Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Nightly News | Jonathan Hickman

“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

–          Benjamin Franklin

Funny that comes from him, though: a guy who had no trouble suggesting lifestyles to people as well as hinting at how they should treat the money they earn. But, hey, hypocrisy’s everything, and no matter the source, the point of the quote does fit the point of the comicbook, as Jonathan Hickman’s masterpiece certainly chases individuality in spades. It lives and breathes the quest. And while Hickman denounces all theories of cathartic involvement, it’s hard to read this work without seeing a guy chasing something.

Because past the rage you may or may not feel necessary to explore, the controversial subject matter, and the facetious subtitle “A Lie Told in Six Parts,” The Nightly News is still very much a part of its creator; a book which clearly suggests an artist cutting his own path and not giving a fuck what anyone thinks.

It spells out everything that Hickman is – from the design to the choice in storytelling. And at a time in mainstream comics when the writer spit unquestionable dominance while the artist became sort of a cast off, this book came to and broke many of the standards set. All the way from the blunt impact of a quick glance, to the actual reading process – tearing the traditional comicbook page apart and rebuilding it, The Nightly News wants nothing to do with the majority.

It is, in essence, the true individual, and I think in a day an age when we’re so quick to label the new thing “brilliant” or a “game changer,” this comicbook might actually live up to the labels. Yet, no matter its place in the grand ol’ scheme, Hickman clearly crafted a comicbook without any peers and did so without holding himself to any predisposed expectation. As Hickman notes in the trade paper back’s afterword …

“ … I’m telling a story.

And it’s one I expected more of you would hate.”

Yet he told it anyway.

As the afterword continues, he then goes on to list the book’s unmistakable qualities as reason for a potential backlash, and ends his authorial footnote by summing up his completed work.

“Concerning The Nightly News, for me it’s about believing in something so much you have to do it regardless of the cost.”

That “something” would be storytelling – his way; the “cost” is an unreceptive audience.

This may be a very “in-head” reading too closely associated with the author, but as for my personal stance on the work, the author cannot be removed from the picture. Know that.

Plus, Hickman says …

“Enjoy The Nightly News for what it is to you. That’s how it should be – it’s yours now.”

By those words, I’m OK with where I stand.

Jonathan Hickman claims to have been reborn in March of 2006. As he words it on his website

“After a certain amount of time you get tired of wasting talent. Of being part of a fraudulent profession — or actually being a fraud. And, most importantly, not living the life you are capable of having.”

Now, while it’s debatable he ever really escaped the “fraudulent profession” (Kirby supporters, unite!), the quote simply suggests Hickman didn’t enjoy his career previous to breaking into comics. And when you take the entirety of the bio on his website into consideration,  it’s clear that by being “reborn” a comics writer, his life now is more suitable and in line with his actual desires.

He also states in the afterword of The Nightly News’ trade paper back that, “All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories – it’s what I was meant to do (emphasis his). I know this because I spent ten years trying to convince myself I’d be happy doing other things.”

While the biography on his site comes off as romanticized and somewhat story-like, it works well enough to paint the usual picture of someone discovering themselves. The claim of “rebirth” may be a tad dramatic, but the adoption of a creative lifestyle that truly fits you after years of a soul-sucking job, I guess, would probably incite such a feeling of anew purpose. Because you’re going in an entirely different direction than you once previously were, and with the critical response that The Nightly News garnered,  you would have to suddenly feel at home. As if the community you’d been searching for all along just opened its arms to you and drew you in.

The same year as his apparent rebirth, The Nightly News saw publication. The book marked Hickman’s first major work in the medium, and it detailed a plot centered around a mistreated individual who seeks revenge on journalists and the media because he cites them as the source of his misfortune. It’s a very sardonic work, riffing on things such as Network and the story of Richard Jewell, the Olympic bomber.

If you’ve ever been on the comics internet, you know all of this already.

You probably even know The Nightly News as a unique piece of fiction – something that changed the idea of comics – and know it for its unorthodox visual style. But in this age of hyperbolic comicbook “journalism,” well, do you really know all the arguments behind these praises? Or that they even exist? Because the comics internet’s not wrong, but neither has it really broken down this work. And it should be broken down because The Nightly News isn’t just another Image comic that excited some diehard DC reader because he finally read something “indie.” No. It’s an actual machine complete with all the necessary gears, yet gears in need of a new inspection.

In this world of multimedia and visual mandates, it makes sense for Hickman to display this comicbook the way he does. If anything, he’s riffing on the state of things and bleeding into the info-graphic culture we inhabit. You could even say he’s using the weapon usually aimed for us and turning it back on its handler, subverting the norm as well as casting his own brand of spicy propaganda. This mindset works to the book’s cynical attitude as it furthers its point about the hypocritical cult, that no matter what side you choose, conformity’s on your mind and the same tactics are in use, all leading you no further from your enemy.

The entire visual layout is a representative piece, and while it livens up the overall style and contributes to the subtext, it also roots itself in the very foundation of the actual pages and transforms the reading experience. Because by doing what Hickman does he must rearrange the typical components. From word balloons, to gutters to the overall layout, things have to shift, but Hickman’s smart enough to not let these fundamental comicbook elements suffer because of a desire for a standout look. Not a sacrifice is made, and everything comes together for sort of a new reading experience.

As Hickman describes it

“One of the things I’m able to do is make a cohesive page instead of a panel a page with the whole spread working together. Now even though the pages are presented as two-page spreads, there’s enough stuff going on in the pages and there’s even panels in certain pages that makes it work like separate pages.”

Or as I would describe it …

“His pages ignore the typical grid expected of a comicbook page, and instead, a viewer’s eyes just flow to the appropriate moments or where the dialogue rests. Rather than the typical left-to-right, top-to-bottom, it’s more a top-to-bottom reading order, and your eyes just leap from scenario to scenario. All the while, extra tidbits work their way into the picture, offering these optional side thoughts within the narrative.  The Nightly News’ pages work more like advertisements than comics, giving it that extra splash of media ties.”

