Opinion: The Great Rob Liefeld Mystery

 

Within the comicbook fandom community there is a hatred; a hatred that unites all but a small few, a hatred that is deserved and that ignites the curiosity in us to see more and enflame the hatred further, a hatred of a person, an art style and a business ethos all rolled into one. That hatred is held for “artist/writer”, Rob Liefeld.

Those who don’t read comics or those who have only recently taken an interest may wonder what could inspire such a mob dislike for a single person, and on reading forums and editorials that only exist to openly attack the man, may indeed classify such activity as mass bullying. To those people the answer is this: Rob Liefeld is a terrible artist, a poor writer and a business man of dubious leanings, yet manages to linger and often thrive in an industry in which thousands upon thousand of genuinely talented people can’t even get a foothold. Despite in-house quarrels, numerous sunken companies and titles, and the open hostility of fans, he is blessed with endless second chances… But why? you may ask, and it would be a good question, if one you will be hard pressed to find an answer to. This article certainly won’t be answering it, and this writer is just as much in the dark as most of you out there, but we can at least explore the question a little further.

Rob Liefeld came to fame in that time where the late eighties were being replaced by the early nineties. A generation of superstar artists were tearing up the scene with showy, large, masculine evolutions of styles that originated with the previous generations superstars such as Walt Simonson, Art Adams, John Byrne and Frank Miller. Thanks to the stories of the eighties comic sales were riding high, which ensured that this new wave of superstars where getting rich as well as famous (in relative terms). Mainly garnering fans on the ridiculously popular X-Men and Spider-Man titles, such artists as Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Todd McFarlane and our own Mr Rob Liefeld, not only generated huge page rates but also large sums for the resale of their original artwork, meaning that more and more solid storytelling was being sacrificed in favour of big, splashy images that could command higher prices. People didn’t seem to mind though, so sales increased further along with the artists’ celebrity.

These superstars, reasonably feeling they should own and have more of a say in what they were creating jumped the Marvel ship and formed their own company, fittingly called Image. While many of the artists in this group very much deserved the kudos they received, it was becoming evident to a number of people that cracks were showing Liefeld’s style. The more he diverted from the styles of his heroes Art Adams and John Byrne, the less talented he seemed, any kind of general art skill being taken over by his admittedly unique style, and his seeming disinterest in adhering to basic believable anatomy. But by this point the mass market were as interested in buying up comics as collectables as well as reading material, with the assumption that they would one day be worth a bomb (despite the massive amounts of people that had the same idea), so the Image titles sold through the roof despite their unreliable shipping schedules.

Creating more characters and spin-offs from his Youngblood title than even a good/reliable artist could handle, Rob never really completed any stories, and coupled with the fact that both the writing and art qualities were declining further, the bubble inevitably burst. Sales dropped and he decided to split from the rest of the Image crew and yet again go his own way.

What followed was the birth of a new company and a sickening stream of horribly derivative and shallow characters that, again, never saw reliable shipping or anything that resembles a conclusive story. Titles came and went, artwork got more ridiculous, and just at his lowest point, for some unknown reason (perhaps the naive notion that he still led an army of fans) Marvel offered Rob the chance to reboot a number of their titles as part of their Heroes Reborn scheme, but so uninspired were his redesigns (Captain America’s redesign consisted of his forehead ‘A’ being replaced with a stylised eagle… and that’s it) and stories that he was unceremoniously let go mid-way into the project.

What came next one could argue was the all time biggest mess-up of his turbulent life, and all the worst considering that it should have been his greatest success. Acquiring industry legend Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) to write his Superman rip-off character, Supreme, Rob centred a new company around it and asked Alan to take on a number of the other characters. Awesome Entertainment looked as if it could have been a major contender in the industry, Moore had transformed the soulless Youngblood universe characters into living, breathing comments on comicbook history and trends, and Rob had hired a barrage of talented comic pros to create their own titles or re-imagine properties he had purchased. At one point Awesome employed Jeph Loeb, Ed MaGuinnis, Jeff Matsuda, Steve Skroce, Chris Sprouse, Brandon Peterson, Ian Churchill, Gil Kane and even Jada Pinkett Smith. Alas, a combination a poor management, title saturation and lack of sufficient publicity, meant that not only did the comics not sell, but some work went unpaid and many of the produced scripts never even saw print. Even worse, it later came out that Alan Moore approached Rob with a trailblazing idea for a line of comics, which Rob duly ignored but which later saw life as the popular ABC line over at Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Comics.

