In Defence Of Rob Liefeld: Speaking Of Rob Liefeld To The Cultured Among His Despisers.
Ladies and gentlemen of the geek jury, I stand before you today in order to defend the accused, Rob Liefeld, of the most heinous of crimes. Never has a professional comic book artist attracted such derision and such hatred; never has an individual’s creative ‘oeuvre’ been the subject of such abject loathing. *
At the heart of this animosity lies the following two charges: 1) Mr Liefeld cannot draw properly, and 2) Mr Liefeld is an asshole. As I am sure you are aware, the prosecution often mixes and matches these charges, regaling us with anecdotes of Mr Liefeld’s business affairs and his tardiness in finishing solicited projects, in his apparent swiping of other artists, and his own artistic deficits, including (but not limited to) a lack of anatomical knowledge, a fundamental inability to transition from panel to panel, and an art style that repeats various tropes and crutches, whether that be gritted teeth, multiple pouches, changing details between panels, or a fear of drawing feet.
This defence will not attempt to deny that Mr Liefeld may not meet everyone’s definition of what makes a great comic book artist or writer. Nor will it attempt to exonerate Mr Liefeld in his business etiquette. Rather, we propose to you, the geek jury, that, regarding his ‘negative’ impact on the comic book industry, Mr Liefeld is less harmful to the funnybook business than his critics make out, and regarding the positive impact he has had on the industry, he has a) created a series of characters that have had real staying power, b) helped create one of the bastions of creator rights in the comic book industry (i.e. Image Comics), and c) became a pariah figure that allows the rest of comicdom to feel united by defining themselves against Rob Liefeld. If the nerd in the left corner liked Brian Michael Bendis’s run on Daredevil, and the nerd in the right corner loathes Bendis as if he were Satan incarnate, they can both agree that they hate Rob Liefeld. Thus, unlike within religion, or politics, or football, nerds tend not to actually resort to physical violence (ignoring the odd venomous message board exchange) because they always have a single common denominator. They (pretty much) all hate Rob. Thus, much death is avoided.
In defending Mr Liefeld, I wish to draw your attention to the fact that even if Mr Liefeld is guilty of being an asshole (both in a personal and business sense), and even if he has an art style that many in the geek fraternity find aesthetically distasteful (and we should note that the word ‘guilt’ implies wrong-doing, as if Mr Liefeld’s artistic endeavours are somehow a moral transgression), then this is not something that Mr Liefeld has a particular monopoly on. There are other industry professionals who are guilty of both bad art and bad business practices, who regularly fly under the nerd-wrath radar, and who do not attract the same ire as the defendant.
The punishment that the internet prosecution would wish upon Mr Liefeld – that of bankruptcy, of destitution, and/or death by penile cancer – do not fit the misdemeanours that my client stands accused of. On message boards across the digital land the punishment cried for by the nerd mob does not fit the crime. I urge you to rise above the herd mentality and recognise that my client is unfairly maligned for practices that – rightly or wrongly – are quite routine in the funnybook industry. Thus, if Mr Liefeld were to have acted less than scrupulously in his business and financial dealings (and often all we have is conjecture and heresay), then this makes him merely unscrupulous, but not Satan incarnate, as the prosecution often maintains. Even if these accusations of financial impropriety and corporate mismanagement were to be upheld as correct and true (and one should note that many of these accusations arose when he left Image in the ’90s, a company he has since been welcomed back into with open arms), then Mr Liefeld surely must still be considered practically saintly when compared to the historical treatment of Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, or his Image partner Todd McFarlane, who has allegedly used some rather underhand tactics in the acquisition of Miracle Man and the subsequent fight with Neil Gaiman over the character ‘Angela’ **; or the alleged misrepresentation of a certain Mr Stan Lee, who according to his ex-creative partner Jack Kirby, took credit for Kirby’s creation of more than half of the pop culture icons that have defined a sizeable chunk of western pop culture since the 1960s. It is, after all, not Mr Liefeld’s fault that he does not come across as cuddly and as charming as Smilin’ Stan in interview, but mention Stan Lee on a message board, and you might get the odd grumble; mention Liefeld in anything other than a ‘hack/swiper/murderer of children’ light, and you will be ostracized as a caveman ignoramus who befriends serial killers or paedophiles.
