DC Comics' "Rebirth" Character Designs for Batman, Wonder Woman and More
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Rob Liefeld, and the first story is “A Princess’ Story” in Secret Origins #28 and the issue is Hawk and Dove #1, both of which were published by DC, the first cover dated July 1988 and the second cover dated October 1988. Enjoy!
Some people suggested I take a look at Rob Liefeld, and I can’t really tell if they were joking or not. It didn’t matter, because I was always going to check out Liefeld’s art. I don’t like his art after New Mutants, but he’s a fascinating artist, and I think it will be interesting to track his progress through the early part of his career, finishing with one of the few recent comics I own that he drew. We’ll see how it works out, okay? I decided to take a look at the Nightshade story from Secret Origins and the first issue of Hawk and Dove, because they were published so close together and while neither is Liefeld’s first work in comics, he had done very little in the year or so that he had been showing up in comics prior to this, so I figured this was close enough.
Nightshade’s origin is a bit weird, as Robert Greenberger tells us that Eve Eden (really?) found out that her mother was a princess from a fairy land, and she was lured back there after getting word that her long-time enemy, the Incubus, had been defeated. Of course he hadn’t been, and Eve’s mother dies and her brother gets captured. Her mother has shadow powers, and so does Eve. So that’s the basic set-up. As for the art – one thing almost everyone agrees about is that when Liefeld is inked by a good inker, his art looks much better. Here he’s inked by Bob Lewis, who isn’t bad at all, and he inks this a bit delicately, even though he makes the details stand out. We’ll see more of this as we go along, but in Panel 1, we can see an early classic “Liefeld” face – I’ll write more about it later, though. Liefeld, as we see, doesn’t go too crazy with the layouts, as he keeps things fairly standard, leading us across the page pretty well as Eve escapes and her mother gets attacked by the lupine demons. I don’t know if anyone else does this, but it’s hard for me to judge Liefeld’s early work without thinking about what it evolves into, so the fact that he draws his people fairly “normally” and doesn’t make the demons too wild is a bit jarring. As usual, I’m not sure how much influence Lewis has on this – obviously, the fur on the demons is probably inked in, but did Liefeld pencil in the details in the background of the fairy land, or is that Lewis? Anyway, this is just a taste of Liefeld. Let’s move on!
We see a bit more of the “Liefeld” face here, as Eve grows up and returns to her mother’s dimension. Liefeld would use the template for many of his female characters over the next few years – not all of them, but many of them. Eve’s hair, most notably, is very Liefeldian, with the middle part and poofy wings, while we get a somewhat severe tapering of the face down to the chin, eyes set a bit wide, and slightly fuller lips than we might expect. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this facial structure, but it does become a bit of a trademark with Liefeld. You’ll also notice that Eve is a perfectly normal woman – her body is proportioned perfectly well, and her breasts, waist, hips, and legs all “fit” together pretty well. He does a good job with body language in the final few panels – in Panel 6, Eve is slinking around the prison, so Liefeld draws her with legs bent, and when she hears the Incubus, she turns somewhat awkwardly. It’s an odd pose, but it works for the scene. Panel 7, where we see the Incubus, is well done – even early on in his career, Liefeld obviously had a flair for exaggeration, so we get highly arched eyebrows and the big toothy smile of the demon. Carl Gafford, who colored this issue, uses a nice touch of blue to highlight the eyebrows, and of course the red eyes stand out pretty well. Liefeld splits the panel well, so that the contrast between the Incubus smiling evilly and Eve looking shocked is nicely done.
This is a lot smaller in the original comic than it is on the screen, which is why Nightshade in Panel 1, for instance, isn’t quite as detailed as you might expect. This story doesn’t have a ton of superhero action, but Liefeld isn’t great at it, although he’s not bad, either. In Hawk and Dove, which we’ll see below, he’s much better at it. One problem he seems to have in this sequence is some perspective issues – in Panel 1, Nightshade attacks the Image, and Faraday is far away, coming up the stairs, which have no depth to them. In Panel 2, while we can tell that we’re closer to them because the columns in the back are larger, it still seems weird that the characters are so much bigger. The lack of depth in the staircase doesn’t help. This seems like something Lewis could have helped with, but neither artist makes much of an effort here. In the second row, Eve beats up the Black Spider, and Panel 5 is a bit odd, as she punches the air as Black Spider dives into the water. Are we supposed to read that as his reaction being struck? If so, we need to see more impact lines and the Black Spider really ought to be oriented differently. Plus, the moon is really rocky, isn’t it? As I noted, this is much smaller in the comic, so it’s not as obvious, but it’s still a bit bizarre.
