Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Record: John Byrne

John Byrne may be well known as the writer and artist of many Marvel and DC series and characters, to say nothing of his being a ret-con machine (Marvel Two-In-One #50 may have been a precursor to what he really ended up doing in subsequent years as a ret-conner), but he may also be known for a lot of discrimination against women in whatever he’s worked on as a writer, even subliminally. Between his debut in comic books in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, there were quite a few books he wrote where sexism had a presence, even if you couldn’t always see it. To enjoy any of his works can often require big doses of salt. Here is my own list of discriminatory acts Byrne included in his own writing resume in years past:
  • In Fantastic Four #239, a young nine-year-old girl is shown having an abusive drunk of a father, so drunk in fact that he doesn’t care that he’s struck his kid with a rolled-up newspaper for neglecting her household chores in front of Frankie Raye, the college student and foster daughter of Prof. Phineas Horton, inventor of the original Human Torch, who discovered she had powers similar to Johnny Storm, the second Human Torch. At least Byrne didn’t torture us with any scene of if the drunkard dad did give his daughter any worse.
  • Sue Storm is later turned into an evil antagonist named Malice by a villain named the Psycho-Man (whose operation on her she may have described as “mental rape”), during which time she wears a skimpy and spiky leather costume while attacking the FF. After being freed from the effects and exacting revenge upon Psycho-Man, that’s when she decided to change her name to Invisible Woman – because her experience under Psycho-Man’s influence is what helped her to grow into one.
  • Frankie Raye later becomes Nova, the new herald of Galactus (and later dies in his service in 1992, in Silver Surfer #75).
  • In The Thing #3-4, during an adventure with the Inhumans, it was “revealed” that Lockjaw, Crystal’s faithful pet, was really another Inhuman, or humanoid, himself. Need I continue with how embarrassingly bad this was? Let me just say that Peter David later undid this in X-Factor, writing that it was a ventriloquistic joke pulled by two of the Inhumans themselves (not that even that was any better though).
  • On the FF #264’s cover, we’re treated to a scene of She-Hulk being kicked in the head. And that’s just one of the problems with whenever Byrne wrote some, if not all, of the stories involving Jennifer Walters. During Fantastic Four #290, when battling Blastaar in the Negative Zone, She-Hulk rips a panel off a control deck to use as a club. That’s as far as she gets at that particular point, since Blastie, who can’t stand seeing his ship getting torn up, stuns her with one of his built-in beams. And, when Reed Richards’ hometown in California was enveloped by a strange force covering where time seemed to advance much faster more than on the regular plane (issue #293), Shulkie gets dragged inside, and, while I don’t have the exact issues available now, I think we were treated to a scene of her having aged drastically, and needing to have the effects reversed. The vibe I got from that story seemed to be that girls couldn’t handle themselves on their own.
  • In Man of Steel #2, when Superman foils a convenience store robbery, there’s one woman among the four armed thieves, who makes the declaration before opening fire, “DON’T JUST STAND THERE, WASTE THE MOTHER!” If that implies what I think it does, it sure doesn’t sound feminine to me. After felling the 3 other male thieves with her, Superman then knocks the female thief unconscious with a mere finger flick, all in order to make it safer to remove and disarm an explosive charge she’s got under her trenchcoat. Presumably, this is to make the woman seem crazier that she could be.
  • In Superman #1, where Byrne reintroduced Metallo, originally a minor character in the Silver Age, the villain, while holding Lois Lane hostage to force Supes into action, raises her at arms length by the neck after she annoys him by scoffing at his codename. This has come to be known as the “Byrne hold”.
  • In Action Comics #584, during a fight between a possessed Superman and the Teen Titans, Superman, after breaking free from Wonder Girl’s lasso, takes her too by the neck, and mouths off with what could be construed as implied rape, before Jericho puts a stop to all that by possessing Superman’s body, after which the crippled technologist in whose body Superman’s mind now happens to be shows up, and soon, the minds are switched back to normal. Another disturbing thing about this story when I pondered it later on, was that it seemed almost like a takeoff on the "fanboys in the basement" stereotype that's been around for almost two decades.
  • In Superman #2, Lex Luthor's goons beat the hell out of Lana Lang, whom they captured quite by chance while trying to search the house of the Kents in Smallville. Sure, she's okay following that, but just what exactly makes that whole encounter any better than being drugged, which, as a medic working for Luthor says, she's allergic to?
  • During the Legends crossover, Granny Goodness also gets seized in the Byrne hold, as performed by Darkseid.
  • While Superman and Hawkman are battling an armada of alien ships, Hawkwoman is beaten up by a villain, who smacks her across the face.
  • Byrne's run on West Coast Avengers in 1990 is surely one of the worst examples on his resume. Tigra starts becoming more cat than human, to say nothing of savage, and when restraining her, the USAgent smacks her on the face, not unlike how Hawkwoman was smacked by a villain in Action Comics. And Scarlet Witch is turned into a cartoon villainess, cutting her adorable red curls and going tomboy, oozing with embarrassingly bad stereotypical villainy, and, when paralyzing the Avengers at one point, she scratches Wonder Man across the chest. All this in order to make her father Magneto look good, because he’s trying to argue honorably about how to deal with the hero guests, while as for Quicksilver, he was just boringly handled. And as for the Wasp, she was little more than attractive wallpaper. I didn’t read how Byrne’s own storyline had ended (I think he was taken off the book shortly afterwards), but by now, I don’t even care. It’s like leaving a movie in the middle and not caring what happens next.
  • In The Sensational She-Hulk, whatever parody there is notwithstanding, the whole notion of a pregnant woman (NOT Jennifer, if that matters) being tortured in issue #1 is just plain sick. As is the part in issue #2 where Jen’s in danger of being beheaded, and, come to think of it, even her just sitting around captive while Spider-Man bests the crooks.
  • John Byrne’s Next Men has quite a bit of the women-in-danger-of-torture theme too, with the Next Women, shall we say, being subjected to some of this discrimination as well.
  • In his run on Wonder Woman in 1996, John Byrne screwed up there as well, with WW being more quick to violence and less smart than usual. Women are in quite a lot of alarming jeopardy here, and the only good thing about his run on the book is probably that it was he who introduced Cassie Sandsmark as the new Wonder Girl, and most succeeding writers made better use out of her than he did! (Byrne even had the chutzpah to put down his own creation, as can be seen at the botton of Cassie’s profile page in the Titans Tower.)
So, there you have it, this is a lot of, if not all, of what underlines John Byrne’s resume, and not very remarkable when you look at it more closely. Recalling the premise of Identity Crisis, one can only wonder if writer Brad Meltzer may have borrowed a page from Byrne. Which would suggest then that Byrne, for all his merits, may have simultaneously been a contributing factor to the downfall of comic books.

