Nobody can hold a grudge quite like comic people, but it’s interesting to note that there really still is some genuine hatred of Rob Liefeld out there in the greater comic community. Any time he pops up in an interview or profile or message board post, he still manages to rile up people, even with the most innocuous of appearances.
A lot of it is nothing more than a real distaste for his dodgy anatomy and poor staging of characters, and it’s hard to argue with that, while his business practices and habit of announcing books that never showed up also didn’t win him any fans. Rob had the smugness of youth, a style that spawned endless imitators and was the most visible person in an extraordinarily successful comic company – how could anybody like him?
But for a while there, Liefeld really was one of the most popular artists in the industry. Twenty years on, it’s easy to forget the explosive impact of his run on New Mutants – which included the introduction of Cable and Deadpool – he single-handedly turned Marvel’s most mediocre mutant book into something genuinely fresh and exciting that kids started reading again.
Me, I had been driven off all of the X-books, mainly because I just didn’t have the money to buy them, shortly after the Inferno storyline, but soon came running back because I was 14 and the prime demographic for Rob’s style. I even stuck with X-Force for a year or so. The first issue of that lamentable series remains one of the best selling comics ever, despite its almost total lack of any artistic merit, and it’s still a weirdly modern comic, so eagerly did it piss on the legacy of John Romita’s Marvel.
Liefeld couldn’t match costumes or body shapes in every panel he drew, but he was still a breath of fresh air. I first saw him on the New Mutants annual that tied into the Atlantis Attacks series, and I remember genuinely enjoying his kinetic and crazy art, hoping for more.
Back when Marvel used to actually put a bit of effort into these things, New Mutants annuals of the mid-to-late eighties were awesome, with terrific Art Adams and Alan Davis art, but the regular New Mutants series drifted after Inferno and was hampered by fill-in artists and a bored Bret Blevins. Which was a real shame, because Blevins’ enthusiastic style had settled the comic for a while.
Then came Liefeld and the comic was new and shiny and interesting again, and using the power generated by Marvel’s top talents thinking for themselves, he used his position and following to produce Youngblood #1, which was bloody rubbish.
And it didn’t get any better – those issues of Brigade and Bloodstrike and those other terrible titles he put out quickly soured his name in comic circles. Wizard magazine stopped kissing his arse and started making fun of him, and by the late 90s, Liefeld sneering had become a frequent sight in comic shops all over the world. New internet communities beat his work with iron bars and left it crying in a ditch on the edge of town.
And they had a point – the comics Rob made at Image and Awesome and Extreme were largely execrable. There was the shining bit of brilliance, like Alan Moore’s sharply effective Supreme stories, but most of those comics now sit in quarter bins all over the place, hiding the good stuff in an avalanche of mediocrity.
Liefeld’s name still has some heat, especially with the recent bizarre explosion of interest in his Deadpool creation, but he has lost the vast majority of the popularity he once had. His recent Armageddon comics have alienated more of the obnoxiously agnostic section of comic reading, and people have long memories of broken promises and lacklustre results.
But if there is one reason to really criticise Rob Liefeld and his comics, it’s because they murdered the dream of artistic freedom in creative ownership.
What Image and Liefeld destroyed, more than anything else, was that artistic ideal of creative freedom – that if creators were given the opportunity to do their own work, it would result in better comics than ever before.
Up until Image made its debut, the likes of Dave Sim had been arguing this for years, and even tentatively approved of the new venture, only to see that ideal shrivel up and die.
There had been so much earnest discussion on the connection between intellectual freedom and storytelling quality, and when artists actually had the unprecedented power they had been denied for so long, they went on to create the same old shit.
In fact, it wasn’t just the same old shit, it was also the worst of the same old shit, regurgitating ideas, recycling concepts and falling victim to plain old laziness. All those long ‘80s nights in convention hotel rooms, creators blitzed on the minibar and discussing the concepts of creative freedom and what it really means, man. It often led to nothing more than a horrible hangover and a genuine dissatisfaction with the entire medium, but there was passion there in these long ago arguments.
Read comic magazines from the late eighties and it’s there in every article and interview – a genuine optimism that things are going to get better and that creator rights would lead to a new golden age of comics. Still high on the 1986 buzz and creator recognition in the real world, a bill of rights was produced and everybody that was interesting had something wonderful lined up.
Everybody knew that even with creative freedom to produce any damn thing the creator felt like, there was always still going to be genre trappings, but 1980s comics like Grendel and Zot and Nexus and a dozen others had shown that superheroes could still be done with love and care and create stories with genuine emotional resonance.
Image killed all those discussions stone dead. All that effort and all we got was Brigade #1. It would have been sad if it hadn’t been so absurd. The drive towards creator control had produced some of the finest comics the medium had ever seen, but also resulted in comics that were worse than worthless, doing incalculable damage to the industry as a whole as the speculator bubble built and burst.
The fact that many of the Image founders went on to produce their own studio sweatshops also didn’t help matters, but it was the comics themselves that put the dream of a new comic utopia, of creators unshackled by any burdens producing lovely work for a mainstream audience, down like a dying dog.
Comic magazines that have a mainstream focus have stopped talking about this kind of thing. In interviews with current creators, the only time the issue of creator rights comes up is when somebody like Mark Millar talk about getting more money from the studios for an original creation than anything he could produce for Marvel.
Of course, there are still some incredibly good creator-owned comics being produced every week, but the idea that the biggest comic company in the world – and Image got pretty damn close to that title early on its life – could support creator rights and produce good, thoughtful comics, is no longer an issue.
And that’s a bit of a shame. It’s too easy to hate Rob Leifeld because he can’t draw feet, or because his influence resulted in the ugliest comics known to man. I still have a fondness for Rob, but there is a part of me that genuinely blames him for the death of a noble idea, his actions and artwork pulling back the entire medium.