Since then Rob has intermittently solicited series’ that never saw more than a few issues, or in some cases a release at all, or, unbelievably, worked as an artist for hire at the big three companies, all the while his work hitting an all time low.

At this juncture I’d like to address the matter of Rob’s art style. It’s all very well me saying how bad it actually is, and some of the supplied illustrations may have gone some way to backing up my words, but let’s break it down and have a real look.

First let’s start with the obvious stuff, and the thing we can first notice are the faces. Rob’s characters have little differentiation between their faces, men all have strong, almost sharp jawbones, slightly upturned noses, beady little eyes, zillions of lines to fill them out (as does the rest of the body, Rob somehow equating line quantity with professionalism), and for the most part, some kind of scowl or shriek going on. The women have a longer face with a rounder outline, but the rest still holds pretty true. I would guess that all the faces he draws are based on his own.


Next comes the anatomy craziness. It’s fair to say that many artists invent muscle structures, but Rob’s on a whole new level, biceps can be on the wrong side of the arm and shoulder muscles can sometimes disappear directly into them, chests and back arches jut out and pull in at near abstract angles, legs can be as long as three torsos in length, with huge thigh widths and the skinniest of ankles, muscles remain in a set place as the rest of the body twist into impossible positions, and hands grip things in a contrary direction to which they are facing.


It’s always fun, though not incredibly difficult, to play ‘spot the continuity errors’ in a Liefeld comic. His own design work favours toward many pointless straps and pockets (more on that later), and as such you’d think he’d adhere to the set design, but no, from page to page, and in the worst cases, panel to panel within the same page, straps, pockets and weapons go missing and reappear, tears and scars come and go, and bodies have been known to randomly disappear within a sealed environment.

It’s also fun to play ‘where did Rob steal the image from?’ If a drawing looks too good to have come from his pencil, it usually has been ripped off from more talented artists, in many cases wholesale. Check out these examples; if you can’t already tell, the original images are on the right, and Rob’s bare-face knockoffs on the left.

Backgrounds. They’re terrible, sparse or more likely than not, don’t exist. It’s worth noting that many artist neglect backgrounds, but they usually find a way of covering it up or distracting your attention from it, not so with Rob, he prefers to leave huge gaping areas of nothingness.

Rob enjoys the unique stance of blank refusal to any form of research. If a story calls for any kind of period detail of realistic device, vehicle or weapon, it’ll get half assed interpretations based on his own vague memory (check out the WWII sequence in his Heroes Reborn: Captain America issue one and see for yourself)

Again, as with any number of artists, Rob hides things he’s not too good at drawing (!) behind other things on the page, usually other characters, random ground lumps or smoke; but such things as feet, common ground levels and various extremities? They shouldn’t be too difficult for a professional should they?

In the nineties, for some reason, it was cool to adorn a character in totally useless and seemingly random pockets, straps and a veritable armoury of weaponry. Even during these times Rob went way more over the top than most, but as times changed and designs became more sleek and workable, he refused to conform, clinging on to the same design ethos to this very day. Guns are another thing entirely; sometimes they’re long and flat with glowing ends, sometimes they’re detailless shapes and sometimes they’re over-detailed affairs that start as one shape at one end while at the other it’s an entirely different shape and is apparently being viewed from a different angle in a fashion that can only be described as Escher-esque, but all have screws in them that have been sunk so tight that they have cracked the metal.

And finally, perhaps worst of all, is his general layout and storytelling abilities. Just looking at any Liefeld book without reading the dialogue would only result in total befuddlement; the end result of his artistic laziness is a total lack of cohesion in story. Often huge amounts of the page are dedicated to a single instance of action or “design” while the actual plot is crushed in around it, so with this you’d think he would thrive in putting together covers and splash pages, but more and more of late he has opted to have one or two characters floating in either a backgroundless space or in front of random imagery which is also randomly floating within its own space.

