Rob Liefeld’s Sharper Image
An oft-mocked comics artist gives away his characters—and creates something great.
In the early 1990s, before he quit Marvel Comics, X-Force creator Rob Liefeld was inventing new characters the way Doritos invents extreme flavors. Nearly every issue introduced a new hero (Cable) or villain (Stryfe, Cable’s clone) or five (the Mutant Liberation Front). In 1992, when he joined a big-talent exodus from the company to start the creator-owned Image Comics, Liefeld launched Youngblood—dozens of new characters in one issue, half in one story and half in a backup story.
“Marvel and DC had both announced they were going to do major new events built around ‘Blood’ storylines and characters,” Liefeld remembers. “ ‘Bloodlines’ was DC's summer event, and ‘New Blood’ was Marvel's summer initiative. I was square in their sights and I felt like I better build my line fast otherwise they'd beat me to the punch.” He easily outraced them. “I had notebooks of characters and concepts. Every artist waits for their moment where they can do exactly what I did—I ran with it.”
Liefeld’s brand, Extreme Comics, grew from there. As a young comics fan, with only so many Image dollars to spend, I found the churn of new characters exhausting. Glory was the warrior-child of an Amazon and an aristocratic demon—“Greek mythology meets aliens,” says Liefeld. Prophet was a genetically enhanced warrior given superpowers by a time-traveling scientist—“Rip Van Winkle meets OMAC, Captain America, and Silver Star.” DC Comics had Superman; Liefeld had Supreme. But after some early success—for a time in the 1990s Image was where it was at in edgy superhero comics—the books stopped selling, and Liefeld’s mega-men and buxom wenches became the subject of derision rather than awe.
So Liefeld overturned his career—and his creations—again. In 2012 he handed many of his characters to indie writers and artists. The results are shockingly good. In the hands of Joe Keatinge and Brandon Graham, Glory and Prophet have turned into compelling sci-fi pulp heroes, disemboweling aliens who look like Miyazaki nightmares. Tim Seeley’s new Bloodstrike, about a team of undead assassins resurrected by Uncle Sam, has become an absurdist satire about past-prime heroes.
Graham, best known as the writer-artist of the series King City, says he was “pretty anti-superhero comics in the ’90s,” preferring underground comix, as the form is known. Keatinge, long Image’s publicity chief, was a fanboy. “I was 10 years old when Image started,” he says, “so I was pretty much the exact right age to lose my shit over Violator tearing Spawn's heart out his chest, Savage Dragon getting his arm cut off, or Shaft throwing a pen in a dude's eye. I was loving what those guys were doing over at Marvel, but Image is where I completely lost my shit.”
Graham, Keatinge, and Seeley now write what Timothy Callahan has called “post-Extreme” Comics. The “new” Prophet is an enhanced but normal-looking human who crash-lands 10,000 years into the future, who hacks and fornicates and fights his way across an unrecognizable planet. The first city he locates was once an organic spaceship that crashed and got repopulated as it rotted. The planet is orbited by the corpse of “a once feared war giant who fought for this section of the cosmic ocean and lost,” now mined for delicious meat and useful bones. The violence and body horror is illustrated and designed by Giannis Milonogiannis, all of it distant from the original, generic comics.
Photo by Pinguino/Wikimedia Commons
Liefeld loves it. “I always try to check with him and remember that these are his characters that I'm getting to play around with,” says Graham. “It's been nothing but support from him. I just sent him some new ideas and asked about what he thought would work, he wrote back saying—‘Anything and everything can be explained.’ ”
Keatinge’s Glory is more grounded. Liefeld’s hero arrived on Earth to become a superhero. So did Keatinge’s. His first issue of the relaunch included a flashback of the hero fighting Nazis, punching out a tank, ripping off arms and cracking spines. In the present, a student who’s researching the vintage hero finds her recuperating from injuries in a secluded French village. “It’s a story about two drastically different people,” says Keatinge, “Gloriana Demeter, a warrior so powerful some think she's a deity, and Riley Barnes, someone who doesn't really even know what she's doing with her life at first.”
Liefeld’s hero was a pretty recognizable archetype, a pose-striking heroine with a supermodel build. Keatinge’s, as portrayed by Wet Moon artist Ross Campbell, is a hulking white-skinned alien who seems to grow larger and less human whenever she’s needed for some carnage. In a flash-forward, when Riley has advanced to great age, Glory has blank eyes in a human-looking face atop a totally alien body. The biology and history, here and in Prophet, are never fully explained. It’s fantasy, and we buy it immediately.
“A big thing was to portray Glory visually as even more than a superhero,” says Keatinge. “This is a warrior, born and bred. Perhaps the greatest to ever exist. She's built to lead in times of peace and devastate in times of war.” Liefeld endorsed it, and Keatinge defends his oft-maligned boss. “People have a really skewed perspective of Rob. A lot of them act relieved that he seemingly stayed hands off from the books, but the truth is he's been our biggest champion when it comes to doing wildly different stuff with the characters. Ross, Rob, and I were doing a signing, and Ross showed Rob his ‘out there’ sketches for the future Glory. … Rob enthusiastically encouraged Ross to go all the way with it.”
Liefeld knows that the haters prefer the new books to his originals. They’ve mocked him for years. “The internet snark has zero effect on me,” he says. “I was there 20 years ago, I'm out there on the convention circuit, I experience the real and tangible enthusiasm for me and my work. You can't rewrite the history books, you can't eliminate the impact of my work and my characters.” He changed the way superheroes looked and sold millions of comics. “Rob Liefeld is to today,” says Rob Liefeld, “as Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan are to my kids.”
But he didn’t fence in his characters. He open-sourced them. “I was told by fans that preferred the older versions that they would abandon these versions,” he says. He’s fine with losing those fans. “We can't be beholden to the past.”
Every copyright holder should be this generous, and this clever.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.