There’s a functionality here, but you can also see these pages as complete images, as if Hickman’s work carries Steranko’s love of a stylish and bold appearance but ignores the obsession of the image and doesn’t loose sight of the story. It’s really more J.H. Williams III that way, or even Sienkiewicz, when you consider the sense of atmosphere. I’m not so sure Hickman’s an excellent draftsman, though. While his layout and pure design appears top notch, I feel once you would take away the dressing, his line work wouldn’t impress. The artwork is so dependent on what decorates the surface. Although, it could be Hickman laid down a weak base intentionally, knowing for this particular project things would work out.

I guess you’d have to ask him.

It’s a very impression effort, overall, but that’s one large reason I’m upset with Hickman because he never continued this train of thought past Pax Romana. It’s something that, with proper time and energy given to it, could have really progressed into something. I hate to jump up and be the guy crying “why’d you ‘sell out’,” but man, “why’d you ‘sell out’?” Or even past “selling out,” why not illustrate another project? You’re burning the creator-owned torch once again.

I assume the guy may have, like Brian Michael Bendis, fallen into a train of thought in which he’s convinced himself he’s more comfortable as a writer, but I say fuck comfort. Go back to this. You were on to something.

. . . . .

So let’s consider Hickman, the writer. How’s he fare here? I’d say well.

From start to finish, The Nightly News already exemplifies the traits that now rest synonymous with Jonathan Hickman. Between the fascination of men in power, down to characters as embodiments of concepts, you’ll read this comicbook and distinctly know who penned it, but opposite works like The Red Wing, The Nightly News doesn’t find itself caught up in a weak cast or ill-used environment. In fact, things work very differently, and Hickman’s ticks as an author come together and perform here. And I think it’s all because of the actual passion in the work as well as the cultural zeitgeist anchored to it.

But let’s break down some stuff.

First, we have John Guyton (who oddly resembles Hickman, as well as shares a first name – interpret at will), our neither good guy nor bad guy who instead acts more as a puppet, up until the climax. Then there’s Alexander Jones, another puppet, but one who doesn’t escape. Both men are Hands of The Voice, an invisible messiah who encourages the rebellion, but they are entirely different people. Because both John and Alex are us – the reader – but they represent separate choices. Our potentials. John and Alex serve the The Voice, but only Alex falls completely into the cult while John realizes the hypocrisy of it and, in the end, breaks away by choosing for himself (although, you could debate this) in a final fiery gun fight.

No matter the fictional details, John and Alex break down to a core. John’s the individual who breaks away while Alex represents the man who went with the crowd. From the get go, Hickman zip ties these two together and weaves his larger narrative around them. It’s a smart way to construct the story because the structure allows a reader to peak into and read both sides of the argument evenly. We spend time here and there and see just how John and Alex differ while relate. Hickman even throws the audience into the boardroom and places you with the men in suits, and while you’ll quickly denounce them, he does represent their side and let you sneer into their thought process.

But while the back-and-forth covers all grounds of the plot, I would suggest it’s really about putting you into a place of making a decision. Especially with John and Alex. Do you act as Hand to The Voice and lead the revolution? Does it seem the thing to do? Or can you spot the hole in the cause?

The whole work begs you to ask questions, as all good journalism should.

But even though concepts, those characters are actually characterized by Hickman from a simple showcase of actions and decisions. Even consider the use of dialogue. Each character has their own tone, but John sort of fluctuates throughout the piece. In service of The Voice, his speech reads a little more stern and programmed because he mostly speaks from a position of being the PR man, but once he’s out of the trap, thinking for himself, a more personable tone resides with the character. These details from Hickman just go to show the concept of humanity, and that when you live by someone else’s rule, you sort of lose it.

You also have to consider Hickman’s use of the setting and how he builds it. The Nightly News resides in New York City, the media capital of the world, and while that’s obviously coherent with the subject matter, Hickman really uses setting to suggest a tone and fuel his characters’ motivations. By just implementing a caption that reads “News Capitol of the world” at the start of each issue, Hickman automatically creates the pulse of the world. You’re not reading from some safe distance; you’re at the fucking heart of it, and that should tell you how wired this cast will be. Because as characters they’re living there, fully exposed to what occurs in the “Capitol.”

From there, Hickman earns a little of the leeway to work in the info-graphics and graphs that he does, because with New York City as the setting, let allow a “News Capitol” New York City, you’re expecting it. The factoids and flashy signs complete the picture as well as flesh out the overall identity and none of it feels inappropriate. And the use of orange, a searing orange, ties it all off and shouts every ounce of frustration exerted by the grinding gears and minds existing in that space.

It’s an angry, busy body city, and in Hickman’s portrayal, the environment’s inescapable just like the media.

Which, we can’t forget, is a subject of this piece.

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

–          Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman

Could I sit here and express my own personal opinions on the matter? Sure I could, but in the end, it wouldn’t add much to this essay about a comicbook, even if the subject of the book is journalism – my chosen field of study while in college.

No, what I think is more important to understand is why this book focuses on such a topic. Or why any story of this type – be it Network, Serpico or anything else – tackles some large subject of corruption. It’s about the questions asked, not the next step offered. Because our society’s so bent on taking anything that’s fed to it. We’ve unlearned critical thinking and instead look toward the multiple choice test for an answer. Narratives like these, though, wake us back up and put doubt in our minds, and that’s why they’re valuable. No matter their place as fiction, they still cause doubt.

And doubt is good.

Because like the Franklin quote up top suggests, a society of like minds is a mindless one at that.

Along with his subject, Hickman takes The Nightly News and uses the experience of creating it as his own chance to break away from the crowd and think for himself. It’s a tale of individualism fully realized  both by fictional character and author, who just happen to both share a first name.

As a comicbook, through craft and voice, it stands as a new favorite of mine, and while I left most of my own personal connection to the book aside – out of this essay – I can say it’s anger and bold personality do find a home in my own, lanky frame.

I was a little riled after setting it down, and to me, that’s the sign of a great comicbook.

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Prez: Smells Like Teen President | Ed Brubaker, Eric Shanower

Originally published at Spandexless.com

While the sludge of semester woes and college antics have slowed my reading, I’ve still managed to make a little time to retread, as well as “first tread,” some of Ed Brubaker’s work. Things like Sleeper, Point Blank, Criminal, Incognito and Scene of the Crime  have all shot across my radar, but I’d say, without a doubt, this odd “Vertigo Visions” one-shot takes the cake as, well, most peculiar.

