GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

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John Byrne's Next Men: Book One 1993 (SC TPB) 184 pgs.

cover by ByrneWritten and Illustrated by John Byrne.
Colours: Matt Webb. Letters: John Byrne.

Reprinting: John Byrne's Next Men #0-6 (1992) -- #0 compiled the story originally serialized in Dark Horse Presents.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse, copyright John Byrne.

John Byrne, as artist, writer, and writer-artist, has worked on many of the most significant established comicbook characters at both Marvel and DC, but the Next Men was his baby through and through. The premise concerns a group of super-teens, living in an idyllic Garden of Eden, who discover their "world" is just a computer simulation and that everything they believed was false. They escape from the compound where they were housed and into the real world, specifically a small town in the South-Western U.S., where they find themselves on the run, both hunters and hunted, as they try to figure out who they can trust and what they are.

In John Byrne's Next Men (that's the official title), Byrne brings his considerable experience as a true workhorse of the industry to create something where everything is O.K. -- the art, the dialogue, the pacing, the lettering -- without any of it becoming more than that.

The thing starts well, dropping the reader into a sinister research compound and introducing us to our heroes. Byrne's art is good and the colours by Matt Webb serve him well, utilizing lots of bold browns and other solid colours that add meat to the pictures. There are later moments of genuine pathos as the characters struggle to adjust from their idyllic past lives to the confusing world the rest of us live in, and there are nice touches, like the characters' unique slang -- such as knowing death only as "fading" (since people in their VR world just disappear and never come back). But very quickly the story becomes a lot of running about that keeps the tempo up, but kind of lacks story and character stuff to truly involve the heart and mind. And Byrne's art gets a bit rough as things progress (and never does entirely make you believe these are teenagers as opposed to adults).

Overall, John Byrne's Next Men is professionally mounted, and interesting enough, that it can certainly while away a few hours. But it seems kind of slight for its seven issues.

Part of the problem is that there's very little that's new here, conceptually. Genetic supermen, sinister government projects, even the abilities of the next men are all pretty stock ideas. Regrading the powers, Byrne's basically just taken Superman and split him among the five (strength, speed, agility, invulnerability, and x-ray vision). Byrne touches on issues of genetic experimentation and even racism (the creators of the next men were only interested in creating white subjects) but, perhaps to avoid seeming preachy, never really plays them up in a way that might give the book some greater socio-political bite.

Story-wise, Byrne answers most of the questions that arise pretty early on. When in the final chapter he fills in the entire history of the Next Men Project, there's very little that comes as a surprise. Perhaps the story's most intriguing question -- who one of the next men is talking to when he's by himself -- is never answered in these pages.

The characters are largely non-descript, perhaps a result of Byrne going for a "cinematic" style, eschewing thought balloons and text captions that might've allowed him to give his characters...character. The most defined of the "next men" are Jazz (basically the whiny, Veronica Cartwright character - - that's an SF film reference if you don't get it) and the youngest, Danny, who effectively evokes the sense of a guileless youth. And if the next men and their fellow regulars (the evil Senator Hilltop, the good gal troubleshooter, Tony Murcheson) are just kind of sketched in, the supporting players (a local Sheriff, a local doctor) fair even less well. No one really surprises you with an unexpected character quirk.

And since this is part of an on-going series, the story isn't really structured to come to a dramatic climax. It more just wanders (briskly) about for a few issues, then ends. Sure, the heroes gain a measure of sanctuary, so it's not like it ends on a cliffhanger, per se. But by the end, a villain of the story, a cyborg named Sathanas, is still not properly explained (apparently he was a carry over from another Byrne project, a graphic novel called 2112).

This is, after all is said and done, a pilot (to use TV terminology) not a stand alone movie.

This was published with a "mature readers" warning, and hyped salaciously as "Byrne doing all the stuff Marvel wouldn't let him do". The result is gorier violence, some franker sexuality (though no nudity) and cussing, but it's perhaps a credit to the last 30 years or so of comics that the themes and characterization aren't any more sophisticated than the average Comics Code approved comic...less so in fact. John Byrne's Next Men is certainly an O.K. time-killer, but remains doggedly "comicbooky" in the pejorative sense, simplistic and stock. One character is almost raped...but later seems unperturbed by what should've been a traumatic event. While in one of the letter's pages that accompanied the original issues, Byrne defends his gore as simply being "true to life"...uh, maybe. But when people can punch their hands through people's chests or rip limbs off, I'm inclined to question the foundations of such reality.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in Next Men comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$16.95 USA.


John Byrne's Next Men: Parallel (book 2) 1993 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover by ByrneWritten and illustrated by John Byrne.
Colours: Matt Webb. Letters: John Byrne.

Reprinting: John Byrne's Next Men #7-12

Recommended for Mature Readers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Dark Horse comics

The second story arc from John Byrne's Next Men series has his genetically engineered "next men" -- now under the protecting arm of a (presumably) more benign branch of the U.S. government than the one that created them -- being schooled in their powers and sent off on their first mission. Seems the U.S.S.R. had its own next men project that's now out of control. The post-Communism Russians ask for help and the Next Men are sent to a remote arctic base where their Russian dopplegangers have already erected an awesome fortress and seem more poweful -- and bizarre -- than our heroes.

