The X Effect: An Interview with John Byrne
John Byrne has been drawing, writing and creating comic books for more than three decades. He is a comic-book industry legend. His credits include Uncanny X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk, West Coast Avengers, Iron Fist, Marvel Team-Up, Captain America, Sensational She-Hulk, Iron Man, Wolverine, Namor, X-Men: The Hidden Years, Legends, OMAC, Batman, Superman, Action Comics, Adventures of Superman, New Gods, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, Wonder Woman, JLA, Superman and Batman: Generations, Blood of the Demon, Star Trek: Crew, FX,and Agnel,in addition to creator-owned work such as John Byrne’s Next Men, Danger Unlimited, and Babe. In short, it’s a who’s who of comics greatest, an incredible list that makes him one of the comicdom’s most prolific and influential creators. He was, in fact, the writer and artist DC turned to when they relaunched their Superman line in the mid-’80s after Crisis on Infinite Earths. He famously updated the Fantastic Four in the early 1980s. And of course his work with Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men is the stuff of legend. Here, he talks about his history on comics’ mutant superteam and his lasting effect on the entire format.
How did you come to be penciller and coplotter with Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men?
Chris and I first worked together on Iron Fist in Marvel Premiere. That happened because the assigned artist missed a deadline, and production manager John Verpoorten called me and said, “If you can turn this around in a week, the book is yours as a regular assignment.” Chris and I were both very new to our trade at that time, but there was a clear chemistry between us. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
A short time later, Chris was given the assignment of scripting Uncanny X-Men, working from plots by Len Wein, with art by Dave Cockrum. When the Wein plots ran out after a couple of issues, Chris became the full writer of the book. Over the next couple of years, he and Dave made some real magic with that title and those characters. However, Dave was not a fast artist, and there was always a concern that he could not handle the deadlines. Especially since the sales were steadily, if slowly, rising, and Marvel wanted to “promote” the book from bimonthly to monthly status.
Enjoying what Chris and Dave were doing, and at that time unaware of Marvel’s concerns, I had begun making it known that if ever Dave left the book, I would love to take over the penciling. In fact, I seem to recall threatening bodily harm to important people at Marvel if X-Men went to anybody else! Eventually, Dave did leave, and I was offered the book. Shortly after that, it was made monthly.
In retrospect, how would you define your tenure on the X-Men? What do the X-Men mean to you?
I cannot really put it into words, but there was something about the X-Men that “spoke” to me from the very first issue. I was already a die-hard Marvel fan, but reading X-Men #1 —the book was not yet called Uncanny X-Men—I was turned into a permanent addict. There was something about Cyclops that spoke to me especially. Cyke has always been “Mr. X-Man” for me.
As to my tenure, Chris and I did some good work, I think. By then, our working relationship had taken on a kind of Gilbert and Sullivan slant. We were constantly banging into each other, as Chris would want to go in one direction and I would want to go in another. More often than not, especially during the time Roger Stern was editor of the book, I tended to win those “battles.” Mind you, given the phenomenal success of the book after I left, I guess I was holding Chris back, huh?
When did you yourself become a fan of the X-Men? What storylines excited you, which moments sparked your own imagination as a reader and fan?
My love of the X-Men began with the first issue. I drifted away from comics in general for a few years, around the time the eighth issue came out, but returned just in time to see the book in the hands of Roy Thomas and Neal Adams. A “second genesis,” to be sure. Just in time to see it canceled, too, unfortunately. Which planted in my mind the seeds of the X-book I wanted to do, and that became, eventually, X-Men: The Hidden Years.
Why is Cyclops your favorite member of the X-Men?
He was always so cool, in both senses of the word. His power was a very cool visual and fun to draw, and his role as “loner within a group of outcasts” really spoke to my young teenage self.
Tell me about Wolverine—about your personal contributions to the character.
I suppose my greatest contribution is that the character is still around—although that should probably take the form of a mea culpa! When I came to the book, Chris told me he and Dave had planned to write Wolverine out of the series. Neither of them liked the character much, and Dave was more interested in doing stuff with Nightcrawler.
I wrapped myself in the flag and said, “No way are you getting rid of the only Canadian character!” I set about doing everything I could to make Wolverine more interesting, to Chris and the audience.
