Across The Pond

Come with me to a magical faraway wonderland. You’ll have to guess where it is first. Okay, everybody ready? Here’s your first clue: it’s a hilarious place where nothing is quite what it seems.

No, not Narnia. Not Disneyland. Top marks for originality to those who guessed North Korea, but I’m afraid it’s not that either. This place is far more fun. Here’s the second clue: this wonderland is as close as you want it to be.

Whoever said ‘Narnia’ again can just pipe down. No, it’s not ‘my imagination’ either. Most of the people who read this column are comics fans and I don’t want to see into your imagination. Believe me, you don’t want to see into mine. Okay, some more clues.

This wonderland has a dark side. It is presided over by a twisted soul, who has had absolute power for so long that his mind has become a little unhinged. He seems to think that he’s the only person who exists. He is puerile and childish but sees himself as wise and genial and something of a philosopher. Anyone who contradicts this picture he has built up of himself is consigned to outer darkness.

Now you’re saying ‘North Korea’ again, aren’t you? A few souls are wondering if I’m getting at a complex analogy about either George Bush or the Church of Scientology. The truth is much more marvellous than that, kids. I’m talking about the John Byrne Forum.

For those who don’t know, Byrne is a comics writer and artist, who did a lot of work for Marvel comics, then a lot of work for DC comics and now does bits and bobs for DC. I was a Marvel fiend back in the 70s and his name seemed very familiar to me. He is particularly well-liked for work on the She-Hulk stories. All of this is easy to find out. The very special thing about Mr Byrne is that he has a web-site. Any galah can have a web-site of course, it is JB’s particular genius to turn his into one of the funniest places on the whole internet.

Our tour – and the fun!- begin with his rules of conduct (sorry, that’s Rules of Conduct). These set down the dos and don’ts for posting on the John Byne Forum (JBF). Number one is that thou shalt not respond to a post addressed specifically to JB (as I call him). This is actually broken all the time, but it’s okay if you’re rubbishing someone who addressed a critical post to JB. Number three says that posts that ‘presume’ to read JB’s mind will be automatically deleted. JB, as we shall see, reads other people’s minds all the time but that’s different. I love the ‘presume’, it really sets up the atmosphere. I feel like I’m on Dr Doom’s messageboard already. Certainly not, your evil majesty, no presuming here.

The last Rule of Conduct is that you’ll be given the heave-ho if you’re there to ’cause trouble’. Fair enough I suppose, although it does make the place sound like a small southern town that doesn’t like outside agitators.

Once you’ve braved this lot, hop in and have fun! Fun comes in the following forms:
Firstly, JB contradicting himself.

This is something the great man does an awful lot. It doesn’t matter because it’s his forum. Apart from his constantly presuming to read other people’s minds, he says that it’s wrong to criticise Jack Kirby and does so himself on the same thread. He contradicts himself on the question of ‘core concept’.

This is something you’re going to have to learn about in the JBF. Pay attention. Characters have ‘core concepts’. These are things about those characters, which are extremely important; put there by the original creator and which must not be altered. If they are altered, the story is NOT GOOD, no matter how much you thought you enjoyed it. If you did enjoy, say, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing stories or the two Spiderman movies, you are naive and/or don’t respect super-heroes properly. How do we know what is and isn’t part of the CORE CONCEPT? Well, you ask JB. He never provided a definition of it that made sense to me, but as he pointed out, using his telepathic skills, I just didn’t want to understand him. I think the wider idea is that super-heroes should be taken seriously and not laughed at (except where it’s okay). Any changes Alan Moore makes to characters violate their CORE CONCEPTS. Changes JB makes to stories he works on don’t, in fact he restores CORE CONCEPTS. Neil Gaiman doesn’t have much respect for CC’s either.

I should caution newcomers here that liking the works of Alan Moore does not win you automatic respect on the JBF, where it is widely understood that Moore does not respect superheroes sufficiently, does not understand CORE CONCEPTS and is probably a pedophile (because he wrote Lost Girls). Oh and Moore only has one story which is ‘everything you know is a lie’. I pointed out that Moore had other stories and had my different viewpoint not only welcomed but encouraged by being ignored. You could always go to Alan Moore’s website and give him some more adulation there, however Moore does not have a forum, just as JB does not have a section in my local comic shop. But I digress.

There’s more to the JBF than the great man contradicting himself. Fun thing number two is Sycophancy:

In the JBF, you get to see some original art, which ranges in quality from bloody ordinary to quite good. Better yet, you get to read the ecstatic praise lavished on all of JB’s work by fans whose devotion would make Kim Il Jung* say “no, guys, that’s really too much”. In fact, sycophancy is another enjoyable part of your visit to wonderland/the JBF. Gasp in amazement as fans scroll through the umpteen photos of the man, not once saying ‘get a grip will you?’ but asking adoringly about the way his hair parting has changed over the years and, once, about the few months he shaved his beard. I won’t tell you what happened to the beard, you’ll have to read about that on the board.

I suppose JB likes this sort of treacly praise because he goes out of his way to court it. He started a thread asking ‘which one of my comics started you on comics?’ and threw a hissy fit when it went off topic. He also started a thread for the discussion of criticisms of him, called ‘JB; threat or menace’.

