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Liefeld at the 2013 New York Comic Con
October 3, 1967
|Area(s)||Writer, Penciller, Inker, Editor, Publisher|
Robert Liefeld (//; born October 3, 1967) is an American comic book creator. A prominent writer/artist in the 1990s, he has since been called one of the most controversial figures in the comic industry.
In the early 1990s, the self-taught artist became prominent due to his work on Marvel Comics' The New Mutants and later X-Force. In 1992, he and several other popular Marvel illustrators left the company to fund Image Comics, which started a wave of comic books owned by their creators rather than by publishers. The first book published by Image Comics was Liefeld's Youngblood #1.
Liefeld's love of comics began as a child, which led early on to his decision to be a professional artist, a practice that began with his tracing artwork from comic books. As a high-school student, he took basic fundamental art courses, and attended comic book conventions at the nearby Disneyland Hotel, where he met creators such as George Pérez, John Romita Jr., Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, Mike Zeck and Marv Wolfman. Liefeld cites Pérez, along with John Byrne and Frank Miller, as major influences.
After graduating from high school, Liefeld took life drawing classes at a local junior college, working odd jobs for about a year, including as a pizza delivery man and construction worker, while practicing his artwork, samples of which he would send to small comics publishers, as he was too intimidated to send them to the "Big Two" companies of Marvel and DC.
Among the editors he sent art samples to c. 1985 was Gary Carlson of Megaton Comics. Carlson was working on Megaton #4, and was looking for replacements for artists who had moved on to bigger projects. Liefeld's submission packet consisted mostly of pinups of DC Comics characters like the Teen Titans and Legion of Super Heroes, as well as some sketches of Megaton characters. Some of these earlier pinups are visible on Liefeld's website. Although Carlson thought Liefeld's depictions of his characters was not sufficiently accurate, and exhibited what Carlson characterized as "some goofy anatomy", he found Liefeld's storytelling to be clear, and his rendering style evocative of the influence of artist George Pérez. Although Carlson liked Liefeld's work overall, he felt the young artist was not ready for professional work. Weeks later he received another set of samples that were an improvement, and later still, a four-page Berzerker story (not to be confused with the Marvel or Top Cow characters of the same name), along with pinups of the Megaton characters Ultragirl and Ultraman. Carlson used one of the pinups as the inside front cover to Megaton #5, and Liefeld's Ultragirl pinup in the company's Who's Who-type reference book Megaton Explosion #1 (June 1987). The book also featured an entry for Liefeld's own creation, a team of superheroes called Youngblood, the very first appearance of that team in print.
Carlson and his colleague Chris Ecker later met with the teenaged Liefeld, who at that point had not yet obtained his driver's license, at the Ramada O’Hare Hotel, which was then the location of the Chicago ComiCon. Impressed with the artist's enthusiasm and the new art samples he showed them, Carlson gave Liefeld a test script in order to judge his ability to draw a page-to-page comics story. Although Carlson was impressed with Liefeld's layouts, the story was eventually drawn by Gary Thomas by the time it saw print in Megaton #7. Two months later Liefeld drew the team in an advertisement in Megaton #8 (August 1987) that indicated that it would next appear in Megaton Special #1, by Liefeld and writer Hank Kanalz, with a cover by artist Jerry Ordway. However, Megaton Comics went out of business before that comic was printed.
Learning from a friend of a comic book convention in San Francisco where a large number of editors would be in attendance, Liefeld and his friend drove several hours to San Francisco, where they would stay with his aunt and uncle in order to attend the convention. At the convention, he showed editors his samples and offered a package, which consisted of 10 pages of sequential art featuring his own characters. Editor Dick Giordano, to whom Liefeld showed his samples at the DC booth, requested that Liefeld send him more samples. Although Liefeld was apprehensive about approaching the Marvel booth, he did so at his friend's urging, and as a result, editor Mark Gruenwald offered Liefeld a job illustrating an eight-page Avengers backup story featuring the Black Panther, much to the 19-year-old artist's surprise. Though the published story was ultimately illustrated by another artist, Liefeld was later given character design work by the publisher. His first published story, was a DC Comics Bonus Book insert in Warlord #131 (September 1988). Editor Robert Greenberger recalled that Liefeld "was discovered by my office-mate, Jonathan Peterson, who was scrambling to find something for him to do. I had the Warlord Bonus Book slot coming up, so to keep Rob from finding work at our rival, I tapped him for that." Next came the five-issue miniseries Hawk and Dove for DC Comics, the first issue of which was published with an October 1988 cover date. It was this work that first garnered Liefeld visibility among readers of mainstream comics. That same year, Liefeld drew Secret Origins #28.
