A brief introduction: I made a suggestion to Geoff a while back about a ‘first comics’ post but, thinking the idea a bit overdone, Geoff suggested instead re-reading our first comics and applying what we now know about the comics form, as well as our own ‘matured’ perspectives, to evaluate them anew. I thought it was a great idea and, when I went home for thanksgiving, tried to find that ‘first’ comic. I didn’t, but what I did find was a box of my old comics, many of which I am now ashamed to admit owning, and, many more, that I can’t even remember what the motivation behind my purchasing them might have been. To give you an idea, the box contains a bunch of old Excalibur (both Claremont and post-Claremont), a bunch of New Mutants, almost the complete series of Nomad, most of the first dozen issues or so of Spirits of Vengeance, the occasional random issue of X-men or New Warriors, miscellaneous early Image and, Liefeld, Oh, God…. I can’t believe I really ever owned this much Liefeld.
Thus the ‘From the Box’ Idea was born. I hope that this will be a semi-recurring feature where I grab one or two of these comics at random and try to discern whether or not they were actually any good. Sometimes (as is the case in this first post on Youngblood) my suspicions will be confirmed that yes, 15 year old me did, in fact, have absolutely no taste whatsoever. Other times, I might find myself pleasantly surprised by a really well done issue of a series or discover some long forgotten gem.
Also, I don’t want this feature to be limited to me! I want to welcome any of you folks out there to go dig up some of your old comics and, when you come across something worthy of praise or scrutiny… or just find yourself incredibly embarrassed by a purchase made by a much younger/more naïve you, then, by all means, write it up for this post!
So, here goes the first one…
Youngblood issues 1-3 (I’ll be focusing on the first issue but I’ll draw from the others as well)
Plot, Script & Pencils (yes, Liefeld was a triple threat on this series)
When Image launched in 1992, it was a watershed moment in comics history: for the first time a company run by creators, for creators was in a position, mostly due to the popularity of its artist, to be on a level playing field with ‘The Big Two.’ Unfortunately, with early Image, the ‘creative control’ championed by the founders was less about artistic integrity and freedom than it was about total control of the PROFITS of their creations. No where was this more painfully apparent than in the work of Rob Liefeld.
First of all, is it really as bad as it has been made out to be? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes!” In fact, it’s probably much, much worse than you remember it. The best way to describe Liefeld’s Youngblood is if someone hands you a comic book and tells you their 13 year old nephew wrote and drew it ‘all by themselves.’ You might think “Gee, this is pretty good for a 13 year old. Once they take some art classes and learn the basic principles of storytelling they might be able to make a real go at this.” However, when one considers that Youngblood was NOT the work of a 13 year old fanboy but the work of an adult who was, at the time, one of the hottest artists in comics and that the work in question was an eagerly awaited new series, then it becomes clear that something is seriously wrong here.
The horrendousness of Liefeld’s art, in and of itself, has already been discussed at great length and is more explicitly (not to mention hilariously) illustrated here with the ’The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings.’ However, that title is a bit of a misnomer; it shouldn’t be called the ‘40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings’ as this would imply that, in some way, his other drawings were somehow better than these, a more accurate title would probably be ’40 Typical Rob Liefeld’ drawings. Based on the first few issues of Youngblood, it would seem as though every page… scratch that… every panel of Liefeld’s work is riddled with gross distortions of anatomy, awkwardly posed figures and a total lack of the basic artistic principles regarding perspective, distance etc. I have long held a theory that much of Liefeld’s shoddy style can be attributed to a short attention span. It’s almost as thought he grows bored with a figure before he has even finished. This would probably explain why he was always tapering off on extremities like hands and feet (but who needs those anyway) or why weapons (be they gun or sword) often seem sketched in as an afterthought.
Indeed, early Image was a triumph of style over substance but, in Liefeld’s case, not only was the style more important than the substance but there was virtually no substance.
The dialogue alone is cringe-inducing [Note: for the first issue scripting chores were handled by Hank Kanalz who, apparently, was too competent for Liefeld’s taste (but not, I’d imagine, anyone else’s) and promptly dismissed and replaced by Liefeld himself in the second issue]. The first issue opens with Shaft, the teams bow-wielding leader (originally a re-designed Speedy Liefeld proposed for The Titans in the late-80’s), is shopping with his girlfriend who says, “It’s too good to be true. I’m actually shopping with my boyfriend. Unbelievable!” Now, aside from the redundancy of the ‘Unbelievable’ combined with the aforementioned ‘Too Good To Be True’ this is some of the most thinly veiled expository dialogue ever. One thing that I hate in comics is redundancy, especially when it comes to dialogue; if something can be communicated visually then there is no need for words to explain it. This is one of the great strengths of comics after all. So, of course, when a would be assassin (who is using a sniper pistol rather than a rifle for no other reason that it seems as though Liefeld drew him in such a position that holding a rifle in the appropriate direction would be impossible and so he just stuck the pistol in his hand instead) attempts to take out Shaft, our hero announces: “No arrows, this pen will have to do!” He then hurls the pen at the villain who, in case we haven’t gotten the point, croaks “How’d… *gurgle*… No arrows!” before falling to his death in the mall’s water fountain.
