Remembering the incomprehensible 90’s with digital ‘Youngblood’

Posted: June 5, 2012 in comic books, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
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Comics! You can buy them online now.

Now that I’ve finally gotten my Nook operating the way it needs to (which is to say, not how Barnes & Noble wants me to), I’ve had full access to the Comixology site, which means I’ve been able to really use it to its full potential.

By this, I mean, I have actually spent money on a Rob Liefeld comic out of morbid curiosity.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown more and more fascinated by the guy. He exists in this strange bubble, wherein his art has remained at exactly the same skill level despite 25 years as a working artist.

Seriously. This is art from New Mutants in 1990:

Last year he was hired to do art chores on the rebooted Hawk & Dove title. Here is that: 

IMAGINE! Imagine doing something for 25 years and actively resisting changing or maturing a style, even in the face of mounting criticism – DECADES of criticism – that you are maybe one of the worst artists in the world.

But what The Rob lacks in coherent storytelling ability, basic grasp of human anatomy or facial expressions, or interest in hairstyles that may have appeared later than 1988 or a Duran Duran video, he makes up for in enthusiasm.

He just likes creating! Creating basically the same things with little variation, yes, but dammit the world needs as many characters who carry swords, guns that don’t look like guns, and shoulder-pads, because that’s what Jack Kirby was doing, man!

It’s actually not, but I honestly think that’s what Rob Liefeld THINKS was going on when Kirby went to DC in the 70’s and threw every single concept he had at them, which coincidentally meant creating about a hundred new characters to do the job. He was also constantly inventing visual language to suit his storytelling needs.

So I think Rob Liefeld treats his vague, random-panels-on-walls backgrounds and his complete reliance on shoulder pads and stuff as his version of what Kirby would do with crazy sci-fi settings and zig-zag/circle costuming.

An homage to Jack Kirby that sweetly, lovingly, totally misses the point of Jack Kirby.

My evidence of this is The Rob’s 1992 Youngblood miniseries, the plot of which is (pretty randomly) devoted to a bunch of Fourth World analogues, led by…Jack Kirby:

But I have to back a second, to explain why on earth I would buy the 1992 Youngblood miniseries (again! After all, I was 12 when Youngblood came out, which is pretty much the cut-off age before you realize, holy shit, dude can’t draw).

See, a few years back, Liefeld decided to release a re-mastered edition with new coloring and some art-tweaks (though not full-on corrections, like, say if a character wears an eye-patch in one panel but not another), and writer Joe Casey was tasked with the nigh-impossible job of re-writing the entire miniseries so that it Made Sense And Told A Story.

This right here should be enough for Rob Liefeld to go, “Huh…maybe I need to rethink a few things,” but no, he just took it as a compliment, which is how he takes every criticism, which is why he is The Rob Liefeld and I am just a dude with a blog who is imploring him to stop doing what he does for a living.

Anyway. I admire Joe Casey’s “Eh, I have Ben 10 money now, so screw it, let’s give it a shot” attitude towards comic book work, so I wanted to see if he could do it. If it could be done.

It also forced me to go back and re-read the issues BEFORE the remastering. And so when I tell you that Joe Casey did an astonishing job of making the thing just barely coherent as a narrative, I want you to understand just how much work he had to do to get that to happen.

You see, in 1992, Rob Liefeld and all the other Image founders broke off to form their own company where they were free to do the comics they wanted to, without interference from writers and editors, with their constraining notions of “plot” and “character.”

Rob Liefeld just wanted to draw Things He Thinks Are Awesome, and if he also had to come up with some kind of script to accommodate that, well then that’s just what he’d do.

Actually, I’m not 100% sure he ever wrote down a script. I’d really, really like to see what that would look like, because the finished comic reads very much like someone who just started drawing Things, and then went back and wrote some haphazard captions and dialogue to vaguely tie it all together.

So you can just imagine the sense of climbing Everest that Joe Casey must’ve felt when asked to turn it into a coherent narrative.

The stated premise of Youngblood is that of a government-sanctioned superteam whose members are treated as celebrities. The only evidence of this is that one of them sleeps with a groupie, and a couple of the others make mention of having to approve toys of themselves.

That is it. Note that I said the “premise,” and not the “story.” Because that premise impacts the events of these comics about 0%. The comics themselves are devoted to the “home” team fighting another supergroup, and the “away” team assassinating Saddam Hussein (1992, remember!).

OK, that’s issue one, and I hope you appreciated that glimpse into what a “regular” issue of Youngblood as a concept would have been like, because by issue 2, Rob Liefeld has grown bored with that idea and instead uncovers a supersoldier in cryogenic stasis who was made to fight an invasion from Apocalypse D’Kayy and its evil ruler, Darkseid Darkthornn. This’ll end up being mostly his story for the rest of the miniseries, in that there’s any kind of story thread to really follow.

