Saturday, January 14, 2012

Wrong About Liefeld

Note: The first draft of this essay was written before the announcement of the cancellation of Hawk & Dove.  The following may be read, in part, as a kind of tribute to that series.

Cover art from Hawk & Dove #1

There is no comic book artist working right now whose work I am more excited about than that of Rob Liefeld.  It's not that I think he's the best artist, or even that the comics he's producing now are the best things he's ever done.  Rather, the (very good) work Liefeld is producing now, on the series Hawk & Dove and The Infinite, have caused me to re-evaluate my opinion of him, and to take another look at the older work for which he became famous in the early nineties.  For years, I, like many others, had dismissed Liefeld as a talentless hack, but I have reversed that opinion, and want to explain why I now consider Rob Liefeld to be one of my absolute favorite mainstream comic book artists.

X-Force #1.  Most of the characters pictured here were created by Liefeld during his run on New Mutants.

While I was just the right age to have appreciated it when it debuted in 1992, I was never a big fan of X-Force, Liefeld's phenomenally popular Marvel Comics series spun out of his run on New Mutants.  My favorite comic book series at that time was Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan's run on Fantastic Four, which was quite different in style and tone than the sort of work Liefeld was doing.  All of my friends loved X-Force, though (maybe I was just trying to be a nonconformist?), and when Liefeld announced he was leaving Marvel to form Image Comics and release his creator owned series Youngblood, I jumped on the bandwagon and enthusiastically purchased the first issue.  I remember pouring over the artwork, soaking in all of the details, although the story I remember as being mostly nonsensical.  As I remember it, it wasn't long after the debut of Youngblood and Image that Liefeld's books began to be hampered by absurd delays in publication, and Liefeld's popularity among comics fans began to dim.  I don't believe he was ever a favorite of critics.  In 1996, Marvel invited Liefeld and Jim Lee to take over some of their characters in the "Heroes Reborn" initiative.  Liefeld had a short run on Captain America, where he reimagined the character and created a female version of Cap's sidekick, Bucky, before being fired by Marvel.  I bought those Captain America comics, too, and liked them well enough at the time.  Mostly, I held the opinion of most comics fans, that Liefeld was an artist with very little talent, whose early success was undeserved and responsible for much that was wrong with mainstream comics in the

The master gives his blessing. Variant cover art by Liefeld from Uncanny X-Force, a new series based on Liefeld's original concept that has become a fan favorite.

I didn't pay too much attention to Liefeld in the years since, with the exception of the work he did with Alan Moore for Liefeld's Awesome Comics on books like Supreme in the late nineties, although Liefeld was not the primary artist on that book.  When DC Comics announced earlier this year that they would be relaunching all of their titles with new number one issues, I was surprised to see Rob Liefeld was to be the artist on a new Hawk & Dove series that would debut as part of the new line of highly publicized comics.  I decided to give the book a shot.  There was something amusing to me about a new Rob Liefeld book, and while I genuinely wanted to enjoy it, I think I had something of a condescending attitude going in.  The new Hawk & Dove series is written by Sterling Gates (although Liefeld is supposed to take over the writing with issue six) and is an entertaining, somewhat silly superhero comic.  Liefeld's artwork is more streamlined than it was during the X-Force/Youngblood era, but his distinctive style comes through loud and clear, although I don't know that the stories always play to his strengths.

The Infinite

I enjoyed Hawk & Dove enough to check out The Infinite, a new Image Comics series written by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and drawn by Liefeld.  I love The Infinite.  It is a tightly written story about a time traveller who travels back into the past to recruit his younger self in a war against a group of villains who have infiltrated the U.S. government.  Liefeld co-created the series and is, I believe, primarily responsible for the look of the characters.  I really like this book because I feel as though Kirkman is really pushing Rob Liefeld to "be Rob Liefeld."  The Infinite, unlike Hawk & Dove, definitely plays to Liefeld's strengths, with a larger cast of wonderfully designed characters, lots of big guns and big gear, and plenty of high octane action.  A great series that evokes the best of nineties superhero comics without seeming at all retro.

As much as I like the new work, I've been enjoying Liefeld's early work even more, via recently published collected editions of his work on New Mutants and X-Force.  Marvel has released Liefeld's entire runs on those books in a series of "premiere edition" hardcovers.  Liefeld's X-Force stuff, very little of which I'd actually ever sat down and read, is an absolute blast.  Fabian Nicieza provides scripts, but these are unquestionably Liefeld's comics, as he introduces a staggering amount of brand new characters into the pages of New Mutants before the whole series is relaunched as the hyper-macho, ultra violent X-Force.  These stories feature Cable, Liefeld's greatest creation, a grizzled cyborg mercenary (yeah, guys, I know he's not really a cyborg but that's what he appears to be in these early issues) with a seemingly endless supply of lethal weaponry, and a mysterious past that is never fully explored during Liefeld's time on the book.

Cable.  Liefeld's greatest creation.

