these circumstances?
There are more than three questions. I just need you to click the link thingy.
Thanks. I lied about the questions – there are only three. Question first is a two-parter: Who in the crap is John Byrne and what’s a Next Men, mommy?
When compiling a list of the most influential creators in comics history, John Byrne goes on that list every goddamn time. Despite said list-compiler’s feelings on him personally, it’s practically impossible to discount his contribution to mainstream superheroes. Byrne earned his stardom as one half of the team that made the X-Men the most popular characters in comics. From 1977 to 1981, writer Chris Claremont and Byrne (initially as penciler then later as artist/co-plotter) steered Uncanny X-Men to absolutely operatic heights of success. The blueprint they created has been aped over and over again, and the X-Men remain largely defined by Claremont and Byrne’s themes to this day.
Byrne was one half of the team that started the desolate future craze, killed Jean Grey, and took a one-note filler character named Wolverine and turned him into an icon. Byrne went on to a string of hits in the eighties that was practically Toto-esque, and followed up X-Men with a six-year tenure on Fantastic Four, writing, penciling, and inking what is commonly recognized as a run second only to Jack Kirby’s on the title. In the character-rebooting Man of Steel, controversial with fans as it remains, Byrne re-crafted Superman into a character that successfully amalgamated the comics and the movies and appealed to the broader sensibilities of the potential reader of the 1980s.
And all he had to do was be hated by lots and lots of people. Byrne, like many other creators, is opinionated, protective of characters, and seemingly capable of holding a grudge forever. Hey, what 1980s comics “megastar” isn’t? Just throw Byrne on a pile with Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Frank Miller and every other crotchety dynamo you can think of. A) It’s the work that matters, 2) Who has the energy to keep up on that stuff anyway? Frankly, hunching over a computer to follow s***-talk ain’t exactly my idea of a good time. I got a lumbar thing.
But with all the opinionating and proclamating and bridge burninating he was known for, it was no surprise when Byrne lanced out into creator-owned territory. Really, it’s more surprising that it took so long. It wasn’t until 1991 that he went out on his own, and really, he didn’t even do that. Byrne, Frank Miller, Mike Mignola and Art Adams formed the “Legend” line at Dark Horse, a designation that lasted four years but seemed to be meaningless. When Byrne finally broke into the land of unsteady paychecks, he did so with Next Men.
No, not X-Men. Next Men. Officially, John Byrne’s Next Men. Immediately Marvel had a problem with the title. Wouldn’t you? The X-Men were the most lucrative franchise in comics history, in large part due to Byrne’s work, and that’s totally an X right before the Men! WTF bro? The issue went away quickly, since despite similarities, the core concept is essentially different from the X-Men. Instead of evolution producing mutants with powers manifesting at puberty, the “Next Men” are the result of efforts to create superhumans: orphans raised from birth in a virtual reality environment meant to develop their abilities. Abandoned children sedated and experimented on, shaped into weapons by unseen hands.
The X-Men were supposed to be tragic, but they had gotten too cool to be tragic. The five surviving members of Project Next Men had been violated from birth, and when yanked out of their virtual were thrust into the weight of reality with disastrous effects. Abilities possessed in “The Greenery” manifested freakishly in the real world. Indestructibility for Bethany meant that even her hair or fingernails could not be cut, and she injured everyone she touched. Jack’s super-strength from the Greenery remains, but continual muscle growth is essentially ripping him apart. A harder reality is enforced on the superhero idiom, and all but one of the survivors is made somewhat freakish by acclimation to reality. So how do they react to the weight and horror of the real world?
They become superheroes. Only kind of, and only for a little while, and in a very cynical way. Then they discover that sexual contact with regular humans can bestow them with superhuman powers, but in bizarre, skeevy ways that have disastrous results. The man-made superhuman raised in a false reality sleeps with a normal person, who then becomes superhuman and brings fictional superheroes into reality. And it’s very bad that this can happen.
As shown in the standalone prequel/sequel 2112, superhumanity in Next Men is an STD – apocalypse on wheels, a bullet heading for the future. Lots of crazy/bad things are going to happen, and I don’t just mean suffering through a Rush album. Through an origami plot of time travel and shifting realities, JBNM comments on power, religion, the cult of personality, the comics business, performs an abortion, goes totally meta, and violates and abuses its characters pitilessly. Next Men is the darkest thing Byrne has ever done, and the story bristles with all the hardship thrown at these man-made freaks.
Life is pain, reality is nothing like your dreams, your body is falling apart, and sex ruins everything.
Though the first thirty issues are covered pretty succinctly in the new first issue, it’s better if one comes to class prepared: Twists and revelations that previously shocked and awed are laid out plainly to try to catch new readers up — understandable but sucky. But it does appear as if new readers might be able to nudge into the phone booth. After ending the final issue of the first series with a big payoff/revelation and a serious cliffhanger, the new series promptly subverts expectations by again establishing a new possible reality, introducing time travel, and immediately setting up new mysteries.
Resurrection is in the air. The Unfinished Work is a big theme in comics: Alan Moore’s Big Numbers, Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano’s Swamp Thing. Things are changing now. Comics are coming back to life. Vertigo Resurrected is a steady stream of lost or unseen material. The Alan Moore Marvelman drops this year. Flex Mentallo is finally being collected. Maybe it’s leftover energy from Blackest Night.
With fifteen years for fans to marinate and twenty issues in the chamber, Byrne is finally finishing what might be his best work. Hopefully we’ll only have a couple more years to find out for sure.
I have an ending for this article, but I’m going to make you wait for it.