Set in the mids 90s, amidst the cultural “movement” known as grunge, Brubaker and artist Eric Shanower pick up on an old Joe Simon concept known as Prez: First Teen President and expand the matter by introducing a slacker, generation x type, who’s believed to be his son, to foil Simon’s activist with a Kurt Cobain-type, complete with traits of self-hatred and existential question. Yet, while two sides, both characters are of the same coin and come together to form this grander picture of adolescence, delivering themes I’d say we could have all related to at some point.

Plus, the comic contains a nice little back matter bit from Brubaker in which he states:

“Once again, the mainstream media has stolen youth rebellion and sold us back a blander version at a higher price. By portraying today’s youth as ‘slackers,’ they’ve given us permission to be lazy and stupid. Knowing obscure facts about the Brady Bunch, or Charles Manson, or the names of every indie-rock band on K Records does not constitute intelligence. Where’s the real victory in winning a game of Trivial Pursuit? We all spend too much time worrying about being cool, and not nearly enough on just being human.”

If you ever wanted Brubaker’s opinion on hipsters, well, there you have it.

Aside from the clear time stamp and relatability, though, Prez: Smells Like Teen President sticks out for its unashamed honesty, even while in the face of preachy speech giving. Before “Marvel Architects” and a David Slade partnership, Brubaker was just another dude doing comics, and not just freelance mainstream work. Dude was producing the kind of work The Comics Journal salivates to, auto-bio sulk fests complete with meaning and all sorts of good, wholesome stuff. He wasn’t Ed Brubaker, the writer; he was Ed Brubaker, the cartoonist (check out Lowlife, if you haven’t), and he was clearly apart of a different area of the grander comics culture. Of course, he moved on eventually, losing the cool points in some eyes, but I’d like to say the guy grew up and took his craft to another area.

But Prez: Smells Like Teen President sort of sits in between those two crafts as it sort of represents the last few days of cartoonist Brubaker, even though he doesn’t draw the damn thing. The voice clearly exemplifies a younger, broader creator, though. Broader than what eventually becomes a more tuned perspective, tuned to mainstream comic book storytelling – a transition you clearly see in 1999s Scene of the Crime. Prez’s like someone writing an auto-bio story through the lens of a pre-established concept. PJ acts as an easy stand in for Brubaker or anyone else via his commonality, and the heavy use of setting and time period only strengthen the notion that this story belongs to an actual someone versus a fictional being, even though it does. Not to say Brubaker is PJ or shares his experience, but I think much of the detail, subtext and even back matter create this honesty which make the narrative more personal than some preachy genre comic.  There’s simply a sense that this tale came from somewhere real, and the tone and voice only bring the idea home.

From a pure storytelling level though, Prez succeeds. As I’ve noted, it can become a bit preachy at times, especially toward the end, but aside from that this comic works as a well oiled machine plot wise. Shanower draws in Vertigo’s classic 90s house style, but there’s enough of him there to give the book a unique look. His work completely lives to tell the story, straying from all sense of splash until the very last few pages. From another visual standpoint, I also really love PJ’s appearance – blonde, blue eyed American kid wearing a smeared t-shirt, in need of a hair cut, bathing in public restrooms. Works as a nice little visual metaphor.

There’s also a cool change in perspective which provides some sense of unique storytelling. Rather than introduce his audience to PJ via a weird 3rd/1st person combo, Brubaker uses the POVs of the character’s two road trip companions to shape this somewhat outsider opinion on the guy. The choice attributes to Brubaker’s point of “looking cool” while also building the character up as someone who’s maybe trapped in his own head a bit, or more like, empty, unable to actually tell us about himself. Which makes sense because most of this comic book centers on the conflict of PJ not knowing who he is, a reason why he’s so adamant about finding his mystery father, Prez: First Teen President.

For the most part, this chunk of story comes across as pretty clean cut, but I like what’s going on here. At the end of the day, this book sticks out as something specific to its time, and more importantly, reminds readers of where this writer’s been. It can definitely be categorized as one of this odd ball early works, and as a matter of subtext, Prez says something pretty true. You’ve gotta get yourself together before you can save others.

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AN EXTREME DIALOGUE

a.k.a. “No arrows. These words will have to do.”

originally published over at Spandexless

written by two guys who have little else to do.

Alec Berry: I forget why we decided to do this, but here we are … preparing to discuss the legend himself, Rob Liefeld, and the legacy-drenched comic book that is Youngblood #1. I would be lying if I said I was not interested in having this conversation.

Of course, it is a big year for Liefeld what with the relaunch of Extreme Studios and his involvement with DC Comics, so it seems appropriate to state Liefeld as a figment of the current zeitgeist. That’s probably why we’re here.

And we need an excuse to talk about Liefeld.

Honestly, I like the guy, and in some sense I feel we’re all way past the days of stunted conversation based solely on “hating” him. Few of those claims possessed any evidence to begin with. People just needed a scapegoat for the trash of 1990s comic books that they took it out on the guy who established one of the decades key aesthetics rather than the numerous imitators who wrung it dry and cannibalized the thing. Liefeld may not produce deep or even always technically efficient comics, but the one thing he has up on a lot of creators is his uncontainable energy, passion and overall voice. That stuff overpowers the mechanical flaws, for me, and while all the energy and love only produces over the top action, I feel that’s wildly appropriate, especially for superhero comics.

A guy like Liefeld humbles the medium, drawing us back from the ever present desire to legitimize what’s created and what’s read; the experience reminds a reader of the childlike wonderment which can be associated with the artform as well as the slightly exploitative element associated with the superhero genre.

And the best part … all of Liefeld’s work is genuine. He’s a genuine motherfucker making the comic books he wants to make while knowing exactly what it is he’s making. He’s not kidding you like a Matt Fraction Mighty Thor pitch which tries to get religious or is made out to be the next great work in modern comics. If Liefeld tells you’re getting a comic about Youngblood fighting terrorists, that’s exactly what you’ll get, no unnecessary varnish applied throughout.

Yet, while I say his work aims low and is low, I do hold this odd opinion that Liefeld’s visual style sort of reworks Kirby’s, in a sense. Kirby influenced super hero cartooning because of the language he created. Liefeld sort of did something similar, I think, but more in terms of an aesthetic and maybe tone. So, yeah, maybe there’s a argument for Liefeld’s higher importance. If you want to go there.

