Review by Ian Keogh
The Next Men are a group of teenagers genetically engineered to provide super powers in a facility run by a corrupt senator. They escaped their planned execution in Book One, over a fraught 24 hours, ending up under the auspices of a secretive government agency who seem to have their best interests at heart. Parallel opens six months later with John Byrne smartly running through both the positives and the negatives of powers equating to super strength, super speed, invulnerability, x-ray vision and incredible gymnastic athleticism. Danny, Sprint, sees himself and his friends as superheroes, not a view they all share, but they’re prepared to help when asked to help the Russians who’ve used portions of stolen technology to create their own equivalents of the Next Men.
Byrne’s method of storytelling is novel. The Next Men are the title characters, but for much of Parallel they’re almost bit players, as events surrounding them take a greater precedence. Byrne’s already established a fine real world style villain in Aldus Hilltop, manipulative, amoral, with a great secret in his basement, and now American Vice-President, and the real world politics of the time informs the content. So does real life oppression. In his introduction to the first collection Byrne noted how new characters and the removal of company restrictions enabled him to explore topics off limits with established characters, and domestic abuse features in Parallel. It’s graphic, shocking and brutal, and that also applies to some of the superhero content. More explicit content isn’t always responsibly presented in comics, yet here it has a purpose, and isn’t Byrne over-indulging in freedom. A downside is that Byrne plotted Next Men at a time before serialised comics combined as graphic novels was automatic, and the repackaging results in some awkwardly hanging plots.
Byrne’s art has a graphic sense of design, very cinematic in telling his story, and Matt Webb’s colouring for Parallel is extremely effective. As Byrne handles everything else it’s presumably under his direction that for much of the book the colouring is washed out, with pallid colours spotted over what’s otherwise black and white art. It stands out still, especially when the vibrancy of traditional comics colouring kicks back in.
Real world political tensions ensure Next Men remains darker than most of Byrne’s superhero comics, and there’s barely a point over six chapters where his plot becomes predictable. In broader terms much of what’s presented draws on Marvel’s style, but Byrne’s always been good at twisting the familiar and Parallel remains an engaging read.
This is now more readily available combined with the following Fame as volume two of Classic Next Men, which is not only more recent, but it includes Byrne’s short ‘M4’ back-up strips eventually seguing into the main feature, yet absent here. They’re also included in black and white spread over the first and second volumes of Compleat Next Men. If you’d prefer a luxury item, this story is split over volumes one and two of The Premier Collection hardcovers.