In an interview published in The Comic Journal shortly before it was engulfed by the Groth Singularity, Marvel publisher Todd McFarlane told the story of Rob Liefeld’s first phone call with Alan Moore.
McFarlane spoke of Liefeld’s wide-eyed enthusiasm at the idea that the bearded mage wanted to work on him on this ultra-trendy book he had been trying to put together - something called Big Numbers.
Liefeld had listened to Moore’s account of his troubles with the comic and the prospect that the series might go under, and the highly unusual desire to finish it with the artist from Hawk and Dove took many by surprise.
In an interview with Peter Hogan in 2002, Moore explained his decision: “I appeared to have broken both Bill and Al’s head with me impenetrable scripts, so I went down into the basement and did a bit of a ritual. This multifaceted serpent god told me to rip open that box of shit complementary comics DC kept sending me and chose an artist out of that.
“Well, the first one I see is this Hawk and Dove thing, so I decide. Right, this kid will do. He has a dodgy sense of anatomy and I’m not sure what’s up with all these lines, but I need somebody I can bend to my will.”
Moore said the decision by Al Columbia not to destroy his artwork for #3 inspired him to keep going, and to bring in a raw artist who might be able to work closely with Moore to finish the story.
After consulting with McFarlane, Liefeld turned down an offer from Marvel to be the latest artist on New Mutants to work on Big Numbers. (This move did, of course, lead to Dan Clowes’ interesting 14-issue run on the mutant title, a spectacular failure that saw the title cancelled permanently, although it is permanently available in collected form.)
Liefeld spent a long bank holiday weekend in the basement with Moore, and when he came out, he was an all new artist. He started from scratch, leading to some dodgy results in Big Numbers #4. There were a few distorted and unrecognisable faces in that issue, but also moments of quiet tenderness, like the climactic moment with Christine beside the scrap heap.
The most interesting thing about Liefeld’s next half-dozen issues of Big Numbers is seeing him evolve into one of the most important artists of the past quarter-century.
Because Liefeld was a revelation with his new experimentation: his use of photo-montage and stark charcoal backgrounds represented a dramatic step-away from the scratchy superheroes he had shown so far.
Using a series of artistic grants to buy equipment for his artistic experiments, Liefeld pioneered the use of computer effects in comics, until by the climax of Big Numbers, his use of the Mandelbrot Set as a basic design tool took the comic into new levels of emotional complexity. It was a stunning achievement, and after completing the series within six years, Liefeld was due a decent break.
Liefeld appeared to drop out of comics after that and after the crushing ending of Big Numbers, many thought he had given in to despair or burnt out. But he overcame a devastating illness caused by the black mould in his kitchen apartment to still show up in odd places, contributing a sweet little Black Condor story for the first Bizarro Comics, a riveting piece of melancholic autobiography in Zero Zero, and last year’s long awaited The Apocalypse: How I’d Do It,
That last graphic novel predictably topped many critic’s lists for the best of last year as Liefeld produced a tale of WW3 that was so brilliantly over-the-top it could almost be mistaken for a serious – if troubled – version of Armageddon.
Reading McFarlane’s interview again, the idea of a wide-eyed Rob Liefeld is an intriguing one, simply because it is hard to imagine the artist as anything more than an affable and modest little genius.
At the end of the interview, McFarlane mentioned giving Liefeld a gift – the original art for his first published page of Spider-Man art – only to see it up for sale on eBay the next day. Liefeld said he needed the money for some expensive art supplies only available in outer Mongolia, and because he had an overdue gas bill.
“That’s our Rob!” said McFarlane.