Part one: Hawk and Dove
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Having completed Hawk and Dove, Rob Liefeld moved on to Marvel, where he was initially assigned to an Alpha Flight relaunch. When this fell through, he was transferred to Bob Harras' "X-office," where (according to Liefeld's memory) he specifically requested New Mutants, since its low sales ensured greater creative freedom. That's one version--this claims that Bob Harras sought out Liefeld, thinking a younger penciller would better suit the title's young cast. The history of the title certainly corroborates Liefeld's version. New Mutants was an X-Men spinoff which had enjoyed modest success at best. It chronicled the adventures of a group of adolescent mutants, sort of a retread of the original X-Men concept. It had gone through a number of creative directions, of which only the Chris Claremont/Bill Sienkiewicz run has any lingering resonance among non-fetishists. New Mutants wasn't quite tabula rasa, but it was a better fit for the 22-year-old Liefeld's aspirations than any other mutant title.
Simonson was officially listed as the series' writer through issue 97, but it's unclear exactly how much input Liefeld had on the plot. All the new characters were apparently his design, but the tone of the book was still in flux during the issues credited to Simonson. Cable is as much teacher as soldier, expressing genuine concern for the emotional health of his young charges. Besides, I don't think Liefeld's ever tried to claim that he was actually the primary plotter on these issues. In any event, Simonson left after the X-Tinction Agenda crossover, which took up the last three issues of her run. Starting with issue 98, Fabian Nicieza scripted over Liefeld's plots; they would retain these roles when the series was relaunched as X-Force in 1991.
Liefeld's first issue was technically #86, an Acts of Vengeance crossover featuring Vulture, a Spider-Man villain. But in my mind, the Liefeld era didn't really begin until the following issue, the first appearance of Cable. With this issue, the tone of the series shifted dramatically; Liefeld and Simonson replaced the School For Gifted Youngsters premise with a much darker, paramilitary theme. Cable was much older than the rest of the team. He carried a massive arsenal of guns--in fact, he doesn't use any super power at any point during Liefeld's New Mutants run. It's not even clear if he's a mutant, though practically every character seems to know him from somewhere. As a teenager, I found his mysterious past far more compelling than his cybernetic accouterments or his predilection for massive firearms. It's not clear who is responsible for this air of mystery; Liefeld, Simonson, and Harras have all tried to claim credit for Cable.
Bob Wiacek was the inker assigned to this first issue. His style was a pretty significant departure from Karl Kesel's; while Kesel tended to add heft to Liefeld's lines (occasionally via dense pools of black), Wiacek tended to encourage Liefeld's habit of using many little lines where one or two strong lines would have sufficed.
Figure 1: Wiacek's inks involved a few tradeoffs.
On the other hand, Wiacek's inks seem to have encouraged some better character work out of Liefeld; perhaps he was being especially proactive as an inker, if you know what I mean. In figure 1 above, Skids shows a great deal more personality than any of Liefeld's characters from Hawk and Dove. In figure 2 below, Liefeld draws his adolescent characters with reasonably convincing adolescent bodies. In later issues, these characters would be much bulkier. Their more modest appearance in #87 better suited Simonson's creative direction, in which Cable is both instructor and leader for the team.
Figure 2: Liefeld's teenagers actually look like teenagers. They also look like weenies, if you ask me. Especially Rictor (far right).
Liefeld generally seems a little uncomfortable in the first issue. His style is much blander than what we usually associate with Marvel-era Liefeld; some panels might actually have been re-drawn by the Marvel art department. (In fact, I seem to remember reading an interview with Liefeld in which he complains of John Romita Sr. "fixing" his art.) The next issue saw a change in inkers. Hilary Barta was the regular inker through issue 94, and Liefeld's art improved as a result. Barta tended to ink Liefeld with much bolder lines, a style better suited for Liefeld's millions-of-tiny-lines style of pencilling. I was kind of amused by this, since I remember Liefeld and Barta having some kind of gripe back when Image was publishing Barta's Stupid, a comic parodying Image (not to be confused with Don Simpson's Splitting Image). Of course, I might be remembering this wrong; I don't have that issue of Hero's Illustrated handy.
Figure 3: Barta adds some almost Mignola-esque touches to Liefeld's pencils. Detail from a two-page splash panel.
This issue also sees Liefeld moving more towards the style which would define his run at Marvel. Two page splashes abound. Scarcely a page goes by in which some figure doesn't break the borders of a panel. And, much to the chagrin of many readers, Liefeld moves further away from a conventional understanding of anatomy.
Figure 4: The Blob unhinges his lower jaw, perhaps in order to swallow a small cow whole.
Still, Liefeld occasionally shows off some talent for composition. Although he did not do so consistently, Liefeld was capable of imbuing his panels with a great sense of motion by emphasizing multiple diagonal lines. He was also surprisingly good at creating depth by placing objects in the extreme foreground. This creates some degree of compositional tension by making the subject of the panel smaller than the figure in the foreground.
