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Year of the Artist, Day 192: Rob Liefeld, Part 1 – Secret Origins #28 and Hawk and Dove #1

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

34 Comments

There are feet in these pictures. And they look fairly normal. What gives? Did Liefield somehow get worse at feet or is he getting some heavy assistance from the inkers?

Chaim Mattis Keller

July 11, 2014 at 2:19 pm

>> Eve Eden (really?)

I imagine the Biblical reference was intentional at Charlton, when the character was created, as she was paired off with Captain Atom, real (last) name Adam.

Toozin: THAT … is what we are here to discover! I think it’s a bit of both, honestly. He was obviously drawing them, so maybe he was okay at them, but as we’ll see over the next few days, when he started inking his own work, they became … wonky.

Rob Liefield drawings with hands… and feet? Egad! I’ve fallen into a work of fiction! Joking aside, I’m sure this has more to do with Kessel’s inks than Lifield’s pencils. Still, it is refreshing to see his figures more… on model? I get the criticisms aimed at Liefield as some of his proportions became truly horrendous later on. I always felt his panel lay outs weren’t that bad, even in his X-force comics, the bodies were off, there were hidden hands and feet, bodies seemed to float above the ground, but he used a lot of wide angel shots, panels layered upon panels, figures seeming to burst from the page, etc (he could draw very energetically). If only he had honed his skill in figure forming, he probably would have made for a fairly talented comic artist – its a shame he never lived to that potential.
I’ve been following these articles since day 1, Greg – thought this is the first time I’ve commented on them. I’m something of an amateur artist myself (I’m working on a graphic novel right now) and I’ve really found these articles really helpful! I look foward to many more!!!

On that second page from Hawk & Dove, panel 3 seemed a bit off for me, and I had to look back to see what it was. Hawk’s face was too narrow. Even with mouth opened in surprise, it shouldn’t have narrowed that much. Compared to Hawk’s jaw/mouth in the previous and subsequent pages, it seems really thin. However, as you noted, it’s not bad – just inconsistent.

Re: New Mutants, at the time I thought Liefeld was a refreshing change compared to Bret Blevins, who’s style I did not like. However by the first few issues of X-Force and Youngblood, I had had enough, the novelty had worn off. These next few days of posts will be a trip down memory lane!

Wow, I thought I was joking yesterday when I predicted Liefeld… his art sure has been atrocious since the early 90s, but it looks like his progression to that stage will be pretty interesting reading.

Pete Woodhouse

July 11, 2014 at 3:00 pm

The earliest Liefeld art I remember reading was an early Checkmate cover, inked by (Al?) Vey. Did he also do that Hulk fill-in vs Thor, the Stan Lee-scripted issue. Or am I thinking about Erik Larsen? (checks GCD). Dang, it was Larsen!

Jeff Nettleton

July 11, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Karl Kessel deserves so much credit for cleaning up Liefeld’s work, which got him bigger assignments. I think part of the problem is that the bigger name Liefeld got, the less influence editors and inkers had, which allowed him to get lazy and for his artwork to look worse and worse. I also think that Kessel, as (co-)writer, probably laid out the panels for Liefeld to follow, though I have no proof to support that theory. Circumstancially, after this, Liefeld has to rely more and more on stock poses and swipes, so I’m sticking to my theory. One thing’s for certain, his grasp of basic science and biology was pretty shaky, as illustrated by his later work and interviews, prior to the release of Youngblood (and after). He’s not unique in that, but he was one of the bigger offenders.

Rob’s an easy target, though. I think if he had been mentored a bit more he might have developed into a better artist, but he was given the perfect opportunity, at the height of the speculator boom, and he made the best of it. I can’t fault him for that, though you can for some of his business practices within his studio (vs his public rhetoric about artists owning their work).

I’d really love to see the uninked pencils to these, just to see how much Lewis and Kesel’s inks had to do with the quality of the work. It’s kind of hard to believe that they didn’t do more than a bit of touch-up work (to say the least), when you realize how quickly and how terribly Liefeld’s art deteriorated after these, and that it hasn’t really gotten even a little bit better in the 20+ years since, y’know?