Apparently JB is the victim of something called ‘Byrne Bashing’. My former country Japan had the expression ‘Japan Bashing’. In both cases the word ‘bashing’ was chosen to imply that any criticism was too much criticism and to lump in justified criticism, which a sane country/comics god would pay attention to, with silly and unjustified criticism. Byrne has many explanations for the ‘bashing’. It’s due to a lack of originality in comics fans. It’s because people twist things out of all proportion. People are jealous of his achievements. Comics fans are stupid. Not once does he mention the possibility that he might have done something worth criticising. When it is pointed out that he’s been pretty rude, he explains the way he was provoked (ie by the other person disagreeing with him in spite of being WRONG).

When JB is in this self-pitying and defensive mode (which is a lot of the time), someone always pops up to say that he’s always been a perfect gentleman and hell of a guy. This is demonstrably untrue on his site, although I hope he’s a nice person in the flesh. What are these people on?

On the silly criticisms, the accusation that he’s a racist is one he likes. It seems to be untrue; a few very small drawings of stereotyped black guys talking like black and white minstrels doesn’t make him a racist. Nor does comparing the use of the expression ‘thought bubble’ to the use of the ‘n-word’. It’s very silly, since no ethnic group is defamed by ‘thought bubble’. ‘Thought bubble’ can be wrong, although I can’t say I give two hoots but can never be as offensive as the ‘n-word’. JB seems to think that comic will be respected if everybody would say ‘thought balloon’.

There’s another contradiction here; when JB sets up the accusation of racism to show how silly those ‘bashers’ are, he says that he has only mentioned the n-word, to say how bad it is. He hasn’t. He mentioned it to show how bad ‘thought bubble’ was and to say ‘that for some people the n-word wasn’t a term of racial abuse. Oh well, I don’t think he’s racist myself. And he’s not a loony on sex, the way Dave Sim turned out to be (although JB has a peculiar belief that there’s no such thing as ‘genuine’ bisexuality. Bisexuals are partly closeted homosexuals who will become just plain homosexuals when they’re really out of the furniture. Such deeply uncloseted bisexuals as Gore Vidal and W.H Auden are not mentioned here).

The last form of fun is JB’s various poses as wit and intellectual. For wit, can anyone go past ‘dickweed’ or ‘you’re working too hard at being stupid’? He can’t. For intellectual there’s the following:

“that’s why I lean towards objectivism” (Great Philosopher takes Stock)

“The Welfare State is one of the most destructive inventions of the 20th Century. The idea that Government should “take care” of people is almost criminally insane. Does no one ever think these things thru?”

(People who could spell ‘through’ did indeed think these things through and concluded that the system of welfare that existed before the welfare state, far from encouraging a free-market utopia full of get-up-and-go, caused third-world conditions and misery at the heart of first world countries.)

“The gigantic social experiment of Soviet Communism was built on the idea that human beings will work hard, will “do the right thing” simply because it is the right thing”

(JB might know more about Soviet Communism than I do, but I had the impression that it was based on the idea that people will do the right thing because they don’t want to be shot or imprisoned. I’ll check Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s message board, ask if he was left alone to do the right thing or not, and get back to you.)

“”but it’s a good story” is the biggest load of crap ever foisted on the reading audience. Any story which deliberately violates core concepts and themes of original materials is not, by definition “a good story” “

(Quick somebody call Harold Bloom and Terry Eagleton! Alert the Booker judges! Good story finally defined!)

Byrne also has a Bush-like propensity for silly nicknames. One is ‘winkers’, which refers to people who wink at their audience, telling them they know it’s not real. Examples include Bertolt Brecht and of course, Alan Moore. Presumably when JB drew himself into the She-Hulk stories it wasn’t ‘winking’, this being a Bad Thing. Another is ‘red sweater people’. This comes from a quotation “I resent you saying that people who wear red sweaters are imbeciles. Besides I don’t own a red sweater”. Byrne regards this as such a perfect way to sum up the injustice and stupidity of those who dislike him that he sometimes just posts a picture of a red sweater.

Another term current on the board is ‘merit badger’. This is not a badger who has qualities far above the rest of the set, but somebody who likes Alan Moore too much and might win a merit badge, if Moore were handing those out. Just read on when you’ve stopped laughing at this.

Of course there is more to this happy corner of cyberspace. As I said, some of the pictures aren’t bad. I haven’t even mentioned JB’s brilliant idea for making ‘The Incredibles’ into a good movie by removing most of the jokes (too disrespectful towards super-heroes). And a lot of the posters are genial and well-informed about comics and the world. I’ve been booted out of this paradise, without being told why, which is just as well as I found it addictive. Such is JB’s manly frankness that I will probably never know why I was banned. Was it because I said the excuse of provocation for his rudeness was a bully’s reasoning? Was it because I said I thought the n-word was more offensive than ‘talk bubble’? Perhaps it’s because I asked if his picture of Batman was meant to look like Basil Rathbone. I will never know, but his site will always hold a special place in my heart.

*it may seem disproportionate to compare a solipsistic comics creator to a crazed communist dictator, but comparisons like that are welcome on the JBF. JB compared file sharing to rape and one of his acolytes compared ‘trolls’ to the guy who killed John Lennon