Figure 5a: Liefeld uses perspective and a tilted camera angle to create an interesting composition. I don't know why all these characters are all running in different directions in the first panel.
Figure 5b: Liefeld sacrifices anatomical accuracy for composition; note the multiple diagonal lines, moving the reader's eye all around the panel.
As the series progressed, Liefeld grew more comfortable with designing the page as a whole, again with an emphasis on motion. It's oft been said that Liefeld seems to get bored with the actual act of drawing comics--that he'd rather draw pinups or design new characters. You can see a bit of that in New Mutants, but I'd call it more like restlessness than boredom. Tasked with drawing a dialogue-heavy scene, Liefeld tries to draw the talking heads in the most action-packed method he can devise.
Figure 6: A talking heads scene gets Liefeldized.
Liefeld uses a series of similarly-sized panels to show each member of the team, even those with no dialogue at the time. These panels all overlap, cascading into the penultimate panel, a large group shot. In the third panel, Cannonball grossly overreacts to Cable's dialogue; Liefeld uses subtle speed lines to indicate his shock. Likewise, lines angrily radiate from Rictor's head in an expression of rage. The page doesn't really work--the facial expressions are wildly inappropriate, stupid even. But it's evidence of Liefeld's playful attitude towards page composition.
Figure 7: Parallel layouts by Liefeld. Note the diagonal composition of the backgrounds in the largest panels. These diagonals feed into the diagonal direction of the smaller panels. This diagonal movement suggests that Caliban and Sabretooth are converging on each other.
At other times, Liefeld comes closer to success. In figure 7 above, Liefeld depicts Caliban stalking Sabertooth in symmetrical pages. This isn't just a cheap parlor trick; it actually works in the context of the scene. Caliban thinks he's hunting Sabertooth while Sabertooth thinks he's setting a trap. It's a deadly cat and mouse cliche, but Liefeld makes this sort of hackneyed plot device a bit more palatable.
Figure 8: Liefeld using a few of his favorite techniques.
Of course, the parallel panels are a rare example of Liefeld illustrating a quiet moment. His forte is clearly action, and his art bristles with kinetic energy. As I mentioned earlier, it's rare that Liefeld goes a full page without having at least one figure break panel borders. In figure 8 above, Cable punches Wolverine clear out of the second panel; his body overlaps into the panels above and below. But that's not even the most interesting thing about this page. In the first panel, Wolverine jumps from off panel right into Cable's face, with the speed lines in the background accentuating this motion. The full page bleed in this panel is crucial; it was an uncommon printing technique at Marvel frequently employed, so the impact c. 1991 must have been far greater than it is in 2007. The full page bleed suggests that Wolverine isn't just jumping into the scene from off-panel, but off-page. Even in an age where full panel bleeds are a common sight, it's a highly effective panel. The final panel sees Liefeld playing around with white space, a Liefeldian tick which I suspect began with the final issue of Hawk and Dove. Unfortunately, Mike Carlin's editorial freak out and subsequent cut-and-paste job put this purely in the realm of speculation. Regardless, Liefeld uses the white space on this particular page to his advantage. The final panel featuring two figures surrounded by a vast expanse of white. It freezes the moment in time, building anticipation for what happens on the next page. The effect is even stronger when juxtaposed with the extreme dynamism of the first two panels. This is far more sophisticated storytelling than we usually associate with Liefeld.
Figure 9: On the other hand....
But look, I don't want to overrate Rob Liefeld here. These impressive pages are tiny islands in a sea of crap. Just a few pages after composing such a effective fight scene between Cable and Wolverine, Liefeld draws a real stinker of a panel in which Wolverine throws away a damp cigar in disgust (don't ask). It's a completely nonsensical drawing. Why is Wolverine hurling the ruined stogy with all his might? Why is it falling downward, when the extreme foreshortening of his arm indicates that it should be hurtling straight toward the reader? And worst of all, where the hell is the lower half of his torso? These would all be acceptable quirks if they weren't all happening at once. Or if the drawing wasn't so fucking brain-shatteringly ugly.
Figure 10: .....
And then there's Liefeld's decision to insert a diagram from The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe right in the middle of a page. Actually, I can't say this is what he did for certain, but it sure looks like one of Elliot Brown's technical drawings. If, say, JH Williams were to do this, we'd consider it a postmodern masterstroke. But, since it's Rob Liefeld, it's pretty easy to chalk it up to laziness or some misguided nod towards, uh, something or another. It's totally jarring--no one is looking at a map or blueprint, so it doesn't fit into the narrative flow of the comic. Juxtaposed with Liefeld's scratchy, imprecise lines, the schematic is violently out of place, grinding the flow of the page to a excruciating halt. It takes the reader right out of the story--which isn't always a bad thing. Here, though, it's just another moment of Liefeldian lunacy.