Even if Mr Liefeld has made some bad business calls (and remember, my client is not an Harvard graduate with an MBA but rather a creative individual who has had to juggle his creative portfolio with his business portfolio, from a very young age) my client was instrumental in setting up Image Comics, which arguably offers the highest profile gigs for creator-owned work. We could quibble about how much credit Mr Liefeld deserves for the success of what Image Comics has morphed into today; it certainly seems inarguable that – as philosophers might put it – he is a necessary, if not sufficient, cause of this current haven for creators rights. Imagine, for a second what might not have happened to the industry had Rob said to Todd in the early 90s, ‘gee, you know what Todd? I have more money than Bill Gates at the mo, and you do love snorting coke out of hooker’s ass cracks; let’s stick with Marvel for a while.”***
Indeed, what Mr Liefeld is guilty of is being successful, and of maintaining a two-decade career in a notoriously volatile industry. His successes include the creation of X-Force, Cable, and Deadpool, and whilst the prosecution might argue that other creators have made these characters what they are today, if Mr Liefeld had not put pen to paper, then these fan-favourites would not exist and shareholders for Marvel would not have profited handsomely from his creative endeavours. If we are to look back at enduring characters created in comic books over the last twenty years, we would find very few that have retained the same cultural appeal as the classic DC and Marvel stalwarts from the golden and silver age of comic books, and many of the characters that have been remained popular were created by the defendant.
Whilst much has been made of my client’s solicitation of books that have never appeared, it is also conveniently forgotten that he also presided over Alan Moore’s extended run of Supreme, successfully managing a notoriously difficult creator over a long period of time. The prosecution might maintain that Mr Liefeld has been an irresponsible business man, but ask yourself how many Superman books did DC manage to get Alan Moore to write over the last fifteen years, (as Supreme is effectively a pastiche of the Superman mythos).
Mr Liefeld is also guilty of creating that most frustratingly indefinable and unjustifiable facet of contemporary pop culture: he made things ‘cool’. Yes, Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen is also considered ‘cool’, but in a paradoxical way this is less threatening: we can stroke our beards and intellectually discuss Watchmen as ‘serious fans’, something that would imply that what is ‘cool’ is subject to rigorous creative intellect and philosophical depth. No, what is far more threatening is the fact that Mr Liefeld represents a form of cool that suggests that intellectual justification is secondary to emotional provocation, that criticism is actually a form of rationalisation, as opposed to dissection. It is threatening to nerds to admit that, well, I looked at this and it just thrilled me, irrespective of the deeper political subtext being present or absent in the writer’s vision, or irrespective or whether or not the artist knows his supraspinatus from his quadratus lumborum while drawing his anatomy.
The defence maintains that it is the continued success of Mr Liefeld that so irks the (thirty-something) fanboy elite who find his work and his business dealings so offensive. Yes, Mr Liefeld has probably been more successful than other deserving – often outstanding – creators who have languished in obscurity, and who deserved a spot in the limelight. My client, I am sure, would be the first to heap praise on a number of creators that he feels deserve (and deserved) their place in the sun, and who never received it. Nonetheless, Mr Liefeld does not have to justify his success to anyone, for the following reason: success is mercurial, and as the Hollywood script writer William Goldman has often pointed out, when it comes to replicating or engineering success ‘no one knows nothing’. Thus, what he has created, the public have bought, irrespective of what the armchair critics might have thought, or despaired over. I am sure that, had Mr Liefeld vanished into obscurity in the 1990s, he would still be creating now in his spare time, as creative individuals are want to do, but it is public record that this did not happen.
