Youngblood at Heart

Seven years after leaving the industry that made him a star, former comic book wunderkind Rob Liefeld is ready for his heroes to be reborn

Thursday, October 11, 2007 - 3:00 pm
Milk: It does a body really good! Photo by John Gilhooley. Click the image for more photos from this story.
Milk: It does a body really good! Photo by John Gilhooley. Click the image for more photos from this story.
The first thing you notice is Badrock. It would be difficult, after all, to ignore a 7-foot statue of any kind, but a muscular stone warrior with green eyes, wearing nothing but a red bow around its waist, is as close to an actual elephant in the room as you’d want to get. Badrock would tower over any kid’s toy collection, but here, in this shiny new house on a fancy hillside in Yorba Linda, he stands guard over the action-figure cabinet of a grown man. A grown man who just happens to be the creator of at least half the characters represented here in plastic form (the other half are NBA toys mass-marketed by his old colleague, Todd McFarlane).

And to think, Rob Liefeld actually considered throwing out the big guy when he moved. It took his wife, Joy, who isn’t anything like an avid comics fan, to persuade him otherwise—she knew he’d regret ditching such a painstakingly made effigy of his signature character, a teenage kid trapped in a super-body. Liefeld himself may be edging toward middle age, but he still has the boyish looks that helped make him a media star during the comics boom of the early ’90s, and the energy and expressiveness of a young kid on a sugar high, possibly a result of multiple daily trips to Starbucks. Ask him to explain the video game Halo, and he immediately starts making machine-gun noises with his mouth and tossing invisible bombs. Expounding upon why he loves the movie 300 so much, he goes to work with an imagined sword. “That’s my kind of movie!” he says. “I mean FWWWSHT! Splat! Blood and BLEUYYYAAAHH! I love that kind of stuff!” Mention Kill Bill, and he leans back against the wall as if hit by massive G-forces, making a noise that can best be approximated on the page as “NGGGGUUUUHHHH!” before clarifying: “Oh, my God! The best movie!” This must be what folks on the Internet call a “geekgasm.”

It’s not like you’d expect subtlety. The Anaheim-born Liefeld was, as he’ll tell you, one of the first to register the word “extreme” as a marketing trademark for his comic-book company Extreme Studios, and his artwork is both adored and despised for its sometimes grotesquely distorted anatomy, preposterously huge weapons and characters so outsized they don’t fit within the panel, prompting some detractors to joke that the artist is afraid of drawing hands and feet. Though he doesn’t understand that particular criticism (“Okay, right now on my bulletin board, I have all 26 pages of the last comic I did—and I’m lookin’ at hands and feet everywhere!”), he does have a healthy sense of self-parody—and a thick skin. “They always go, ‘Oh, Liefeld’s characters are either gritting their teeth, or they’re yelling, they got their mouth open screaming,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, have you seen a Japanese cartoon?’” he says. “I mean, Dragon Ball—you know, you got your characters, they’re playing on the side of the cliff, and then suddenly a guy appears out of the sky—‘I must kill you!’—and, you know, for 30 minutes, they have this crazy battle that takes them all over the globe, into the ocean, you know, crashing into the mountains, and at the end, they vanquish the foe, and they go back to playing on the cliff. And it’s like, that sustained me for 30 minutes. It wasn’t terribly clever, it didn’t do anything other than kinda take my breath away with some of those action sequences—but that sort of balls-out approach, I was happy to bring to my pages.”

In addition to anime influences, part of Liefeld’s signature style evolved out of friendly competition with McFarlane when the two of them worked for Marvel. “They’d say, ‘Don’t break the panel borders! Everything has to stay inside the frame!’” he recalls. “And Todd and I’d be like, ‘Every time they say that to us, let’s break more.’ And it was goofy, and he was definitely my partner in crime, and he’s older than me, I looked up to everything he said, and all his guidance, and then it got to be, like, we’d fax each other pages—‘Oh, man, you made that figure that big on the page? Oh! I can make it a figure this big!’ and ‘Oh, my gosh, you really did a whole page of a guy’s face? Well, I’m gonna do the whole page of just a guy’s eyeball!’ The competitiveness of what we were doing is really kinda what drove us.”

Most famously, it drove them—along with a group of others that included Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri—away from Marvel altogether to found Image Comics in 1992, where, as creators, they could own their work 100 percent. Out of Image came such characters as McFarlane’s Spawn, Larsen’s Savage Dragon, Lee’s WildC.A.T.S, Turner’s Witchblade, Sam Kieth’s the Maxx and Liefeld’s Youngblood, a superhero team that introduced Badrock, who was initially named Bedrock—right up until Liefeld saw the teaser trailer for the Flintstones live-action movie. “The trailer was literally just the song,” he says, “and the dot bounced on a black screen to the lyrics‘From the—town of—BED-ROCK!’ And I go, ‘Oh, I’m screwed.’” The character was almost renamed “Budrock,” but Anheuser-Busch threatened to sue.

With the X-Men already hitting the public consciousness in a big way thanks to a TV cartoon and the work of many of the Image founders prior to leaving Marvel, and with their new company exploding on the scene, comic books soared in the ’90s, prompting the various companies to try to one-up one another all the time, with variant covers, collectible gimmicks and . . . well . . . “It is 100 percent fact that we killed Superman,” says Liefeld. “I think, August 1992, we were the second-largest publisher of comics with eight comics. We beat DC Comics and their 50 to 60 comics they were offering that month. And that was the Shot Heard Round the World. Marvel was No. 1, and they publish about 50-60 comics, and now DC is looking up at Image, and they publish 50 to 60 comics, and oh, by the way, they publish Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Justice League. And then they had their emergency meetings: ‘Uh-oh, uh, we’ve gotta do something to regain some attention. Uh, we’re gonna kill Superman.’ And that got DC into the game in November 1992.”