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.

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