With all this in mind also consider that higher ups in Marvel, DC and Image are actually talented artists in their own right, namely Joe Quesada, Jim Lee and Jim Valentino respectively, who surely must know bad work when they see it. So why would they continuously offer him jobs, ergo ruining perfectly good stories, when, as mentioned, there are thousands of talented and eager individuals out there that would kill for the opportunity?


The logical answer would be that he must bring with him a committed fan base, but who are these people? I’ve certainly never met one, but if they do exist how can they defend an artist that is undeniably technically and aesthetically reprehensible, and otherwise has seen failure in the industry at every conceivable level? Writer Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) professes to be a fan, sighting that Rob was ahead of his time and pioneered the ‘celebrity superhero’, though Grant Morrison’s rockstar superhero, Zenith, was revitalising the pages of 2000AD way before, so even that argument doesn’t hold, besides which, his books for the most part get cancelled, so where are these supposed fans by the end of the run?


Despite all this he recently moved from the high profile (yet still cancelled) Deadpool Corps book at Marvel to currently doing two books a month, Hawk and Dove at DC and Infinite over at Image, so what’s the story? Is he a genuinely great dude that folk want to help out (his ongoing professional feuds on forums and twitter would suggest otherwise), does he have photos of the right people doing the wrong things? Your guess is as good as mine, and if you have an insider knowledge I’d love to be clued in, but until that time I shall continue to be disgusted yet transfixed in equal measure.

Richard
A UK based Contributor; Richard Reynolds splits his time writing articles and interviews for Fanboy Confidential with toiling away at his boring day job as well as sticking his thumb in far too many pies, including illustration, writing and filmmaking, he also consumes fiction in all its forms like its going out of fashion.

He co-heads independent filmmaking group Waking Dream Studios with his production partner, Jordan Morris. Waking Dream have seen award winning success with their no-budget feature debut, Gabriel Small. He is also the author of the all ages webcomic, St. Shawshanks Infant School.

15 Comments

  • November 16, 2011

    Nick Marino

    Yawn. The whole Rob bashing thing is really played out. He’s a cartoonist. Do you rag on Charles Schulz for having unrealistic anatomy and an unchanging fashion sense?

    I mean, is Rob perfect as a creator or a businessman? Hell no! He’s made mistakes. But he makes fun comics. In my opinion, nuff said.

  • November 16, 2011

    Richard Adam Reynolds

    You’re absolutely right nick, other artists do use unrealistic anatomy, but usually it’s through choice rather than inadequacy, but be that as it may, lump it in with the steeling, poor composition and design work, glaring continuity errors, lacklustre pacing, ignoring of backgrounds and so forth; do really believe that someone should be being paid and robbing work from more talented people for such half-arsed results? I would say certainly not.

    I do however feel it’s not as much his fault for being crap, but rather the people employing him for not holding him to the same standards they would a newcomer to the business, but that’s a different matter. That fact is, seeing two mainstream books a month (if he holds to schedule) on the shelves is particularly irksome, especially as I have so many talented artist friends, and so I find the article timely.

  • November 18, 2011

    Barker12_uk

    Being a comic book geek it’s truly disheartening to find Rob Liefeld working within the industry. In the Nineties his work was laughably bad, but then there was lots of really badly written comic books and even more badly illustrated comic books, but these days with the amount of professionalism and devotion that goes into producing quality comic books to discover Liefeld illustrating work for Marvel, DC and Image is quite frankly unbelievable. He might be a really good guy, but he’s a terrible artist and if he can write, which I doubt, a bad writer too. But the fault lies with the industry that employs him, the titles he’s working on could be handled by new talent, people given a chance, they surely wouldn’t do a worst job then Liefeld is doing. Sales of the titles I’m aware he’s working on, Hawk and Dove and Infinite, are low, okay Hawk and Dove breaks the top 100, somehow, but Infinite is experiencing poor sales, and rightly so. As a person who loves comic books there’s no reason I can possibly imagine for Liefeld to continually acquire work. It’s one of lives many mysteries up there with alien abduction, Bigfoot and Nessie.