Liefeld and Simonson's run was interrupted by the X-Tinction Agenda crossover, which looked so unbelievably bad that I didn't bother to read it. The pencils look rushed; they suffer from Joe Rubinstein and Art Thibert's inks, which emphasize all of Liefeld's worst qualities. Still, the crossover cleared the deck for the complete Liefeldization of New Mutants. Half the cast were written out of the book by the end of New Mutants #98, replaced by original Liefeld creations like Shatterstar and Domino. More important, Liefeld took over plotting the book. Gone was Simonson's central motif of Cable guiding these older adolescents into adulthood, giving them the tough love they need, etc. etc. In its place was a more Claremont-ish approach: Morlocks, the Mojoverse, the Hellfire Club, and an ever-expanding cast of mysterious strangers.
Figure 11: Nicieza makes his mark immediately. Note the use of smaller print for Deadpool's aside--a nice touch.
I hate to say it, but it's an improvement, really. Liefeld throws a lot of balls in the air by the end of New Mutants #100. It's unclear how well he would have juggled them in the long run, but in the short run it set up a lot of potentially exciting (if potentially formulaic) plots. Even more striking is the improvement in dialogue under Nicieza. Simonson's dialogue was solid at best, spectacularly bad at worst. Way back in issue #87, Boom Boom (a valley girl type) refers to Freedom Force (basically the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) as "the absolute worst dolts in existence." That's unbelievably bad, even by the standards of early 90s Marvel. Nicieza injects a bit of wit to the proceedings, probably a necessary change to offset Liefeld's portentous plotting.
Figure 12: Hope you aren't into background detail.
The last three issues also see Liefeld take over inking duties, and the change is pretty substantial. Liefeld was never much for detailed backgrounds, but they all but disappear now that he has to produce 22 finished pages of art every month. His layouts also suffer, marked by more mundane panel and page compositions. Which is bad--devoid of those creative layouts, Liefeld's art is muddled and confusing. (Okay, it's confusing with the creative layouts as well, but at least it's an interesting type of confusion.)
Figure 13: When panel breaks go bad.
Worst of all, Liefeld's compositions lack energy. Even when he indulges his pet idiosyncrasies, the pages don't move so much as collapse in a heap. In figure 13 above, the full figures of Cable and Warpath intrude on the final panel. It doesn't work; they seem to be trampling on Warpath's head as he enters a cab. And those backgrounds...Jesus, man. Are they inside or outside?
Figure 14: Nice threads, dude (he's wearing a vest without a sports coat).
Liefeld bounces back by the end of the issue, where he's playing around with camera angles and negative space yet again. In figure 14 above, he breaks from a row of conventional panels to let Cable's head and vest define the positive space. It's a more successful panel than the one below (figure 15), which seems more like Liefeld running out of ways to amuse himself while drawing a boring, dialogue-heavy scene.
Figure 15: This has to violate some rule of cinematography.
In the final issue of New Mutants, Liefeld is mixing in a few non-gimmicky panels with actual, honest-to-God good compositions. He doesn't do it consistently throughout the issue, but it's something of a step forward for the young artist.
Figure 16: A pair of well-composed panels from New Mutants #100.
Liefeld isn't relying on speed lines or panel breaks in these panels--he's using his innate sense of composition to imply movement and action by leading the reader's eye all over the panel. On the other hand, these panels also reveal his ongoing issues with anatomy, which appear to have worsened as he's taken over on inks.
I don't want to oversell Liefeld here. He's not an accomplished artist on New Mutants; to the contrary, he's an incredibly frustrating artist. Liefeld flashes moments of skill throughout the book. You can't help but wonder what he could have done if he'd continued to work on his craft. Some of these pages are very sophisticated for a guy who'd only been drawing comics for a couple of years. These are not the majority of his pages, unfortunately. Furthermore, any casual reader would be overwhelmed by his poor rendering and frequently sloppy storytelling to notice these infrequent triumphs.
But is what the average New Mutants reader would have seen in 1991? Let me try to put myself in the mindset of a 12 year old boy for a minute. There's a lot of cool stuff going on in Liefeld's pencils--curvaceous women, brooding heroes, slobbering villains, and nonstop action. The insertion of a schematic diagram of the Danger Room? Probably would have taken me out of the moment, but I would probably have found it incredibly cool. All those lazy backgrounds? I thought they were great at the time because they made me feel better about my own inability to draw convincing, detailed backgrounds in the comics I was making (in fact, my comics suddenly featured a lot of loosely crosshatched backgrounds). Liefeld's books popped right off the shelf, promising action which no other artist could deliver. Hawk and Dove only hinted at these qualities, but New Mutants delivered. It's no wonder this book vaulted him to superstardom. And it's no wonder that today's fans don't want to read Liefeld-drawn comics anymore--there just aren't that many 12 year old boys buying comics these days, and the 12 year old boys of yesterday are kind of embarrassed that they ever liked this shit.
Next: X-Force, the point at which the phrase "diminishing returns" becomes relevant to the discussion.