Let’s move on to Hawk and Dove #1, which Karl Kesel inked (as well as wrote with his wife, Barbara). Liefeld, it seems, is much more confident with his pencils, and Kesel’s inks are bolder, too, which makes the art more polished than in Secret Origins. Again, I don’t know how much later Liefeld drew this or even if he drew it later, but it’s an interesting change.
Kestrel is a bit of a lunatic, as he’s looking for Hank Hall (Hawk), and he gets a bit vicious just because that guy’s not Hank Hall, even though he already knows he’s not? Beats me – the Kesels seem to just want to show Kestrel as crazy as possible. This is a nice page – Liefeld’s Kestrel is a solid supervillain, and while his pose in Panel 5 is a bit weird, he fits in perfectly with the way superpowered people were being drawn in the late 1980s. Liefeld has no problems with composition, as it’s perfectly clear what Kestrel is doing, and Kesel’s strong inks certainly add some heft to his pencils. Like the Incubus above, Liefeld gives Kestrel those crooked “eyebrows” in Panel 3, but that’s a fairly standard villain trope, and Glenn Whitmore’s colors help highlight it well. This is somewhat of a McFarlane page, as Kestrel in Panel 4, where he slaps his victim, and especially in the final panel, where he kills him, definitely have a McFarlane vibe to them. In Panel 4, Kestrel’s face is a bit rounder than we usually see from Liefeld, and I wonder if that’s Kesel’s influence. The large spots of blood in Panel 7 are definitely McFarlane-esque. Notice the arc on Kestrel’s forehead – you can see it most clearly in Panels 1 and 7. The arc and the hatching across it, like the hatching on the noses that we saw with Larsen on Ditko yesterday, is a hallmark of this time period, and it would only become more prominent as we enter the “Image Age” of artwork.
Liefeld gets to do a bit more action than he did on Secret Origins, and he handles it pretty well. Hawk is fairly fluid as he moves around the sequence, and Liefeld does well with the actual placement of the characters within the fight. He switches the point of view between Panels 3 and 4 so that we’re looking at Hawk when he gets the rifle butt in the face but then we’re looking at the punk who did it in Panel 4. The transition is smooth, probably because we go from a close-up to a middle view. I doubt that the guy’s baseball cap would fly off when Hawk kicks him in the midsection, but the cap is an important clue about what’s going on, so it has to fall off somehow. Once again, Liefeld conforms to the standards of the time pretty well – in Panel 2, Hawk is a but weird anatomically, but not to the point of insanity – Liefeld makes his thighs huge, especially as his waist is a bit more narrow than we might expect, but he is crouching, which highlights the thighs, and it’s still not a silly proportion. He also gets a good expression on Hawk in Panel 3 – we believe that it’s a guy who just took a rifle butt to the jaw. Kesel’s solid inks give texture to the pole into which the car smashes (it looks like a telephone pole, but it has street signs on it, which I suppose could be a thing), and while his inking of Hawk’s muscles isn’t terribly subtle, it’s not bad.
These days and even back during the height of Liefeld mania, it was pointed out that Liefeld’s facial expressions weren’t that great. This is an interesting sequence, because Liefeld does a good expression in Panel 1 and an odd but decent one in Panel 3. In Panel 1, Hawk is being a douchebag, and Liefeld gives him thin, smug eyes, a shit-eating grin, and that hand pointing at himself. Kesel’s inks are good, quirking the side of his mouth up a tad to make Hawk even douchier, while either Liefeld or Kesel gives him that big chin that makes him look more manly but in this context a bit more like a jerk. In Panel 3, the expression is fine, as Hawk realizes the bad guys he tied up have vanished (it appears that they can turn into crows), but because we don’t see the coils of rope until Panel 4, the Kesels’ words don’t match up perfectly with Liefeld’s drawings. It makes me wonder what the script looked like and if Liefeld went “off-book” a bit. But the expression is pretty good – Liefeld widens Hawk’s eyes, gives him a nice surprised mouth, but one that’s not too ridiculous, and lengthens his face well. Again, Kesel does some good inking – he puts lines in between Hawk’s eyes to pinch in his expression a bit, and the shading on the left side of Hawk’s face is well done. The asymmetry between the drawing and the script doesn’t change the fact that Liefeld could draw expressive faces fairly well.
