Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I'm not sure if anyone's ever pointed this out before or not, but Rob Liefeld doesn't seem to be a very good artist

Few industry figures are as controversial as Rob Liefeld, who neatly divides almost everyone who experiences his comics work into either the love him or hate him camp. Actually, sometimes it sort of seems that everyone is in the hate him camp; I only personally know one comics reader who likes his work, and comics critics seem pretty unified in their assessment of his work as something between a joke and an aesthetic crime.

I can't say that I hate his work, or even dismiss it too strongly, as I have very little experience with it. Most of what I've seen of it is couched in other people talking about it. For example, Dick Hyancinth's extremely insightful (and balanced!) look at his work in these posts, or this amusingly written list of "The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld drawings." (I think I might have "read" a whole issue of Onslaught Reborn, re-diaalogued by Christopher Bird, but I can't seem to find it now. Did I dream that? Because that's a pretty weird, nerdy dream, even for me).

Otherwise, the longest in-an-actual-comic-book exposure I've had to his work was, let's see, the few page Aquaman sequence he did in a Jeph Loeb-written jam comic Superman Christmas issue, where Superman gave presents to each of his League teammates (Liefeld drew the Aquaman sequence, which, at the time, impressed me as a nice bit of stunt-casting, given it was the '90s-designed bearded and harpoon-hand Aquaman), and a "Bloodwulf" short from 1993's Darker Image #1, which I remember hating more for the shocking writing than the art (It was an extremely transparent Lobo swipe/parody; since Lobo is already a parody character, it's kind of hard to read Bloodwulf as a parody when brazen plagiarism seems the more obvious answer).

But Youngblood? X-Force? Cable? That stuff? Never read any of it. The covers and pin-ups I've seen are enough to let me know that they are quite clearly not my cup of tea.

So last night I thought about Rob Liefeld's art for an hour or two, which is longer than I've probably ever thought about it before, and I had a thought about why it might look the way it does.

For the last month or three I've been doing a Tuesday afternoon column for Blog@ looking at the Diamond shipping list for the following day's releases, and I usually do a one-panel cartoon of some sort to accompany it. In this week' shipping list, the thing that jumped out at me the most was the number of Obama covers a whole month after the inauguration, including one for Youngblood, Liefeld's signature series (although he seems to have turned over the writing and art duties to others).

So that's what I decided to make my column header cartoon about this week.

Drawing celebrity likenesses is pretty damn challenging, and talented folks like Erik Larsen, Todd Nauck and Phil Jiminez have shown how much trouble they have with Obama in recent weeks. It was hard to imagine that artist with such a notoroiously...individual style would succeed where someone with somone like Jiminez, who has such a meticulous, photorealistic style stumbled.

I thought about drawing Obama (whose likeness, by the way, I'm also pretty bad at drawing, as you can see here and here; in my defense, I'm not a professional artist, and accept no money for my drawings, nor does anyone have to pay to look at 'em) with as many of the sorts of elements Liefeld is notorious for. Like giving Obama gigantic shoulder pads, a Cable-sized gun with no handle, a mouth full of a slime, 150 teeth, hidden feet, and so on.

As I was scanning through Youngblood covers though, I settled on trying to draw Obama in the same pose as this goofball with a goatee on the cover of Youngblood #8.

So looking at the image for a visual guide, I did a quick sketch of the pose:

When I sat down to do the final one, which turned out like this—
—I was surprised that once I drew the basic outlines of the figure (the head, the kidney bean shape of the shoulders, the arms and left quadricep) and then, well, that's about all there is to it.

From there, it was already time to move on to the filigree—the clothes, the face, the little Liefeldian lines. Usually when I try to imitate someone else's art style, even for a quick piece like this, it takes forever, no matter how simplified the art might be (Bryan Lee O'Malley, for example, uses very few lines, and yet it took me a dozen tries to make a Scott Pilgrim head that looked enough like a Scott Pilgrim head that I assumed readers would recognize my intent).

It occurred to me then that maybe Liefeld's art looks the way it does because he skips some of the steps often associated with drawing. Perhaps he just sketches out the basic shapes of the figures, and then finishes them, going from rough sketch to detail work without anything in between.

Now, I don't know how Liefeld works, or even how most comics artists work. But in the sorts of how-to books I used to read in grade school, and in the ones I see in the library today, the ones with the step by step instructions, they always start with a few broad shapes, and then get progressively more detailed.

Like, say there was a four-step process involved with instructions on how to draw a unicorn. Step one would be two big circles for the front and back of the body, and a little circle for the head. Step two would be drawing lines to connect them into a horse-like shape and drawing lines for the legs and so forth. Step three would be drawing the unicorn body around that shape. And then step four would be drawing the horn, the mane, the tail, the eyeballs, the whiskers, and whatever details you wanted.

But if Liefeld were to draw that unicorn, perhaps he would just go from the three circles from step one to the detail work of step four, without worrying how the pieces fit together exactly.

Does that make sense?

Let me try this. Okay, here's a (light, pencil) sketch of the basic shapes that seem to be in that pose at the center of the Youngblood cover.

Sorry it's so light. I shoulda used pen. Okay, I imagine that's how a lot of comic artists might start out a panel or image, if only to have a good sense of what amount of space they're going to dedicate to a particular figure.

