That’ll do, Byrne. That’ll do
When he’s at the top of his game, John Byrne is a masterful storyteller. Whether it is on writing duties, penciling/inking chores or both, Byrne has proven he can craft extraordinary tales. Sadly, the past decade or so have not been kind to Mr. Byrne and his story work has suffered.
During his heyday in the mid-1980’s, there wasn’t a bigger comic luminary than John Byrne. His art work on X-Men during the pivotal Dark Phoenix saga had cemented his place as one of the top pencilers of the decade. Soon after, he tackled writing and drawing Fantastic Four. His success with the foursome would extend out an amazing six years. And since this was the 80’s we are speaking of, that means 12 issues a year plus an annual (and that doesn’t count any penciling side work he might be doing). Hard to imagine any of today’s skilled artists keeping up with that kind of schedule.
If you think that’s amazing, Byrne was just warming up. Post-Crisis, DC allowed Bryne a very free hand in revamping the Superman mythos. He proved up to the task. His stint resulted in several dramatic shifts in the series, some good (Lex Luthor more of a corrupt businessman than an armor-wearing madman) and some not so good (even Byrne admits cutting Superboy out left a huge gap in Legion history to shore up). More astounding was the pace in which Byrne produced this work for DC. He followed two mini-series (art in Legends and art plus story in The Man of Steel) with writing and drawing two monthlies (Superman and Action Comics) and eventually writing a third (Adventures of Superman). During the course of his Superman run, Byrne also wrote three minis (The World of Krypton, The World of Metropolis and The World of Smallville) while doing all that. I can’t think of any comic book individual who has been able to take on a top-tier character’s reboot with such triumph (okay, maybe Geoff Johns). When I left collecting last time, Byrne had moved back to Marvel with Namor and his own brand of forth-wall busting comedy in She-Hulk.
You can imagine my surprise when I re-entered collecting in 2006 to find that Byrne was now some kind of pariah. One of the boards I post at made him sound like a raving loony, which puzzled me to no end. He currently appears to be someone the majors handle with kid gloves. I’ve seen very little to indicate that he has the pull he once had nor does he command the respect with the fan community at large. What happened to John Byrne?
I can only speculate. Reading the Wiki history seems to indicate that part of his appeal waned because of his forceful personality, words that usually are equated with general assholery or at least a pattern of disruptive behaviors. The Wiki quotes listed HERE seem to show a pattern of hypocrisy and a general willingness to attack other popular creators and their works. It is odd to link comics through sports analogies, but instead of focusing on how glad he was to be a part of the “game”, Byrne was slinging mud at competitors and teammates alike.
And again, that above is plainly stated that it might be full of inaccuracies. But I bet not. Too many stories sound like they corroborate other stories.
I can’t tell you how much it saddened me to find all this out after my ten year hiatus from comics ended. I greatly missed John’s humor, inventiveness and downright fabulous artistic sensibilities. He remains one of the few writer/artists that I truly respect for his contributions to the comics canon. Given his track record, he has earned it.
And I'm not alone in thinking that. Just ask my good friend Brian Hughes and his buddy Tim Elliott. They run a podcast out of the Two True Freaks website called 3rd Degree Byrne. They track all sorts of Byrne related books, often in depth and sometimes are joined by Frank Canapa, whom I also know. Give them a listen.
With all that, I was greatly excited to come across a John Byrne comic in the quarter bin.
During the mid-to-late 90’s Byrne launched several creator series via the independent publishers while doing much more limited work for the big two. One of these series was Babe. Babe featuring a gorgeous redhead who has forgotten her past and appears to be slightly brain damaged. She can also bench-press a tank. Think of the title as “She-Hulk gets amnesia” and you’ve hit upon where we start our tale. I’m sure John has some twists up his sleeve, so this should turn out better that that tagline.
Yet even thought the book’s named “Babe”, we find ourselves spending a majority of our time with this fellow named Ralph Rowan. Ralph is a theatrical agent, and a really crappy one at that. He’s short, ill tempered, messy and fairly self-serving. As our story begins, he’s furiously driving home in the pouring rain along coast highway. Ralph’s upset because he got cock-blocked trying to persuade a “tasty young starlet” to come home with him. When suddenly our actual focal point comes walking down the center of the road stark naked.
She is mute to Ralph’s questions about who she is and how she came to be wandering around in the buff while playing chicken with passing cars. He wraps her up in his jacket and hustles her into his ride. The fact that he doesn’t try to take advantage of her struck me as kind and almost chivalrous until I realized that making it with a crazy mute chick probably wouldn’t be smart. No matter how gorgeous she is. And Byrne does his best to make her appear totally hittable.