I'll confess, just as Dave had tended to make the book Nightcrawler—Costarring the X-Men,I sort of took it over toward Wolverine—Costarring the X-Men. Given all the money they’ve made off the character, I don’t guess there would be anyone up at Marvel who would consider that a bad thing!
Alpha Flight first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #120. How did Alpha Flight initially come about?
Alpha Flight started from two places. First, Dave Cockrum had an idea that the Canadian government would probably not be too thrilled that yet another of their “natural resources”—Wolverine—had been siphoned off into the States, so they would most likely try to get him back. Chris and Dave didn’t get around to this story, but when Chris mentioned it to me, I wanted to do it right away. So I pulled out of mothballs a “Canadian Captain America” I’d come up with in my fan days. Unfortunately, he was called Guardian, and Chris said we could not use that name, because of the similar character in Iron Man.So we called him Weapon Alpha, a name I never cared for. Chris, as is his wont, sowed the seeds for a return engagement and came up with the name Alpha Flight based on the name he had given my Guardian. Later, this became Vindicator, which I also didn’t like. It might have been the name of a cool airplane—which is where Chris took it from—but it carried baggage when used as a superhero name. What did Canada need to vindicate? Later, I answered that question, at least from the character’s perspective.
The characters proved popular, and I began being pressured to produce an Alpha Flight title. I didn’t really want to, as I felt the characters were kind of two-dimensional, but eventually I relented and then set about searching for ways to give them that vital third dimension. This is how, as I have often stated it, Northstar became “Gay from Day Two.” The character was not homosexual when I first conceived him, but when I was looking for ways to flesh out the members of the group, that’s the direction I chose to go with the character.
Uncanny X-Men #132 (April, 1980)—Wolverine in the sewer. Many comic-book and X-Men fans would short-list this one scene among the all-time great comic book moments.
There is something very telling there, I think. Ask most modern fans what they find most memorable about a particular series, and they will name a panel or page, citing the art. Ask old-time X-Men fans, and they will name stories. The “Wolverine in the sewer” shot is one of the few instances where, for a moment, my art outshone the stories Chris and I were crafting. Looking back, I think it might have been a first step on a slippery slope. Artists and writers alike began using phrases like “the money-shot,” looking for that Big Picture that would grab the fans every issue, rather than looking for the Big Story that would build to a big punchline.
The Hellfire Club issues led directly into The Dark Phoenix Saga. What can you tell me about these stories?
Most of what Chris and I did happened very organically. Someone—maybe it was even me!—said, wisely, that it is impossible to write a great story if you actually set out to write a great story. The great stories happen of their own, and they grow out of the energy of the characters and intersecting plot lines. So it was with the Hellfire Club and Dark Phoenix.
Chris was totally in love with Phoenix and kept giving her more and more to do: Phoenix—Costarring the X-Men.I was totally in love with Jean Grey, but I did not care for Phoenix much. I did not like the way she made the rest of the X-Men fifth wheels in their own book. I tried to tone her down in the art, but Chris kept finding ways of writing her bigger and bigger. Eventually, even editorial expressed concern over this. It’s worth noting that some of Roger Stern’s concern most likely sprang from his knowing that the character was never meant to be this big a deal. He had interviewed Chris back when the book was just relaunching, and he related with much amusement that when he spoke of the two female characters left over from the original series, Jean and Lorna Dane, Chris kept mixing them up. He would describe what he planned for Lorna, for instance, and Roger, as interviewer, would point out that this was more applicable to Jean. So Roger knew that Jean was not intended to be such a major player in the new series. You may recall, in fact, that she was actually written out in the first regular issue, #94! Chris and I were at loggerheads over what to do with Jean/Phoenix, until one day Steven Grant suggested we turn Phoenix into a villain. At first, I did not like the idea, but as I thought about it, the basic underpinnings of the story began to take form in my head. If someone could be seen to corrupt Jean, rather than her just turning bad, this could make for an interesting story. It’s important to remember that Phoenix, at this time, was not a separate entity. Read her origin and note the specific use of the tac-tac-tac sound effect from Fantastic Four #1. What Dave and Chris intended was that Jean was getting a boost from the same cosmic rays that gave the Fantastic Four their powers. The whole “cosmic goddess” thing came later. I suggested Mastermind as the villain of the piece, and Chris, borrowing heavily from the Avengers TV series, added the elements of the Hellfire Club. Using that story, we corrupted Jean, turned her into Dark Phoenix—and then, as everyone knows, Jim Shooter stuck his thumb in the pie. Chris would, and has, disagreed with me, but I think the plumb Shooter forced us to pull out was, in the end, much better than what we had originally planned.