I refrained from reading the first story arc again because I wanted to go into this fresh. Sometimes I've re-read older comics before starting on new ones, just to make sure I know who's who and what's what, only to find I've kind of maxed out on the series by the time I get to the new stuff. As such, reading Parallel, there was the advantage of a certain freshness...but also a bit of confusion as I tried to remember what had gone before as Byrne doesn't always offer many reminders.

The first issue starts well enough as Byrne welcomes the reader back into his world, handily re-introducing us to the major participants. When the Next Men come upon their opponents' fortress, it is genuinely breathtaking, punctuated with a two-page spread. And the story boasts a clever twist toward the end.

But it also seems a little...thin. Not really something that needs occupy six issues. Byrne intentionally wants to take his time with the story -- in one of the letters pages, likening it to how a novel can unfold at a gradual pace. And that would be fine. The overall plot can take its time if the telling of the plot is padded out with characterization, or little story twists that add to the whole, or even just minutia. Instead, though, the story often seems to take its time simply with a lot of big, page-consuming panels, or a 10 page dream sequence that doesn't contribute to either story or characterization (though, maybe, helps to remind us of where the Next Men came from -- but he still didn't need ten pages for that). And the story is curiously jumpy in spots, with information often supplied in "Previously..." introductions at the beginning of each issue that wasn't entirely explicit in the story itself. Or, for instance, the Next Men arrive at the Russian base by plane, then, a scene later, seem to have re-arrived at it. It's only if you look in the corner of a panel, and make out what looks like a truck's bumper, that you realize they must have landed a ways a way, then drove closer.

The Next Men, as characters, remain not especially well realized. It's not that Byrne doesn't have personalities for, well, one or two, but for much of it, the Next Men are props on a page rather than flesh and blood beings whom the story, ultimately, should be about. When characters engage in an impromtu sexual tryst, it comes from nowhere...and disappears as quickly (presumably it was dealt with in later issues). Granted, working with original characters, Byrne has to win us over from the ground up. After all, does a reader invest emotionally in Spider-Man in any one story, or do we care simply because forty years of history makes us care?

As in the first book, the most vivid character is the youngest, Danny, who is shunted off into a separate sub-plot that doesn't entirely resolve in these issues.

I've said this before, about comics in general, and I'll say it again. It seems odd to me the way modern comics are so hot for TPB collections -- graphic novels if you will -- without really shaping the story telling to suit the new market. Obviously, I'm ambivalent. Comics have long used -- and been made richer for -- the idea of sub-plots, and recurring character threads. But the result is "books" like this that, though the main plot resolves, still leave a lot lingering. And, as noted, the main plot, though good in premise, is a bit thin in execution.

Perhaps what adds to that is that the Next Men, though clearly super-hero in origin -- a revisionist super hero, where Byrne tries to touch on some of the more negative possibilities inherent in standard powers (ie: an invulnerable person might be insensitive to even benign sensations) -- Byrne doesn't go for the all-out action. No, I don't mean that I want more ten page dream sequence fight scenes. But not a lot happens physically, as well as emotionally. The Next Men get captured -- then spend the next few issues in cells, not even trying to escape. Which sounds duller than it actually is. The double edged sword of Byrne's use of big panels (sometimes four panels per page) is that though each individual issue progresses only a little, the scenes aren't long and tedious.

There's an overall competence to the story (above mentioned lapses notwithstanding). And Byrne's art is among the best of his post-X-Men days from years ago. He goes for a rougher, scratchier, more stripped down style than the intricate, detailed style that made him famous. But the work is solider, more careful -- and more detailed -- than a lot of his other work. Perhaps working on his own property inspired him in a way that, say, Wonder Woman, didn't. Granted, younger fans who only know Byrne from his modern art won't really know what I'm talking about. And Byrne's style hasn't really improved the way he thinks it has. It's more a trade off. Some aspects of his art are (slightly) better than his early work, and other aspects are worse. And maybe it's Matt Webb's colours that add an additional level of solidity to the pictures.

Though I still say Byrne fails to make his "teen" heroes look like teenagers.

Also running through these issues (and I assume the TPB collection -- the problem with sometimes reviewing stories based on the comics, rather than the collected edition, is you can't always be sure what the TPB contains) is a back up strip that is loosely connected to the Next Men (and, supposedly, eventually dovetails with it). The strip is called M4 (though the logo looks like MA) and follows a woman on the run who hooks up with a mysterious super powered man. But that storyline doesn't resolve in these issues (though neither does it end on a cliff hanger).

JBNM was published for "mature readers", which means occasional adult subject matter. But whereas in the first book, Byrne indulged in gorier violence, but no nudity, here the violence is more restrained but there's some nudity and a (mild) sex scene. Though, the male nudity (in the M4 story) is more explicit than the female (in the Next Men).

Ultimately, Parallel's basic plot of the Russian next men, and the twist ending, would have made a really good two-parter. At six issues, though, the very length diminishes its potency. Byrne's Next Men ran 30 issues (plus a 0 issue), and if it really did form a kind of epic, novel-in-comics, good for him. But in order to get a reader to stick around for the whole show, he needs to deliver on an issue-by-issue (and story arc by story arc) basis. Parallel is an O.K. read, but there isn't that much interesting that happens between the intriguing set up and the denouement. The plotting and the characters don't exactly make me want to run out, searching for later issues (or TPB collections which, I believe, reprinted the entire series). It's O.K. enough that I might -- if I find 'em cheap -- but thin and shallow enough that I migght not.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in Next Men comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.95 USA.


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