Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Fan's Retrospective: Looking Back At Image Comics

Part I:


Rob Liefeld.

What can be said about Rob Liefeld?

If you Google up his name right now you'll probably get a lot of hits for the guy and most of them, I'm assuming, will be negative.  You'll read about him stealing art, bad business decisions, how he's a hack, how he can't draw feet or women or proportions or very much of anything else; you'll probably find a page or two that claims that he single handedly (sometimes with the six other founders) destroyed the comic book industry.  You'll find all that stuff elsewhere, however, not from me.  For me, Rob Liefeld's always been a huge inspiration.  A self-taught comic book artist that had the balls behind the idea of forming Image Comics and leaving the big two publishers, Marvel and DC, caught with their pants down and jumped for it.  Rob's art isn't my favorite comic book art to look at, but I don't hate it.  I'm rather fond of it.  Comics, especially superhero comics, take place in universes that don't acknowledge our realm of physics, so why bellyache if an artist draws hyper-misproportioned figures to reflect that?  Why continue to do it after twenty-fiveyears of him doing it?  Just move on to something you enjoy instead, right?

Youngblood was Rob Liefeld's first foray into creating comic characters he owned (after creating a great heaping gob of them for Marvel, as was the last artist I can remember to do so), his first foray into self-publishing (albeit, with help from Malibu Comics in the beginning), and it was the first comic published by Image Comics.  Unfortunately, I'm no longer in possession of those original publications, so looking back on them from a writing standpoint is almost impossible.  What I do have is the digital re-publication of that material that's been slightly remixed and re-organized with a re-scripting by Joe Casey, who I'm a pretty big fan of.  I suppose this could be called a director's cut, or even the special edition of those original four issues.

Before I get into all of that, however, let me set the stage a little bit.  Rob Liefeld's career began with Megaton then went on at DC Comics on a Hawk and Dove mini-series that caught the attention of Bob Harras who, at the time, had recently been seated as the editor of the X-Men line of books at Marvel.  Harras hired Rob and put him on The New Mutants with writer Louise Simonson as of # 86.  With Rob on the art chores, and with the introduction of a mysterious new character he helped create, Cable, the boots sales numbers began to grow.  Simonson left the book at # 97, and Marvel gave control of the book to Liefeld on plots and pencils, with Fabian Nicieza scripting the book on the last three issues before Marvel rebranded the book with the same creators.  New Mutants ended with # 100 and Rob Liefeld introduced even more characters in those last three issues.  I think it should be noted that, if I remember right, Rob Liefeld was the last artist to work for Marvel that created new characters for the company with any sort of lasting or staying power: Deadpool and Cable.  The book was retitled X-Force (which is also still around, though vastly different than it was back then), given a new # 1, made an event out of and sold like bananas.  Liefeld cemented himself as a powerhouse in comics in 1991 and, just as wild as it was to rebrand a title with a # 1, he decided to take it a wild step further and created a whole new publisher with his friends.

I think that's the correct history.  I could have some minor details wrong.

Youngblood is, as one would guess, a superhero comic.  And despite the fact that it's always easily dismissed by a great deal of comic book readers as a nothing sort of comic; as underwritten, overdrawn dreck, Youngblood didsome stuff in its pages that is still relevant today (maybe even more so today) and it was the first time I'd seen anything like it.  Not just in Liefeld's crazy action pose filled art, but in content as well.  Right out of the gate Liefeld's pencils are in your face with massive characters, massive guns, and massive pouches.  Things that seem to bother everyone in the world that loves superhero comics except me (and I hope people that are like me, I don't know!).  The pouches on Liefeld's characters always made them much more interesting to me I always wondered what was in them -- even back with Deadpool and Cable -- and, believe it or not, it also made them somewhat more practical.  Let me explain.  Look at the Punisher's design, from the original design from the 1970s to today's variation of that same design.  Black jumpsuit, black boots, white skull and a really big gun.  Where does he keep his extra ammo?  If you look at soldiers today, twenty years ago, forty years ago; they have more in common with Liefeld's pouch-heavy designs than they do military-based characters like the Punisher, Captain America, Taskmaster, so on and so forth.  Also right off the bat we get to see an amazing truth in those first few pages of this new digital edition of Youngblood that holds true now as much as it did back then: creator owned comics have much more passion in them than work-for-hire comics.  Regardless of how fond the artist or writer is of the character, you can feel the passion in a creator owned comic that's entirely absent in a work-for-hire book.  I can find many reference points for evidence for this from books like Youngblood, the other books I'm reading for this blog, and books like Battle Chasers, Sin City, and Hellboy.  It's not just in the action here in Rob's art, even though the lines are bolder, more distinct, and there seems to be an attention to the detail towards the look of the book that Marvel couldn't replicate at the time, but also in the introduction of a character named Jackson Kirby, an obvious dedication to Jack Kirby who, without him, there wouldn't be much of a comic book industry today.  As a creator you only base characters on real people for two reasons, I think: to mock them or to show them an unrestrained respect to them.  Liefeld's depiction of Kirby as an action hero in his comic is much more the latter than it could ever be the former.