Liefeld gives us some nice character work in this sequence, as Hank meets Ren right after he meets Kyle (on the previous page), and Ren takes a picture of him, causing his eyes some discomfort. Ren is “ethnic” but not stereotypically so, and Liefeld draws her with good proportions and absolutely normal clothing. He gets across Hank’s short temper well in Panel 1, as he thinks Ren is attacking him (or something), but Liefeld doesn’t go overboard with his facial expression, and his pinched look in Panels 2 and 3 are well done as Hank tries to get the spots out of his vision. We can still see touches of more advanced Liefeld – Kyle and Hank’s hair are templates for many of his male characters in the future – but this is a nice, restrained sequence. Kesel, we can see, uses thick black strokes in certain places to add some nuance to the clothing, while he continues to etch every muscle in Kyle and Hank’s bodies. It’s not excessive, but it is a bit busy.
Hawk daydreams about his brother, Don, who was the “Dove” part of the team before he was killed (in Crisis on Infinite Earths). This is another nice sequence – Liefeld does a good job showing the difference between Hank and Don in their body sizes, as Hank is larger than his brother, while Don is sleeker than Hank. Hank is “watching” the events happen, so he’s a bit more static than Don is, but Liefeld does a decent job showing Dove in action, as his body movement is pretty solid. Once again, Liefeld does a nice job with Hawk’s face in Panels 5 and 6, as his wide-eyed, open-mouth look of fear in Panel 5 gives way to a pinched look as the rocks bash him on the head. As usual, it’s germane to wonder how much Kesel did on this page, as the inking is quite nice, and the thick blacks that make the rocks look more solid in the bottom row seem to be something an inker would do. Still, it’s a nice layout, and Liefeld’s figure work is quite good.
Hank meets Kyle’s girlfriend, Donna, and that mysterious woman, who doesn’t get a name in this issue but whom I’m going to assume is Dawn Granger, the new Dove. As we’ve seen throughout this post, Liefeld can draw nice facial expressions and show good body language, as he does on this page. We can tell that Donna is one of those enthusiastic people that are nice to be around but can become taxing after too long, as Liefeld gives her thin, keen eyes and puts her hands under her chin, as if she’s settling in for a long conversation. Hank’s reaction in Panel 2 is well done, too – Liefeld gives him slightly desperate eyes, and while the inking line along his chin and up his cheek is very odd, he looks both a bit upset and relieved that he won’t have to talk about his brother. When “Dawn” bumps into Ren (who works at the bar), we get a nice little sequence, although it’s certainly not perfect. “Dawn” appears out of nowhere in Panel 3 and seems to elbow Ren in the throat, which is awfully weird. When she catches the pitcher in Panel 4, it seems that her momentum is taking her past Hank, but in Panel 5, she abruptly lands on the table in front of him. Plus, the silverware and/or crockery that Ren is carrying magically returns to its place on her serving tray. Still, Liefeld draws the characters in motion with fluidity, and none of them are too contorted, as we’ll with some of his characters in the future. Hank’s stupefied look and “Dawn’s” cheekiness in Panels 6 and 7 are nice, too. If this is Dawn Granger, did she plan this in order to meet Hank, and that’s why this looks staged? I haven’t read the mini-series (I bought this issue recently solely because I knew I’d be featuring Liefeld), so I don’t know the answer to that. If it’s deliberate, it makes the scene work a bit better. It’s still a good page, regardless.
Liefeld quickly became a superstar, as he took on what I can only imagine was a struggling title in New Mutants and turned it into a juggernaut. Tomorrow I’ll check out that comic and see how his art changed in the brief time period between these issues and that one! And, as always, you can go back and read through the archives if you’re so inclined!
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