I recognized Rob Liefeld almost immediately when I saw him in the Artist’s Alley at the New York Comic Con. There aren’t too many creators that I could identify by sight, but on a scale of uncredited-golden-age-colorist to Stan Lee, I’d place Liefeld somewhere around Grant Morrison. I say that without having ever read the entirety of any single issue of a comic that Rob Liefeld has written or drawn.
This is due more to apathy than actual distaste, but it’s almost impossible to be as active a member of the comics-reading community as I am without at least being aware of Liefeld’s reputation. If you’re reading this, than you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s not worth dwelling much further on what fans have already discussed and written about ad nauseum. What’s fascinating to me about “The Rob,” as he’s (not-so?) affectionately known, is not the complaints that have been levied against him themselves, but the fact that his reputation evolved the way it did.
It seems that many readers of my generation seem to only know Liefeld as a pariah, even though our elder fanboys (fanmen?) tell us of a time when The Rob was a bona-fide celebrity within the comics community and, very nearly, within mainstream popular culture, hanging out with Easy-E, appearing on talk shows, and starring in commercials directed by Spike Lee. Along with the likes of Jim Lee (whose reputation has fared remarkably better with age), and Todd McFarlane, Liefeld broke into the industry at a young age, and he proceeded to get rich off of an audience close to his age.
Those were the people that I saw talking and laughing with Liefeld at Comic Con—now, I would estimate, in their late thirties and early forties. Clean-shaven, athletically built, and confidently postured, they could have been off-duty cops or firefighters. It was hard to imagine that they could have been stereotypical nerds or outsiders twenty years ago, at the height of Liefeld’s career. It was much easier to imagine them as college frat boys or high school jocks, even as they excitedly sang praises to The Rob himself.
Rob Liefield drawings brought to life?
“Aw, bro, back in the day,” I kept hearing. “Back in the day, you were the s--t! I mean, you’re still the s--t, but man, back in the day! BACK IN THE DAY!”
I couldn’t help but find it depressing. Obviously, these guys meant well, and Rob maintained a smile that didn’t seem forced or disingenuous, but there’s a part of me that would rather never be successful than to achieve early success only to find that twenty years later, the best compliment I seem to get is essentially “dude, you used to be awesome.” That’s to say nothing of what seems to be legions of those who accuse me of killing an industry and ruining an entire art form.
I’m not a Liefeld fan either, but as I mentioned before, that’s largely because I haven’t read enough of his repertoire to judge him fairly as an artist or, to a much greater degree, as a writer. I don’t think I’ve ever read a single word that he’s written into a comic book, although I have read bits and pieces of that screenplay he’s been working on (which probably shouldn’t count), as well as select passages from his Twitter feed (which definitely shouldn’t count).
As for his visuals, I think I’ve at least seen enough to say that it doesn’t appeal to me. To be fair, the harsh line work of a great deal of early 90s “Image-style” art never appealed much to me anyway, but Liefeld’s visual storytelling abilities seem particularly weak. And of course, his questionable sense of anatomy quickly grows as tiresome as the complaints about his seeming inability to draw feet (which is not to say that such criticism doesn’t necessarily have merit). It is distinctive, though, and I don’t even mean that as a backhanded compliment. In a time when so many work-for-hire artists are interchangeable enough to facilitate the Big Two’s increasingly troubling habit of placing several artists on a single issue, there’s something to be said for the fact that Liefeld’s work is immediately recognizable.
I think that those claiming him to be the second-coming of Jack Kirby are underselling the King more than a little bit, but I could see where they’re coming from on a purely visceral level. At his best, Liefeld’s images convey a sense of youthful energy and power in a way that bored twelve-year-old boys appreciate best. It’s not necessarily unreasonable to ask why Deadpool has so many pouches, or why Cable has so many muscles that don’t actually exist on any human body, but the truth is that Deadpool and Cable don’t give a f--k about what you think of them, because Rob Liefeld doesn’t give a f--k.
You have to respect someone like that, especially if you’ve ever pursued a career in the arts. Given the kind of venom that’s spewed towards Rob Liefeld, a lot of artists would try to keep a low profile, if not quit outright. Not Rob. He does what he loves and he does it his way. To his fans, he’s gracious and friendly. To the haters, meh, haters gonna hate anyway, right?
In that regard, I’ve developed a strange kind of appreciation Rob Liefeld, based not on recognition of artistic talent, but a sort of psychological, perhaps even existential, admiration. I’ve spent most of my life in pursuit of a successful writing career, and like so many other artists, my ambitions often lead me to a state of despair. I take criticism to heart, and even without a vocal audience, I constantly worry about what people think about my writing, and by extension, what they think about me. For all I know Liefeld suffers from a similar existential crisis, but I doubt it.
That’s what I was thinking as I stood by his table at the Artist’s Alley, listening to The Rob regale a small group of fans with tales of comicdom’s past. He spoke frankly about the changing economics of the industry, the unpredictable shifts in the public’s tastes, and even his own drop in popularity, but his smiling, laughing demeanor was never overtaken by bitterness or embarrassment.
When the older fans left, I sheepishly asked Rob to sign my convention guide.
“Thanks,” I said. “By the way, I read part of that screenplay you wrote, the one about the founding of Image Comics. I can’t wait to see that movie.”
“Thanks, man!” Rob said. “I’m not allowed to say much about it, but I really hope that we can make it happen! It’s funny stuff, though, I think you’re gonna dig it.”
As I left the table, I felt prouder than I deserved, as if I had done something charitable by providing encouragement to an artist that fell out of favor with his audience, giving him a slight glimmer of hope that younger fans like me are out there eagerly awaiting his next work.
But Rob Liefeld doesn’t need my charity.