A reader linked me an article about Rob Liefeld following my plea for a really good “Deadpool” movie instead of the mainstream generic and lackluster flick we’ll probably get. I must first admit my ignorance. I am only now getting to the point where I pay attention to who writes or draws particular comics. This is out of necessity; writers and artists are more consistent than titles. But I am still learning the names and portfolios. However, I do have the interwebs, so after a bit of time researching, I think I can form a coherent and defensible opinion. I’ll say this -when I realized who Rob Liefeld was, my reaction was, “Oh, it’s that guy!”
Rob Liefeld is an artist who hit the scene, as far as I remember, in the 1990s with X-Force. The 1990s is often called the “Dark Age of Comics” because everything was given an extreme dose of Darkier and Edgier and then the whole thing was cranked up past 11 and the amp blew out, if you follow my metaphor. Heroes were re-imagined as gritty anti-heroes (except for Wolverine, who already was a gritty anti-hero by that time). Sometimes this worked very well, and sometimes it didn’t. At it’s best, the Dark Age produced works like “The Killing Joke,” the Hellboy comics, and the “Age of Apocalypse” storyline (although that could be argued to be a deconstruction of the Dark Age since everything went as badly as you expect if Apocalypse took over the world). And at it’s worse, well, the artwork and storylines were about as subtle as a kick to the face with a spiked boot. This was also the era that propelled Wolverine into his status of Marvel’s favorite mutant. Anti-heroes were so popular Lobo was introduced as a parody of an anti-hero, except, well, it seems a lot of people missed the parody aspect. Even all the names were Darkier and Edgier and usually involved combinations of the words “death,” “blood,” “dark” and often misspelled in cool ways (I’m 90% certain there was a character named “Deathblood”).
So, anyway, here comes Darkier and Edgier and more sex and violence and all that kind of stuff. Liefeld was an artist and he sold a whole lot of comics. He, like many comic book artists, took quite a few liberties on human anatomy, and in a change of pace from the usual, his skewed proportions were equally as obvious on the male characters as the female characters. In the early works, his male characters were literally as broad as they were tall. There were more muscles than can reasonably fit on a human body bulging under their costumes. To balance the sexes, as it were, he utilized the “boobs and butt” pose in which women managed to have their boobs and butt point roughly in the same direction (i.e., at the viewer) without some sort of horrible spinal cord injury and in defiance of all rules of anatomy. He helped introduce the world to Cable and Deadpool and Shatterstar (who is currently in X-Factor looking a whole lot like Longshot instead of Strong Guy in build).
His work could be summed up as: X-TREME!!!! (It helps if you imagine this screamed by a Mountain Dew spokesman jumping out of a helicopter onto a mountain top with a snowboard) There was action and guns and muscles and pouches and boobs and more action and men screaming and pouches and women screaming and more action!!! I don’t think extremes are necessarily bad. In any media, artists push boundaries. Sometimes they go too far and sometimes the art produced is not good. However, it is useful to learn what boundaries are good to keep and what boundaries need to be exceeded. Liefeld’s work certainly had style and artistic flare and drama. There was no mistakening a Liefeld character for anyone else. Despite justified criticism, he was so successful soon there were a legion of imitators. And he’s still drawing comics. Check out these two helpful links (yes, the links state these are his worst drawings but honestly they are pretty representative of his artwork over all).
Now, the particular link the helpful reader sent me was a discussion on whether or not Rob Liefeld is as influential as the legendary Jack Kirby. But here’s a crucial point I believe that article missed – is influential necessarily good? That is, can someone be an influential artist but be a bad artist? I’m not shy about saying when I think someone is a good or bad writer or a good or bad artist. For example, Stan Lee. Oh Stan Stan Stan. He had good ideas and was excellent at marketing, but he was and is a pretty awful writer. Everything he ever put in his character’s mouths was over the top Silver Age. Luckily he had Jack Kirby and other talented people to try to temper his tendencies. Yes, Kirby did not only illustrate the early Marvel comics, he helped write the stories and develop the characters that endure even now and are in fact their flagship books. Kirby’s work is so definite that his style of drawing the advanced worlds of DC’s New Genesis and Apokalips is often referred to as “Kirby-tech.”
So, to my dear reader, here is my assessment. Rob Liefeld is certainly influential, and I will agree with the writers of the article that Liefeld is enthusiastic about his work, but he is no Jack Kirby. Fundamentally, Kirby is a technically good artist. That is, he understood proportion, perspective, the human figure, landscapes, and mastered it well enough to modify those basics to something different (i.e., modifying a human figure to be the Thing, or a cityscape to be New Genesis). Kirby’s character design and direction has endured, especially as seen in DC’s new gods. In short, Jack Kirby is God in Marvel. Literally. When the Thing died and the FF went to retrieve him from Heaven, they had to convince God to let Thing go back to Earth. God agreed, although he did make Thing back to his angsty rocky self. God was drawn to look exactly like Jack Kirby. That is how influential and awesome Jack Kirby is. The characters he influenced founded the entire Marvel universe and generations of artists.
Is Liefeld emblematic of the 90s gritty anti-hero style? Yes. But herein lies the problem of “influential” does not necessarily equal “good.” The haters’ criticism is not unjustified. Liefeld is a technically poor artist. His work shows a lack of understanding of the basic techniques of proportion and perspective, which has not improved in the course of his career. This is not artistic license; he is objectively bad at the technical aspects of drawing. If you want to see why he has haters, well, just type “Rob Liefeld drawings” into your favorite search engine. The top hits (at least for me) were specifically the worst drawings. You can ignore the comments, but the drawings speak for themselves. He’s the comic book artist version of director Michael Bay. Bay is famous for movies where stuff blows up and blows up LOUD while plot and character development are secondary to the explosions. Liefeld’s artwork and books he helms tend to be much the same. Is that objectively bad? No, not if that’s what you want out of your comics (or movies). I won’t refute Bay’s influence, but I also won’t say that he’s a good director. In short, if you want a comic that’s full of Action! Adventure! Guns! Muscles! Swords! Pouches! Boobs! Guns again! with a certain indifference to technical quality, plot, and character (and probably called “Dethblud: Guns and Muscles!”), Liefeld is your go-to guy. Influential – yes. Influential as Kirby – jury is still out (Liefeld’s still working). Good – not really.