Thursday, January 08, 2009

From The Box: Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood

by Scott

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)
Rob Liefeld
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.”

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of the worst things about the Youngblood art was how much they looked like other Liefeld characters. It's like he can only draw characters who look like Cable, Shatterstar, Feral, Stryfe, or Domino.

Even my 14-year old self thought this was wretched, and didn't go beyond the 1st issue. A similar scenario occurred with Spawn.

But, like you, I bought many wretched comics in the early '90s. Some of the prime offenders were the Rogue mini-series, the Gambit mini-series, Excalibur post-Alan Davis (Any Excalibur with Alan Davis was completely awesome, still some of my favorite comics to this day), the Sabretooth mini-series, some pretty awful Captain America comics (the period leading up to him 'dying' was horrible yet I kept on buying them like a zombie...), X-Factor post-Peter David, Cage, Silver Sable, and Nomad after, like, issue 10 or so.

scott91777 said...

Anon,

You're dead on about how all of liefeld's characters are either Cable, Deadpool, Shatterstar, Feral or Domino. That pretty much nails it. Yet, as I mentioned, he felt it was necessary to keep creating all these 'new characters' that were basically those same 5.


I actually have most of (possibly all) the Alan Davis sans Claremont run of Excalibur 'in the box' so I may actually do some of those in a future post.

Honestly, I think 15 year old me also thought this stuff was pretty bad but, for whatever reason, I just totally bought into the hype. I remember being pretty turned off by Youngblood... and, I think, these first 4 issues were the only ones that I owned. I remember clearly liking WildCATs a lot better. Still, this does not explain why I also felt it necessary to purchase the first 4 issues of the first series of Brigade. And Brigade 0... and the first issue of the second series of Brigade. God was I stupid...

Christian said...

I'm so happy, I never bothered with these series.

(Sad thing is that Supreme, WildCATS and the other early New Image books actually turned into pretty great books once some competent artists and writers got involved. Like Casey, Moore and Brubaker.)


And I think we can all agree, you (Scott) should stop thinking about Youngbloods so much that you can write as long an article as this. It can't be healthy for your blood pressure/sanity.

Jason said...

Say what you want about Peter David, but being a reader of his "But I Digress" column in the 90s was a great inoculation for us guile-less teenagers against buying into the Image hype. I never bought any of that Liefeld crap, and I steered clear of Spawn and WildCATs too, until they got Moore and Claremont to write them, respectively.

And I'm certain I *would've* been sucked into the Image hype had Peter David not written some great answers to it in his column. So, props to PAD!

scott91777 said...

Christian,

That's a pretty accurate statement, there were several times when writing this that I was tempted to let the expletives fly! I think I really just wanted to write this because it gave me the opportunity to type "and then some ninjas show up"

Seriously, I did want to approach it to see if there was ANYTHING redeeming about it... if maybe, beyond the horrible art, there was something else. Turns out there wasn't. And, sometimes, we must experience something truly horrible so that we can be reminded of how appreciative we should be of the things that are well done.

Christian said...

You suffer so that I don't have to. I admire your dedication to your audience.

"A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from others'."

It's like Chris Sims' annotations of the Anita Blake comic book adaptions (which are hilarious btw.)

Christian said...

PS. Which Liefeld comic was it that the main characters were getting blowjobs from a Cyclops imitation and a Wolverine pastiche? I seem to remember something mentioning it at one time, but I forgot.

scott91777 said...

Are you sure you aren't thinking of Ennis and 'The Boys'? I remember someone mentioning that one here...

If it is a Liefeld thing though, my guess would be 'Bloodwulf' (I think that's what it was called), his Lobo parody/rip-off that he came up with for the 'A Darker Image' group (which also gave us Keith's The Maxx).

Mikey said...

Christian - they were in a hot tub! That was the Mark Millar penned one that came out a few years ago. Only the first issue was released I think - was it subtitled "Bloodsport"? It was Millar in juvenile sadist mode (as noted by many, there's an undercurrent of this in all his work, but he really let it fly in this one). Awful.

The thing with Liefeld is that, well, this is (rightly) a common criticism Scott makes: "gross distortions of anatomy, awkwardly posed figures and a total lack of the basic artistic principles regarding perspective, distance etc."

