The Nickelback of Comics: Defending Rob Liefeld

Is Rob Liefeld the Most Hated Person in Comics?

Liefeld himself

Google the phrase, “Most hated person in comics” and you will be greeted with several web pages dedicated to the subject, usually in the form of a top-10 list. The names on those lists are pretty varied, ranging from people like John Byrne and Mark Millar, all the way to Brian Michael Bendis and Jim Shooter. Each one of those names has legitimate gripes about them, earning them spots, but the thing about these lists? For the most part, the names vary. Take a look, though, and you will see one name come up on almost every single one: Rob Liefeld. 


“His Anatomy is Terrible”

This one is the most common of all the reasons to dislike Liefeld. People love to make fun of Liefeld for his inability to draw feet and hands, among other issues. Seriously, take a look at a majority of his pages and you will see characters from the ankles up. When the feet are shown, they are usually disproportionate to the rest of the body. Tiny, tiny feet on incredibly tall or muscular bodies. And by feet, I mean amorphous diamond shapes. Those are feet, right? Hands are also an issue. Do a quick image search of “Rob Liefeld hands” and you will see that about 90% of all the images show characters with fist clenched. Either ready to punch, or grasping a sword or gun. Most folks believe he does this because it is a cheat for not actually drawing a hand.

Rob Liefeld Captain America
Here, we Googled it for you.

The most infamous of anatomy issues lies with his drawing of Captain America during Heroes Reborn. Do a Google image search for “Rob Liefeld Captain America.” The very first image that comes up should be a profile shot of Cap holding his shield. Everything about this image is wrong. First, his chest is impossibly huge, making his head impossibly small. His chest is larger than the shield. There is no way that shield actually works in the capacity it was designed to do. With a neck that big, would he even be able to turn his head? His crotch is super flat, which I guess could happen. The face itself looks shifted entirely to the right, meaning that he has a huge gap of nothing on the left side of his face. The wing on the left is positioned weirdly. Even I can’t defend this image.

“He’s Everything Wrong With the ’90s”

The ’90s gave rise to many new concepts. One of the concepts that arose during this period was the over-sexualization of female characters. This wasn’t a brand-new concept–look at the origins of Wonder Woman–but it was especially egregious during this era. While we had the advent of Lady Death, Witchblade, etc., Liefeld seems to take heat for his work too. Characters like Boom-Boom, Domino, and Wolfsbane all had incredibly impossible anatomy, enhancing their sexualization. Characters were often drawn in seductive poses. Sometimes in the nude (with smoke/steam in just the right position covering the naughty bits). Women were just designed as sex objects during this period, because sex sold.

Many people also laugh about this being the era of pouches and big guns. Besides Cable and Deadpool, which I will discuss later, he helped create several other characters. Creator-owned Youngblood has it all: pouches, big guns, big shoulders, and big cleavage. It is ’90s excess in one book. His most ’90s of all creations, though, was for Marvel, Shatterstar. Shatterstar had the pouches, the big shoulders, ponytail, funky eye…and that sword. One giant blade wasn’t good enough for Shatterstar. He needed two giant blades on one sword, because why not? Every time I hear about people complain about ’90s comics, I picture Shatterstar. I’m willing to bet you do too, if you lived through that era.

“He Just Sucks”

Liefeld Shatterstar
Liefeld Shatterstar

This is a very, very common response with little to no explanation behind it. All I can say is that art is subjective. What one person finds ugly, another person finds beautiful. Case in point: I have heard people say that they can’t stand Jeff Lemire’s artwork. But when I read Essex County I can’t imagine anyone else drawing it. No one else would get that emotion. Same could be said with Rob Liefeld. I couldn’t imagine anyone else drawing New Mutants or X-Force during that period. His artwork was bursting with the energy of that time. Sure there was excess, but it fueled my young imagination. Maybe I look back at it with nostalgia, but I still find it riveting. You say he sucks; I say he was just right for the time.

