Interview: Rob Liefeld

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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.

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