Liefeld's layouts for Hawk and Dove #5, which took place in a chaos dimension, were oriented sideways so that a reader would have to turn the comic book at a right angle to read them. Because this was done without editorial input, editor Mike Carlin cut and pasted the panels into the proper order, and Karl Kesel lightboxed them onto DC comics paper to ink them. The letters column of Hawk and Dove #5 mentions that Liefeld "showed something new to an editor who thought he'd seen everything." Liefeld explained this was how the dimension had been portrayed the only other time it had been featured in the book, although Kesel said this was untrue.
Shortly thereafter, Liefeld began doing work for Marvel Comics as well, his first assignment for them being The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #23. In 1989, Liefeld became the penciller for the Marvel series The New Mutants, starting with issue #86. He is generally credited for turning this lowest-selling title of the X-Men franchise into a financial success, which underlined the increased popularity and clout that his stint on the title had earned him.
With The New Mutants #98, Liefeld assumed full creative control over the series, penciling, inking, and plotting, with Fabian Nicieza writing dialog. The New Mutants series ended with issue 100, and was replaced with a revamped version of the team called X-Force, whose 1991 debut issue sold four million copies, setting an industry-wide record later broken by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee's X-Men (vol. 2) #1. The sales numbers were propelled by 1990s direct market sales strategies: five variant edition trading cards were polybagged with X-Force #1 to encourage sales of multiple copies to single collectors, while X-Men #1 was sold with five variant covers. As of 2013, X-Force #1 remains the second highest-selling comic book in history.
In mid-1990, Levi's began producing a series of TV commercials directed by Spike Lee for their 501 button fly jeans, which included an onscreen 800 number that viewers who worked in unique jobs could call in order to appear in the company's commercials. After calling the number and leaving a message describing himself and his career, Liefeld appeared in one of the commercials, in which Lee interviews Liefeld about his career and his creation, X-Force.
Liefeld was subsequently interviewed by Stan Lee in the second episode of the 1991 documentary series The Comic Book Greats, in which he discussed how he broke into the industry, demonstrated his drawing technique, and talked about his Levi's commercial.
Liefeld's relationship with Marvel began to break down in 1991 when he announced plans in a black-and-white advertisement in the Comics Buyer's Guide to publish an original title with competitor Malibu Comics. The exact title is unknown, but according to journalist Michael Dean, it was something to the effect of The X-Cutioners, a title whose similarity to Marvel's X-Men family of titles evoked the ire of Marvel editor Bob Harras, who threatened to fire Liefeld if he used that title.
Liefeld and several other popular young artists including Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri left Marvel in 1992 to form Image Comics. Each co-founder formed his own studio under the Image banner, such as Liefeld's Extreme Studios. Liefeld's superhero team series Youngblood, which is partially a derivative of a 1991 Teen Titans series Liefeld had proposed to DC Comics, was the first comic Image published. He appeared on an episode of The Dennis Miller Show to promote the book.