Could I only read Rob Liefeld comics? No. But as part of a varied industry, Liefeld has a place. And that’s without mentioning Image and the historical component you could place on his person.

So, Shawn, let’s get into this and discuss this somewhat larger than life personality and creator.

Where we going?

Shawn Starr: I’m fairly certain I broached the subject during a drunken email at 2 A.M, which is when all my great ideas occur. I’m kind of like Hemingway in that sense. I also like to take credit for other people’s ideas, so I’m kind of like Stan Lee too.

Why would anyone want to discuss Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, especially after everyone’s told us how inept a creator he is? Simple, Liefeld is one of comics most interesting figures, and Youngblood is one of his most important works.

Also most of those criticisms (as you pointed out) are dubious.

Liefeld was selling 1 million copies of X-Force a month at the age of twenty-two. To put that in perspective, I’m twenty-two and do not sell 1 million copies of X-Force each month. In addition to simply selling comics by the metric ton, Liefeld single handedly defined a decade of comic art, and was a founding member of Image Comics, which, depending on who you ask (*cough* Gary Groth*cough*) represents one of the biggest leaps forward in comic publishing since the inception of the Direct Market.

And, while I don’t subscribe to the quantity equals quality idea, that’s a career which requires inspection.

As you noted, Liefeld has experienced a resurgence of late, with the recent relaunch of Extreme Studios and his work on several DC relaunch titles. Liefeld has at least one book out each week (he’s currently overseeing the production of nine books total) which is more than many small publishers. But, Liefeld wouldn’t be the topic of our discussion today just because he produces nine books a month. I mean IDW puts out at least that many and who cares about them.

There’s something else to Liefeld.

What makes Liefeld, well, Liefeld is his style. When you look at one of his pages or creations it just screams Liefeld, he imbues everything he touches with his essence. If Cable wasn’t weighed down by 500 pounds of guns and ammo, then he wouldn’t be Cable. And that’s Liefeld. Everything he creates is extreme, an action movie on every page, and not just a “failed movie pitch” that comics have recently become the repository for, a genuine action movie. Schwarzenegger in his heyday shit. Which, in an industry of endless possibilities, is a sight for sore eyes.

Liefeld is one of two direct heirs to Kirby, the other being art-comix god Gary Panter. Both creators filtered the essence of Kirby through their own distinct visions, creating dramatically different bodies of work, but always keeping Kirby’s kinetic energy in mind.

Panter filtered Kirby through a punk rock attitude and high art sensibility to create the definitive style of the art-comix movement. He reduced Kirby’s line work to a single jagged line, yet maintained all of the original’s energy. Panter is distilled Kirby. He was even able to capture Kirby’s sense of epic scale (Fourth World), with Jimbo (Panter’s most famous creation) embarking on a tour through Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Panter took Jimbo biblical, the closest thing he could do to capture Kirby’s cosmic ideals.

Liefeld, in stark contrast, took Kirby’s line work and added onto it (a reverse Vince Colletta of sorts) filtering it through Manga sensibilities and supercharging each page. If Panter was a reductionist, Liefeld was an expansionist. Throwing lines on top of lines, cross hatching each image like a schizophrenic who was about to discover the inner workings of the universe if only he could just ink one more line. And then throwing on some Manga infused speed lines to drive the point home.

His pages are a truly awesome experience.

Liefeld said (in a wonderful interview with Jim Rugg) that he never allowed an inker to touch his faces, because they could never capture that pure “Liefeld-ian” look. He also gave every page one final pass. Another round of rendering. Cross hatching to the nth degree. And that’s where the image becomes a Liefeld image. An entire decade’s worth of artists tried to ape his style, Multi-Media Conglomerates created house styles around him, and yet, no one can draw like Liefeld. Just like no one can draw like Kirby.

If Jaime Hernandez has distilled his art to a single line, Rob Liefeld has distilled his to a thousand.

You say Liefeld’s work plays to the lowest common denominator (in much kinder words), which in some respects is true. There’s no grand theory of life to be found in Youngblood. The first issue has some basal levels of satire, however strained, but it’s not particularly refined or biting. It’s definitely not Watchmen, but then again it was never trying to be. He just wanted to make fun comics, which is something few creators even attempt today. You call it genuine, I call it true to itself. It’s all the same.

What I see as Liefeld’s lasting legacy (besides his involvement with creator rights and Image) is his effect on the current generation of creators. While the initial crop of art-comix creators grew up on Crumb and later Panter, this new generation grew up on Liefeld and Image Comics. It may only be a fleeting moment, but for the next few years his importance is going to become increasingly evident, as the new vanguard of creators move away from the old and begin to reinterpret their childhood influences. Which, by and large, means Rob Liefeld, the defining artists of the 90’s.

The most important art-comix movement since RAW, the Fort Thunder Collective, were the first to begin this distancing from the past. The two most prominent members CF whose angelic line work was so different from what had come before that it redefined the look of much of the genre, and Brian Chippendale who is a self avowed Marvel Fanboy (writing one of the best review sites in comics), on an initial glance one would think of him as an acolyte of Panter, but, and I love this quote, he belongs to the 90’s “When I grew up I didn’t want to draw like Panter, I wanted to be Jim Lee” (this quote is second hand, from the RUB THE BLOOD Inkstuds podcast). Together they show a progression in the medium, away from the old guard and towards something new. To highjack Frank Santoro’s idea (and Comics Comics), they represent fusionism, taking from everything to create something new. And Liefeld is a key component as of late, he defined a decade of art. His influence is impossible to escape. I mean just look at the creators attached to last years RUB THE BLOOD, and you’ll see a who’s who of art-comix.

And that is not even going into the Extreme Studios relaunch, which has produced one of the best sci-fi comics of the decade (Prophet) along with what will soon be heralded as the most progressive take on a female superhero since Wonder Woman was created (Glory). Or the lasting popularity and resurgence of his Marvel work. There was a time (and it still may be) when Deadpool was the most popular character in comics, and just last year Uncanny X-Force and Deadpool MAX were two of the most critically praised Big 2 books being published. None of these titles are by him, but they required him to give them life.

