I am probably more forgiving than most for John Byrne's work. I overlook the flaws of every new project, chasing a thrill from my youth of being consistently blown away by Byrne's pencils and his imagination as a writer. Some projects come very close to that sweet spot (Dark Horse-era Next Men), but most of the time, being a Byrne fan these days feels like a solitary experience. His storytelling has reached a technical plateau that he hasn't been able to rise above (though there have been some dips below), and he hasn't had a superstar gig on a high-profile title in a very, very long time.
And "high-profile" doesn't have to mean something for the Big Two - Byrne's creator-owned projects have never caught on in the way that some of his peers (Frank Miller, Mike Mignola) have. So, here I sit, having just finished his latest monthly - IDW's The High Ways #1 - and I'm over-thinking Byrne's legacy as a creator, wondering what he wants people to remember him for, when all is said and done. Surely not this?
I know I'm over-thinking it because The High Ways is not a deep book, nor a particularly commercial one. It's the story of a kid named Eddie (nicknamed "Sprout") who we follow on his first interstellar job aboard what's basically a space tow truck. The freighter he's on is called out to move a ship, but it turns out to be a false alarm (maybe), and the crew is forced to stay over with strangers at a space station while the freighter refuels. Short of a last panel cliffhanger, there's not much else going on except introductions to a handful of working-class spacefarers.
And it's fine. The book is fine. And every single time I read new Byrne I want it to be more than fine; a classic - something I can praise from the rooftops, and confidently pass along to friends as a must-read, so that people will understand the impact Byrne had on the 9-year old me - and every time, I'm let down. I can praise The High Ways #1 from the level carpet of my living room. I can pass it along to some friends who don't mind their sci-fi with a slight retro bent. They won't understand why I'm a Byrne nut, but they'll probably like the book just fine. It's fine.
I can't fault for the book for what it's not; only what it is, and there's the danger in getting a fan to review something he has complicated feelings about, I can try to remain objective, try to think, "who is this book for, anyway?" but even Byrne knows that the book is for me and people like me - Byrne fans, the core he's been softballing comics to for the past twenty years.
Byrne fan or not, The High Ways #1 is an old-fashioned sci-fi comic and serviceable in every sense of the word. Bonus points for the book having not one, but two appealing black lead characters. The real test of the book's potential will be in the second issue, now that all of the character introductions are out of the way, and we can get to the meat of whatever this book is really going to be about, because, let's face it, John Byrne's Space Tow Truck Adventures is a hard-sell in a crowded marketplace. And there's gotta be more to this book than that, right? Or am I just a Byrne apologist?
(This review covers The High Ways #1. The first issue of four hits stands on Wednesday, 1/16)