The series' first issue met with negative reception from fans and critics for the unclear storytelling effected not only by Liefeld's art, but by the book's flip format, which some readers found confusing, as well as the book's poor anatomy; incorrect perspective; non-existent backgrounds; poor dialogue and the late shipping of the book, a problem that continued with subsequent issues. In an interview in Hero Illustrated #4 (October 1993), Liefeld conceded disappointment with the first four issues of Youngblood, calling the first issue a "disaster". Liefeld explained that production problems, as well as sub-par scripting by his friend and collaborator Hank Kanalz, whose employment Liefeld later terminated, resulted in work that was lower in quality than that which Liefeld produced when Fabian Nicieza scripted his plots on X-Force, and that reprints of those four issues would be re-scripted. Writer and Comics Buyer's Guide columnist Peter David pointed to Liefeld's scapegoating of Kanalz as an example of Liefeld's failure to take responsibility for his project, and evidence that genuine collaboration with good writers like Louise Simonson and Fabian Nicieza, which some of the Image founders did not appreciate, had previously reflected better on Liefeld's art.
In 1996, Liefeld's and Lee's studios signed with Marvel to re-envision several of the company's core series, an event called "Heroes Reborn." Liefeld was contracted to write twelve issues of The Avengers, co-written with Jeph Loeb, and was to pencil twelve issues of Captain America. Due to disappointing sales, Marvel terminated the agreement after six issues, and reassigned the two series to Lee's studio, one of the most controversial episodes in Liefeld's career.
In June 1996, Marc Silvestri temporarily left Image with his Top Cow imprint over issues with Liefeld, with Image Comics executive director Larry Marder saying Liefeld "was making an increasing number of business decisions that were counterproductive to being a business partner". In early September, Liefeld issued a press release stating he was resigning his position at Image and leaving the group. Nearly simultaneously, the Image partners issued a press release stating that they had fired Liefeld. His resignation came only minutes before the second meeting that would have forced him out. Liefeld moved all his publishing ventures into a new company, Awesome Comics. This new enterprise, announced in April 1997 as a partnership between Liefeld and Malibu Comics founding partner Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, concentrated its efforts on newer properties.
After leaving Captain America, Liefeld attempted to buy the rights to Fighting American, a similarly patriotically themed 1954 character from Captain America's creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The still-living Simon and Kirby's widow agreed to a figure Liefeld felt was too high, and he created a new similar character, Agent America. Simon threatened to sue, and the parties renegotiated a deal acceptable to all. Marvel Comics then sued Liefeld, who was allowed to use the character but not have him throw his shield weapon, a distinctive action of Captain America.
Liefeld also hired comic book writer Alan Moore to revive many of Liefeld's creations. Moore wrote a few issues of Youngblood and Glory, but his most lauded work for Liefeld was on Supreme, for which Moore won the 1997 Eisner Award for Best Writer.
In the 2000s, Liefeld returned to his former characters in the X-Men franchise, providing pencils for the occasional cover and/or interior of Cable and X-Force until the early 2000s, when both were canceled.
In 2004, he reunited with Fabian Nicieza for an X-Force limited series and illustrated the early covers for Nicieza's Cable and Deadpool. In that same year, Liefeld formed Arcade Comics and once again announced plans to revive Youngblood. These involved reprinting older material and providing the art for two new series Youngblood: Bloodsport with Mark Millar and Youngblood: Genesis with Brandon Thomas. Although the former only published one issue, Liefeld expressed hopes to finish the series.
In July 2007, it was announced that Rob Liefeld and Youngblood would be returning to Image Comics after years of self-publication. This new partnership marks the first time in a decade that Liefeld and Image would collaborate on a project. This Youngblood series was written by Joe Casey with art by Derec Donovan and Val Staples, and covers by Liefeld. It debuted in January 2008. Liefeld took over writing and art duties with issue #9, though that would be the series' final issue. To commemorate the event, and the 15th anniversary of Image Comics, the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con was headlined by the Image Founders panel, where all seven of the original Image Comics founders appeared on stage simultaneously.
2010 saw Liefeld return to the Deadpool character, first by penciling issue #1 of the Prelude to Deadpool Corps series, the issue focusing on Lady Deadpool. Liefeld became the regular artist on Deadpool Corps, providing the interior art for the first nine issues.
