Not everything I’m reading this summer is drop-dead serious literature. John Byrne’s Compleat Next Men Vol. 1 is a telephone-book-sized compendium of the writer/artist’s Next Men series from the 1990s. I have all those issues — bought ‘em one at a time as they were released — but I’m still thrilled to see them collected for ease of reading. The book approach also makes Byrne’s intention of creating an actual novel in comics more obvious, and reading them all in one gulp (OK, two big gulps over the last two days) made me aware of little continuity bits I missed by waiting four weeks between installments.
The Next Men are five young people who grew up in a virtual-reality environment dubbed the Greenery, pawns of a time-traveling super-baddie named Sathanas. When the five — Nathan, Bethany, Jack, Jasmine and Danny — wake up, they have to outrun shadowy government forces intent on terminating the project and their lives.
The sci-fi elements are derived from any number of other books, movies and comics, but Byrne gives them a fresh polish. His real achievement is creating a cast of characters the reader comes to care about and setting up a time-travel conundrum that rivals most anything presented in any medium. The series has been quietly influential, too. When I saw The Matrix, released several years after this series, I immediately thought of Byrne’s work. The character 355 from Brian Vaughan’s much-lauded (and deservedly so) series Y: The Last Man bears more than a passing resemblance to Next Men’s Tony Murcheson, and not only because of skin color.
Artistically, Byrne was at his peak on the series. The artwork in Compleat Next Men Vol. 1 is reproduced in black and white, which doesn’t dilute its impact. If anything, it gives a clearer view of Byrne’s linework and storytelling ability. The opening chapter — reprinted from the 2112 graphic novel that serves as a prequel to the series — looks a little muddy, but issues #0 through 12 are crystal clear. One minor caveat: This Next Men isn’t really “compleat” (to use the obsolete spelling favored by the book) — it’s missing the original covers. Maybe in Vol. II …?
John Byrne’s Compleat Next Men Vol. 1 is published by IDW Publishing Inc. It’s value priced at $19.99 for 436 pages and worth every cent. For even more savings, check out Amazon.com, which reduces the price to around $13. A steal. Grade: A