(Note: this'll be the first of a couple of entries I'll do every now and then that'll look at the problem engulfing comic books by examining the writer's and/or the artist's resume. And I'll try to add more data to even this topic as time goes by. It's not easy to complete all at once, since I need more time than ever to figure out what examples to cite.)


At 4:45 PM , Blogger Terry said...

Wow, get a clue. Seriously, having bad things happen to characters isn't prejudicial - it's STORYTELLING.

At 11:27 PM , Blogger Avi Green said...

Ha ha, I've heard that excuse, aka "it's only comics, movies, music et cetera", many times before. And just what exactly were all those nazi propaganda films during the 1930s? Just movies? No way. Please, do tell me about it.

At 4:52 AM , Blogger Dawn said...

You've got a link to my blog response (John Byrne - Sexist?) but I'll respond here too.

I think your list shows that Byrne has his sexist moments but it's not a good tool for labeling him sexist, especially when a look at his work reveals moments, even entire runs, where respectful treatment of women is evident.

Sensational She-Hulk was a great title that took a woman and put her in a comic lead. Be-heading aside the overall effect of the title was to make Jennifer Walters a real force and give her a personality that made her stand out. And he brought back the Blonde Phantom as a bright elderly woman. How many bright older are there in comics today?

Alpha Flight brought us Heather Hudson who I talk about in the blog. An ordinary woman and housewife who, by the end of Byrne's run, is leading a team of superheroes.

His run on FF was finally responsible for Sue Storm growing up. the means that accomplished that are fair game for examination but the result was a much more mature and fuller character.

Does he write sexist things? No doubt. Most comic books writers do at times. Is he sexist? I find giving him that label without looking at his contributions is premature and unfair.

At 6:07 AM , Blogger Avi Green said...

Your points are taken and thanks for your response. And I agree that yes, there are a lot of high points that Byrne's got, ditto a lot of worthy contributions to comicdom.

