Hello. My name is Field, Lyle Field.
May 2012 saw the debut of the Second Wave of the New 52 titles from DC Comics — Earth 2, Worlds’ Finest, Batman Incorporated, etc. However, May 2012 also saw the debut of a new creator taking over three New 52 titles — Deathstroke, Grifter & Savage Hawkman — Rob Liefeld.
In DC Comics’ house ads throughout the May 2012 New 52 issues labelled Rob Liefeld as a superstar. Superstar? Is he a superstar? Liefeld’s New 52 Hawk & Dove series was one of the six New 52 titles that were cancelled mainly due to poor sales (less than 20,000 copies). He was rewarded by being given three other New 52 titles in hopes that he could turn around those titles that are also inching towards cancellation (based on their sales figures). Whether you love him or hate him (and there is no middle ground), it is hard to believe that Liefeld’s body of work spans nearly a quarter of a century.
I was challenged by friends and other pop culture enthusiasts to find that middle ground that is Rob Liefeld. This meant that I had to find what his good qualities are and recognize them. A challenge indeed.
In order to attempt to properly achieve this challenge, I need to put some historical connotation as it relates to Mr. Liefeld in perspective. Ironically, his beginnings were of the same characters whose New 52 series were recently cancelled — Hawk & Dove.
In the late spring of 1988, the five issue Hawk & Dove series debuted under the creative narrative minds of Karl Kesel and Barbara Kesel. They presented an enhanced version of the Hawk & Dove team (not rebooted ala Superman and Wonder Woman done in 1986) stemming from the Crisis on the Infinite Earths. Hawk & Dove was Rob Liefeld’s first mainstream work as the series penciller and inked by Karl Kesel. Hawk & Dove was a well-rounded decent mini-series that had very modest fanfare (but enough for an ongoing title starting in 1989) that allowed Liefeld to show and hone his art style before being hired by Marvel Comics soon after.
Liefeld’s Marvel Comics stint started in the late fall of 1988. He first guest-pencilled on X-Factor #40, which tied up loose ends from the Inferno (1988) saga, and a few months later on Uncanny X-Men #245, which focused on the boys’ night out and a parody on DC’s Invasion (1988) mini-series. Liefeld participated in two of the Atlantis Attacks chapters (Marvel’s 1989 Spring/Summer event that took place in all their Annuals) namely Amazing Spider-Man Annual #23 (where Spidey & the She-Hulk took on the Abomination) and New Mutants Annual #5.
It was Liefeld’s work on the New Mutants Annual #5 that got him promoted to being the penciller on the New Mutants title in the fall of 1989. It was during his New Mutants run that he experimented with a hyperkinetic artistic style and a restricted narrative approach where he would draw scenes of a double-page variety.
One of Liefeld’s first signature creations was Cable that was also followed up with another popular creation a year later of Deadpool. Eventually, he would create X-Force (actually this was the second version of X-Force as the first version was formed earlier in the pages of Cloak & Dagger in 1988 or was it 1989) that would end up selling 3.6 million copies of the first issue — thanks to a gimmick where you have to buy 5 issues of X-Force #1 in order to get the special trading card set. Even without the gimmick, the first issue probably would have originally sold between 750,000 to 1 million copies. The early 1990s was the era of the speculators in the comic book medium.
For Rob Liefeld, constructing heroes and villains was simple for him. He even went so far as to go through the dictionary to find hard-hitting words that would make a cool name for a character. Some of the new characters created just for X-Force had one word names such as Shatterstar, Feral and Domino. Even previously established characters had their name changed to something cooler such as the second Thunderbird who became Warpath.
All of Liefeld’s drawn characters would have everlasting teeth grinding scowls and intense eyes. His X-Force drawn characters would relentlessly be devoured by fury and angst as they pranced across absurdly unnaturally drawn terrain with heaving physiques and ‘roidal posturing. Good God! His trademark… the annoying, perplexing, and twisting of belts, pockets, clasps, and buckskin attire… for both the male and female characters.
Liefeld certainly has nascent artistic and even budding narrative talent, but it was wild and underdeveloped… but he is a sharp business man. Liefeld, along with Jim Lee, Todd Mcfarlane, Marc Silvestri and others, were tired of not getting more of the financial piece of the pie from Marvel Comics and with their popular name recognition they figured they can make even more money going off on their own. Hence Image Comics was born during the Christmas Season of 1991 with Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood #1 the first Image Comic to debut selling around 700,000 copies (the most for a non-DC and non-Marvel title). While it did not have substance, it certainly had a cool chic style to it when it debuted in the spring of 1992.
During the early to mid 1990s, Liefeld’s flair of passion and haughtiness ignited a generation of artists and some of these artists that have gone on to bigger and better things such as DC’s New 52 line or Marvel Comics’ upcoming Marvel NOW! line. Liefeld’s work focused on self-indulgence and retribution, which is still there in the current variety of titles across the comic book world spectrum but wrapped in other types of movements. Marvel’s 2006 Civil War event focused on safety/security over civil liberties. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run dwelled in to the current issues of social justice. Even with these core noble issues, Liefeld’s influence has appeared in those titles albeit in a very subtle and shrewd way that you cannot tell the difference… unless you really deconstruct a particular issue or series down to its baseline points.
Finding a middle ground for the man known as Rob Liefeld is difficult. While I am NOT a fan of his work and he does have some good points… Rob Liefeld’s middle ground lies in the fact that people talk about him… whether it is good or bad. However, in deconstructing the career of Rob Liefeld, I did find the core problem with his body of work… his inability to communicate to his audience.
In any literary forum, always tell the story first, and then entertain. Story is great when merely weaving it is entertaining. Rob Liefeld’s body of work is the opposite… entertain first and then communicate.
I can remember numerous times where I have seen splash pages (and some of them incredible), but has left me wondering how it relates to the panels surrounding it (if there is any other panels). When this happens, readers are pulled out of the story thus crushing the fantasy and they may not pick up the next issue. Liefeld constantly does this with his work even during the New 52 Hawk & Dove series (now cancelled) and the Deathstroke series… but he is not the only one.
David Finch is another example, although his art work is spectacular, it fails to communicate to the reader due to it majority of splash pages as seen in his work in the New Avengers and in both the Pre-New 52 and the current New 52 Batman: The Dark Knight series. Ed Barrows, another artist, whose current artistic work on Nightwing displays the same type of angst in me… entertainment over communication… however, I also have point that Kyle Higgins writing/plotting also has something to do with it. I wonder if that is the reason Higgins was replaced by Liefeld on Deathstroke. Deathstoke hasn’t gotten much better with Liefeld at the helm.
Is there a middle ground for Rob Liefeld? Yes! A very fine sliver of a middle ground. Simply talking or writing about Rob Liefeld (whether good or bad) is the middle ground. However, in deconstructing Liefeld’s quarter century worth of his work, I have found his core challenge …… he’d rather entertain the audience than communicate with it.
In Part 2 of the Liefeld Trilogy, we will take a look at is recent work with DC’s New 52 line and try to answer the question… is Rob Liefeld a Superstar?
I’ll smell you later.