Sometimes, you write a post to express an opinion…and sometimes, you write a post to discover one. Today’s post is going to be the latter, as I ruminate on the phenomenon that is Rob Liefeld.
For those of you who missed the 90s in comics…get down on your knees and give thanks to a merciful and just God. No, wait. That’s probably a little harsh. Seriously, for those of you who missed the 90s in comics, Rob Liefeld was one of the bona fide superstars of the medium. He began as an artist, hit it big with a stint on ‘New Mutants’, and went on to both write and draw its successor title, ‘X-Force’. Then he and a number of other major writer/artists split off from Marvel to form Image Comics, and Rob proceeded to start his own art studio where a number of Liefeld-influenced artists produced a large number of super-hero books. Eventually, after a falling out with his Image cohorts, Rob’s career kind of imploded; he’s still around and still working, but is nowhere near the phenom he was.
To a lot of people, this is cheery and heartwarming news. Nobody seems to be able to engender the kind of sheer hatred that Rob Liefeld does in the comics industry; mere mention of his name can induce apoplectic fits in certain fan circles. Fans complain that his writing is hackneyed, cliched, and derivative to the point of plagarism (when he’s got an aquatic super-hero whose name is “Namor” spelled backwards, it’s kind of hard to defend him on that count), and that his art is little more than chicken scratches with no grasp of anatomy, perspective, and no skill whatsoever.
And I don’t disagree with that assessment. I’ve heard all the stories–how he turned in pencil art that ended at the wrists and ankles, forcing an inker to fill in the hands and feet. I’ve seen his artwork, and there’s no question, it doesn’t match up with any kind of human anatomy. Women have breasts like they’re wearing a loose-fitting shirt with bowling balls dumped down it, guys have biceps bigger than their head, and everyone has about a billion teeth. It is anything but realistic.
But here’s the thing: Have you looked at Bill Sienkiewicz’s art lately? He left realism behind about thirty years ago, and fans love him for it. His art is deliberately abstract, conveying an emotional reality rather than strict photorealism, and he has more fans than he ever did when he was a Neal Adams clone. For that matter, take Vincent van Gogh. He never painted realistically, and in fact became more expressionist as he went on. Is his art bad because it doesn’t look like a photo?
But of course, Sienkiewicz did start out as a Neal Adams clone. He demonstrated that he could master perspective, anatomy, and a crisp “Silver Age” artistic style, and then branched out into his current style because it was the one he wanted to use. Perhaps that’s why he’s praised while Liefeld is pilloried; he showed that he knew how to draw first, while Liefeld never did.
Or perhaps it’s that the emotional reality Liefeld constructs seems to be one so utterly rooted in the realm of the sixteen-year-old boy. His characters are all hypermasculine uber-men with giant shoulderpads and guns bigger than their torsos. Maybe once you pass a certain age, that just starts to seem like arrested adolescence instead of an artistic style. Maybe Liefeld’s audience outgrew him.
Or maybe he just really was terrible, and it’s true that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. I really don’t know, which is why I tend to stay quiet when people are slamming Liefeld. Because it’s possible…not likely, but just possible…that in a hundred years or so, he’ll be having the last laugh.