Tuesday, January 14, 2014

So, It's Come To This - In Defense Of Rob Liefeld

The other night, I got involved in a spirited Twitter discussion about Rob Liefeld. This surprised me, because I am on record as not being much of a fan of his work. I've also been known to make fun of him, as this ably demonstrates. But as I more or less said on Twitter, Liefeld-bashing is old and tired. Most of it doesn't even rise to the comedy genius of my own effort there, and that's not me saying my work is brilliant.

No, Liefeld's work doesn't seem to merit anything more than childish, simple-minded snark when people choose to critique it. I tend to think that's because it's the sort of "critic-proof" output that causes reviewers to just throw up their hands. Understand, I find most (all?) of it to be terrible. But people who are going to buy a Rob Liefeld comic know what they are getting by this point. A Rob Liefeld fan will most likely not have expectations dashed, because his output has been pretty consistent over the years.

So, why the hate? Well, it's easy. Liefeld's books are clearly poorly-drawn. Yet, he is very well-known and has a loyal fanbase. He seems happy and successful and has made plenty of money in the comic book industry. Though he has been known to make statements that got people aggravated at him, he has always been very polite and appreciative of his fans (unlike some comic book creators). That gets translated into an unreasonable level of anger and scorn from a fandom that steadfastly refuses to leave adolescence behind in terms of people skills.

What makes it even easier for overgrown children to hate Rob Liefeld is that he is the Fun House mirror reflection of themselves. He is a fanboy who is Living The Dream. He has a seemingly endless array of characters at his disposal, and some of them have become pretty popular (Cable, Deadpool). You could say that he's recycled more than a few of them, and that's of course true. But he's far from unique in that respect. His boundless enthusiasm for what he is doing is obvious, and compensates to some degree for the shortcomings in his work.

Let's stop for a moment and consider Shaft, the archer from Youngblood. For some reason, it never occurred to me until yesterday (or I had forgotten) that he is blatantly derived directly from Speedy, Green Arrow's former sidekick. This is likely due to Youngblood having been a Teen Titans proposal at one point. Heck, Shaft even has red hair like Roy Harper!

Shaft interests me for another reason besides his obvious ancestry and name possibly inspired by the Richard Roundtree movie. It's because Rob Liefeld created an archer character, but had no apparent interest in researching archery. I don't think Shaft has ever held his bow correctly. But that's OK, because his bow famously doesn't have a string either! So how does Shaft fire his arrows? He just does.

Shaft is a microcosm of the Rob Liefeld Appeal. Superhero comics by their nature are exaggerations. Reality is distorted for dramatic effect. While I don't know how much art training Rob Liefeld has had, it seems pretty obvious that his fundamentals are weak. No matter. He takes the exaggerations of superhero comics, processes them, and exaggerates them further. It doesn't have the slightest connection to reality, but that doesn't interest him. He just wants something cool.

I have to admit, I found Liefeld's early 90s work sort of appealing on a theoretical level. He had lots of intriguing ideas, and a boatload of character types. It was just in the actual execution that I was always disappointed, and as he went even further afield, my minimal interest waned. However, there were plenty of people who got a lot of joy and inspiration out of those comics that always left me wanting more.

Rob Liefeld has done something really extraordinary, when you think about it. He was never a talented artist, but he made up for it by being creative and enthusiastic. He carved out a place for himself in a comic book industry that desperately wanted to show him the door more than once. He made a long-lasting impact through his ability to make up characters that connected with people. And he's still beloved as a person by his fans, in contrast to some comic book creators who seem determined to alienate everyone who ever loved their work.

Rob Liefeld is Every Fan. He's the guy with too many comics, a notebook full of original characters, and the dream to make those two things meet. Unlike most fans, he succeeded. And whether they realize it or not, that's reason enough for many people to think it's funny to try to tear him down.

Critical appraisal is fine. Disliking someone's work is fine. But the "Rob Liefeld is a hack" joke stopped being funny at least ten years ago. Let it go. Because if the best thing you've accomplished in your life is making fun of Rob Liefeld, guess what? He wins.

2 comments:

David McRobie said...

I think he's an awful artist, and pretty much thieves most of his "style" from Kirby (who hasn't, right?) BUT when I met him and his wife at some Comic Con years ago, he was really nice.
Made it darn hard to hate him!

C. Elam said...

You cannot really detect it now, but his early works look like George Perez. Though I am pretty sure everyone doing superheroes swipes Kirby (he was the King for a reason).

I am not a fan of the work, but he loves what he does and loves his fans. He is extremely gracious in the face of being dogged all the time. I cannot help but respect and admire him for both his achievements and the way he conducts himself.