The Days of Future Past storyline came next. What can you tell me about these issues, the concepts and your artwork?
That story happened for a very simple reason. I thought the Sentinels were the coolest things around, but Chris didn’t want to use them. “Sentinels are wimpy!” he said. “No,” I said, “you just write them wimpy! Let me plot an issue, and I will show you what they can really do!”
Another important sidebar here: When I came on as artist, and for most of our run together, Chris had not read any of the original X-Men series, except the issues done by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams. He has also claimed for years that he suggested the idea of having the Sentinels fly into the sun, and that Roy liked it and used it. This is the punchline of the James Blish science-fiction novel VOR, so I don’t really know what the actual genesis of the idea was—but either way, I think it was this that placed in Chris’s mind the notion that the Sentinels were wimpy, fairly easy to beat.
So I came up with the basic spine of Days of Future Past—the title was Chris’—and, alas, started yet another stain spreading across the Marvel Universe, as Chris and others kept going back to that story. In my original version, the X-Men had a clean win. They changed the future. The timeline was altered. But Chris inserted elements, including what was referred to around the office as the “lesbian incest” moment with Kitty and Kate, that left the door open for future stories to be spun out of my intended one-off. And that was a door lots of people were happy to walk through. I walked through it myself, once, in fact. When I was scripting the two X-Books for Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio, word came down from Marketing that we must create a new character—the first time Marketing, rather than editorial, had dictated the contents of a book—and so Bishop was concocted. I had almost nothing to do with the creation of this character, save that Whilce wanted him to be from yet another alternate future, and I said, “Oh, God! If he has to be from an alternate future, can’t we at least use the one we already have?”
The X-Men films have drawn so heavily from the Byrne/Claremont X-Men. Do either of you see any money from the use of your ideas and creative work, insofar as films, novelizations, action figures, and video games are concerned?
Not a cent. It was all done as work-made-for-hire, and we knew it. Except for the Classic X-Men and other such reprints, I have not even seen any royalties from that work.
When you were penciling and coplotting Uncanny X-Men, Marvel only published this one X-title on a monthly basis. The concept of the X-Men throughout your tenure on the title was so pure and undiluted. Skip ahead to 1991. Marvel Comics was by this point in time publishing numerous X-Men titles. The characters and the stories read, to my mind at least, as far less “true” and less meaningful by order of magnitude when compared to your stories with writer and coplotter Chris Claremont. But the various X-titles were still selling in record numbers. In October 1991, you returned to the X-Universe as cowriter on Uncanny X-Men #281–286. How might you characterize this time period? And what's happened since?
I feel so disconnected from the X-Men these days, it’s hard to remember that sort of “middle period.” It was a mess, and one of the few times when I was really, truly, royally screwed by the Powers That Were at Marvel, so maybe I have just blanked those days out of my mind!
For those who may be new to the world of comic books, how would you describe your work on X-Men: The Hidden Years? Where does it fit within the context of your work on the X-Men and your overall career? How much fun was it for you on a personal level to do this title?
Hidden Years was one of the most fun projects I have ever worked on! It was the “real” X-Men, after all! And it was something very rare in this industry—a chance to tell untold tales that really were untold. There was plenty of evidence that the X-Men were running around, having adventures during the time their book was in cancelation limbo, and Hidden Years was my chance to mine that vein of gold—something I’d been wanting to do for about 30 years!
Would you like to do the X-Men and/or Wolverine again, at some point in the future?
I would return to Hidden Years in an instant. Wolverine, not so much.
One last question, a fun one for your X-fans: Wolverine versus Batman. Who wins, to your mind? Do they even fight?
Batman would not fight willingly, as he is above mere brawls, and since Wolverine is one of the good guys, there would be no other reason for them to fight. If something was contrived that forced the issue, Batman would win.