In March 2011, Liefeld was announced as the artist on The Infinite, a mini-series written by Robert Kirkman. In January 2012, this project was canceled by Liefeld after Kirkman's studio, Skybound, disagreed on the work of a new inker Liefeld hired to draw 14 of the pages in issue #5, which Liefeld re-inked as a result.
In June 2011, he was announced as the artist on a new Hawk and Dove series, with writer Sterling Gates, as part of The New 52, DC Comics' relaunch of their entire superhero line, returning Liefeld to the characters that helped establish him in the industry. With Hawk and Dove canceled as of issue #8, Liefeld was hired to take over three other titles: Grifter, Deathstroke and The Savage Hawkman, plotting all three, while also writing and drawing Deathstroke. Though he indicated in July 2012 that he would stay on the titles for a run that would end in 2013, he abruptly quit DC Comics in late August 2012, announcing that the #0 issues to be published in September would be his last. Though he characterized his experience on The New 52 as an overall positive one, he did not disguise his animosity toward editor Brian Smith, with whom his clashes were among his reasons for leaving the company. Other reasons he cited were frequent rewrites of his material, and the overall corporate culture that was more prevalent now that both DC and Marvel were owned by large media conglomerates. Liefeld also referred to Scott Clark's artwork on Grifter as "crap". Liefeld indicated that he would return to focusing on his creator-owned properties at Image, including Bloodstrike, Brigade, as well as other projects yet to be specified. In response to these events, artist Pete Woods defended DC editorial, stating that the restrictions placed on creators was the result of a plan they had for all 52 of their titles that required them to be consistent with one another. Editor Tom Brevoort and writer Gail Simone defended Brian Smith, disputing Liefeld's characterization of him, leading to a heated exchange on Twitter between Liefeld and Brevoort, and eventually head Batman writer Scott Snyder as well.
In 2011–2012 Liefeld returned to his earlier creator-owned characters, with new books written and illustrated by other writers and artists. These included a new Avengelyne ongoing series debut at Image Comics under the creative team of Mark Poulton and Owen Gieni, a Bloodstrike series written by Tim Seeley, a Glory series written by Joe Keatinge and illustrated by Sophie Campbell, and a Prophet series written by Brandon Graham that garnered critical acclaim. He also published revivals of Youngblood with writer John McLaughlin with artist Jon Malin and Supreme by Erik Larsen in 2012.
Liefeld made a cameo appearance in the film based on his most famous creation, Deadpool, which was released in February 2016. In an interview that month, Liefeld stated that he was working on the graphic novel Deadpool: Bad Blood, which is set for release later that year. In 2017, it was reported by Deadline that Liefeld is working with Akiva Goldsman and Graham King on a seven-figure movie deal for his Extreme Universe.
Liefeld's name has become something of a lightning rod in the industry. In an interview, Brian Michael Bendis described the polarization of opinion on Liefeld: "There is a great dichotomy...There's either some great and generous story about [Liefeld] or you will hear some unbelievable thing like, 'How is he not in jail if he did that?' There is no middle ground."
In interviews, Liefeld has compared himself to other popular artists who experienced meteoric success and acclaim early in their careers but near-pariah status afterwards, such as LeBron James or Britney Spears, who "became vapid in pop music, and perhaps I was nothing more than a vapid comic book artist." He seems to credit his success to tapping into the zeitgeist: "I'll be the first to tell you that we [the Image collective] were never the best artists. We were never the best at anything, but just like a song or a band or whatever, we caught on and we toured rigorously."