Mr. Magnets: Thanks for the nice words. I’m glad that this series has helped!

David: Ah, good point. I missed that.

Roman: It’s no joke!!!! :)

Pete: I don’t think I own that Larsen comic, although I do plan to do Larsen. We shall see if I track it down before that!

Jeff: Kesel isn’t credited as laying things out, so I’m not going to go there! I do think that Liefeld’s layouts on Secret Origins aren’t bad, and that wasn’t Kesel. I’m just going by what the credits of the book say! :)

I write about Liefeld and his sudden fame tomorrow, when I move on to New Mutants. It was a very fast rise, and I do think that was part of the problem, because it’s clear from these comics that he had talent. I also note that I’m sure Liefeld doesn’t mind becoming so famous so fast!

Green Luthor: As I’ve written these posts this year, I’ve found myself wanting to see the uninked pencils on a LOT of the comics!

I’ve just realised how much Karl Kesel and Art Thibert’s inking styles are so alike. For a while I thought they were the same guy. Thibert’s inking on Dan Jurgen’s Adventures of Superman run looks very reminiscent of Karl Kesel’s inking of Rob Liefeld here.

It’s long been rumored that Kesel did a huge amount of redrawing, including reorienting pages Liefeld drew landscape- rather than portrait-style.

I always liked Liefeld’s New Mutants stuff. Aftger X-Force came around, I think his art started to get crazy, because he was a big success and didn’t really need to get better or advance his art style. He did that commercial with Spike Lee and then he co-founded Image. He would of been to busy to advance his artwork. That was that.

Scooby: That’s true – Thibert and Kesel are pretty similar.

Irwin: As I noted above, if it’s not credited, I don’t want to get into it too much. Brian has written about the hands and feet in the mini-series here and the landscape thing here. But those were from later in the mini-series (the final issue), and even then, Kesel mentions that he didn’t redraw them, but that Mike Carlin cut up the pages and they re-oriented them.

It’s weird how his technical skills actually declined over time.

Michael Lynch

July 11, 2014 at 5:06 pm

This should be interesting. An artist that showed potential early on then actually got worse.

tom fitzpatrick

July 11, 2014 at 5:37 pm

GAWD!!! My eyes, my eyes! I’m going blind! Y’know, Mr. Burgas, I just KNOW I’m gonna end up spending tens of thousands of $$$ in therapy for PTSD!

All kidding aside, I do believe my first Liefeld exposure was X-Force # 1, the volume right after The New Mutants ended. I really wasn’t impressed back then. Wasn’t impressed with Youngblood either.

One thing I noticed about Liefeld is that he seems to have absolutely no staying power. Does anyone know what titles he drew the longest?

Holy cow. I forgot that Liefeld got his feet wet on Hawk & Dove, even though I read some of the series when I was a kid. He started out with such promise, then just got worse and worse as his star kept rising.

He coulda had class. He coulda been a contender. He coulda been somebody, instead of a (grossly wealthy) bum, which is what he is, let’s face it.

“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…”

To explain: Kestrel is looking for Hawk, but doesn’t know who Hawk really is, but has a rough idea of what Hawk’s secret identity looks like. So he’s been kidnapping young men who fit Hank Hall’s description. Kestrel does know that if the person says the name “Hawk,” he would automatically transform into Hawk if he really was Hawk (did I just type that?). So when the kid said, “I’m not Hawk!” and didn’t transform, Kestrel immediately knew he had the wrong man.

Xum

So instead of watching an artist grow, develop and hone his skill over a five day period, we are going to have five days of an artist getting progressively worse?

Seriously, I do think that Liefeld had real potential when he started out. Perhaps if he had taken the time to improve and develop, he might have eventually become really good. We’ve certainly seen that with several other individuals in Year of the Artist. Mike Deodato Jr immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately, as others have observed, Liefeld got too big too fast, and lost any incentive to refine his craft.

