Saturday, January 10, 2009

Birthday Review #2 - John Byrne's 2112

"In 1990, Stan Lee contacted me and asked me if I would like the be 'editor-in-chief' of a whole new line he was going to create at Marvel -- a line which would be set in Marvel's future, unconnected to the Marvel Universe as we knew it. As it happened, I had been giving some thought to a 'Futureverse' of my own, and, being flattered by Stan's offer, I suggested that what I had come up with (but at that time thought I had no place to develop) would fit the bill for his project. To this end I plotted (Stan was to script) and drew a 64 page pilot.

When Stan saw the pilot pages he asked for more specific MU references. I'd tried to keep the thing 'clean,' so as not to turn the whole MU into a Superboy story, but Stan thought we SHOULD at least HINT at what had happened to some of the folk we knew from the present continuity. Fortunately, since my story was told in the 64 pages, this meant only adding some 12 additional pages and some bridging material to make them fit. Thus, when I took the project back it was, luckily, not a case of re-writing or re-drawing, but simply of removing pages I had not wanted in there in the first place. I'd taken a set of concepts, bent them slightly to fit Stan's needs, and then had only to 'unbend' them to get back to my own original material.

Stuck with 64 pages and no thought of where to put 'em -- I did not want to offer the book to DC, since that seemed vaguely scabrous somehow -- I mentioned my dilemma to Roger Stern, who suggested I give Dark Horse a call. I did. They accepted the proposal with open arms. I also pitched NEXT MEN, which had been floating in my brain for a while, and which they also liked. I then realized the tiniest bit of tweaking in the dialogue would make my graphic novel -- now titled 2112 -- into a prequel/sequel pilot for JBNM."

-- John Byrne (3/28/1998)

Interesting, huh?

I never realized that 2112 originated as a concept for Marvel, nor that it was a precursor to the 2099 titles, none of which I ever read seriously (I vaguely remember reading a couple issues of the Spider-Man title, but recall absolutely nothing about them). But the fact that this started out as a Marvel concept, even if it lacks any direct connection to the Marvel universe, is telling. It reveals Byrne's deep understanding of the formula that superhero comics must conform to, and demonstrates what a master he is at crafting interesting stories that adhere to this formula.

And 2112, as a sci-fi book with superhero elements, is a very enjoyable read. Its high concept centers around a world teetering on the brink of a science-war, as genetic mutations have become a sexually transmitted disease. Safeguard, the massive privatized security force which replaced the militaries of the world, has coped with this outbreak of mutations by shipping the "halflings" to Appolyon, a prison planet. But the bureaucrats in charge fail to acknowledge that Sathanas (a character who looks like he wandered right off one of Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four pages) has united the halflings and plans to reclaim the earth.

The early 90s was a particularly creative period for John Byrne. His Next Men series, which ran 31 issues, was among my favorite comics at the time. During the same period, he also produced two Babe mini-series, Danger Unlimited, a four-issue homage to the early Fantastic Four, and scripted the first story for Mike Mignola's Hellboy, all for Dark Horse's Legend imprint. Of course, Byrne also continued working in mainstream superheroes. At the same time as his Dark Horse work, he wrote Iron Man, and both wrote and illustrated Marvel's She-Hulk series, as well as another favorite of mine, Namor, the Sub-Mariner (Byrne wrote and illustrated the first 25 issues before handing over art duties to then newcomer, Jae Lee).

That Byrne was able to produce such a substantial body of work in such a small window of time is impressive, but it's his consistent quality during this period that bears discussion. His entrepreneurial take on Namor was among the most novel in the character's 50+ year history. Similarly, his self-deprecating She-Hulk, who was aware of her starring role in her own comic book, allowed Byrne to poke fun at the medium and himself.

But it's his Next Men series which stands out as his most memorable, most successful effort from that period. A much darker story, Next Men essentially took a group of superheroes and dropped them into the real world. While it's been 15 years or so since I read the series, I remember enjoying it very much at the time; yet for some reason, I never managed to read 2112, which is essentially the prelude to the Next Men, although unlike most preludes, it occurs in the future, rather than the past.

The best part about 2112 is Byrne's enthusiasm and creative energy. The book was written, pencilled, inked and lettered by Byrne himself (with colors by Steve Oliff) and this complete creative control allowed Byrne to bring his vision to life free from editorial constraints.

His art has a naturalism that reminds me of a cross between Gilbert Hernandez and Gene Colan. There is an anatomical smoothness and grace to the figure poses, regardless of how exaggerated or fictional the situations are. The panel above, with Agent Red poised for battle while a giant halfling emerges from behind a mountain, is an excellent example of this naturalism. Red's slightly crouched position, coiled and ready to spring into action as he twists around, surprised by the monster, is magnificent. The giant, despite his enormous proportions, also appears to be moving with a certain natural flow. There is nothing stiff or staged about this scene.

Many of Byrne's panel compositions in this story are exceptional. For example, in the first panel at the top of this review, there is a tangible sense of grandeur and depth as we look over the spacedeck out onto the alien planet, and Byrne's use of fore, middle and background, as well as the angled perspective of the panel, all contribute to that disorienting feeling of being in space. Byrne is also a master character designer, as evidenced by this panel of "halflings" preparing to attack.

Say what you will about John Byrne, he knows how to spin a good yarn. Despite the fact that, at its core, this is really just another superhero story, Byrne brings an incredible vision to the book which draws you completely into its imaginary world. Overall, 2112 was a lot of fun, nothing particularly special, but a good, solid story with some of Byrne's better artwork, and it made me nostalgic to go back and re-read the Next Men.

*Also check out Eric Reynold's recent post about John Byrne's Fantastic Four.

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