If there is the comic book equivalent to a Diva, then it is certainly John Byrne. Byrne has the ability to walk into a comic book company and have them completely change any character he chooses. It is a rare and enviable power. One of those Spider-Man/“with great power comes great responsibility”-type powers. It’s too bad that he doesn’t wield it on the side of good.
To be fair, there are times when the end result is satisfying and entertaining. Byrne’s run on Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four was definitely one of the strongest since the end of its creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s, dynasty. But in many ways, Byrne’s work often devolves into a self-gratifying quagmire that is difficult to describe, (his 80’s reworking of Superman being a prime example).
Byrne’s latest opus, Generations 2 from DC Comics, has yet to prove itself as a success or failure. This is due, in large part, to the concept behind the series. Generations 2, basically, is both Byrne’s interpretation of the DC publishing universe and his further attempt to make it conform to a more realistic timeline. The series is published as part of DC’s Elseworlds series, which pretty much allows the creators to go wild and make up all sorts of imaginary stories that occur outside ordinary continuity. Byrne is incorporating a straight-line approach to the DC universe and allowing characters to age and retire as they would in real time. This is not a terribly unique idea, but this is the first time, in recent memory, that it has been tried on such a massive scale. Nor is this a bad idea, as it presents several unique opportunities to change characters, introduce new ones, and actually make some of them interesting again within this more sensible timeline.
So Generations 2 is not a bad idea. It’s just unfortunate that its execution has been so muddled and baffling. First, the structure of the series is confusing. Each issue of this mini-series contains two parts (each touching upon the other in themes or central characters), but they are pulled from different eras. This leaves the reader with a lot of detail that they have to piece together or figure out for themselves. It is almost like playing a game of historical Tetris—with Byrne throwing all these odd shaped blocks at the reader and challenging them to put all of the cubes into straight lines. Sometimes a block will just stick out so far that you can’t do anything but stop and look at it and wonder why it is there!
Second, Byrne has made some very odd choices as to which episodes from his pseudo-DC history to include and which to simply gloss over. The first issue focuses on classic characters from comics’ Golden Age and includes the actual death of Wonder Woman’s husband, Steve Trevor. While it is refreshing to see his death occur within the actual context of his original time-period, Trevor is still nothing more than an appendage and not a particularly interesting one at that.
The second issue begins some time later and alludes to the issue death of Dick Grayson, the original Robin. But the entire episode of Dick’s death takes place between the issues, leaving the actual contents of the second issue to deal with the repercussions of Dick’s death and his ghost haunting the Joker. It makes one wonder why Byrne thought that was a more interesting story than Dick’s murder which would have had much more dramatic impact. Also in the second issue, Byrne starts to pull together his version of the DC timeline by introducing new characters who each go on to become new versions of the current heroes . . . all of which results in a confusing mess by the third issue.
The third issue begins, again, with the ‘off-camera’ death of Superman’s children. In an interesting twist, Superman’s non-super son has murdered his super-sister. Once again, the issue deals more with the impact of the character’s death upon others than with the event itself. The current Batman, a one-time lover of this version of Supergirl, cannot deal with her death and rages out of control to the point of nearly pummeling the original Green Lantern to death.
So we are left to conclude that Byrne’s real goal behind the series (beyond playing God with all these characters) is to depict that how we deal with death is more important than the deaths themselves. That is certainly a new concept for comics, but it is not handled well enough here to make an impact. If anything, Byrne’s idea of ‘dealing with death’ involves anger, conflict, pain and only later does it lead to acceptance and understanding. It is not that comics cannot convey such complex issues but that Byrne uses the same techniques present in regular comics to try and deliver this message. Such a difficult melding of theme and technique is possible, but Byrne is too heavy-handed in his approach to succeed. It is tantamount to having a stand-up comedian suddenly delivering a dramatic monologue during a set. He tries to entertain the more general audience while making a point with the more sophisticated reader—but ends up leaving a majority curiously unsatisfied and empty.
But, at least, one can argue that Byrne is willing to try and expand himself as a writer, because he certainly stopped expanding his aesthetic horizons over ten years ago. His art style is virtually unchanged since his heyday on the Uncanny X-Men, which brought him much fame and riches. There is no experimentation here. Nothing to show a growth as a visual artist. But can one really blame Byrne for that or does the fault lie in a industry that resists change and insists on repacking the same thing over and over again? Byrne knows what is expected from him as an artist delivers it again and again, so can one really fault him for giving the audience what it so clearly wants? Well, yes. If one approaches the art of comics as nothing more than a job, then such workman results are not surprising. But, if the art of comics is considered an actual art form, then constant searching for growth and new ways to tell stories should be the primary concern. There is little doubt that, in the end, it is his employers that Byrne is seeking to please . . . and the best way to do that is to sell a lot of copies.
Generations 2 is a pleasant enough diversion. Your life won’t be changed if you read it; neither would you feel a horrible void if you miss it. In the game of “what if?” that this series plays, perhaps the greatest question is “what if I spent my money on something else?”
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