Ok, so a lot of really great comics have had cheesy dialogue over the years so maybe this particular sin is forgivable. However, what is not forgivable is the series total lack of any plot whatsoever. Seriously, after 3 issues I have NO idea what is going on. It seems as though there are two Youngblood teams (the 1st issue is done in a ‘flip book’ format with half the issue being dedicated to each team, an idea which Liefeld quickly grew bored with since it is abandoned by the 2nd issue) a ‘home’ team and an ‘away’ team. The home team goes to stop two members of a villainous group called ‘The Four’ from breaking out the other two at which point the story abruptly ends mid-battle (by the time we join the team again in the 2nd issue the bad guys have already been apprehended so, the chief action built up to in the first issue occurs entirely OFF PANEL). The ‘Away’ team is sent to deal with ‘Hassan Kussein’ which results in the team’s ‘loose cannon’ psychic, Psi-Fire, making the fictionalized dictator’s head explode. [ Lousy Art watch: the ‘away’ team’s alien member, Combat (despite the fact that his trading card tells me that he is 7ft tall), is depicted as being anywhere from 10 to 20 feet tall… also, his real name? Kh’ambt. Genius.]
Trying to explain the plot is damn near impossible, but it includes two government sponsored superhero teams, one team of bad guys (the Four), an interdimensional force of evil, there are two alien races who are watching things from above (for a possible invasion, maybe? It’s pretty unclear. But it is known that a member of each race is part of one Youngblood team or another), the second issue introduces us to some genetically engineered superhero named Prophet who has been in a state of cryogenic stasis for the purpose of fighting the aforementioned ‘extra-dimensional’ evil. In the midst of all of this, a group of heroes called The Bezerkers shows up to assist in fighting the bad guys. By the beginning of the 3rd issue the entire away team and the Bezerkers are seemingly dead as a result of the battle taking place at the end of the previous issue (and once again, the big battle built up to in the previous issue has occurred ‘off-panel’). Oh yeah, and at one point, some ninjas show up (I’m dead serious about that).
Again, I think much of the problem here is Liefeld’s own short attention span; every issue keeps introducing something new without finishing or expanding upon what has been introduced. It’s as though he has no concept of the basic Aristotelian principles governing plot. Or, perhaps as a result of his ADD, he never got past the part about ‘rise in action’ and never learned about things like ‘climax’ or ‘denoument’ or ‘conclusion’. Thus, the series seems to be a constant build-up towards nothing. Who knows? Maybe Liefeld was actually experimenting with some sort of bold new plot form… or maybe he just doesn’t know how to tell a story.
Along the same lines, there are far too many characters here: there are TWO Youngblood teams (with 6 members each), The Four, Prophet, The Berzerkers, Lord Darkthorne, support staff for the Youngblood teams etc. There are so many characters that it’s hard to distinguish who is who and, of course, there is virtually no time for anyone to develop a personality. I’m reminded of something Mark Twain said in ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses’ that one of the rules of literary art is that “All personages of a tale, both alive and dead, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.” To paraphrase Twain, “This detail has been overlooked in the Youngblood comic.”
The in house ads also give us some insight to the fact that Liefeld has already lost interest in his flagship team and is turning his attentions to other creations including: Supreme, Brigade (a Youngblood spin-off already in the works before the series had even started), Bloodstrike etc. In addition, all the teams seem to be almost exactly the same. A guy with big guns, a genetically enhanced super-soldier, a feral-wolverine-like guy, a chick… all teams are government sponsored or mercernaries…and at least one member is former CIA or FBI. It seems as Liefled isn’t so much distracted by new ideas as he is buy the same idea with different clothes.
Almost forgot, in the midst of all of this Liefeld makes an attempt at satirizing the commercialization of the superhero genre which raises an important question: Is it possible to satirize something of which you yourself are the greatest and worst offender?
At the time of its release in 1992, Youngblood number 1 would become the highest selling independent comic of all time. Upon reading it one can only ask the question “Why?” Still, perhaps it is not without merit; on some level or another can this be considered ‘art’? I think it is perhaps best to answer that question with another Twain quote from “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences”:
“A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.”