Writer/artist John Byrne was my favorite in my halcyon collecting days. I would buy anything with his name on it. I especially enjoyed his work on Namor, Superman: The Man of Steel, Fantastic Four, and the few X-Men issues I had (they were always expensive and hard-to-find).
In 1991 Byrne jumped into the "creator-owned" arena with Next Men, a multi-layered sci-fi superhero epic from Dark Horse comics. The draw, besides Byrne's usually excellent art and writing, was a "Mature Readers" tag that freed the book up from the Comics Code Authority constraints. So, if Byrne wanted to show two characters having sex or a bullet going through a brain, he did. If he wanted to throw a "shit" or "bitch" into the dialogue, he did.
The Next Men were Danny, Jack, Nathan, Jasmine, and Bethany, the subjects of a genetic engineering project. Nurtured since childbirth in a virtual dreamworld, the 5 are abruptly brought into the real world when the project is aborted. Of course they wake up with powers beyond those of mortal men (one astute reader pointed out in the letter column that they have the powers of Superman divided: Jack has his strength, Bethany his invulnerability, Danny his speed, and Nathan his vision; Jasmine's agility throws the theory off a bit). What would usually follow is that the five would put on costumes, form a team and fight evil, but Byrne takes the story in a completely different direction.
It's clear at the time that Byrne was interested in playing around in the superhero genre without fully committing to its tropes. But he did tease us now an again, like in issue 16, where the 5 offer themselves to Dollar Comics and get costumes that could have come right out of a million-selling Image book of the time (more on that later). Or witness the Power arc (issues 23 - 26) where Byrne really lets his freak flag fly via Sandy, a Dollar Comics employee who who has gained the power of mental creation. There are appearances by comic creators Art Adams and Mike Mignola, Hellboy, Concrete, Monkeyman and O'Brien, and Marv from Sin City. That's in addition to over-the-top Dollar Comics creations like Action Maxx and Dr. Trogg. Even Byrne himself shows up, being bullied by the latter.
But mostly this is a sci-fi story. The Next Men tend to wear real clothes, and in only one arc (Parallel) do they go on anything resembling a "mission." Mostly they're just running away or being captured, barely using their powers at all (Danny, Jasmine, and Nathan especially).
On re-reading it as one big chunk, some interesting things came to light. You see, John Byrne's Next Men came out of a 1991 graphic novel also published by Dark Horse, called 2112. That's the tale of a future world where a team of highly-trained soldiers take on an evil despot called Sathanus. At the end of the story Sathanus seemingly blows himself up. What we find out early on in JBNM is that Sathanus has in fact sent himself back to 1955 and befriended ambitious politician Aldus Hilltop. The pair in turn are the backers of the Next Men project.
Without giving too much away, issue #30 provides a sort of Mobius strip ending to the story started in 2112. Thus one could argue that these 32 comics are really Sathanus' story. It's just like how we found out after the fact that the Star Wars saga was really about Darth Vader.
One of the most enjoyable parts of re-reading the individual issues was reading the letter column. Byrne chose and responded to the letters himself, which gave a rare glimpse into his personality. You see, in the pre-Internet days what we knew about a comic book artist or writer was limited to very few sources, many of them second-hand. So to hear so much from the horse's mouth was rare. At the time I didn't I know that Byrne was somewhat of a controversial figure in the comics world.
In his choices of and responses to letters, he lived up to that reputation, sounding off about abortion, gay rights, his reputation, and many other topics. He's an intelligent and blunt fellow, and unafraid to state his opinion. He's got a persecution complex. He can be self-deprecating, but humility is not one of his strong points. For example, his elegy for Jack Kirby begins with a two paragraph anecdote wherein his art dealer tolk him "you're the King now." Byrne's ultimate point in the article is that Jack Kirby was one-of-a-kind and that there'll never be another King of Comics, but Byrne couldn't resist a little self-promotion along the way.
However, the most intriguing aspect of the letters page is how it documents the trends of the industry at the time. Byrne rails against gimmick covers (multiple cover images for the same book, trading card inclusion, holographic covers, etc), swiping, speculation, and Image Comics. While there was a lot to complain about there (books didn't come out on schedule, many of the characters were ridiculous, the stories were sub-par), Byrne's main complaint was a justifiable one. Namely, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. That pretty much came true.
Though Byrne repeatedly said that he had plans for the book up to issue #50, JBNM ended at #30. It was abrupt ending to the series, mainly because it happened without warning. Many times letter columns will reveal a few issues ahead of time that a series is coming to a close, but not this one. Maybe that's because it wasn't originally intended to be an ending point. In his letter column farewell, Byrne was unspecific, saying only that he had spent 3 years with the characters and needed a break. He guessed that the break would probably only be months long, yet here it is 14 years later, and we've not seen another new Next Men comic (though IDW has released The Compleat Next Men, two "phone book" volumes reprinting all the original comics in black and white).
Byrne has said he would like to bring back JBNM as long as it won't be a vanity project. To me that means he wants it to sell well enough to justify the time spent to create it and the money spent to market and publish it. But I think there's something more than that. Though issue #30 ended with Danny, Bethany, Nathan, and Jasmine being sent to the past (there's even a NEXT! cover image of an issue that doesn't exist), there's not much else we're left wondering about. Most lingering plot points from the series were wrapped up in issue #30. No doubt Byrne could have found many more interesting adventures for these characters, but I think looking back he realized that he'd already told the story he wanted to tell.
Sounds strange, but I enjoyed this series enough that I hope Byrne never goes back to it.