As an aside, the criticisms of Liefeld are largely unfounded. Sure he ignores anatomy, but so does Ware, Crumb, and for a more mainstream and generally excepted example Jim Lee. It’s just that everyone of those guys is given a pass, it’s their “style”, which is true, but the same reasons it’s ok for them to ignore anatomy are, for some reason, not applicable to Liefeld.

Being critiqued for his lack of realism, a feature which his art has never attempted to capture, is missing the point of Liefeld. His art is decadent and expansive. It’s telling that this is what the masses of pseudo-critics jump onto. Realism is largely a constraint on art that individuals try to pass off as valid criticism against something they don’t understand. Kyle Baker summed it up best “in art, as in life, ‘realism’ is for the uncreative.” Of course this is what they latch onto, because they don’t or can’t understand what it is Liefeld is doing.

If Liefeld drew like Alex Ross, I could see the validity in this line of thought, but Liefeld has as much in common with Alex Ross (or Neal Adams) as Matt Brinkman. His style is an extension of himself, not a light-boxed photo from the recent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, it’s “abstract” and should not be constrained by the idea of realism.

Ok, thats my overlong re-contextualization of Liefeld. I may be completely wrong and participated in a one man historical whitewashing, so do you have anything you want to add, or should we begin this review of Youngblood #1 after our brisk 1,800 word introduction?

AB: That Kyle Baker quote is great.

SS: He posted that on Twitter a couple days ago, and I couldn’t not steal it.

AB: Would you go as far as to say Liefeld is this generation’s Kirby or do you feel his impact isn’t exactly that wide? I feel he’s influential, but I wouldn’t exactly claim his influence to be widespread like Kirby’s. Kirby’s thumb prints are on everything because of the grammar he developed while Liefeld falls more in the camp of an attitude rather than a fundamental. He’s kind of optional, but even then, from the handful of alt comics I’ve touched and the blogs I read, it does appear that some of Liefeld’s brashness works its way through.

I do find it funny, though, that Liefeld suddenly has received this reevaluation. Like many influential people before him, hatred was their initial response. Maybe Liefeld fits that bill, although he was liked, generally, early on because of his difference to what was available at the time.

But, yeah, that’s sort of where we’re at with Liefeld: taking this despised dude and finally finding merit in his work. You could even work Benjamin Marra into your whole thesis as well because like Marra, Youngblood #1 is very much a comic book drawn in the back of some kid’s notebook. It lacks the more obscene elements, but it is still rich with boyhood fascinations. To steal from Ed Piskor, “the early Image comics are like guys playing with actions figures, going “boom!” “bam!” “grrrghh!”

To be honest with you, I didn’t read this and concern myself with the technicalities. I knew going in what it was, so instead, I went in for the spirit, and I think, with that mindset, Youngblood #1 really pays off. You mention this sense of satire that doesn’t exactly shape itself into anything, but I kind of feel it does simply through what the comic is. Youngblood #1, by its quality, does satirize the whole of superhero comics, especially the post-Watchmen mindset of the time, subverting this idea of serious super hero comics to complete ridiculous mish-mash.

The whole flip book approach sort of works to undermine the serious attitude too, bringing back some of that anthology flavor, like with Tales to Astonish.

SS: I’d describe Liefeld as Kirby-lite. I can’t think of any other artist in the past twenty years who has had as great an impact on the medium as Liefeld; he created hundreds of characters and defined the mediums style for a decade, but Kirby is Kirby.

Liefeld probably comes the closest, but Kirby is such a monumental and influential figure that no one could ever truly equal him. Tezuka (Manga), Crumb (Art) and Moebius (Europe) are the only ones who can match him, and even then they feel lacking. Kirby created the North American comics industry almost single handedly; romance comics Kirby, sci-fi comics Kirby super hero comics all Kirby; Liefeld revolutionized one of those, so there is something to be said of him, but I don’t think anyone can really be the “Kirby” of a generation. He’s too important.

Maybe you could describe him as the often trotted out “voice of a generation”, if that doesn’t sound like too shallow a description. I mean, there’s at least 20 “voices” to each generation nowadays so it seems like a meaningless term.

So I guess my answer is no, but with the caveat that no one could really be the Kirby of their generation.

It’s also interesting to point out the differences in Liefeld’s influence. The current “mainstream” comic culture seems to have latched onto his creations (Deadpool, Cable, X-Force) while the alt-comics scene has taken his visual aesthetic and attitude. That’s probably because of the “mainstreams” current incarnation as a Intellectual Property generator, and alt-comic’s focus on style and singular vision.

You mentioned the name of one of my favorite cartoonists Ben Marra, who I almost named dropped in my initial response, but decided not to for some reason. I can’t think of a creator more in tune with pure Liefeld-ian style out there today. His comics are brash and unforgiving, everything I love about Liefeld, and then he throws obscenity on top of it. Scrawlings in a notebook seems to be an apt description for both creators. There’s a childlike essence that exudes from both them that stands out from the rest of the industry. Marra is Liefeld brought up on Gangsta Rap instead of GI-Joes.

Your point on satire makes sense, but I’m not sure if that satire is intentional or not. Where the Image founders crafting a meta-textual Dr. Strangelove, or simply making a B-Movie. Did Liefeld create Youngblood as a reaction to Moore’s intellectualism, or a comic where things blew up. That’s one of those things you need a dig up a brilliant quote to find out. I have a feeling its perceived satire after the fact, and not a great mega-critique played out by Image Comics.

AB: Oh, yeah. I don’t feel it’s intentional. As you said, it’s an effect brought up after the fact, but still, it’s an effect.

SS: Yeah, we’re probably just projecting satire onto them. Us kids and our need for irony and satire in everything we find genuine.

The most likely candidate, by Liefeld, is his mega-event Judgement Day. Which title alone sounds like Final Crisis times ten thousand, but, and here’s the genius of it, it is really just a three issue meta-commentary on the idea of retconing in the guise of a courtroom case, written by Alan Moore.

Alan Moore!

The book reads like it was written for anyone but Liefeld, and in his hands becomes anything but the procedural drama Moore had intended. Imagine the courtroom scene in From Hell in the hands of Liefeld at his peak, that’s Judgement Day.

