Rob Liefeld is seated facing the wall. Chalk it up to poor placement on Image’s part. The company’s booth at the New York Comic Con feels strangely out of the way of the flow of traffic—something one has to seek out after staring at the floor map for some time, rather than happening upon by happy accident. Marvel and DC, the industry’s long-standing giants, have staked out their territory in the middle of the showroom floor, both catering to inevitably massive amounts of foot traffic. Dark Horse, for its part, has once again secured a prime piece of real estate adjacent to the entrance, assuring that attendees, whether by choice or necessity, will wind up perusing its goods.
But for Image, the showing is modest, at best. And for Liefeld, one of the company’s seven founders—some might claim the key driving force in the creation of the publisher—there’s little fanfare. In a show so driven by a thirst for constant spectacle, the artist’s appearance is a relatively quiet one. A handwritten placard marks his presence at the booth. He’ll sit behind it for the better part of the three days.
In his downtime, he chats with his neighbors and fiddles with his iPhone and draws large sketches in Sharpie of Batman or Bedrock or Deadpool on sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper. There’s no line around the corner, but fans do come by, carrying old copies of X-Force and Youngblood, excited and nervous to meet their hero. Liefeld signs the covers happily. It’s clear that he revels in such attention and seems honestly excited to meet enthusiastic fans—he calls them “dude” and leans over the table with an overzealous smile, holding up a newly minted sketch when anyone asks to take his picture.
In many ways it’s a far cry from those days, 15 year ago, when he became, arguably, the industry’s first true rock star. He appeared, as detractors will be quick to tell you, in a Spike Lee-directed Levi’s button fly commercial, back at the height of his powers. The industry has plenty of new creative gods, as Liefeld gladly admits—the Morrisons and the Millars and the Bendis—many established while he was taking a three year sabbatical from the industry he’d virtually held in the palm of his hand, a decade before.
But in 2009, Liefeld doesn’t seem too troubled by such things. Rather, the artist appears outwardly eager to engage his fans, and even more eager to address his critics. I’d be lying if I suggested that some of the appeal in interviewing an artist like Liefeld didn’t lie in the controversies that have arisen around him over the years—the sometimes questionable anatomies, the issues with character copyrights, the personality disputes. There’s something fascinating in all of them—but perhaps what’s even more fascinating is how long such criticisms have occupied the consciousness of the comics community. After all, plenty of artists have been maligned before in this industry, but they’ve largely come and gone with all deliberate speed. Despite, or perhaps because of the criticisms levied against him, the specter of Rob Liefeld won’t go away—and, if he has his way, neither will Rob Liefeld the artist.
Whatever personal criticisms one might harbor against Liefeld, the artist is an undeniably important character, both in the worlds of mainstream and independent cartooning. In the early 90s, the young artist was part of a movement alongside artists like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane that helped re-energize the super hero comic. Alongside those artists, he helped launch a new comics independent comics company that helped strike a major blow against the Marvel/DC stranglehold on the industry.
It’s for these reasons that I felt compelled to speak with Liefeld, upon seeing a paper placard bearing his name on the Image table. My intent was not to celebrate nor denounce the man (plenty of people have done both before), but rather to speak to him as an artist who had—for both better and worse—left a major mark on the industry. Liefeld, for his part, agreed, but was undeniably hesitant—”five minutes,” he tells me, referring to the maximum duration of our interview. And, at least toward the beginning, a touch standoffish. The artist had clearly come to anticipate being bombarded by controversy. Of course such things didn’t cause him to hesitate from boasting about his accomplishments, result in such gems as, “The two most popular characters in comics right now—one is Barack Obama, the other is Deadpool.”
For my part, there was a fair share of internal debate leading up to the publication of this interview. I considered scrapping it, or finding another home for it. Ultimately, however, I was convinced by a handful of readers and colleagues to run with it—that, as stated before, Liefeld is an important figure, and an interview with him is certainly of value, even to our indie-devoted readership. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I hope readers will be able to approach the interview with an open mind, because, again, no matter how you feel about the artist or his work, you have to admit, stories of comic creators don’t come much more interesting than that of Rob Liefeld.
You stepped away from cons for a little while, didn’t you?
Gosh, I’ve been back on the circuit for about five years.
But you took some time of in-between.
It was like the early 2000s. I didn’t go anywhere.
