Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Image Firsts: Youngblood #1

Image Comics, 32 pages, $ 1.00

Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Rob Liefeld
Colorist: Matt Yackey
Letterer: Rus Wooton

In theory, it makes sense to release Youngblood #1 as part of Image's own line of promotional $ 1.00 comics—it was the very first Image comic, after all, back when Image was still an imprint of the now defunct Malibu Comics, and it sold a million copies.

Then again, all indications to the contrary notwithstanding, this is not that comic.

I repeat: This is not a reprint of Youngblood #1. The only thing that was kept from the original is series creator Rob Liefeld's art. Everything else, including the colors, the text, the lettering and even the order of the pages, is new. This version of Youngblood #1 is a "remix," of sorts, re-assembled by Mr. Liefeld and writer Joe Casey—who had nothing to do with the 1992 original—for a "remastered" hardcover collection that came out a few years ago.

You'd think that information was worth mentioning, but it's nowhere to be found in the book. Also, somewhat oddly, other names have disappeared from the credits between the original Youngblood #1 and this edition. Rob Liefeld's own input in the story no longer seems worth mentioning; Hank Kanalz, a future Malibu editor and current WildStorm executive*, is no longer listed as a co-writer (although his name is still in the story, as an anagram in the byline of the newspaper on page one); and Erik Larsen's credit for contributing additional inks is also gone. All of which makes this a rather odd document of historical revisionism.

Also Chew co-creators John Layman and Rob Guillory are going to be miffed: "CHEW [...], its logo and all character likenesses are trademarks of Rob Liefeld, unless otherwise noted," the indicia reads.

This being a Rob Liefeld comic, misleading credits and some erroneous copy are the least of its problems. In short: Everything you've ever heard about the shortcomings in Rob Liefeld's art is probably true. His work is laughably incompetent on every conceivable level. His range of facial expressions covers "clenched teeth," "unclenched teeth" and "mouth closed," period. He usually avoids showing feet and draws them badly whenever he can't. Anatomy, proportion and perspective are novel concepts when it comes to Rob Liefeld-drawn characters and settings.

Mr. Liefeld's defenders sometimes explain that these flaws are matters of style. But they're not. They are, quite plainly, the results of fundamental failures of craft and an almost complete lack of control over the work. Clearly, Mr. Liefeld would like to make better comics, if he could; he just doesn't have the talent, discipline or attention span to make that a reality.

But the worst thing about Rob Liefeld's comics, including this one, is their failure to tell the story from panel to panel, and from page to page. Never mind the usual expectation that the action is meant to flow, to a degree, and that the art is meant to guide the eye through the story in a way that doesn't involve the reader staring in disbelief at least once per page—never mind those lofty standards. Frequently, Mr. Liefeld can't even be bothered to keep the look of his characters consistent from one panel to the next.

On page 4 of this book, the protagonist triples his weight for one panel that requires him to be drawn from a difficult angle. In a single fighting sequence on pages 20 and 21, the main character loses his big right shoulder pad, then grows it back with ammo attached, then loses it again; he loses his smaller left shoulder pad, then grows it back to bigger size, then loses it again; he loses the metallic glove on his right arm; he loses the metallic glove on his left arm and then grows it back; and he grows pointy ears!

That's not "loses it" as in, "He loses it in the fight," mind you. That's "loses it" as in, "Um, where did it go? And why is it back now?"

The really fascinating part, though, is that Mr. Liefeld hasn't just been able to get major work from major publishers despite those flaws for more than 20 years now, but has managed to make some of the best-selling comic books of the post-World War II era. He's still one of the more popular and commercially successful artists in the industry, for that matter—whenever Rob Liefeld provides interior pencils on a title, sales tend to increase. And Marvel seems convinced, even in the year 2010, that his uniformly terrible cover artwork helps to sell books—and Marvel may well be right.

And the apparent reason for that is Mr. Liefeld's style.

Whether he does it consciously or not, Rob Liefeld is an artistic genius when it comes to identifying popular, aesthetically pleasing stylistic surface elements and incorporating them into his own work. There's a good deal of Jack Kirby in the way Mr. Liefeld designs and stages his characters, and his line work and details evoke generations of popular artists—Herb Trimpe is in there, as are George PĂ©rez and John Byrne; Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson and Arthur Adams are visible influences; even Mr. Liefeld's peers, fellow Image founders Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri and Erik Larsen somehow found their way into his style early on.

Lambast Rob Liefeld's art all you want, but he's still one of the most remarkable artists of his generation, simply because he gets by on style alone, with almost no credentials whatsoever when it comes to talent or craft as a storyteller to back him up. I'm not aware of anybody else about whom that's true—certainly not to this extent.

That doesn't change the fact that his comics are rubbish by any reasonable standard, of course; even with all the goodwill in the world for lowbrow comics, the ones of the Rob Liefeld variety are unequivocally terrible lowbrow comics. His characters are ridiculous, uninspired, one-dimensional knock-offs of the X-Men, the Avengers and the Teen Titans; plots and stories often exist only in so far as they can't be avoided if you only string enough pages together that have the same characters in them. And time and again, Mr. Liefeld has shown that he's not averse to just slapping together a stack of old pages when the deadline for a new project looms.

Joe Casey has fun, at least. Actual dialogue from the book:

"Damn... My one day off and I kill some no-name with the ballpoint my supervisor gave me as a gift on my last day at the F.B.I...!"

And when one of the characters confronts a thinly veiled Saddam Hussein stand-in in the Iraqi desert, he utters these words:

"That leaves you and I alone to... talk.

"About life. About sex. About pain.

"In other words... things I'm intimately acquainted with."

As much as I enjoy Mr. Casey taking the piss, though, even his (I hope) deliberately horrible dialogue can't elevate this mess into something that's engaging for even the fraction of a second, so I hope he was at least reimbursed well for his services here.

For Rob Liefeld, meanwhile, Youngblood #1, even in this odd revisionist edition, is one more testament to his unique, paradoxical brilliance; he's the shockingly incompetent genius of American mainstream comics, who's catching lightning in a bottle time and again with his unbelievably awful, bafflingly attractive work.

Grade: F

* Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly claimed that Mr. Kanalz was a Malibu Comics executive at the time he was working on Youngblood #1.


ETK said...

That shoulder pad disappearance reappearance thing is what made me realize that Liefield was all style and no consistency/ substance. It was a big turning point for me.

Tom K Mason said...

Nice post, but just to clarify, Hank Kanalz was not on staff at Malibu during the production of Youngblood #1. He joined the company after its publication. We had met him through his association with Image where he attended early strategy meetings as an Image guy. He later joined Malibu as an editor.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I've corrected the review.