Liefeld has this ability to overpower the writer on every page. Liefeld renders each figure in such a way as to make their every action a dramatic moment. Dialogue that’s meant to be subtle becomes laden with invisible exclamation points in the hands of Liefeld; his cross hatching seems to spill over onto the dialogue balloons. The best example of this is his facial rendering (no one inks a Liefeld face except Liefeld for a reason!) where every expression is contorted until it turns into an abstraction that can only described as EXTREME! which even Moore can’t escape.

If Judgement Day isn’t a satire of the idea of comics as literature, and the ubiquitous mega event, then I’m not sure what it is. Besides a testament to Liefeld’s power to overwhelm authorial intent.

AB: That’s the Image era in total. Nothing mattered but the attitude and style, and all other elements either became obsolete or excused. I just like how Liefeld still performs in such a way, and in some sense, represents this era entirely by just being. Liefeld doing a book today is like Gerry Conway doing one. You read it, and it immediately takes you to a certain time like a novelty item.

But Liefeld, as we’ve mentioned, accomplishes a little more than a Gerry Conway retro comic.

Liefeld makes the visual end front and center, which for comic books should be a given, but our culture’s so dead set on writers we lack the necessary attention for the true writing. In some way, I think the Image guys were some odd first step in making the mainstream audience wake up and realize the importance of the artwork in comic books. Until then, plot was really everything for the super hero book. The Image guys didn’t exactly produce the best quality stuff, but by being so flamboyant, they made it impossible not to appreciate the illustration and just forget the plot.

SS: The swagger of youth …

AB: Think about that in context of the a-typical comic reader. Fanboys brushing off the plot to rave about line work (a lot of line work) instead. That’s nuts! It’s some twisted sense of an art comics mentality. I want that world again, but instead, with an even balance where both visual and script matter equally. If that’s possible.

A first step, but an important one in many ways, and sadly it seems with the crash and burn of the 90s, readers and creators buried that step because supposedly art over story generated the fall.

SS:  The 90’s were a time when the artist took over, but, and I think this is a key point many critics fail to mention, so were the 60’s. Kirby and Ditko ran Marvel Comics creatively. Stan Lee was merely a editor who dialogued books. When artists are in charge it seems to be indicative of an age of ideas over content. If you look at those era’s you see the creation of thousands of characters, all still in use today, and stories that exude creativity. Writers tend to constrain this expansionism. Look at the past 10 years in mainstream comics and show me a completely original idea from a writer, or even a creation that’s stuck. You might be able to squeak Damien past by Morrison, but he’s a derivative character, just like the Rainbow Patrol over at Green Lantern. I just don’t see that being the same as Kirby creating an entire universe or Liefeld creating the Extreme Studios line.

The problem is that writers have been copying and referencing each other since the start. Moore may have been a singular voice in the comics medium (at first), but he was borrowing from a dozen other writers, it’s just that no one in comics had heard of them. Writing’s a conservative field really, inbred, while art is all about taking a blank canvas and turning it into something more. There may be references and homages but that’s only one panel in a twenty two page pamphlet. It can’t sustain itself for any prolonged period, unlike writing.

Continuity hounds don’t get into comics to be artists, they’re writers for a reason.

Even the “Age of Awesome” collapsed in on itself around the mid-2000’s because it lacked artists capable of seeing it through. The writers of that movement were only able to succeed when they were paired with the best artists in the industry. Casanova needed (needs) Ba’ and Moon, Bulletproof Coffin needed (needs) Shaky Kane and Immortal Iron Fist needed David Aja. When you put Fraction on Iron Man with a lesser artist it all falls apart. Ideas in the hands of a writer can’t sustain themselves past their initial conception.

AB: While Ba’ and Moon give the book its agility, Casanova is Matt Fraction. That’s a book about a writer – showing the journey from wannabe professional to now comics company man, mixed with a sense of sorting through influences, whether they’re life experiences or pop culture tidbits. You can’t take Fraction out of Casanova.

You’re correct to a point. Sure, comic book writers need artists to carry their ideas across the finish line as well as to provide the true impact of these ideas – the visual – but to suggest it’s a one-sided issue seems a bit erroneous. Liefeld’s a great example. His artwork certainly provides the right stylistic punch, but beneath that style, what is there? A poor story lacking a lot of necessary structure and layer. The work needs a writer to give it a sound foundation.

That’s why comic books are most often produced through a team effort. The writer/artist team makes a lot of sense because where the artist can ignore constraints the writer applies them, offering a sound balance to keep a story in order. Stories need order, to a degree. They function through their structure, most of the time. The artist can certainly help add a sense of spontaneity, though, as well as help tell the story and even rewrite a writer’s script to a degree. The artist is most definitely important, but not every artist can be unleashed on their own. Liefeld’s sort of an example of that – as well as many other writer/artists in mainstream comics.

SS: Sure, you need the writer to provide structure. But I’m not sure if those are the kinds of comics I want to read anymore. There are maybe four or five writers who can craft a competent book, and they all reside in the “mainstream”. Artist run every other genre. There’s probably a reason why every major literary-comic is done by a single creator. Or why the art-comix movement is run by singular vision. Michel Fiffe just dropped the best DC comic of the year, as a self-published, one man operation. If you think putting Adam Glass on scripting duties would have improved that book…well I question your judgement.

AB: Singular vision is certainly a preferred circumstance, and it does seem to work well in art comics where I think the mindset is more set on making a complete piece rather than a story installment. But even then, it’s not like there’s one mindset going into the creative process. The mindset of the writer and the artist are two separate things, so even when you have one person writing and drawing a comic, it’s arguable that one person comes from two different places.

Of course, I’ve never made a comic book, so what’s my theory, really? Speculation.

To point out of my personal interest, though, I would agree with you in your current interest. I’m finding myself more and more attentive to cartoonists these days versus collaborative teams, and ideally, I suppose that’s how comics are meant to be. That’s not to say the writer/artist team up is worthless, though, or that writers can’t push their ideas out into the world mostly on their own. Look at Morrison. Quitely certainly adds a lot, but even without Quitely, Morrison still projects his voice.

One example, but it shows the possibility.

SS: I will backtrack a little and concede that Casanova is Matt Fraction, but without Ba’ and Moon going all Steranko on that bitch it would have lost its pop-comics feel. Pop art starts with pop artists. Fraction set the tone, but Ba’ and Moon perfected the aesthetic. That may have been that sweet spot you were waiting for, and it came and went in four years without any mainstream support.