Oh, and there’s ANOTHER team of gun-and-sword-guys who are Rob Liefeld’s idea of 4th World characters and are led by Shirtless Jack Kirby, but despite receiving a third of the issue with which to introduce themselves, they’re uneventfully dispatched off-panel.

Well from there, it’s just a lot of hitting and shooting and shouting, and the heroes win (by chasing Not-Darkseid off, which is kinda hilarious in an 80’s cartoon “I’ll get you next time!” kind of way), the end. But explaining the “plot” of a Rob Liefeld comic is beside the point.

The amazing thing is what Joe Casey has to do to make this thing readable as a narrative, like an actual story might, without having to infer things from awkward lines of dialogue or barely-connected panels.

In comparing the original issues to the “revised” edition, we can see that Joe Casey accomplishes this feat by:

  • Completely abandoning every original caption or line of dialogue (which is okay, because in the original dialogue everyone only spoke in exposition and nobody kept the same speech patterns for more than two word balloons)
  • Re-ordering pages so that about five extraneous subplots that don’t affect the story are excised (which also includes moving the Kirby’s Heroes sequence to the opening pages and then killing them, finding a use for them that the original comic never actually came up with), and even
  • Re-ordering PANELS so that there’s some kind of internal logic the eyes can follow (this is made even easier thanks to Comixology’s “guided view” format, which takes the burden of following the action off the poor reader).

So in essence, Joe Casey made a barely competent comic book out of a series of disjointed action panels. The comic book equivalent of refrigerator-magnet poetry.

And watching such a herculean task performed was definitely worth the $8 I spent via Comixology.

Just to wrap this up, here’s a drawing of Jack Kirby by Jack Kirby:

And here is Jack Kirby by Rob Liefeld:

Say what you will about Rob Liefeld, but that is a dude who just wants to make things Awesomer.

  1. Moff says:

    Well, now you’ve made me want to go out and “read” the original Youngblood, out of the same morbid curiosity that propelled you to buy the revised series. SO GREAT WORK, HOLLAND.

  2. braak says:

    Now you’ve made me want to write a comic called Jack Kirby and the Heroes of the Fourth World, that’s just about Jack Kirby as a robot spaceman fighting neanderthal super-scientists from beyond the edge of time.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Now you’ve made me want to LIVE that.

  4. Nathan says:

    What I’ve always wanted to see are the quazi-ironic tributes from people who grew up in the dark age of comics and still have fond memories for the dross that was created way back when. (And then the same quazi-ironic tributes done for the terrible stuff from my generation. A version of High School Musical as a space opera with a grown up version of Justin Beiber doing the sound track would be kinda awesome.)

    Take who ever comes out as the “Next Grant Morrision” and set him to work on a team book where a sucubus (inhuman proportions and the spine breaking), a steroid abuser (impossible limbs), a guy possessed by a demon, (Youngbloods disease and the Wolverine hair/ horns) and a pair of alien twins (genetically enginered to be exobitionists, bisexual and insestious). Are given access to the Armory from the Matrix and are then dumped into a parallel universe where physics don’t quite work right.

    None of them are ever named and they then spend the next forty pages fighting wave after wave of mooks and working through their anger issues in group therapy.

  5. braak says:

    Hahah, actually, Grant Morrison wrote an issue of Doom Patrol that was kind of like that, just a crazy pastiche of Rob Liefeld comics that, despite being utterly ridiculous, was somehow still better than any of Rob Liefeld’s actual comics.

  6. braak says:

    Holland, we did this wrong. Let’s go get some old Youngblood comics and re-dub them.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    There’s gonna be a lot of “Wheeeeee!” and “OH GOD MY SPINE WHYYYYY” in the new dialogue.

  8. braak says:

    I think that would only improve it. How much does Youngblood #1 go for these days?

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    “Hi, I’d like to buy all the Youngblood #1s in your back issue bins.”
    “YOU…are the one the prophecy spoke of!”

  10. […] the downside, knowing this bums me out even more about the current, Rob-Liefeld-Gets-To-Write-Three-Books-Even-Though-Hawk-And-Dove-Got-Canned attitude of the DC editorial […]

  11. […] mean, in the short run, yes, I get it. John Prophet – who, if memory serves, was basically “What if Captain America was built to fight Darkseid?”, though not nearly as […]

  12. Grapper says:

    People criticize Liefeld’s art, but have these same people picked up a comic book lately? They dropped realism completely in exchange for cartoon-like characters. And this is in late teen-young adult themed books. If not that, then anime style characters. Yet, not a peep from the hypocrites like yourself about realism.

    I love comic books, but I hate the fans and critics.

  13. braak says:

    “Realism” of course is a style independent of aesthetic appeal. There’s nothing hypocritical in describing Liefeld’s non-realistic style as “bad” because of *how* it eschews a resemblance to reality, while also calling other non-realistic styles good.

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