From there, they might slim it down a little, and start to include lines that would represent the skeleton of the figure. They might start to draw the body within those rough shapes, making the head shape more oval and human, making the bean-shape of the shoulders a little more shoulder-y, filling in where the stomach might be, or the rest of the leg, or perhaps the other leg (I can't tell on that Youngblood cover if the brown pointy thing coming out of the central figures right pectoral is supposed to be his foot, or the point of a shoulder pad Badrock might be wearing).

So maybe that would look something like this—

And then, once the the space-staking-out shapes have been turned into something closer to the figure being drawn, the artist might finish the drawing, drawing the flesh and clothing over the imagined skeleton and muscles.

But perhaps Liefeld just puts the skin and clothes over the initial shapes, ignoring the human skeleton and muscles. That would explain not only why his figures are so wildly anatomically incorrect, but why there's no real consistency to the anatomic features. (What he does with a human body can't simply be excused as a style, because it's so inconsistent; he doesn't make the same choices over and over).

So that's my theory: Maybe Liefeld goes right from the vaguest shapes to a finished product, without bothering with the mechanics of the figures. I'm sure a lot of artists don't bother sketching out skeletons and bodies either, but I bet those artists can do so because they've drawn enough bodies that they can kind of intuit where the bones would and should be under the skin and clothes of the people they're drawing.

I can't imagine why he might do this. It's not a simple matter of laziness, although there's certainly an element of laziness to some of his work (Why isn't that jumping figure on the cover centered? Why is the one hand visible, but the other going off the page like that?). Certainly all those little lines, the arm hairs and wrinkles and skin folds and scars and shadows take a damn long time to draw, perhaps just as long as it would have taken Liefeld to make sure he was drawing the limbs the same length, or to glance at himself in the mirror and see if he could do that with his head, or look to his left and see where his forearm muscle began and ended.

It makes me a little sad to think about Liefeld's work at all, let alone to this extent. Because he's so popular and, as far as I've read, so rich doing the art he's done, there's little incentive for him to grow or change in anyway. Liefeld's art, as it's been and as it is, worked and continues to work for him.

And yet comics history is not going to be very kind to him. Sixteen years have passed since that shitty Bloodwulf story in Darker Image, and yet all that seems to have changed about his art is that it now involves computer coloring that didn't exist in the early '90s. Meanwhile, Jim Lee, another artist whose work in the early '90s did nothing for me, has grown into an almost completely different artist in those same years.

Of course, if you can't be a great artist, being a rich and famous one isn't bad as far as consolation prizes go...


Eric Rupe said...

I have to say, this post is brilliant.

Third World Diplomat said...

Great post.

One of the things I really disliked about Liefield's art is his costume designing. The ultra-militaristic designs he made for his characters are such an eyesore for me. The numerous pouches, belts in places where belts should not be, and guns that look completely ridiculous spawned (unfortunately) so many copycats. Even the big publishers felt they needed to upgrade the classic designs of their characters. I'm not sure, but this trend is what might have lead to the awful Batman armor of Jean Paul Valley.

And yeah, Jim Lee has evolved into a better artist through the years. One just has to see his X-Men run and his work on Batman: Hush to see the difference.

LurkerWithout said...

I used to have the majority of his New Mutants and X-Force run. Up to when he and the others left to form Image. I kept buying X-Force though, proving I was a giant mark for anything X-book related then. The only Youngblood related stuff I had was when they'd pop up in other people's books like WildC.A.T.S. or Savage Dragon...

I think if you track down that old Levi jeans commercial Leifeld did you can see him actually drawing in that...

SallyP said...

Liefeld drives me insane for exactly the reasons you have pointed out, there is NO basic knowledge of anatomy whatsoever, but all those fussy little lines and squiggles exist only to muddy up the end result.

I always like looking at an artists old work and their present work, simply to see how they have progressed and matured. Liefeld never matured, because there really didn't seem to be any incentive for him to mature, a lot of kids went bonkers for his particular "style" and I suppose he figured, if it wasn't broke, then don't fix it. Since people are still giving him work, I suppose he may even be right.

Jon Hansen said...

Nailed it. He did say in that old Levi jeans commercial that he has no formal art training.

Christopher Bird said...

I did do Onslaught Reborn #1, but it got lost to the void, so far as I know, when I got the boot from Livejournal.

Matt Duarte said...

Here's a funny entry about an old lady who used to babysit Rob Liefeld (the story is told by someone that met that lady)


Unknown said...

i just recently read that alex ross based magog's costume on everything he hated about liefeld's costume designs (pouchs, gun, robotic arm, scar over eye, etc.). pretty funny to think liefeld had a hand in influencing such a great comic.

Cully said...

Mike Sterling just spent the previous week discussing Rob Liefeld. Enough already!

Leigh Walton said...

Dirk wrote an interesting piece a couple years ago connecting Liefeld to the Mannerism movement. He's not imitating life, he's imitating imitations of life. Copying the surface appearance but not the underlying structure. Compare to the lovely textures and screwed-up anatomy of Bronzino.

"He clearly learned to draw by studying artists like Art Adams, Michael Golden and John Byrne, who in turn got it from artists like Neal Adams and Gil Kane, who in turn got it by studying anatomy and the precepts of classical illustration. Along the way, much information was lost."

Anonymous said...

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