The actual story of Youngblood opens up in another dimension with a group of a freedom fighters -- that are gathered together like the usual five man superhero team -- trying to escape the clutches of the Darkseid-esque character named Darkthornn.  I had always read that Youngblood was intended to be a Teen Titans book over at DC, but it isn't until now, twenty-years of comic reading later, that I can see it.  I don't know if it's true or not, but I can see the similarities.  With the prologue out of the way we get to the "real world," where Rob takes us places that I hadn't seen before in comics: the superhero as a celebrity.  I can't tell you with any kind of certainty that Rob was the first to do this sort of thing.  Truth is, I don't really know.  I do know, however, that I've seen it since a great deal of times, but I don't recall ever seeing it in a comic that was published before 1992. Superheroes,as I knew them -- maybe as you knew them -- have always had secret identities that they had to keep separate from their superhero life, and they had to fight to keep those identities secret.  Batman does it; Superman does it; Spider-Man and the X-Men do it.  Youngblood didn't.  Youngblood is a massive team of superheroes split into two separate strike forces (one to do the famous regular superhero stuff, and one to do the military-styled black ops stuff) owned and operated by the U.S. Government.  I never quite understood the Youngblood name, and I still don't, to be honest.  When it was first announced, I remember fearing that it would be a comic about hockey like the movie of the same name from forever ago.

That premise alone creates an interesting dynamic for the characters to operate in, one that, as I've stated already, that's been used a lot since 1992, where superheroes are publicly known and treated as celebrities.  They have television deals, action figures; are followed by the tabloid media and paparazzi, and all sorts of things like that.  It's a very interesting concept that could have only been born from the late 1980s and early 1990s and stays just as relevant today as it was back then because of our society's complete fascination with the lives of celebrities.  Before Youngblood, superheroes were billionaire playboys, mild-mannered reporters and the like.  An archtype born out of the pulp heroes like Zorro, the Shadow, the Phantom, and many others.  To top it off, Youngblood's other side -- which leaks out to the media in the plot -- is something superhero comics really haven't seen since the 1940s, except in a few panels of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen: superheroes tackling real-world issues.  Youngblood's hidden side, it's black ops side, leads a strike on a middle-eastern dictator bearing a striking resemblance -- in name and appearance -- to Saddam Hussein: Hassan Kussein.  The conflict, however, is mostly predictable superhero stuff. Big action poses accompanied by dialogue that stunts the tempo of the action, which, here, has at least been updated to feel a bit refreshing than I remember it being originally. The coloring isn't too much different than I remembered them being, either.  It's also worth noting that in 1992, coloring like this hadn't really been done before.  Image Comics' publication levels, especially the quality of paper and coloring, blew everything else out of the water.  And it only got better.

