Early life and career
Byrne was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, and raised in West Bromwich, also in Staffordshire, where he lived with his parents (Frank and Nelsie) and his maternal grandmother. While living there, prior to his family emigrating to Canada when Byrne was 8, he was first exposed to comics, saying in 2005,
[M]y 'journey into comics' began with [star] George Reeves' [Adventures of] Superman series being shown on the BBC in England when I was about 6 years old. Not long after I started watching that series I saw one of the hardcover, black and white 'Annuals' that were being published over there at the time, and soon after found a copy of an Australian reprint called Super Comics that featured a story each of Superboy, Johnny Quick and Batman. The Batman story hooked me for life. A couple of years later my family emigrated to Canada (for the second time, no less!) and I discovered the vast array of American comics available at the time.
His first encounter with Marvel Comics was in 1962 with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four #5. He later commented that "the book had an 'edge' like nothing DC was putting out at the time". Jack Kirby's work in particular had a strong influence on Byrne and he has worked with many of the characters Kirby created or co-created. Besides Kirby, Byrne was influenced by the naturalistic style of Neal Adams.
In 1970, Byrne enrolled at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. He created the superhero parody Gay Guy for the college newspaper, which poked fun at the campus stereotype of homosexuality among art students. Gay Guy is notable for featuring a prototype of the Alpha Flight character Snowbird. While there, he published his first comic book, ACA Comix #1, featuring "The Death's Head Knight".
Byrne left the college in 1973 without graduating. He broke into comics with a "Fan Art Gallery" piece in Marvel's promotional publication FOOM in early 1974 and by illustrating a two-page story by writer Al Hewetson in Skywald Publications' black-and-white horror magazine Nightmare #20 (Aug. 1974). He then began freelancing for Charlton Comics, making his color-comics debut with the E-Man backup feature "Rog-2000", starring a robot character he'd created in the mid-1970s that colleagues Roger Stern and Bob Layton named and began using for spot illustrations in their fanzine CPL (Contemporary Pictorial Literature). A Rog-2000 story written by Stern, with art by Byrne and Layton, had gotten the attention of Charlton Comics editor Nicola Cuti, who extended Byrne an invitation. Written by Cuti, "Rog-2000" became one of several alternating backup features in the Charlton Comics superhero series E-Man, starting with the eight-page "That Was No Lady" in issue #6 (Jan. 1975). While that was Byrne's first published color-comics work, "My first professional comic book sale was to Marvel, a short story called Dark Asylum' ... which languished in a flat file somewhere until it was used as filler in Giant-Size Dracula #5 [(June 1975)], long after the first Rog story." The story was plotted by Tony Isabella and written by David Anthony Kraft.
After the Rog-2000 story, Byrne went on to work on the Charlton books Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, Space: 1999, and Emergency!, and co-created with writer Joe Gill the post-apocalyptic science-fiction series Doomsday + 1. Byrne additionally drew a cover for the supernatural anthology The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves #54 (Dec. 1975).