Morrison has a distinct voice (and just to point this out, he did start out as an artist) and Quitely certainly does bring out the best in him, but here’s the thing, Morrison has been hammering home his ideas of hyper-sigils and Superman as god for nearly twenty years in hundreds of comics, and the only time they really resonate is when Frank Quitely comes into the fold. Flex Mentallo and All Star Superman are the clearest examples of Morrison’s ideas and both are illustrated by Quitely. Morrison needs Quitely.

But back to Liefeld…

AB: I’ll give you the point on Morrison. But, yes, Liefeld.

With all the praise we’ve given, we do need to be fair and recognize the faults. Liefeld has certainly influenced some bad. And not even just copycat artists but really whole publishing approaches.

You can either look at Marvel Comics in the mid 90s or just dive into Liefeld’s own back yard with Extreme Studios. With Extreme, North American comics took on a whole new sense of factory line assembly, and Marvel just really took the Image method and completely raped and bled dry any of the charm associated with it (although, third and fourth wave Image titles kind of did this too), creating this culture of comic books dependent on gimmicks above quality (without any of the energy Liefeld or the other Image guys put into the work).

You could even make a case Liefeld had a big influence on internet hate culture, being the shining beacon of it he has been. At least in comic book “discussion.”

Expand on these, Starr. I’m going outside.

SS: Yeah, this part’s inevitable when discussing Liefeld. For all his swagger and attitude, he certainly has his faults. Liefeld has this uncanny ability to overcome most of his artistic weaknesses; he certainly doesn’t care about page to page continuity like every critic on the internet  seems  to (unless the credits don’t read “Artist: Rob Liefeld”). And, like you, I don’t see most of this as a blasphemous act against comics. The rawness of his art saves it from most of its technical faults.

AB: Yeah. Oddly, enough, I started reading this Replacements oral history by Jim Walsh today, and there’s this great quote from Westerberg about their performance style:

“To like us, you have to try and understand us. You can’t come in and just let your first impression lead you. Because your first impression will be a band that doesn’t play real well, is very loud, and might be drunk. Beneath that is a band that values spirit and excitement more than musical prowess. To me, that’s rock and roll, and we’re a rock and roll band.”

That really sums up Liefeld for me, and in a lot of ways, that’s what I want comics to be. Twenty-some pages of spirit.

SS:  Yeah, Liefeld is all about spirit over technical prowess. When his work fails though, is when it starts to restrain itself. Conservatism is Liefeld’s death knell.

Youngblood #1 is split into two separate stories, sixteen pages each, and I think both stories highlight Liefeld’s faults.

“Youngblood: International” (the two teams aren’t distinguished, so I’m using this name for the non-Shaft lead team, and “Youngblood: Stateside” for the main team) is pure action; one page of framing in the post-DKR media lens format followed by fifteen pages of nonstop action. This segment is the most Liefeldian of the two, which makes it the most interesting overall. The story itself is fairly straightforward; the team goes into occupied Israel to take out a Saddam Hussein stand in. It’s choppy in the dialogue, and the middle bit seems to get away from Liefeld at a certain point, but the final sequence with Psi-Fire brings it back. It’s labeled the “1st Explosive Issue” which is a perfect title. Its Liefeld in all his glory and ruin. Pure artistic expression.

“Youngblood: Stateside” is the weaker of the two artistically, but a significant step up in a craft perspective. Everything flows, the pacing is sound and the exposition is a little heavy handed at points but nothing to complain about. This issue fails, though, where so many Liefeld projects fail; they are restrained at the very last moment. The story ends with a splash page showing Youngblood about to stop a gang, and results in this hard stop that kills the story. So many of Liefeld’s projects seem to restrain him at the last moment, forcing him to draw non-action, dialogue heavy, exposition scenes, and then once they get to the fight, stops dead and calls it a day. It’s not even Liefeld’s fault most of the time. It is just how comics are written nowadays.

Although the panel where Shaft throws a pen across a mall and knocks a would be assassin of a rail to his death is pure Liefeld.

“No Arrows. This pen will have to do.”

AB: I laughed, gleefully, at that scene, along with the scene of Chapel kicking his one night stand out.

SS: “You gotta give ‘em hope… As Shaft would say ‘it’s good P.R. !’” reads like a line out of  Gangsta Rap Posse.

AB: Great moments.

AB: I’m glad you pointed out the pacing of the Stateside story because I too found it to actually be way better than anything I would have expected from this comic. I mean, there are moments when the flow is so on, most comics today could actually take a lesson from it and improve. Particularly, I’m thinking of the scene in the headquarters as they receive the mission brief and Shaft ends the sequence by exclaiming: “Then let’s move it!”

That was some exciting shit, to be perfectly honest.

You’re completely right when you mention the story being cut short, because it is. Completely. And I really wonder what decision led to such a choice. Really, reading what was already there, who’s to say without the abrupt cliffhanger, this comic might have actually received some love and not gone down as the mistake it historically has. Up until then, the main story wasn’t exactly on a horrible track. Cheesy dialogue and situations, certainly, but not exactly bad.

Part two, or “Youngblood: International,” flipflops, like you mention, into a complete reversal of the plot beat Stateside is. Looking at the two halves, it really just seems like Liefeld split one script rather than constructing two complete stories. Blending the best aspects of both into one story could have really worked. Together, they possess everything necessary.

But, no, he splits them, and ultimately that’s a fault of trying to interject too many characters into one book. Liefeld’s concerned with setting both of these teams up in one issue, and to do so, he chooses a route that just sticks a knife in the gut of the script. I also think he was just trying to make this comic book feel packed by offering two “stories,” but instead the gimmick just offers two comic book halves rather than one whole.

To offer one positive critique, though, I love how he just drops us into the world with little explanation or definition of the rules. The comic’s actually pretty good about that. Liefeld takes the punch first, ask later approach, and, I think, does it well. Youngblood #1 is kind of an exciting first issue rather than another thesis statement, as we’re used to today.

What about Liefeld outside the comics, though? Do you have any opinions on Extreme Studios or the outside negative affect?