Another really ‘interesting’ one to do would be Greg Land. His earlier stuff on titles like Birds Of Prey is so completely different from the later work he is infamous for that the progression would be very interesting to follow.

tom: Sorry!

I don’t know how long Liefeld has lasted on a title. He had deadline issues by #5 of Hawk and Dove, so he was slow in the beginning of his career!

Xum: That’s just crazy. I should have realized that, because Hank says “Hawk” later in the book and becomes Hawk. it’s still insane.

Ben: I knew I’d do some artists that didn’t improve. I’m not sure if I’ll get to some of them, but I really wanted to do Liefeld, because he really does fascinate me.

Ryan: I might do Land, actually. I’m not sure I have enough of his early, pre-tracing stuff, but I have some, so I’ll have to check.

I find it kind of hard to believe that the anatomy in these panels were drawn by the same person as the ones in x-force #1…
Inkers aren’t supposed to redraw from scratch, are they?

Liefeld.. at his beginnings.. nice art, but largely helped on H&D by K.Kesel.. wich his mostly the artist there (compare the art to what kesel inked around that time, and some short he drew)

Up to the first issues of New Mutants, the art is readable (with Dzon inking) with the X Cross over (Mutant Agenda) Liefeld began to draw like Liefeld…

Really great analysis here, Greg.

In an article about an artist who is notoriously known for his repetetiveness it is nice to see that critical voices fall into the same trap and mention ‘look no feet’ in the first line.
I digress, back to Liefeld. What I enjoy about his work is the energy he brings into it. Fight scenes are really his strength. What I dislike is his, I am very blunt here, laziness when it comes to backgrounds or developing his work.

D C: Thanks!

Early Liefeld is so depressing to see, because he really did have talent. His art had a great natural dynamism and he was well on his way to being one of the greats. But people started praising him in such a way that he got lazy and his flaws magnified while his popularity grew. And now he’s even lost the dynamism that made his early work so fun and eye catching.

This is the only work of Liefeld’s that I will defend, even if Kesel did do some substantial finishing. It’s laid out well, the forms are good, and overall, it’s a nice bit of art.

Stephen Conway

July 13, 2014 at 9:40 am

I remember reading somewhere that Kesel and one of the DC editors tried to get Liefeld to stay at DC and develop more as they recognised his talent and potential, but at the time Marvel had a higher page rate so he skipped across town and, for good or for ill, history was made.

There’s definitely some quality to the work here. The storytelling is reasonably clear, the anatomy is quite sound and Liefeld throws in some nice facial expressions. There are some Liefeld-isms too, though. He blocks out feet in about half the panels in the Secret Origins story, and I’m not sure how possible the pose is where Dawn falls over in the 4th panel in the last page.

Still, it’s a shame t see how downhill he’s gone since.

The panel w/Nightshade “creeping” (second page, sixth panel) has her in a pose that you see a lot in Art Adams comics. I wonder if at first Leifeld was so true to the source material that he seemed more advanced than he actually was. Or maybe the deadlines were looser, which allowed him to find a reference from another comic and base a new drawing on it. But yeah, this looks like the work of a promising newcomer in need of a couple more years of study. It takes time to learn perspective, and to develop a repertoire of poses and shots that will carry you through a monthly gig. Liefeld… Victim of his own success?

I am coming here too late, but would like to add some information about the villain Kestrel and the kidnapped man. Hawk and Dove are human agents of the forces of Chaos and Order, and Kestrel was cotacted by a faction of Chaos which wants to employ Hawk’s powers for their own purposes. He had a vision of his face and, in order to find him, the Chaos Lords gave Kestrel the ability to trigger Hawk’s transformation by saying his (Hawk’s, not Kestrel’s) code name if the true Hawk is near (yes, Mr. Xum, I also said that!).

And, indeed, just saying their heroic names doesn’t make them change: they need to say them _and_ be mentally wishing the transformation to occur.

I hope that was of some help. Thanks for the attention!

Ivan: Thanks for the info! I love comic-book explanations without context, because they sound so ridiculous! :)

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