Funny thing about Alpha Flight is that the reason he may have been more in control there is because, while he is a native of the UK (and a little of his dialect shows in some of his early work), he lived much of his life in Canada, and presumably that had what to do with his more favorable approach there. Of course, it was during the time that he did West Coast Avengers that he really scraped bottom. I once owned issues #56-57 of that series and later on, I sold it off. It was just so grating, I couldn't bear to have it around the house any longer.

At 11:48 AM , Blogger Dawn said...

Was that the run where he turned Wanda's kids into figment's of her imagination? If so, I agree, that was horrible stuff.

I think Byrne is one of the greats in a lot of moments but boy, when he's bad, he's completely sucks.

At 11:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if your rambling, confused post is a joke or not, but I wrote some comments in case you were serious:

"Frankie Raye later becomes Nova, the new herald of Galactus and dies in his service."

Byrne only wrote the first part. Your evidence for sexism is that a woman was made incredibly powerful?

A woman getting a short haircut is sexist? WTF?

A woman - a superhero protagonist - getting kicked or beaten or even BEING IN DANGER is sexist? Gee, I wonder if Spider-Man has ever been kicked or beaten or been in danger. Is that sexist?

"I think we were treated to a scene of her having aged drastically"

You're wrong, there's no such scene.

A female robber not sounding "feminine" is sexist? Would you prefer if she blushed and offered to cook Superman a meal?

Seriously, your objections are insane.

"Ha ha, I've heard that excuse, aka 'it's only comics, movies, music et cetera', many times before."

That was not what the objection was about. Terry didn't say that you should accept women being beaten, failing or being in danger because "it's only comics". Terry wrote that having bad things happen is essential to STORYTELLING - basically, that you should accept women being beaten, failing or being in danger (at least as long as men are subjected to it equally, and Byrnes male characters are) because it's impossible to tell exciting stories if there's no danger or conflict.

At 10:49 PM , Blogger Avi Green said...

Yes, Dawn, the very run where Byrne undid the development of Wanda's children. If memory serves, he was the writer of the Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries in 1983. He practically ruined his own work that way.

At 10:59 PM , Blogger Avi Green said...

Ah, let's see what we have here next. Martin writes:

Byrne only wrote the first part. Your evidence for sexism is that a woman was made incredibly powerful?

No, it's that a woman was going through the "power corrupts" cliche. No, it's that instead of developing Frankie Raye some more as a character, Byrne tossed her out! No, it's that he's got a case of the "bad fanfic syndrome"! How's that for channeling Al Jaffee at MAD magazine?

A woman getting a short haircut is sexist? WTF?

Whoops, watch yer language there, sonny. But getting past that, it seemed to me as if he didn't have much respect for Susan's hair, and with Wanda, he hit a real low.

Terry wrote that having bad things happen is essential to STORYTELLING - basically, that you should accept women being beaten, failing or being in danger (at least as long as men are subjected to it equally, and Byrnes male characters are) because it's impossible to tell exciting stories if there's no danger or conflict.

Deviating from the subject now, aren't we? Telling what to think or believe as well. Son, believe me, you won't be getting very far by being an apologist for writer's bias.

But hey, thanks for reminding me of Silver Surfer #75 from the early 90s, where Frankie Raye died. It reminded me in turn that Ron Marz might inevitably have to be researched as a subject!

Have a nice day!

At 10:48 AM , Blogger Eudaimo said...

Rereading your comments, I'm actually trying to figure out if you are joking. Assuming you are not, your post is nonsensical (both with respect to logic and grammar).
Ironically, Byrne has a pretty well-documented history of sexist comments, at least on his message board. Instead of citing any of those examples, you have a laundry list of supposed sexist acts--not one of which shows anything more your ability to read whatever you want out of text.
Your offenses include 1) a "lack of respect" for a superheroine's hair; 2) the fact that a female character rose to cosmic power and died, as though that is somehow limited to female characters; 3) several plot elements that seem to have no relevance to gender, but that you simply didn't like; and 4) the fact that female superheroines are subjected to fight-scene-violence, occassionally with the vague assertion that you didn't like the tone.
The saddest thing about your post, is that while there may be legitimate complaints to be made about the comic book industry, by making such specious arguments, you only lose respect for the people with legitimate beef.

At 2:23 PM , Blogger Avi Green said...