Mr Liefeld did not however force the public to buy millions of copies of X-Force; Mr Liefeld did not force the public to buy Youngblood, or Hawk and Dove. As he himself would likely admit, he has been very lucky, and even though my client undoubtedly has a high opinion of his own abilities (and lest the jury consider that a crime, they should ask themselves to name a single creative individual who does not have a high opinion of their own abilities or potential), Mr Liefeld surely knows that his success is not because he was somehow massively superior to the less-successful professionals who have worked in the comic book industry.
Rather, he has been fortunate, ladies and gentlemen. That he continues to capitalise on his good fortune by creating comic books – and feeding his family by doing so – is entirely his prerogative. This of course is not to suggest that there is no place for aesthetic criticism of my client, or for people disliking his work, but rather, that the venom directed towards my client is disproportionate, and ill-motivated.
As mentioned in my opening statement, this venom is often directed at my client’s supposed lack of artistic abilities. Mr Liefeld is often accused of being, for want of a better word, a ‘hack’, which we can take to mean that his talents (or lack thereof) do not match the successes he has reaped, an accusation we have already shown to be spurious, because success and talent in all creative industries are often only tenuously linked. Nevertheless, I wish to consider what the criteria for ‘good’ art is, this nebulous criteria that Mr Liefeld somehow falls foul of. The defence draws your attention to the point that there is clearly a wide divergence of opinion of what makes good funnybook art, and no clear cut criteria for what constitutes ‘good’ art: examine the fanboy vitriol over the ‘public vote’ of the top 125 artists conducted by Comic Book Resources; many fans lamented that their individual top 10 did not match the public-voted top 10. There is no mathematical formulae that undergirds these aesthetic choices. (And of course, the top 10 now would be different from the top 10 in the 1990s, and in the 1980s, and so forth.)
If we can conclude that there is no objective criteria that separates the good artists from the bad artists, it might seem reasonable to ask if my client measures up to the instructional manuals or books that are often cited by other comic book artists as what aspiring artists should read and digest whilst practising, but I have never asked my client if he has meditated over Scott Mcloud’s Understanding Comics, or Will Eisner’s Comics And Sequential Art, or Burne Hogarth’s ‘anatomy for artists’ textbooks, for the following reason: the defence counsel is not ashamed to admit that when I was twelve, I devoured the work of the accused, and not once did I have a problem understanding the panel-to-panel flow of Mr Liefeld’s work, nor did I stop and ask whether or not Mr Liefeld had drawn the correct bony insertion of the under-arm muscle lattisimus dorsi, or drew the forearm muscle brachioradialis on the correct place. Indeed, I did not lose any sleep over whether or not Mr Liefeld knew the muscles that made up the thenar and the hypothenar eminences, because I did not have a medical degree, and so I did not care. In this, I assume I was like thirteen year olds in the 1940s who read Captain America, or the thirteen year olds in the 1960s who read Fantastic Four.
Of all the artists working in comic books today, there are very few who would have this level of anatomical knowledge (Bart Sears and Alex Ross spring to mind), but to the trained eye a great many comic book artists regularly flub their anatomy, including Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, John Byrne, Mark Baguely, and so the list goes on. And it does not really matter. In addition, I often struggle to follow the panel-to-panel of Humberto Ramos, and J. H. Williams III – even if I think their art is beautiful to behold – and Alex Ross’s photopainted realism can often feel very stiff in a way that the Image creators do not. Alex Ross may well have a more technical grasp of anatomy, perspective, and realism than my client; he may well have attempted far more elaborate and complex narrative set-ups when compared to Mr Liefeld’s particular artistic passions, but for the defence counsel, Mr Liefeld has often displayed more fluidity and dynamism in his panel to panel transitions as he does not rely on (nor have the luxury of) photographing models, which we would maintain stiffens the aforementioned Mr Ross’s artwork.