His Art Had an Amazing Energy

We were coming out of the era of incredibly clean and safe lines. As wonderful as art looked from the likes of John Byrne and Dave Cockrum, there was a static look to their pencils. A clean-cut, almost flat look to it. Then in 1986 a little book called The Dark Knight Returns #1 was released to the comic masses. It set a new standard for the dark and gritty feel of what comic books could be. Between The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, comic audiences found there was a new way to tell stories. Stories with a more human take on these god-like beings. More fallible than ever before, both morally and physically. These ushered in a new era of artists using methods like hatching to give the art a noir feel. Hence the darker edge in visual storytelling.

What started in the ’80s with the birth of the dark age of comics continued in the ’90s. Artists like Jim Lee, Erik Larson, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, and of course, Rob Liefeld led the way. With this new movement in art, there was a renewed energy. Not just among the artists, but the audience as well. They went crazy for it. Like I said earlier, I could not imagine anyone else drawing the books he did. His style was perfect for what came next–the rise of the anti-hero.

Rise of the Anti-Hero

During the ’90s, you needed an edge. You needed attitude. And there were plenty of characters that had this, in spades. Lobo, Wolverine, Guy Gardner, the Punisher, Moon Knight, etc. Readers were used to their heroes saving the day, while having time to help people cross the street. Attitudes changed during the late ’80s and early ’90s. We wanted darker. If our heroes killed in the name of justice, we were fine with that. One character during this period really, really defines what it means to be an anti-hero: the Merc with a Mouth. First, though, let’s talk about another anti-hero that visually represented what people now hate about the ’90s.

Rob Liefeld Cable and Deadpool
Rob Liefeld Cable and Deadpool

When you think of pouches and big guns, or swords, the first thing that comes to mind is Cable. Replete with giant guns, pouches and metal arms, Cable is a quintessential ’90s character. Co-created by Liefeld, Cable is the kind of character that, to look at, you might think would have vanished in the last decade. Not so, though. In fact, he is thriving rather well right now. Still considered an A-list character in the Marvel universe, he will be co-starring in the upcoming Deadpool movie sequel.

Speaking of Deadpool, if you need your fix for a character with big swords, tons of pouches, and attitude to match, this one is for you. This Liefeld co-creation is one of the most popular of Marvel characters right now. While he has always been a popular niche character, he hit the stratosphere after his movie. And he doesn’t show signs of slowing down. There is mini-series after mini-series starring the Merc with a Mouth. And his ongoing is always in the top-100 sales charts. He is one of the most recognizable comic characters out there at this time. All thanks, in part, to Liefeld’s design.

The Defense Rests

Like the rock band Nickelback, I honestly believe it has just become vogue to hate on Rob Liefeld at this point. His art might not be the absolute best, but there are bright spots. That energy still crackles off the page when I look at it, and the detail he put into the big guns, the clothing, the background machinery was fantastic. For me, this was always able to overshadow whatever shortcomings there might have been in his figurework. He also helped create two fantastic characters that are still leading figures in the Marvel universe, which is pretty awesome. His art was perfect for the time. It matched the style of other artists, and helped create others, whether for good or for ill. Next time you see someone bashing Rob Liefeld online, take a moment and think about these things. You may not like his art, or him, for that matter, but at least maybe you can appreciate what it is for the time it was in. 

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About the author

Michael Adams

Michael has been collecting comics since his grandmother gave him copies of Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man #124 and Huggabunch #4 at the age of 5. While he is a DC fanboy, Spider-Man 2099 is one of his favorite characters. Issue #1 of that 1992 series is his Achilles's heel, buying pretty much every copy he finds. He got the chance to live the dream in the last several years, working at a comic book shop on the weekends before that store closed. He now tours the conventions around where he lives, selling comics to attendees. Like every true comic fan, his "to read" pile of single issues stands at 3 short boxes and at least two full bookshelves of trades. He'll get to them one day. Right?


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