Cable is kind of the ultimate Liefeld character, as he represents a lot of the tropes Liefeld would become associated with.  First of all, the guy is huge, with absurdly exaggerated musculature that conveys an overwhelming sense of masculine power.  The classic male power fantasy on steroids, as it were.  Big guns, gear, and shoulder pads bulk up this already considerably bulky character.  Even the fact that his power and origins are so vaguely defined is typical of Liefeld, who is usually too busy introducing new characters into the pages of his comics to fully explore their abilities and origins.  I realize many see this as a detrimental quality of Liefeld's work, but I admire his restless creativity.  Especially during this era, Liefeld was a young creator always looking towards the next thing.  Liefeld created a large cast of characters in X-Force, many of whom are still in play today at Marvel as some of their most popular characters.  Not many writers and artists who worked after the time that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko created the Marvel Universe and almost all of the Marvel characters, can make that sort of a claim.  The look of Liefeld's comics was hugely influential, even more so than that of the other Image founders, and that style would define that decade of comics.  Yes, a lot of what came after Liefeld looked terrible, and the dark, ultraviolent stories would lead mainstream comics down a strange path from which they have still not fully recovered, but we shouldn't blame Liefeld for the excesses of those who were influenced by him.  Both as an archive of a specific era in mainstream comics histroy, and as terrific entertainments in their own right, Liefeld's X-Force comics are hugely entertaining and hold up remarkably well.

A cover from Liefeld's run on Captain America, featuring the female version of Cap's sidekick, Bucky.

The Youngblood material that Liefeld created immediately after X-Force was collected a couple of years ago in a somewhat unique form.  The first five issues were rescripted by comics writer Joe Casey to make for a better, more coherent reading experience (Liefeld himself has expressed disappointment in Hank Kanalz's scripts for the original comics).  Some sequences were also rearranged, and Liefeld and Casey provide a new ending for the comics collected in the hardcover Youngblood Volume 1, which also features brand new colors, an enthusiastic introduction by comics writer Mark Millar, and sample pages from an early version of Youngblood created by Liefeld in 1987 (Originally as an idea for a Teen Titans revival), plus other extras.  Folks, I loved this book.  Casey does a fine job crafting a new script that makes Liefeld's story much more coherent, albeit still rather unwieldy.  As in X-Force, Liefeld introduces a staggering amount of new characters here, effectively introducing us to three teams of superheroes and one team of supervillains in the first issue!  Youngblood also reads surprisingly modern, what with it's focus on celebrity superheroes in a media saturated world and conflicts in the Middle East.  Make no mistake, the social and political commentary does not run very deep, but it is still interesting to consider how forward thinking this comic book was.  Mark Millar suggests in his introduction that Youngblood presaged work like The Authority, and I think he's basically right about this.

Youngblood #1

What is it that I respond to so strongly in all of these works by Liefeld?  I love his enthusiasm and creativity, which is in evidence in all of the characters and concepts he created during the nineties, most of which are still going strong today.  Currently, Liefeld has recommitted himself to producing a larger body of work, pencilling two ongoing series, a rare feat these days but one to which Liefeld has thus far remained committed, with no noticeable drop off in the quality of the work.  I love that Liefeld is a creator with such a strong personal aesthetic.  Rob Liefeld comics always look like Rob Liefeld comics, but the fact that he has created and continues to create so many new characters and concepts keeps things fresh.  And, yes, I love the big guns, muscles, and gear.  I hope, especially in his work on The Infinite, he does not shy away from showcasing those tropes with which he has become most associated.  Let Liefeld be Liefeld!

Youngblood Volume 1 features a new script by Joe Casey and new colors.

I'm really only interested in discussing Liefeld as an artist.  Some of the criticisms levelled against him over the years are the result of accusations of morally questionable conduct in various business and publishing endeavors, particularly from around the time of his initial departure from Image Comics.  I don't really have much to say about anything that may or may not have been going on behind the scenes.  Some of the aesthetic criticisms of Liefeld's art I will address, however.  The most obvious criticism of Liefeld is his lack of drawing ability, particularly when it comes to human anatomy.  Much has been made about the fact that he can't draw feet.  It is also probably fair to say that backgrounds are not a strong suit.  I think it's kind of absurd for superhero comic book fans to criticize an artist for drawing his characters with exaggerated musculature.  Almost all superhero comics do this; it is a staple of the genre.  I suppose these critics feel that Liefeld goes too far with his hyper-muscled he-men, but it is that excess that I see as one of Liefeld's greatest strengths.  Liefeld takes the tropes of superhero comics to their logical extreme.  He goes all out with these absurdly exaggerated characters and weaponry, and to my eye the results look dynamic and thrilling.  If I were to offer a criticism of Liefeld, I would say that his current work holds back a bit too much for a more streamlined approach, whereas I would love a return to the over the top approach of the early nineties material.  Again, The Infinite seems to be leaning in that direction.

A couple of pretty sweet looking toys based on Rob Liefeld characters.

It is also fair to say that Liefeld is not a great writer.  He has said so himself, which makes me a little nervous about his upcoming stint as the writer of Hawk & Dove, but we'll see.  Liefeld's best work is always done in collaboration with a talented writer (Robert Kirkman, Joe Casey, Alan Moore), but even with a strong writer, Liefeld is almost always and very clearly the primary creative force behind his books.  He is a somewhat restless creative talent who relies on scripters to finesse his work into a readable form.  This is not really a criticism of Liefeld, just an observation of the limits of his creative abilities.  A similar observation could be made about Jack Kirby (who's work was also maligned by comics fans during a certain period of his career.  Actually, there are a lot of comparisons I could make between Kirby and Liefeld, but I won't push it). 

Cable and Deadpool

So, Rob Liefeld can't do everything, but what he can do is something few can.  Create comic books with a unique creative energy and power, comics that have lead to multiple still ongoing and hugely successful franchises.  I believe Rob Liefeld is actually one of a very few true comics visionaries.  What I mean by that is that he has a unique artistic approach to comics, one that helped define a decade of comics art, and which he continues to refine and develop today, as he recommits himself to the art form to which he has already given so much.  I regret the years I dismissed Liefeld and his work, but look forward to getting caught up on all that I missed, and anticipating what he'll do next.  I was wrong about Liefeld.


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