But the thing is, the same basic flaws can be found in 99% of ALL superhero comics artwork (same goes for the dialogue). I think that's why everyone is so hostile to Liefeld (who may not even be the worst offender): it basically embodies and confirms every criticism, every cliche the public at large thinks of when they write off superhero comics as juvenile and slightly creepy. And to a point, sadly, they're correct. Fans hate Liefeld's work because in their hearts they know that, at least in some capacity, he genuinely does represent a somewhat regrettable but pretty fundamental aspect of the genre and it's the kind that you gravitate towards when you're 13 years old (you can still grow up to love Chris Ware and Jack Kirby, of course).

Don't get me wrong, though, I do think it is possible to get decent artwork with dynamic composition, expressive linework and genuine heart in superhero comics, the 1% that make it all worthwhile (Aja, Lark maybe, Quitely of course...)

Mikey said...

PS: this makes me want to dig out my first comic and take a look. It was one of the Claremont/Jim Lee X-Men following the relaunch. It was absolutely bewildering, I had no idea what was going on or who any of these ridiculous characters were (it had Omega Red in it for pity's sake), but something within me decided that it might be worth persevering with.

I'd very much like to hear more on this, from Scott and others! Great idea.

Jason said...

Mikey,

For what it's worth, if it had Omega Red in it, then Claremont wasn't involved. :)

Mikey said...

Jason - you're right of course! A quick Google shows it was one of the issues following the Claremont relaunch (2nd series) with Lee, but by then Lee had taken over as sole plotter with Byrne on scripts (interesting times!).

Claremont didn't last long here, did he? Ultimately followed on the title by 90s stalwarts Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza (art by Adam Kubert) which is where I picked it up. And a more turgid and angsty comic than the issue in question I cannot recall reading. I so want to write this up.....

Jason said...

Mikey,

Yeh, Claremont had, I believe, already quit before the relaunch even got off the ground. Him writing the first three issues with Lee was, essentially, his severance package.

(Well, sort of, anyway. Not a perfect analogy. Do you get a severance package if you quit?)

Christian said...

Liefeld so desperately wants to be Jack Kirby, but has neither the imagination or the skill to pull it off.

But that's definitely who he's modeled himself after. (Wonky anatomy, "dynamic" lines, space-weapons etc.? Everything Kirby does right, Liefeld manages to fuck up.)


And my favorite Liefeld quote is still when he was doing a Wizard article about how to draw Robin, drew an enourmous circle behind him, and said: "A moon! For atmosphere!"

scott91777 said...

Christian,

Dead on about Liefeld wanting to be Kirby and "Everything Kirby manages to do right, liefeld manages to fuck up" is pretty much the best way of putting it.

Actually, the Bezerkers mentioned above are intended as a Kirby homage and are lead by a cigar-chomping tough guy named 'Kirby' (ah, the subtlety). And that issue opens with 'Respectfully (sic) dedicated to Jack Kirby'
I think this may have even been right around the time of his death... which makes it even more painful to think about.

Mikey,

Please do write up that comic!
That would be X-men 4 or 5, right?

Fnord Serious said...

I was thrilled with Liefeld when he started on New Mutants. He brought a breath of fresh air to a title that had been feeling stale. But by the time it was relaunched as X-Force and Louise Simonson was no longer there to bring sense and coherency to Liefeld's work, I realized that for all the flash there was very little substance. I still let myself get suckered into buying Youngblood #1 due to all the hype. The saddest part is that I bought it as a back issue a month after it came out, paying something like $8.

Jason said...

I'm far from the biggest Louise Simonson fan, but she has a fantastic response in "Comics Creators on X-Men" when asked about what it was like to work with Rob Liefeld on New Mutants. By all accounts, "Weezie" is one of the nicest people in the industry, and you can imagine her being very sweet as she says something to the effect of, "Well, it was strange. Rob would draw the outside of a building with rectangular windows, then you'd cut to the interior and the windows would suddenly be oval-shaped ... it was a little confusing to me."

scott91777 said...

Fnord,

You raise a good point, also in 'the box' is an issue of New Mutants from early on in Liefeld's tenure (issue 90 to be precise) and, in comparison, it seems downright competent. It's amazing how much worse his art became as he gained more 'artistic control' over his properties.

Christian said...

We're sure it's not because the inker is redrawing the scene, as with Karl Kesel and him on Hawk & Dove?

sexy said...
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