Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rob Liefeld and his silent murderings

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.


Colin Smith said...

Top article, sir, and absolutely right to nail how Image destroyed the idea that creative independence would of itself produce better work.

Liefeld himself has remained securely in the "non-person" category for me since the article - I believe in Wizard - a few years back where he insulted Alan Moore for being as obsessed with money as the rest of us because he'd insisted on being paid for his work on Supreme and the other books published by Liefeld's company.

The utter contempt for another creator's right in that comment just put whatever residual fondness, or even pity, I might have had for him quite under the water. Indeed, the idea that Alan Moore could be laughed at for wanting to be paid, and could be considered as a consequence of that to be a lesser artist because he was concerned to get what he'd been apparently promised, showed such ignorance .... ach, either he was misquoted, or I've misremembered, or it's good riddence.

Still, great article. Wouldn't have riffed off of it if I hadn't enjoyed it!

Nik said...

I didn't like Liefeld even at the time (McFarlane was good for me for a while until he disappeared up Spawn's arse), but it's interesting to see how much rage there is about him still. Is he even relevant? Good point about the promise and the failure of Image though. What a waste too much of it turned out to be, and the comics market has never really recovered from the speculation boilover of the 1990s either.

DeBT said...

Something that I find very telling when you consider the origin of Image. It was originally founded by artists who were tired of producing the same old S-hero tripe the companies were asking for. So they went out and formed their own company whose mandate was to create comics that were truly worthy of their skills. So what did they do? They went out and produced second-rate S-hero comics - only with more blood, guts & guns involved.

Whereas in Europe, the same situation applied, where a bunch of cartoonists were disastified with the current crop of BD comics and wanted to produce something substantial. So they formed their own group named L'Association. And what did they produce?

Well, I only really know of two artists from that group that've arrived at our shores, particularly David B's Epileptic and anything that Trondheim's done, such as the Dungeon series. They also influenced other artists such as Marjane Satrapi who went to produce Persepolis.

If the Direct Market didn't only cater to the S-hero crowd, it makes you wonder what direction Image could've taken back then. Nowadays, it seems like they've corrected their original intent, but the stink of their creation still sticks with them.

DeBT said...

I mean their foundation, not creation.

Romanticide said...

Is a sad conclusion... but truth hurts.
I wasn't in comics when the bubble burst but I do remember taking a lot more time to read north american comics because I thought the art was horrible. And now that I am older I can realize many of those titles I didn't even want to look were either from the 90's or influeced... I wonder sometimes, did that art also drew away other potential readers?

Nik said...

The 1990s was the closest I've ever come to giving up comics entirely since my habit kicked off in 1982. The awesome indie scene of the time (regular Hate, Eightball, Naughty Bits, and more!) was about all that kept me going.

Bob Temuka said...

Man, I could never give up comics entirely. That would be like giving up a foot. Or chocolate. And I fucking love chocolate.

That's a bloody good point about L'Association, but I didn't want to make it a Europe vs USA thing. There have certainly been a bunch of American examples of artist collectives that have produced brilliant work, but none of them had the sheer power that Rob and the other boys had at one point.