Eudaimo writes: "the fact that a female character rose to cosmic power and died, as though that is somehow limited to female characters"

Look who just missed a point here, yet one that I'll certainly need to add here as well: Galactus is a baddie, and Frankie Raye's becoming his herald was to become the servant of a supervillain! But hey, no need to agree with that if you don't want to. Your reply only emboldens me to keep on with the good fight, and lets me know that there IS some influence in this way or that! Tres bien!

At 5:18 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Galactus was established as morally neutral during Byrne's run, and the FF saved Galactus's life twice. Frankie Raye chose freely to become Galactus's herald because that would fulfill her dreams - she felt trapped on Earth, but free as a herald. And you maintain that it's sexist? Vous avez l'air d'être completement dingue. Je ne suis encore pas sûr si vous plaisantez ou pas.

At 9:37 AM , Blogger Avi Green said...

Très bien puis, en tant que toi l'aimer. But as it just occurred to me, look at how you seem to intentionally leave out anything here that does have some meat to it, like what Byrne did with Scarlet Witch or with Wonder Woman.

If you can't at least credit that, son, I don't see much need to argue further.

At 11:27 AM , Blogger Eudaimo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now I may be way off here, but if you put on a costume and stand in front of any person who can be described as a "Supervillain" and tell them to stop being bad... I don't think you can claim it's sexist if you get beat up.

At 5:07 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

First of all, I'm with you on the John Byrne thing, Avi Green. He is a sexist scum. Secondly, I think it is one thing to have a heroine lose a fight or be hurt on a norm- al basis. But to have the kind of things that happened to Scarlet Witch, Tigra, Sue Storm and other pretty Marvel ladies that did by Jerk Bum's(my name for John Bryne) pen? Hell no! And thirdly, being a victim of child abuse(it happened when I was little and growing up)I feel for characters like this, and real people and animals who've got a similar treatment. Further, you, Terry, can BIH for trying to defend John Byrne, and if it were not against the law, I would put an
explosive Jack O lantern in that girl hating dirtbag's house, and it would say: "TRICK OR TREAT, MOTHERFUCKER!!!!" as it roasted his sorry as more perfectly than the holiday lamb. Great site, Avi, and there's a lot here I agree with, believe me. And don't anyone give me any of that "you're crazy, it's comic book characters, get real and a clue" bullshit. I've known abuse, I feel for anyone and anything that's suffere it, real or fictional, and I really enjoy knowing there are people who share my beliefs, be it Byrne hate or any other. Especially since many a comic I own would have been much better if Byrne(who needs to burn) had not played his filthy part in it.

At 7:18 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I think I should just point out this is not discrimination. Discrimination is different from sexism, prejudice, bigotry, or anything else you might want to call Byrne's track record. Now, for the record, it's clear John Byrne is a horrible person and I'm not one to be an apologist for sexism, racism, etc. I'm not sure how strong these examples are overall (many are solid and some are not so convincing, which I think is another thing you could do better than you currently are) but the point here is we're having a problem with definitions. This is important because these concepts are necessary for adequate education to solve social problems like sexism. Discrimination involves action, whether directly or indirectly through lack of action such as not considering female, black, immigrant, disabled, etc. applicants for jobs, housing, things like that. Recently a show I like to watch online highlighted the differences between prejudice and discrimination. I thought that was strange at the time because those are very different things and I didn't see how someone could confuse them. I've since noticed many, many examples of them being confused and their meanings consequently being lost in context. That's not good. It does no one any favors.

So if you want to highlight sexist storytelling tropes, of which there are many, do that. Great. I'm with you. But you need to call it what it is because understanding what these words mean is essential to understanding what to do about the issues they represent. It's not a simple matter of semantics. As we see in this very comment section there are many of us who do not understand these things and it's very important to make this stuff as clear as we can. Language is important, make no mistake. If we continue to muddle these things it will become even harder to identify them in the real world and to understand what is being said when they're brought up.

Your intentions do seem to be good here. But unfortunately that's not enough. Fair or not there needs to be more to it. Whether or not that's the ideal scenario is beside the point. We're dealing in reality here and the reality is if you're going to try to document tropes and specific examples that reinforce problematic tendencies in our society you must do it right. There is a larger burden on those who want to change things than those who want to maintain a status quo. That's simply the reality and that's what we need to remember if we're going to try to effect that change.


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