  • November 21, 2011

    Whatthefucksitgottodowithyou

    I particularly like the way he draws eyebrows that stick out OVER hair……..you can’t beat that for realism…
    Just scroll 3 panels up, right side panel to see what I mean :)

  • January 26, 2012

    Ether101

    Now if only people could hold Team Zelda in the same regards. Especially with the stealing ideas department.

  • July 2, 2012

    Stephen

    Very well written and thought out article. With many thousands of people rejected by DC and Marvel over the years, it is a slap to their faces that Liefeld gets work. But unfortunately, the big 2 are going downhill very fast in art quality. Hes stuck around so long hes waited them out and will soon fit in very nicely with other non artist artists! The days of high quality art and writing from the big 2 are gone. Now we get gimmicks like the gay Green Lantern and etc.

  • July 23, 2012

    Bethuzel

    I get what some people are saying. It’s true that different artists have different styles.Some more realistic and some more “cartoony”. That being said, even if an artist has a less than realistic approach, things like, perspective, composition, anatomy, background, and the ability to tell a story through pictures are a must and very important to being at least a good comic book artist. I love that old Liefeld Levi’s 501 button fly commercial from the 90s where the guy asked him, “Rob, have you ever had any formal training in creating comics?”. Rob then says, “No, I haven’t. No shit Rob! Really?!!!!

  • […] for examples, but then I got bored looking through all the pics. I did, however, find this article: http://www.fanboy-confidential.com/articles/opinion-the-great-rob-liefeld-mystery/ It’s an opinion piece but it makes the connection as well. The major difference between […]

  • February 23, 2013

    FiachSidhe

    1. Charles Schulz was a classic who drew a simple comic strip that has stood the test of time for over half a century. Schulz drew stylized children on purpose. Rob Liefeld has no idea how long a leg is, and can’t center eyes properly, and rips off existing work with no attempt at subterfuge.

    2. He’s also one of the most successful artists, despite having skills that never progressed past teenage fanart. His art quality isn’t a sin, but his success in spite of it, IS. So many artists being passed over because this hack artist/writer has friends in high places, and appeals to thirteen year olds.

    3. He made the 90’s a joke.

    4. He’s also an asshole. Check out his pathetic twitter feuds.

    Why is it when some idiot says ’nuff said’ they never actually ‘say ’nuff’? It’s always someone glib, half thought, or stupid.

    You compared Rob Liefeld, to Charles Shulz.
    ’nuff said.

  • April 15, 2013

    Realist

    Liefeld not a good guy, in fact he’s not fucking good at anything. He is a rip-off artist, and a shameless plagiarist (just Google the examples). He has humiliated those good people who have worked for him and not even paid many artists and writers for their hard work . One time ( in fact we don’t know how many times) he literally stole a cover and traced it as a submission only to be found out about it by the editor. He doesn’t draw proportionally accurate anatomy, he doesn’t know perspective, he doesn’t know or take the time to research basic artistic principles or objects, vehicles, mechanics especially for the field of comics he’s in. He’s a complete fan-boy amateur who can barely scratch out splash pages. He’s a fucking joke and an insult to the many talented artists out there who can’t get a break because this fucking idiot is supported by retards in high places, who tolerate his disgusting standards and trollish behavior!

  • April 15, 2013

    Lietard

    Yup, Rob is a fucking joke.

  • June 18, 2013

    dregj

    rob L

    a joke he may be

    ,but hes a funny one.

  • October 29, 2013

    Rahlistic

    I see what you mean. LOL!!

  • December 4, 2013

    ike

    thats pretty cool actually, thats what they do in manga

  • […] he draws comics despite having amassed a small fortune as a comic book artist.  Write ups like “The Great Rob Liefeld Mystery” and the more vulgar but more detailed “The 40 worst Rob Liefeld Drawings” take great […]

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