John Byrne is one of the most prolific artists in American comic book history, known for his work on such titles as Fantastic Four, Uncanny X-Men, She-Hulk spirit Superman. These books, especially in the latter two cases, defined the characters for years to come, with Byrne’s art being right up there with the works of George Perez and Curt Swan. Sadly, there’s one series of Byrne’s that’s far darker, receiving not even half of the recognition that it should.
Next Men was an independent series that Byrne created in the 1990s, and it combined his gorgeous art with a story that completely upended the superhero conventions that many expected of him. Featuring themes and concepts that even the “dark” comics of the era shied away from, Next Men deserves to be looked at in the same light as similar superhero deconstructions.
What Was John Byrne’s Next Men?
Originally running from 1991 to 1995, John Byrne’s Next Men was a series that truly achieved the level of darkness and depth that many comics of the era cloyingly attempted. More of a science fiction title than a true superhero book, Next Men was initially a Dark Horse title, though it reused concepts and designs that Byrne had planned to use at DC Comics for a book called Freaks. Instead tying into his original sci-fi graphic novel 2112Byrne created a world far darker and much less heroic than the one inhabited by his reinvention of Superman.
Next Men dealt with five teenagers named Jack, Jasmine, Nathan, Bethany and Danny, who are all unwitting creations of “Project: Next Men.” This experiment to create superhuman life had trained their consciousnesses in an artificial world, all while giving them actual abilities when they’ve awakened in the real world. Saved when the machinations of their creator Aldus Hilltop are revealed, the Next Men go on the run, becoming entangled in government conspiracies that even they’re not fully aware of.
The original series would later develop a backup story called Mark IV, which eventually coalesced with the main premise. Though the series was brought to an abrupt end at issue # 30, it would continue years later over at IDW Comics, with Byrne reprinting the original stories and picking up where the Next Men’s adventures had left off. Its initial ending was due to low sales amid the burst comic book speculator bubble, which sadly meant that the series never got the recognition that it deserved.
Next Men Was Byrne’s Version of Watchmen and Miracleman
Given that Byrne was a much more “traditional” comic book creator who had worked on such wholesome properties as Fantastic Four spirit Supermanit’s almost surprising that Next Men ended up the way that it did. The series ‘narrative was particularly dark and bleak, and not in the typical way that’ 90s comics were. Whereas books such as Spawn or the fare of Rob Liefeld may have seemed superficially mature, these titles typically lacked even the quality or themes of the normal Marvel and DC titles.
Next Men, on the other hand, tackled still taboo subjects such as abortion, child abuse, teen pregnancy and eugenics. Even the “superheroic” elements dealt with how the world would react to such beings, how they would impact and particularly endanger the average Joe and how they might be exploited by the world’s governments. Their superpowers are also dealt with in an incredibly realistic, heartbreaking way. Jack’s superstrength is uncontrollable outside his wearable harness, leaving him unable to maintain his physical relationship with Jasmine. Similarly, Bethany’s invulnerability makes her resistant to pain, heat and cold, but this also robs her of any sensation or pleasure related to touch. Even young Danny, who revels in his super speed, gains freakishly defined leg muscles because of it. Given the team’s powers (strength, invulnerability, agility, speed and vision abilities), it’s been pointed out by fans that each of the Next Men represents painfully realistic versions of Superman’s powers.
The similarities between Next Men and deconstructive works of Alan Moore such as Watchmen and especially Miracleman are pretty obvious. They all deal with the effect that superhumans and vigilantes would have on human society, especially if they’re part of government conspiracies. The exploration of sexuality is also rampant in all of them, making the Byrne book feel like a logical evolution of Moore’s work instead of simply aping it so many ’90s titles tried. Sadly, it is not really remembered, likely due to being overshadowed by the spectacle of the era. The lack of flashy art in the vein of Liefeld, McFarlane or Jim Lee probably did not help. Next Men can be found on Comixology, however, allowing those who want to read a bleaker take of Byrne’s Superman the chance to do so.
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