On a similar note, there are often many disparaging remarks made about Mr Liefeld’s ability to draw feet, and/or his need to hide feet. It is well known that many artists do this, as feet are difficult to draw, and as the late Mr Kirby himself said, “I get paid to draw, not to rub out.” Yes, my client might struggle with feet, but as feet are not completely absent from his work, and as the majority of comic book readers are not superhero foot-fetishists who want their entire comic book drawn from the perspective of six inches of the ground, then I think it is perhaps uncharitable to single Mr Liefeld out for this criticism.
In addition, if we wanted our comicbooks to look photo-realistic perfect, then we would be reading photo-comics. A criticism often levelled at the painter Alex Ross is that his work is often too realistic, leaving the end product feeling somewhat stiff and posed. There may be some truth in this, but this is Alex Ross’s style, and he has built a career out of this. Imperfections and repeated motifs are part of an artist’s style. The prosecution maintains that Mr Liefeld has a limited artistic repertoire, but it is these artistic motifs that Mr Liefeld has built a successful career on: he would be foolish to turn his back on a style that helped propel X-Force # 1 to the sorts of sales numbers that creators today can only dream of. Very few artists can change the styles that they have matured into (the ones that do, such as Travis Charest, tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule): Alex Ross, Greg Capullo, Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Alex Maleev, John Romita, and Jack Kirby all built their careers on instantly recognisable styles that have hardly changed in the decades that they have been professional. Why should Mr Liefeld be any different?
On the charge of Mr Liefeld ‘swiping’ other artists, whilst one might not place this particularly highly on the list of ‘moral choices’ an artist could make, Mr Liefeld did not set the precedent for this, and as even a cursory search around the interweb reveals, the practice is rife amongst industry professionals. This does not make it morally commendable, but it is explainable in the sense that artists like Mr Liefeld are often under quite severe time constraints to produce pages, and are often paid by the page, making swiping an easy solution to a tricky problem. If he has – on occasion – succumbed to the temptation of swiping (and he has often talked quite freely about homaging artists in his work), he joins good company of other industry professionals who must work quickly in order to earn a living.
In the end, it is good that people hate Rob Liefeld; it brings them together. But it is no less demeaning to love Rob Liefeld, despite him being guilty of the crime of being hotheaded and human, a crime that many of us are guilty of. His embracing of his own artistic faults to the point of turning them into artistic flourishes, and his own self confidence, are hardly crimes that demand the death penalty, and his failings as an artist and a business man are minor in comparison to the transgressions that occur in the funnybook business on a regular basis.
Multiple wrongs do not make a right, but justice derived from a mob mentality is also not justice at all. Rather, the defence implores you to think beyond your hatred of speed lines, and big hair, and metal pouches and cylinder guns, and find it within yourself to accept that Rob Liefeld is not guilty of being the most talentless hack ever to have existed, but rather is merely a creator undertaking his vision, a vision that can only by subjectively judged, as opposed to tested scientifically. Yes, it would be nice to see more of Youngblood: Bloodsport; yes it might be good to see more of other projects that have been solicited, but have never appeared. But even if they do not, then my client has encouraged us to to do that most sacred of things: engage in conversation. It may take us ten to twenty minutes to read a comic book, but we can spend hours online and in person discussing it. Thus, in the field of comicbook criticism, we can love Mr Liefeld, or we can hate Mr Liefeld.
But we cannot do without Mr Liefeld.
* It should be noted that Rob Liefeld has nothing to do with this blog.
** This is all my imagination: I am sure Mr Mcfarlane is, in fact, a scholar and a gentleman.
*** Again: all conjecture in my head, and no reflection at all on persons living or dead. See above.
In the noble tradition of swiping, it should be noted that I have liberally swiped from the work of Carol Zaleski, especially ‘Speaking of William James to the Cultured Among His Despisers’, published in Journal of the Psychology of Religion Vol 2/3 pp 127 – 170, and also my closing argument swipes from her work in the seminal book, Otherworld Journeys. Sorry, I should say ‘homages’.
Thanks to Bladelph for offering comments on earlier drafts.