It’s July 6, which means it's the birthday of fan-favorite controversy-courting creator John Byrne! The writer and artist is easily one of the most celebrated artists of his generation and has worked on nearly every major Marvel and DC property, with work on each of DC's superhero trinity as well as franchise-defining runs on Marvel's Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men.
I'll admit that it took me a while to come around to Byrne’s work. His tendency to butt heads with other creators and say outrageous and occasionally offensive things online aside, I never quite grasped exactly what it was that made him so well-liked. That isn't to say that he didn't push boundaries. He had a more advanced understanding of manipulating negative space than many artists of the time, for example. But compared to other classic comic book artists — like, say, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino or George Pérez — who had more obvious landmark creations and artistic innovations, Byrne's legacy is a bit more intangible.
But that probably speaks to the type of artist that he was. He was a workhorse. Byrne was the type of artist who will be remembered for his sheer volume of work and the impressively consistent level of quality he maintained. Of course, rebooting Superman in The Man of Steel and drawing "The Dark Phoenix Saga" will always be considered high-water marks, but given the test of time, I don't think Byrne will be remembered for doing any specific thing but rather for doing pretty much everything ... and doing it well.
Now, in honor of Byrne's 67th birthday, we're looking back at 13 of his most iconic and innovative covers, and true to the spirit of the artist, this includes a little bit of everything. But since the writer-artist had such a huge body of work, we're sure to have missed a few big ones, so wish Byrne a happy birthday by telling us your favorite covers and stories of his in the comments below.
ALPHA FLIGHT #1
Byrne was born in Britain before moving to Canada and then the U.S., and he got to show off his love of the Great White North with his more treasured creation, the Canadian superteam Alpha Flight! Byrne churned out a number of great covers for his long run on the book, but you simply can't beat the joyfully defiant attitude that oozes from the first issue as the new heroes shove their way through a crowd of Marvel mainstays and into the spotlight.
ACTION COMICS #600
John Byrne was a big part of Superman's 50th-anniversary celebration (we'll get back to that with another cover in a moment), and for this cover he was inked by an artist who was just as successful drawing Wonder Woman as Byrne was at Superman: George Pérez. This was actually the "B" cover for this issue, but it's way better than the main one, as Supes plants one of the most seismic smooches ever on the princess of the Amazons. Appropriately stunning for such a big moment for both characters.
DARK HORSE PRESENTS #57
Byrne's most well-known work outside of Marvel and DC is definitely Next Men, his creator-owned series which debuted in 1991 in the pages of the Dark Horse Presents anthology. The cover is an homage — a technique used fairly often — to the first cover of Marvel's Daredevil, and it works well as an updated take on the paneled format, despite being kind of charmingly hokey.
FANTASTIC FOUR #220
It was really hard to narrow down Byrne's best covers from his extensive Fantastic Four run, because there are a lot of great ones. This one stands out to me for how immediately and effectively it tells a story using simple visual tools. The monotone red and heavy shadows really make the cover pop and would have looked very different from any comics it would be competing with on the spinner racks. Byrne also sells it with the little details, from the slight tilt of the shot, to Johnny bracing himself, to the worried gaze of Sue looking at something the other three are missing, all adding to the unseen peril Marvel's First Family find themselves in.
UNCANNY X-MEN #141
This cover isn't just an iconic John Byrne cover, it's flat-out one of the most iconic covers ever. It's certainly at least in the Top 5 for "Most Parodied Covers." It's another example of Byrne's efficient storytelling and composition, creating tension through the implications of the scene, and also between the rectangular shapes of the background and the circular spotlight. They just don't make covers like this anymore … possibly because they've all been hunted down and slain.
DARKSEID VS. GALACTUS: THE HUNGER
There were a number of DC vs. Marvel crossovers in the 1990s — Byrne also did a Batman/Captain America graphic novel — but this feels like the only one that truly matters, because it's the biggest and the Kirby-est. Byrne flexes his Kirby muscles hard for this cover, paying tribute to an artist who clearly had a huge influence on him, and delivering some great renditions of some of the most powerful concepts Kirby ever produced.
SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK #1
Breaking the fourth wall wasn't invented by Deadpool. She-Hulk was doing it way before it was cool. This is a strikingly simple but really funny cover, especially when you consider that some of those X-Men comics she's threatening to destroy were probably drawn by John Byrne, too!
TIME MAGAZINE, MARCH 14, 1988
Hey, I said great covers -- I didn't say they had to be comic book covers! Apparently Byrne wasn't too happy with this experience, but it still turned out to be really iconic image. The lettering and writing are goofy, but the way it breaks the frame is perfectly comic-booky, and almost makes the piece evocative of a Lichtenstein painting, but in a way that reclaims the imagery and makes it into more meaningful pop art. And besides, how many comic book artists get to illustrate the cover of TIME?
FANTASTIC FOUR #256
This is my personal favorite Fantastic Four cover of Byrne's. As I mentioned in the intro, Byrne makes great use of negative space, and he does it here with the ruler of the Negative Zone. The empty background makes Annihilus jump right off the cover, and filling him with a star field is a great way to imply the unexplored multitudes that exist within the villain. It's colorful, imaginative and memorable.
UNCANNY X-MEN #135
The Dark Phoenix Saga was a defining moment for the X-Men and for John Byrne. This cover is one of his more simple compositions, but it's the reaching out and crushing the logo that seals it as an instant classic. I also really enjoy the use of the speedlines here, because it foreshadows the same technique on the TIME cover, although with a completely different effect.
CAPTAIN AMERICA #250
This is a cover that seems to pop up again every election cycle, but I'm not complaining. This is a deceptively clever approach. While a lesser artist might have had a scene of Cap giving a speech or declaring his candidacy to the reader, Byrne instead takes the character — who is basically walking propaganda — and puts him on a piece of propaganda. Second only to Watchmen #1 as far as button-related comic book covers go.
FANTASTIC FOUR #258
Finally, Doom has achieved his goal of destroying the Fantastic Four … comic book. This is yet another example of fourth-wall-breaking by Byrne, and this one is used to pretty incredible effect. The image you see beyond the shredded cover is actually the first page of the book, which is pretty great, and the reflection of the mask is a perfect touch.
THE MAN OF STEEL #1
Following the multiverse-redefining events of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, the publisher took the opportunity to retool and reinvigorate some of their biggest characters. And when it came time to reimagine Superman for a new age, they turned to John Byrne to get the job done. The cover is great as a singular image and is easily one of Superman's most recognizable covers, but it works especially well in the context of a new version of Superman being "revealed" for the first time.