Were you just burned out?
I didn’t work in comics. I had a self-imposed retirement for about three years.
To be with your family. Or were there any other—
Oh gosh no. Look, the 90s burned me out, man.
What was it ultimately that burned you out? Just the volume of work?
Dude, I did a million books in the 90s. I wanted to start a family. There was nothing controversial. You know how sometimes you just get tired, when you burn the candle from both ends? Since 2003, I’ve been back. Between 2000-2003, I didn’t do a damned thing. Just hung out.
Do you find that most people know you from that first go-round? It seems like a lot of people who are coming by are carrying old X-Force and Youngblood books.
You know, it’s a mixture. The thing is, right now, Deadpool is super-hot, because of the movie and the cartoon. So I’m getting a lot of that shoved in my face—which is cool, man. I love Deadpool.
Do you ever feel that need to get past the old stuff, or are you just universally proud of it all?
You know, that’s ridiculous.
If you can step back for a moment, what was the original impetus for moving from Marvel to Image?
Back then? Look, we climbed every mountain there was to climb back then. We sold five million copies of X-Force. We sold one million comics of the last issue of New Mutants. No gimmicks. No nothing. It’s just that we had done everything we were going to do there. That’s how I felt.
Are you more comfortable working with your own creations?
The Marvel world tends to be work by committee.
Yeah, I can’t do that. That’s why you’ll see that the projects that I do aren’t participating with the latest cross-over or whatever. That’s not for me.
At this point in your career, do you feel like the majors have afforded you a lot more creative freedom than in the early days?
Yes. Everyone gives me that. When Marvel asked me to come back and do X-Force in 2004, they just let me do my own thing, you know?
In the few years that you were away, did you see the industry change in any major tangible way?
Well, yeah, the companies now completely rely on writers to completely drive everything, because they’re more reliable in their eyes, and they can produce more book. Brian Bendis can write five books in a month. Why wouldn’t you, as a business, promote the hell out of him? These artists can issue one book a month, at most. So they’ve put their eggs in the writer basket. This decade, it’s Millar, Loeb, Bendis, Morrison.
At this point do you still enjoy working with writers, or would you rather do books entirely on your own.
Yeah. I don’t have a beef against writers.
Sure, but is it easier for you to be entirely in creative control over a work?
Yeah, but it’s a nice challenge to work with other people.
Do you feel like any of these things that have changed over the past few years have been the product of something that Image put in motion?
Of course they have. Yes. The answer is yes. One-hundred percent. We changed this business, we changed the way things work.
You said before that, when you founded Image, you had already climbed every mountain that there was to climb. Do you feel yourself climbing again, after all of these years?
You’re always scaling new stuff, sure. The reason I left—I knew what I was doing. I knew that everything I created for Marvel was going to be exploited for Marvel. The great thing is I was made a partner, so when it gets exploited, I share in it. I created a whole toy chest for them. And I still benefit from it. They had changed the rules by the time that we were on. They gave us pieces of the characters, and I was like, “why wouldn’t I own all of them?” And when I left, I created a catalog of characters that I exploit all of the time.
So, were you creating characters specifically for the purpose of exploiting for merchandise?
No, you just know that’s the by-product. That’s our culture. You just go in knowing that that’s inevitable.
But are you taking into consideration market forces when creating a character?
Uh, no, no, no. I think I was just to figure out—these characters look and act the way they do because that’s what I like. So, you know, times have changes, maybe. Is Deadpool not selling like he used to? The two most popular characters in comics right now—one is Barack Obama, the other is Deadpool. So I created one of them. I didn’t create him trying to fit a trend. I had a name, a look, a concept. I didn’t go, “oh, that’s what people like.” That’s not what I do.
So, in an abstract sense, would you say that some things haven’t really changed at all?
Well, you tell me.
Well, in terms of a character you created some time ago still being popular.
Well, a lot of that is because he’s become a bigger fixture in popular culture. His profile is bigger. You ride, but it’s not like I’m done creating charactes.
When you create a character like that, do you feel a sense of attachment? Is it difficult to let him out into the world?
You’ve got to know what you’re doing. Deadpool is owned by Marvel. It will always be owned by Marvel.
In terms of Youngblood?
Youngblood is owned by me. Sure, but I like to see what other people like to do with it, as well.