I love Byrne’s distinctive style with faces. He never seems to overdo anything. Like each line is calculated. I remember some of his early work would look kind of “fuzzy”. A friend of mine clued me into the fact that Byrne was doing the inking chores on those panels and had been using a felt tip pen. I’ve always compared back to that style since and been amazed at what different inking styles can do to similar pencils. With Byrne’s work, it’s nice to see all the details.
Anyway, Ralph ends up driving our bare ginger to the local police station. After filling out paperwork on her, Ralph dumps her at with the police. He figures his responsibility to her is at an end. The police begin to question her and this is all they get out of the young lady.
The next few pages focus on Ralph and his secretary. He operates out of a messy brownstone and sleeps in his office. She’s not being paid enough and resents finding him sleeping with bimbos at the office. They have some odd-couple type chemistry that is thrown to the side because Ralph realizes while reading the morning paper that his high-dollar, big-money competitor has picked up Babe as his new “protégé”. So Ralph is suddenly interested in Babe too and zooms off to confront the evil Gideon Longshadow at his posh mansion.
Note that this says a lot about our two characters. Babe is naïve and childlike. Ralph is greedy but very bad at his chosen profession. He only thinks of Babe as a potential client AFTER someone else has the idea. You’d think half-naked chicks were a dime a dozen in LA. *Makes travel plans to find out.*
As Ralph arrives at front gate of Gideon’s property we switch to Gideon’s perspective. Gideon looks like the mutant offspring of Ichabod Crane and an albino baboon. He appears to be about seven feet tall, thin as a rail with pupiless eyes and tufts of white hair that jut out from all angles of his face. He’s taken a definite shine to Babe, in part for her good looks and in part because of her malleable personality. Note the “cleavage shot” here.
Very subtle, Mr. Esterhouse. Luckily Ralph arrives to take back his possession, err…client.
Babe seems ecstatic at his arrival, although how being with him is any more agreeable of a situation is a mystery to me. Both men only want her to use her. I’m guessing Babe won’t be striking any blows for women’s rights. She does show a definite preference to Ralph, however. And she does strike a blow against the mansion’s exterior wall, creating a convenient exit.
“Use me all you want Ralph.” That’s what these panels say to me. I’m continually thinking the only thing that’s keeping Ralph’s paws off of Babe is the fact that she’s so stir crazy. I mean a crazy person is capable of pretty near anything. If Ralph has been around half as much as I think he has, he knows better than to get personal with a chick who’s off her rocker. Now using her to make some quick cash is another thing entirely.
So the setup is sleazy agent exploits mentally retarded hot chick for profit while saving her from other sleazy agent who wants to exploit her for his own amusement. Why am I seeing no real person to root for all of a sudden?
Ralph succeeds in making off with Babe, who knocks down the outer gate. Gideon is upset, as one could imagine. He shows that he will stop at nothing to get Babe back by ransacking Ralph’s office and threatening his secretary Sylvia. Ralph’s too smart to go back there, however and decides to hole up in a motel room with his new acquisition. At one point he’s so frustrated at her limited vocabulary that he laments how hard it’s going to be to prove he got to her first. Her response is quite startling.
That’s a one time deal though. It’s like she’s “Rain Woman” or something. Next up, Ralph’s secretary appears and he wants to show her a demonstration of Babe’s prodigious strength. So he hands her a telephone book. She does the natural thing and…
…filps through it to find a name she knows. Unfortunately Donald Stevens doesn’t know Babe. He does have a missing daughter, but she’s way too young and not half the dish that our title character is. Ralph’s special friend remains a mystery.
But she’s still a mystery he can exploit to make some cash. So being sleazy, Ralph dresses Babe up like a reject from an S&M dungeon.
While I’m aroused by the outfit, I’m aghast that this is our hero. I mean at least Gideon had her dressed in everyday clothes. Granted they were everyday clothes for Heidi, but you could still walk down the street in them. Ralph comes off more and more like a big jerk in all this, no better than the bad guy.
Luckily for Babe, Sylvia is on hand to put a damper on his overactive hormones. She picks an outfit that’s more conservative while Ralph plots the best way to introduce Babe is on what passes for the book’s version of the David Letterman show. Sadly Byrne shows how out of ideas he is here and blatantly rips off the piano scene from one of my favorite movies: “Mighty Joe Young.”
Yes, when in need steal shamelessly from the classics, John. It chaps me off a bit, but what can you do? The rest of the issue is full of fresh ideas and good art. Even the exit is kind of neat. As we fade out, the final panels are of aliens in a spaceship looking though viewscreens at Babe and saying things about securing the subject before the fusion dissolves, whatever that may mean.
No, it’s far from Byrne’s best work, but it IS John Byrne story and art. So in a pinch, even mediocre Byrne is better than half the stuff on the shelf these days. And better than 95% of what's waiting in the Crapbox.