At long last, the long-promised Liefeld career retrospective is here. Or at least the first part of it. Just to be clear, let me explain what I'm doing. I'm not a Liefeld fan. I liked him quite a bit when I was a teenager, but that was a long time ago. What I'm trying to do here, actually, is put myself back into that adolescent mindset in order to reconstruct what it was about Liefeld that attracted young boys in droves back about 15-20 years ago. I'm not here to mock Liefeld or persuade you re: the quality of his work. This is a descriptive project, not a prescriptive one.
One more word on my intentions before going any further. I envision this being a five or six part series, broken down as follows:
1: Hawk and Dove
2: New Mutants
5: Heroes Reborn
6: I'll figure it out when I get there
I can't promise that I'll produce these every week, but I'll try my best to get them out in a timely manner. We'll see how that goes.
Hawk and Dove. Five issue miniseries, DC, 1988.
Writers: Karl and Barbara Kesel
Penciller: Rob Liefeld
Inker: Karl Kesel
Colorist: Glenn Whitmore
Hawk and Dove were originally a Steve Ditko creation, pairing brothers Hank and Don Hall as costumed heroes Hawk and Dove. Their code names, as one might expect, reflected their political beliefs. The original series was short-lived; the characters showed up again in Teen Titans, but were not very prominent players in the DC universe. Dove died in the 1985 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, leaving Hawk somewhat in limbo. This miniseries sought to reestablish the Hawk and Dove team for the post-Crisis era. The writers, Barbara and Karl Kesel, have a small but enthusiastic following in the current online comics community; I've seen their writing praised for being exceptionally faithful to the original concept of the characters being featured. This, however, was something of a departure from the original concept.
Just to get it out of the way: the writing is pretty mediocre, especially the dialouge. The college setting seems lifted from the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World; attempts to provide textural details fall flat (Wimbledon is played on grass, not clay); the Washington, DC setting is pretty much irrelevant. There's a battle staged at the Air and Space Museum in issue four, but that's about it. (This is probably for the best, since Liefeld seems to struggle with any kind of specific, reality-based settings.) The book ends without any clear resolution--the villain, Kestrel, fails to convince Hawk to join him as a servant of the Lord of Chaos. Kestrel's master is apparently angry at his failure and...that's about it. Hawk and Dove come home somehow, despite not having defeated Kestrel. Hawk makes his decision when Kestrel says something that reminds him of his brother. There's no other turning point, just the villain saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Hawk refuses to join him, and that's the end (aside from a coda suggesting that all is not what it seems--more a teaser for an ongoing series rather than a satisfying conclusion to this mini). The non-resolution is especially unsatisfying because the Kesels circle around Hawk's relationship with his dead brother, but never explain how he feels other than "angry" or maybe "enraged." The script presupposes reader investment in Hawk and Dove as characters. But for those who don't have that kind of background with the characters, Hawk/Hank's motivations are a little unclear.
Hawk/Hank is actually the only compelling thing about the script. He verges on being a cardboard character, a stereotypical "loose cannon" type. There are hints that he's bottomed out somehow--he's no longer a Teen Titan and the cops think he's a joke. But the Kesels undermine this characterization by having Hank engage in some behavior meant to resemble that of a typical college student--he jogs with friends, tries to join the football team, socializes with women (they flirt with him, even), hangs out at a restaurant that the Kesels seem to think resembles a college dive, and even has a beer at one point. But once in costume, Hawk is like DC's answer to the Punisher. Actually, he's more deranged; when he first meets the new, female Dove, a fight scene ensues in which he attacks her rather than the actual villains.
This would all be comical if not for Liefeld's art, which elevates it to inspired levels of lunacy. Liefeld's Hawk is a menacing, hulking presence, apparently giddy with joy at the prospect of inflicting pain on his enemies (or anyone who gets in his way). Hank is a fairly mundane looking young man, but Hawk is grotesquely muscled, steroidal in the extreme. His jaw doubles in size when under the cowl.
