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.