The second issue of the series introduces another new character of Liefeld's that's proved to have a bit of lasting power in Prophet: a time-travelling super-warrior of some sort that has connections to the Darkthornn character from the prologue.  Youngblood finds him in Kussein's basement (after the dictator was disposed of rather relentlessly in the first issue, naturally,by the away team's telekinetic Psi-Fire).  A typical mistaken identity superhero plot battle erupts between the team and Prophet until the real threat makes itself known.  The third issue flashes back and forth between the home team as they battle supervillains and Prophet battles the real villains over the bodies of the defeated members of Youngblood and the freedom fighters from the prologue.  The fourth and final issue is both Youngblood teams united with the freedom fighters and Prophet going to war with Darkthornn.  I remember really loving this issue when it was originally published and I can still see why.  You can really see Rob's anime influences shine through in some of these pages.  They're fresh, richly colored, and pretty detailed at certain parts.  The action, too, is a hyper mix of both Western and Eastern comic book approaches to story telling.  Liefeld's work in fight scenes and action sequences, in my mind, is very similar to the big booking style of the WWE with lots of highspots and signature moves; not a lot of mat work, but it works almost the same (well, as long as you have decent performers in the WWE).  I also think new pages of art have been added here and there as some are very unfamiliar, and I poured over these books for a long while ages ago.  They look just as good, if not better, but fit in seamlessly and actually push the narrative along at a better pace.  The re-arranging of certain sequences and scenes also helps in that matter.  The end result is that the first four issues of the Youngblood series aided with the re-scripting by Joe Casey, isn't that bad of a comic at all.  I enjoy it, not as much as I did twenty years ago, sure, but I still rather like it.  It starts out as something new and fresh but delves back into being a typical superhero comic in the end, but one that's still, as I said, relevant.  The celebrity thing is still as fresh as it was then and hasn't been overused, even though it's been used a lot.  I've seen it used in the pages of Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming, in New X-Men by Grant Morrison and a plethora of different artists, and I've seen it used in the Authority during Mark Millar and Frank Quitely's run.  Mark also touched on it in his run on the Ultimates with Bryan Hitch a bit.  I don't know if Liefeld is the originator of the idea, and I don't know if those other guys were at all inspired by Liefeld's Youngblood; but it's definitely something I'd like to see a lot more of in comics.  I don't think it's been explored to its fullest potential at all.

With Joe Casey's help on the refurbishing of the original series, I think that Rob Liefeld has a comic on his hands that has stood the test of time for twenty years now and will still stand for the years to come.  It has aged very well.  No, it isn't a genre altering piece like Watchmen or the Dark Knight Returns, but it isn't a horrible example of what the comic book medium has to offer, either.

Next up: Todd McFarlane and His Spawn.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Fan's Retrospective: Looking Back at Image Comics


1992 was a pretty revolutionary year for me as a fifteen-year-old-going-on-sixteen-year-old kid. I'd began reading comics just seven years before, in 1985, with Kitty Pryde and Wolverine # 2.  Sure, I had owned comics before, but I had a hard time reading much of anything at all at that point and, besides, almost all of the comics I owned before then were DC Comics.  I didn't care or like DC's library of books or cast of characters at nine years old.  I thought of the 1960s Batman television show every time I thought of DC and I didn't really wanna even look at comics with a pre-teen boy in tight pants going BIFF POW and WHAM on a bunch of shitty looking criminals.  And at nine years old, I was picky about everything.  When I began reading comics I instantly gravitated to the characters that were familiar to me and the publisher that brought them to life.  I knew who the Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man were because of the live action television show with Lou Ferigno and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends that also featured Iceman and Firestar (Iceman being an X-Men character is a huge catch here, and Firestar was actually created for the cartoon and then introduced to the comics later).  This one comic, one that my mother bought for me on a trip to a grocery store in Virginia, was published by Marvel Comics -- the same publisher whose logo appeared on the television shows I just mentioned -- and I figured it was safe.  It featured a vicious looking, almost animalistic character named Wolverine and the spritely (!), light spirited character Kitty Pryde.  Non-comics reading folks would recognize them as being portrayed by Hugh Jackman and Ellen Page in X3: The Last Stand.  With that single comic I was introduced to a world that would, undoubtedly, change my life forever: The X-Men.  For the next seven years I read X-Men related comics almost exclusively.  There was only one exception: The Amazing Spider-Man.

These comics were presenting a whole new universe of characters, each with their own personal histories as well as a massive overall history, that was quite exiting to me.  I devoured all of it.  So much so that by 1990 I knew pretty much all one could possibly know about the X-Men and Spider-Man without having read every comic published featuring the characters -- hell,I even knew some of the other Marvel characters' histories from books I thought were exceptionally corny on an almost DC-like level; like those Avengers chaps.  My constant quest for knowing everything about these character started drawing me towards the Whos.  The Whos being those responsible for bringing the comics I was reading to life.  The artists, the writers, the editors, the inkers, the colorists; even that Stan Lee guy (who I already knew because he did many voice overs for the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends program). And, as with what I imagine to be a great deal of comic book readers, it was the artists on the book that I learned of first.  Marc Silvestri was the first I gravitated towards with his sharp -- sometimes raggedly sharp -- edges on the Uncanny X-Men and eventually Wolverine's own title.  Then Todd McFarlane's spindly Spider-Man with Spaghetti Webbing on the Amazing Spider-Man and the subsequent, adjectiveless Spider-Man book.  Jim Lee followed Marc Silvestri on Uncanny with sporadic issues, a lot of covers, and a short but amazing run on the title before jumping to an also adjectiveless X-Men book.  This guy blew the doors off of everything with every line he drew.  On X-Factor, a title that followed the adventures of the original five X-Men were the intense pencils of Whilce Portacio who followed Lee on Uncanny.  Over on the younger end of the X-Men spectrum was a book called the New Mutants that followed the newest additions to Xavier's School for the Gifted and it was being pencilled by an equally young Rob Liefeld.  Following Todd on both Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man, oddly enough, was Erik Larsen who is responsible (well, and David Michelinie wrote one of them) for my two favorite stories featuring Spidey: Return of the Sinister Six and Revenge of the Sinister Six. These guys were my favorite artists in comics at the time and all of them drew for Marvel Comics.  In my eyes, no one could touch them.  Not even the saints that had come before like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or John Byrne.  I was a kid.  I was stupid.  Shit happens!  No one at Marvel was this good and no one at DC came even close.