Figure 2: Hawk's prodigious mandible
Liefeld breathes life into the Kesels' characterization of Hawk. I'm not sure to what extent they intended to play around with notions of dualism by portraying Hawk and Hank as separate entities. Liefeld's art, however, allows no other interpretation. Hawk runs around in tight, skimpy gym shorts and sweatsuits, making a great show of his political beliefs by ordering a burger with American cheese. Hawk blows up libraries and destroys historical artifacts with reckless abandon--enthusiasm, actually. Without Liefeld's art, this would be farcical; with it, Hawk and Dove becomes something much more bizarre.
Figure 3: Hawk threatens his love interest with violence; he thinks she may be Dove (see figure 1)
It takes Liefeld a while to get going, though. His most extravagant tendencies are in check during the first issue, for the most part. Liefeld's art mostly looks like that of an inexperienced youngster. He occasionally reveals the influence of George Perez, a flourish Kesel encourages with his weighty inking.
For the most part, however, Liefeld struggles with the demands of the script. Most of Hawk and Dove takes place on a college campus. Liefeld can more or less handle this, though he hardly excels at the task.
Figure 5: It's more or less recognizable as a college campus, but something seems wrong, somehow....
The script initially works against Liefeld's strengths. The Kesels (presumably) write an early scene in a very cinematic style. A police radio announces details of a chase in progress while the camera moves from room to room, as though frantically searching for Hank/Hawk. Each panel reveals details about Hank's life: unpacked boxes, numerous free weights, unwashed dishes. The penultimate panel shows an unmade bed and an open window. The final panel reveals that Hank has just bounded out said window, presumably on his way to apprehend the criminal described on the police radio.
Figure 6: Liefeldian cinematics.
It's not a badly written scene, especially for a late 80s superhero comic. Unfortunately, Liefeld is totally incapable of pulling off this sort of thing. The furniture and appliances in the kitchen are strangely proportioned. The dirty dishes are neatly stacked up, thus undermining the intended characterization of Hank as something of a slob. The barbels are floating in midair in panel four. The final two panels seem to depict two different windows of quite different dimensions, but the storytelling suggests that it's the same window in each panel. Liefeld seems bored and restless.
But who cares, right? This book was not intended for people who care about old fogey ideas like perspective and proportion; it was meant for 12 year old boys. The problem, then, is that the Kesels' script prevents Liefeld from doing what he does best. Liefeld's true talents shine through a bit in the action sequences, but these scenes are not nearly frequent enough. The hypothetical 12 year old reader gets a few tantalizing glimpses of what Liefeld is all about, but are they enough to get him to return?
Figure 7: One of our few glimpses of the Liefeld to come in issue #1. Note how the extremely foreshortened figure hurtles toward the reader in the middle panel, the cape (or whatever it is) and hands breaking the panel plane. These are the techniques that brought Liefeld fame and fortune.
Thankfully, the first issue ends in an irresistible splash page revealing the new Dove. Kesel gives Liefeld's speed lines extra weight, forming a black halo around Dove. It's actually a pretty strong diagonal composition, one that even a jaded 30-year old blogger can appreciate. The figure drawing might leave a bit to be desired--the slumped over gunman on the left is rather stiff--but this drawing reveals why kids loved Liefeld: the energy.
Figure 8: Liefeld finally gets to show off on the final page of the first issue.
Liefeld gets a bit more comfortable in the second issue, as his characters begin to take on more exaggerated appearances. As noted above, Liefeld's Hawk is an enormous, musclebound wonder. His depiction of Kestrel, the villain of the piece, also shows great flair.
Figure 9: Kestrel's selachimorphic grin; see also figure 2 above for an example of Liefeld's distinctive characterization of Hawk.
