"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way", wrote George Orwell in 1946. I'd be willing to stake a few pennies on the likelihood that there's a fair few folks at hype-central, 1700 Broadway who share little of Orwell's concern for the "decay of language". According to the carnival barkers at DC Comics, for example, Rob Liefeld's not just a comics star, but a superstar.What can this possibly mean? It's inconceivable that whoever wrote that copy actually believes that Liefeld's talent, fame and achievement can possibly justify such hyperbole. It's impossible to believe, for example, that anything that Liefeld turns his hand to in the New 52 will ever appear in an Absolute edition, for stranger things haven't actually happened. Even in 2012's pitifully small market for the monthly superhero comic, where just a few thousand readers can keep a book afloat, his supposed superstardom couldn't save Hawk & Dove from being cancelled after just 8 months. How might the likes of bestselling creators such as Brian Michael Bendis and Jim Lee be described in hypespeak if Liefeld deserves such a magnificent title? Should they perhaps be known as superhypersplendidstars, or even coolygloriousfantasti-creators?
What does make a superstar a superstar?
There must be some extraordinarily compelling and yet utterly unfathomable reasons why Rob Liefeld's been handed responsibility for Hawkman, Grifter and Deathstroke. Even those who've long since decided that the man's technical skills are every bit the equal of his intellectual gifts and powers of emotional insight must be curious as to why Dan Didio's regime thinks so highly of him. Those of us with little interest in reading his work must still be curious as to why this particular superstar has been given such rank and privilege. DC Editorials' nonsensical declaration that Liefeld has "distinctive sensibilities" brings us no closer to the answer, given that there's no one on Earth whose sensibilities aren't distinctive. (Perhaps someone at DC has the unique sensibilities of a satirist?) Is it Liefeld's supposed reputation as an "edgy industry bad boy" that's won him his promotion, given that that's embarrassingly referred in a DC press release? After all, Liefeld's known for a great many things, but none of them seem to suggest that the man's the future of the mass-market super-book. Perhaps it's his apparent "edginess" that's especially important, whatever that might involve. DC Executive Editor Eddie Berganaza lauds Liefeld for having been "seen as edgy, both within the comic book industry and by his fans", an odd statement which carelessly suggests that (1) Liefeld has no fans in the business and (2) it's the illusion of a quality which counts. Yet Berganaza does go on to argue that being "edgy" is somehow "a great vibe to bring" which will, it appears, help "to push boundaries". He is, of course, speaking utter tosh, flakking up ballyhoo and hogwash, talking loud and saying nothing, and he does Liefeld himself no favours in mystifying the whole business. At least editor Rachel Glucksten gives us a vague sense of why Liefeld is now so important to the New 52, when she tells us that the man's work is characterised by "dynamic storytelling".
Although what that might actually mean is similarly hard to grasp. What is this dynamism and edginess? What's this great vibe all about, and which boundaries are they that the man is likely to be pushing?
It does seem that Liefeld himself finds it hard to put into words the qualities that he's bringing as an artist to his triumphate of "heavy-hitting" titles, as we can see from the following exchange from a recent Newsarama interview;
Nrama: As an artist, what are your biggest challenges to drawing Deathstroke and the story you're telling in this comic? How are you approaching those challenges artistically?
Liefeld: Drawing all these DC characters is a great opportunity. I've always been much more associated with the Marvel and Image side of things so illustrating all the DC characters is great fun.
It's a shame that the interviewer didn't have the opportunity to point out to Liefeld that he hadn't actually answered the question. There may be something wonderfully amusing about a man who responds to a query about artistic challenges with a line or two about the fun he's going to have with unfamiliar characters, but there's nothing illuminating about his work rather than his character here. Perhaps a better starting point can be found in an interview with Liefeld's co-scripter on The Savage Hawkman, Mark Poulton, who explained to examiner.com that;
"I’ve probably learned the most about writing from Rob than anyone else. He really paces his stories well and knows how to set up great visual shots."
It is of course possible that Poulton's expressing an opinion that isn't shared by his employers at DC, but he does seem to be at last giving us a window into Liefeld's supposed strengths. Pacing and the setting-up of "great visual shots", it seems, are the key to understanding the man's appeal. This is at least a more plausible explanation than one which relies upon the quality of the man's artwork and scripting, which remain as inept as they ever were. As you can see from the scan from Deathstroke #9 above, Liefeld not only lacks the most fundamental of chops, but he's also disturbingly shameless. Most of us would feel utterly embarrassed by such work, but obviously not DC's own pocket superstar, who seems unabashed by the fact that he's been a professional cartoonist for almost a quarter of a century and yet never bothered to master the most basic skills of perspective and anatomy. But then, Liefeld doesn't care about backgrounds, sexism or even common sense either, and perhaps it's understandable why. After all, when you're constantly rewarded for conspicuous artistic failure, it must be next to impossible to grasp why anyone might think badly of your work.
|The frustrations of Grifter #9 were discussed previously on TooBusyThinking here.|
But perhaps Liefeld's job-securing qualities of dynamism and pacing and so on somehow exist separately from the appalling work that the reader can perceive on the page. Can it be that there's something about the structure of his storytelling which works despite the obvious incompetence of what can actually be seen? Is there somewhere in the grammar of his work a hidden quality which results in its appeal to folks who logic suggests should surely know far before? Could it even be that every single amateurish element in his work is actually necessary to achieve this mysteriously beguiling effect of Liefeldism? Sales of Deathstroke did, after all, jump by more than 20% in the first month of Liefeld's stewardship, although the title actually fell ten places in the estimated sales chart. There has to be something which can explain the Liefeld effect as it works in the short term at least, given that his comics seem so obviously, so exceptionally, so indefensibly poor.
|A beautifully obsessed-over page in which nothing happens., with Joe Bennett gilding Rob Liefeld's layouts.|
To my not inconsiderable surprise, there actually is a particular storytelling method which links Liefeld's work as plotter and/or layout artist for Savage Hawkman, Grifter and Deathstroke. In fact, all three books surprisingly follow the same 6-stage model of how to tell a comicbook story. The similarities between the structure of each of the issues are so strong that it almost seems as if Liefeld might have been using a crib-sheet of some kind. These comics may appear to have been put together from nothing but a random scattering of would-be spectacular indulgences and a great morass of plot-wallowing. Yet the first issues of each of Liefeld's current charges are quite purposefully constructed according to the following steps;
- A monologue in which the title character introduces himself.
- The surprise ambush of the lead.
- A second surprising attack on the lead.
- A static scene in which a huge amount of exposition is dumped
- A further punch-up.
- A set-up for the next issue, which includes a rather temperate cliffhanger
Whether the method can be said to work or not is another matter. But I'm just amazed to find it there in the first place, which does raise the spectre of what else Rob Liefeld might be up to that the more cynical blogger has managed to miss.
to be continued;
Coming next in this series: A step-by-step guide to the Rob Liefeld method for kick-starting stalled superhero books, with particular attention paid not only the 6 stages of Liefeldianism, but also to matters such as;
- Why making sense doesn't matter,
- Why conflict needn't involve any convincing measure of jeopardy
- Why it's OK to have smart people talking as if they were incredibly thick,
- Why stating that a book isn't deconstructed doesn't make it so,
- Why being objectivising women isn't anything to worry about,
- Why exciting comics don't need to be interesting comic books,and vice-versa,
- Why butch super-types with ridiculous names aren't oh-so-90s anymore, and even more!