He is not without supporters in the industry. The A.V. Club says of Liefeld's critics, "Rob Liefeld is the punching bag of choice for many discerning comics fans. But he’s also the man who defined what the 1990s looked like in superhero books, so he’s crying all the way to the bank. For every detractor who thinks he’s the worst thing to happen to comic books since Fredric Wertham, there are a dozen ravenous fanboys ready to snatch up whatever he does next." Writer Jeph Loeb, with whom Liefeld collaborated, and writer Mark Millar are reported to be admirers of his work. Millar in particular wrote the foreword to the 2008 Youngblood collection published by Image Comics, in which he defended that series as an entry in the celebrity superhero subgenre that predated The Authority and X-Statix. Millar also compared critics of Liefeld's layouts and figure work to those who would have criticized Jack Kirby for exhibiting a cartoony style rather than photorealism, and asserted that his own children are avid fans of Liefeld's work in general, and Youngblood in particular. Comics writer Grant Morrison credited the Image creators with "rescuing" American comics, explaining that they responded to children's tastes of the time, and brought comics back to their basic superhero roots following the British Invasion in comics and the popularization of titles typified by Vertigo Comics, of which Morrison himself was a part. Morrison stated that he is an admirer of Liefeld's work in particular, explaining that while Liefeld's art was regarded as "total crap" in the 1990s, many comic book artists today see it as an avant-garde abstraction of reality that is as bizarre and individual as Vincent van Gogh. In 2012, Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool said of DC Comics' decision to assign Liefeld the co-scripting and drawing duties on three of their flagging New 52 titles, "Rob does have a habit, of course, of pulling out sales and attention like a rabbit out of a hat."
Liefeld has been criticized for his drawing skill. In a 1996 interview, writer/illustrator Barry Windsor-Smith criticized the depth of work by the popular artists of the 1990s like Liefeld and Jim Lee, and those whom they had influenced (whom he referred to as "the Liefelds and the Lees"), stating "I don’t think it has even crossed their minds that comic books can be a medium for intimate self-expression." Speaking of Liefeld in particular, Windsor-Smith said:
"Rob Liefeld has nothing to offer. It’s as plain as bacon on your plate. He has nothing to offer. He cannot draw. He can’t write. He is a young boy almost, I would expect, whose culture is bubble gum wrappers, Saturday morning cartoons, Marvel Comics; that’s his culture. Somebody was at his house and came back with a report: There is not a single book in his house—only comic books. I see nothing in his work that allows me to even guess that there’s any depth involved in that person that might come to the fore given time."
Artist Alex Ross drew upon his dislike of the design of Liefeld's creation Cable when designing the character Magog for the 1996 miniseries Kingdom Come. Following writer Mark Waid's instructions that the character's appearance be based on aspects of superhero design trends of the time that they disliked, Ross said of Cable, "That's a character that Mark Waid invented that was really just put to me like come up with the most God awful, Rob Liefeld sort of design that you can. What I was stealing from was—really only two key designs of Rob's—the design of Cable. I hated it. I felt like it looked like they just threw up everything on the character—the scars, the thing going on with his eye, the arm, and what's with all the guns?"
Liefeld has also been criticized for drawing figures with exaggerated muscular anatomy, such as long legs and tiny feet, and "bizarre" anatomy on female characters that some critics felt served to objectify women, with critical articles such as "The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings", "A Gallery of Rob Liefeld’s Anatomical Abominations" and "Worst Rob Liefeld Covers" among the top mentions of Liefeld's on Google. These stylistic devices were seen as the impetus for his initial success, when such affectations were unusual in comics, and helped lend such characters to successfully merchandised products. Nonetheless, the approach later became a cliché and led to a widespread hostility towards the style. Liefeld agrees for the most part with this estimation of his early work, saying, "In the mid-90's we Mortal Kombat'ed everything. I'm as guilty as anyone..." Liefeld's friend, Image Comics partner, and The Walking Dead creator, Robert Kirkman, defends Liefeld, saying, "Every figure that Rob draws has a certain energy to it, a certain excitement. Every character Rob drew had seven knives and six guns and shoulder pads and pouches and belts and straps and ammunition. It was an aesthetic that as a kid absolutely blew me away. I idolized the guy...Everything he draws is interesting, whether it's accurate or not. A lot of people look at the way Rob draws the human body and they say, 'That's wrong in my eyes.' I would say that these people have no joy in their souls. It's not like Rob doesn't know what a human body looks like, I think Rob looks at a human body and goes: 'That’s boring. I can do better.'"