These are not realistic drawings, by any stretch of the imagination, but they are compelling in their own way: vibrant, full of implied detail and motion. When Liefeld's characters smile, sneer, or grimace, wrinkles and laugh lines swarm and dance around their mouths. You can almost see the character's face twisting into an expression of disgust or debauchery. Despite prevailing understandings of human anatomy, Liefeld's characters sport more teeth than the average great white shark. This is not necessarily a bad thing to the pubescent (or pre-pubescent) reader.
By the third issue, Liefeld is bringing a similar approach to his storytelling. A sequence in which Kestrel chases Dove reveals Liefeld's philosophy: don't let reality or common sense get in the way of pleasing your audience.
Figure 10: "Oh Yeaaaahhh!"
Dove leaps over a fence which appears to be about 3 1/2 feet tall. Rather than leaping over the fence himself, or breaking through it with a well-placed punch or kick, Kestrel actually ducks down so he can run through the wall, Kool-Aid Man style. This is completely nonsensical, but it looks way cooler than Kestrel jumping over the wall like a girl. (One might question why Liefeld chose to draw such a low fence, but I figure he was trying to maintain a realistic depiction of a campus setting. I don't think this scene takes place on any campus, but let's not get bogged down in details.)
Liefeld is firing on all cylinders by the fourth issue (see figure 3 above for an example). His work is actually starting to resemble his later New Mutants/X-Force material. In the first three issues, Hawk and Dove are mostly beating up guys who look like truck drivers or extras from Final Fight. But now, Liefeld is getting to draw freaky supervillains.
Figure 11: A taste of the Liefeld yet to come
Gone are the strained (probably unreferenced) depictions of working class toughs wielding conventional firearms. Now we see bizarre depictions of supernatural powers. In the above sequence, Shadowblade (yes, Shadowblade--that's presumably the Kesels' fault) is suffering from some burning ocular discharge. Liefeld is almost channeling Ditko in the second panel, as Shadowblade's power ricochets off the panel borders. There is no real explanation of what is happening, but that really only makes it more interesting. In New Mutants/X-Force, Liefeld's characters were mysterious strangers who belonged to obscure cabals. Their powers and appearance (eg, pupil-less eyes) were seldom explained, which only made the characters more intriguing. Here we see the first hint of this approach; Liefeld has truly arrived.
That still leaves one more issue, the infamous sideways issue. Liefeld, apparently acting unilaterally, decided that the chaos dimension would look better if all the pages were drawn in landscape orientation. Editor Mike Carlin flipped out when he received the pages; he cut and pasted them into a more conventional format, then sent them to Karl Kesel to ink. Kesel apparently lightboxed these pages, so there's probably a higher Kesel-to-Liefeld ratio than in the other issues of the mini. Not surprisingly, this issue marks a step backward in the development of the Liefeldian aesthetic. The compositions are (one would assume) more Carlin's than anyone's, and they're not especially elegant.
Figure 12: Breakdowns by Liefeld, layouts by Carlin, finishes by Kesel
As a storytelling sequence, the above page isn't bad. The actual composition of the panels, however, is rather clumsy. The third panel, upon which the first two panels are ostensibly superimposed, has an awkward break at about the level of the first two panels. Furthermore, the disembodied hands make for gawky bookends. It's not Carlin's best work.
But that's all a sidenote. Liefeld was clearly on his way towards being the artist who would break the all-time sales record with X-Force #1. By that point, Liefeld would be working with characters of his own design, illustrating scripts better suited to his existing strengths as an artist. The Liefeld we see in Hawk and Dove is a compromised version, held in check by script and altered by Kesel's inks. This is, I suspect, a Liefeld that would be more palatable to today's DC/Marvel reader; if he had continued down this path, I suspect the main thing separating him from, say, Tony Daniel would be the latter's greater reliance on photo reference when attempting to draw his female characters' faces. Instead of developing in this more structured environment, however, Liefeld jumped ship to Marvel, where he was given much freer reign to draw whatever the hell he felt like. This might have cost him some fans, c. 2007, but it also made him a very, very rich man.