By the end of 1991 all my favorite artists were practically gone from Marvel.  They were either on sabbatical, had permanently left those titles announcing their self-imposed retirement, or were just doing layouts and covers here and there.  Without getting too much into the politics of what was going on behind the scenes, what was going on was that these six artists, plus a guy named Jim Valentino, were exiting Marvel altogether to create something new, something fresh, and, ultimately, something that they owned.  Image Comics was birthed from the collaborative minds of Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Jim Valentino, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio, and it was to be simply a publishing house for comics that owned nothing.  What ultimately followed was a revolution that changed not only myself but the entire comic book industry, and, indeed, the medium itself forever.  Up until that point, I was exclusively a reader of X-Men related comics and Spider-Man, as I mentioned before, and I never thought of reading anything else, nor did I even want to.  Until they left, anyway.  What happened when all of them left Marvel was suddenly there was a void of pretty art as the artists that were replacing these guys were aping their styles and not doing a very good job at it.  But it isn't their fault as Marvel had a horrible habit of enforcing specific styles upon their writers and artists that mimicked the successful team that came before them. It was actually years and years after Chris Claremont left the Uncanny X-Men that they allowed another writer to deviate from the text-heavy caption boxes that rendered the art useless because that was the "X-Men" style. All my favorite comics and favorite characters suddenly got very ugly.  Almost overnight.

The first Image Comics book debuted in April of 1992.  It was called Youngblood and it was the brainchild of Rob Liefeld.  It was followed a month later by Todd McFarlane's Spawn comic; in July Erik Larsen gave us the Savage Dragon.  In August we saw both Jim Lee and Brandon Choi's WildC.A.T.s and Jim Valentino's ShadowHawk and in October Marc Silvestri teamed up with his brother, Eric, to bring us Cyber Force.

I was obsessed.  It was like I had discovered comics for the first time all over again.  New characters, new worlds, new histories, and, for once, they looked better than my old favorites at Marvel ever had.  I abandoned Marvel for the better part of the 1990s, I didn't return until the Fatal Attractions crossover with the X-Men books where Magneto ripped Wolverine's adamantium off his bones, and even then it was for a very short period of time until Grant Morrison came knocking.  I stuck with Image and bought almost every book they published until eventually branching out to other publishers because these seven guys, and those that worked with them and even brought their own creations under the Image banner, had opened my eyes to see past the Marvel horizon.  There was Frank Miller's Sin City, for instance.  Arthur Adams' Monkey Man & O'Brien stories, and a good portion of the books published by Valiant Comics like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Bloodshot, and X-O Manowar proved to be eventual favorites of mine.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Image Comics.  Almost all of those properties that a whole lot of fans and even some professionals said wouldn't last five years are still going, and decently well.  One book, Savage Dragon, is still being written and drawn by its original creator: Erik Larsen. This year saw the return of several of Rob Liefeld's creations as though they had never went anywhere, and Cyber Force was rebooted in October.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Image Comics now is a very different place than it was twenty years ago.  Where it was once a publishing house dominated by creator-owned superhero comics, there's now creator-owned dramas, creator-owned science fiction, creator-owned horror and even a certain creator-owned zombie comics called the Walking Dead.  Everyone's heard of that, right?

In an attempt to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my favorite comics publisher (still!  to this day!) I decided I would revisit those original six comics -- and the seventh one that almost got away -- to see what the thirty-six year old version of myself thinks of the comics my fifteen year old self adored.  So, hold on to your hats, it's bound to be an interesting ride.

First up: Rob Liefeld's Youngblood.