In addition to his depiction of human anatomy, Liefeld's art has also been criticized in more general terms for use of splash pages in lieu of multi-panel pages depicting more story, and poor design and continuity in elements such as clothing, props, and proper proportions between characters and their environments, with industry columnist Peter David responding to Liefeld's 1996 work on the "Heroes Reborn" Captain America by proclaiming Liefeld the "Ed Wood of comics". Kesel relates:
"Mike Carlin once said of Rob: 'He has it. He just doesn’t have it yet.' And I couldn’t agree more. Rob is one of the most energetic and charming people I’ve ever met—you can’t help but like him—and at the time of [Liefeld's early work on Hawk and Dove] his work showed great potential. But success came far too quickly and easily to him, and he never felt the need to develop that potential. Which is really too bad, because if he did I’m certain he would have left a very different mark on the industry. Not that things worked out that badly for him..."
Liefeld has stated that such criticism has not bothered him, in part because, at the height of his popularity, he had things outside of his work to focus on, such as the death of his father from cancer in 1999. By the 2010s, he was known to reference this perception of his work in a lighthearted manner: Following the April 2012 release of DC Comics' solicitations for that July, which included Liefeld's covers for The Savage Hawkman #11, Deathstroke #11, and Grifter #11—all of which showed characters' feet—Liefeld, who had been criticized for avoiding drawing characters' feet, commented, "The Hipsters don't know what to do when I draw feet. It confuses them."
At the beginning of Liefeld's run on the New Mutants, the heavily muscled, heavily armed cyborg character Cable was created for the team, and became a popular antihero, although there is dispute over Cable's origin, with Liefeld, Bob Harras, and Louise Simonson all claiming credit for some or all of the character concept. For a time, Marvel credited only Liefeld and Simonson as Cable's creators within the Cable & Deadpool series. He also was credited as the sole creator of Youngblood, when documentation suggests that Liefeld's longtime friend and collaborator Hank Kanalz co-developed that team with him.
In addition to this, Liefeld is also alleged to have made a habit of swiping, or copying, art from other artists. Liefeld responded to this accusation by stating that in these instances, which he said were limited to ten, he was offering tribute to the artists of the original pieces in question, rather than plagiarizing, and compared this to the work of filmmaker Brian De Palma, who explicitly used the techniques of Alfred Hitchcock. Peter David responded to this rationale by stating that DePalma himself was criticized harshly by film critics for employing Hitchcock's techniques, and that Liefeld, who has identified himself as a "stickler" for credit, did not credit artists whose work he copied, instances of which exceeded the ten upon which Liefeld insisted. David also stated that some of these artists, such as John Byrne and George Pérez, did not react to this practice on Liefeld's part as a "tribute", and expressed displeasure at the degree to which Liefeld relied on their work.
Liefeld has also gained a reputation for producing late books, primarily his creator-owned ones, though somewhat less so when doing work-for-hire. Some issues of his series Youngblood shipped as much as nine months late. Liefeld has attributed this to the greater incentive a freelancer feels when doing work-for-hire assignments for a company, as opposed to working on one's self-owned work. Creator Bob Layton, who says he had to fly to Los Angeles and literally sit on Liefeld's doorstep until Liefeld finished penciling his portion of the Deathmate miniseries, which was an intercompany crossover published by Image Comics and Valiant comics, and who had to ink the artwork himself in an Anaheim hotel room, stated, "There I was, with my own company to manage, and I was in California, managing someone else's people." Layton cites Deathmate, and Image's inability to produce their half of that series in a timely manner, as the first disaster that heralded the end of the speculator boom of the 1990s, and the eventual demise of Valiant Comics.
Liefeld compared his conflicts with contemporaries McFarlane and Jim Lee to the intra-band conflicts of the Eagles, and in 2007, he stated that his feud with the Image partners was in the past, saying, "The divorce was ugly, but to me it didn't linger....I realized you just need to let it go."
Written by Barbara and Karl Kesel and drawn by future superstar Rob Liefeld, this five-issue miniseries reestablished the famous pair for a new generation.
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