SS: I agree with you. If Liefeld had synthesized the two issues into one, it would have been a much more satisfying read. He just couldn’t get those stories to gel. So we get one competent, but short story, and one extended action scene.

I haven’t read any of the old Extreme Studios titles; this year’s relaunch was my first contact with them. As I said above, Prophet is the best comic coming out each month, Glory is strong and getting better and Bloodstrike was probably the weakest of the bunch. It fell into the classic Liefeld problem of restraining the artist. Every action scene was cut short so that talking heads can lay out some exposition to catch the reader up on continuity. I dropped that one after its first issue, so it may have found its bearings.

The relaunch of Youngblood was…I’m not sure if i can call it “good,” but I don’t really think that matters with Liefeld. It was certainly interesting, and that’s enough. It operates as a mini-critique of Liefeld’s legacy, and the internet culture surrounding him. Youngblood are described (in comic) as “a long running joke by legitimate super-heroes like Supreme,” which can easily be applied to Liefeld’s current status in the comics zeitgeist. He’s the butt of every shoulder pad joke.

The main plot of the story involves a PR agent being hired to rehabilitate Youngblood’s image, and while in story the team doesn’t change much from page one,when you compare it to the first issue there’s a massive change. The initial issue of Youngblood presented a professional U.S. sanctioned strike force. This iteration reads like an issue of Giffen and DeMatteis’ Justice League International. Slapstick humor mixed with four month old pop culture references and odd moments of gag humor-esque flirting and overt sexulization. There is literally a cloud of hearts at one point. It’s a weird comic, but from a meta context it works. Liefeld was always criticized for his book’s perceived seriousness, and juvenile content, so what does he do? Get the writer of one of the most critically acclaimed “artsy” films of the 2000’s (Black Swan) and has him turn Youngblood into this oddball humorous cape comic.

On his negative influence, I don’t really have much to say. People certainly aped his style and almost killed the industry. Liefeld should bear some of the blame for that, but not the lion’s share that’s often attributed to him. You still needed Marvel Comics going bankrupt and giving Diamond a distribution monopoly, the mass exodus of speculators, along with a dozen other things that had nothing to do with Liefeld to cause the industry’s collapse. He defined the style of the decade, so I guess people associate him with its failure.

Once you start looking at everything that was going on, it’s clear that Liefeld was just a scapegoat. That’s not to absolve him of any involvement, he was just a single player in a industry wide failure.

AB: I didn’t hate the new Youngblood, either. You summed it up pretty well, and I thought mostly the same of it. Although, I do feel it was an instance where Liefeld’s artwork actually didn’t add much to the work. It came off as an odd compliment to the tone the writer was trying to establish. As you said, this Giffen voice, but it’s met with Liefeld’s extreme aesthetic and creates this odd sensation of a comic book.

Interesting, for sure.

I haven’t read every release from the new take on Extreme Studios, but from what I have explored, I do feel this revamp really represents a lot of what we talked about here. While I feel Liefeld can produce fun, over the top comic books, his ultimate legacy lands more in his influence than his actual work. Whether it be the examples of art comics you brought to light or now these once lost concepts being utilized by the likes of Brandon Graham and Ross Campbell, it seems that Liefeld has managed to create certain elements that will, potentially, outlast him.

Being an artist, that seems to be the ultimate mission, and I like that this unlikely character seems to have accomplished that, in a sense. It’s kind of powerful as well as charming.

I know someone out there has read this and believes we’re both insane, but I feel at this point  it’s hard to deny Liefeld’s place. The guy at least deserves a chance to be reconsidered.

SS: The idea of re-contextualizing and re-interpreting a creator’s body of work has always interested me; it’s really the main point of the critic and criticism. There was an excellent Inkstuds episode featuring Ben Schwartz, Jeet Heer and Gary Groth (Americas Best Comics Criticism) which featured a large segment centered around the discussion of which creators needed a critical re-evaluation to cement their legacy. There certainly are a few creators who are undeniably great, but most need that extra push from an outside source. And that’s where critics come in.

It seems like a lot of re-contextualization is still coming from the print side of things. The (now) yearly Comics Journal along with the archive editions many book publishers put out, specifically Fantagraphics, have kind of cornered the market on this idea. Even as the net becomes more present, it’s still print that holds the reigns on “serious” criticism.

This probably stems from the financial structure of websites. When the newest thing drives site hits, it becomes difficult to justify talking about the past in any definitive sense (I’ve had three week old reviews deemed irrelevant). There’s a two week period when a new book comes out that it can be talked about (and maybe a third when “Best Of” lists start coming out) before they disappear off the main page and into the wasteland that is the site archives.

That’s why Tim Callahan is such an important figure in (web) criticism; he runs one of maybe three columns that focuses on contextualizing older works on a regular basis (Matt Seneca’s Robot 6 column and Jog’s Comics of the Week essay being the only other ones to my knowledge), and on the mediums biggest site to boot. It was Tim who brought Liefeld to the forefront of the comics discussion. I know thats where I became aware of him at least. So I guess that’s why we’re here.

But really, Liefeld was due for a reevaluation anyways. It has been over twenty years since he reshaped the medium, and ten years worth of (as Liefeld has wonderfully named them) Liefeld “Haters” being taken at their word. And no one at the Journal (who I adore in every sense of the word) is going to tackle Liefeld anytime soon.

Jesus, they’re still struggling with Kirby’s legacy.

So here we are, two brash, young critics trying to redefine an industry legend.

AB: I think “young” is a good way to describe us.

It’s a little off topic, but I tend to agree with your points about online comics criticism (and Tim is the man).

Sites do rely on hot topics to entertain their audiences, but they also rely heavily on short pieces. The long, in depth piece rarely exists on a comic book site. Why? I don’t really know, other than most people probably don’t have the attention span for them, so sites cater to that, keeping us in a constant ADHD state of channel surfing. Also, long pieces take a lot more work, and when you have a schedule to keep to, a big site’s better off living on small blurb articles to keep the updates constant.

When a good lengthy piece hits though, there’s little better (at least for my unusual enjoyment). Like this Michel Fiffe piece on the one man anthology comic. Best thing I’ve read in a while, and you can just tell he put the time and effort into it.

So, sadly Shawn, what I’m saying is: only three people will read this conversation we’ve spent the time typing. I hope you won’t kill yourself.

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