Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Heroism Gone Awry: Image Co-Founder Rob Liefeld

Image Comics was a company which started from lofty goals. Spurred on by crusaders for creator rights like Neal Adams and some of the smaller independent publishers of the time, Image Comics was to be the first major publisher with creator ownership/control as its guiding principle.

Under Image, there were to be no Steve Ditko's sitting idly by as their greatest creations became synonymous with ideas their creator despised. There were to be no Jack Kirbys or Siegals and Schusters kicking themselves for negotiating terrible contracts on properties which would later become massive money makers. And writing by editorial edict would be a relic of the unenlightened past as creators were finally set free to simply create.

Rob Liefeld was the company's official founder. He left a lucrative job at Marvel on X Force, the book he helped to revamp into a top seller, to start a company which would initially be a small imprint at a company called Malibu comics, guided by the principles listed above. But in the beginning, Image was associated with "style over substance" comics, excessive expansion and habitually missed deadlines. No one was more guilty of this than Liefeld himself.

Rob Liefeld started work in comics as a teen phenom doing art on a relaunch of Hawk and Dove at DC. The problem is that while his work was very good for one so young, he never got much better once he reached adulthood. He had a style marked by badly exaggerated anatomy, excessive crosshatching, cheesecake women, and accessories like guns, pouches and shoulder pads which overshadowed actual costume design. His writing was even worse with amoral "heroes" and a focus on action over plot and characterization.

This would be bad enough in one book, but as Liefeld later admitted, in the early days of Image each time he had a new idea for a new character or team which was a slight variation on his previous work, he would rush a new #1 into production to ensure trademarking the name/idea. The problem is in doing so he often more or less abandoned other recent #1's he had produced.

Thus there were dozens of books being published by his studio within Image "Extreme Studios." They were virtually indistinguishable: Youngblood, Bloodstrike, Brigade, Youngblood: Strikefile... the list goes on. In fact, it was Liefeld's approach that lead retailers to force Image to list their studio name on each new book. Extreme Studios became like a bio hazard symbol in reference to bad quality and missed deadlines.

Since he had become toxic to the company he had helped found, along with many other (at the time) greats from the comic industry, he was the first kicked out of the company. The problem with this was that though Image's characters and books were all creator owned, they shared a single universe like Marvel or DC. Hilarity ensued.

Though it had never been the most popular book in the real world, Youngblood was focused on the idea of a government-based superteam who lived as celebrities (which, to be honest, is one of the reasons I tend to think of Liefeld as being a good pitch man, if not necessarily a good craftsman...but I digress). This meant that, in the Image-universe, Youngblood were the most famous people in the world. Youngblood was mentioned in almost every issue of every early image title. In fact, the origin of the legitimate most popular character at Image was tied into a Youngblood member.

This leads to the lesson that you shouldn't try to build a coherent super-hero universe when someone can withdraw their contribution at any time, for any reason. But the real thing to learn from this lies in how Liefeld's attempt at creative heroism actually turned out. He basically proved that the creative types needed the "suits" that many creative types had always deemed unnecessary because the discipline to live up to the requirements of the business was something which was sorely lacking in many on the creative end.

When you make your goal an act of great heroism, you cannot forget any of the facts of reality or the requirements of existence. A hard lesson for men like Rob Liefeld.