Year of the Artist, Day 193: Rob Liefeld, Part 2 – Uncanny X-Men #245 and New Mutants #88
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Rob Liefeld, and the issues are Uncanny X-Men #245 and New Mutants #88, both of which was published by Marvel and are cover dated June 1989 and April 1990. Enjoy!
Liefeld went over to Marvel and drew some stuff before taking over New Mutants, and in his second issue, Louise Simonson introduced Cable, and Liefeld’s drawing of Mr. Summers became all the rage. I wanted to take a look at his fill-in issue of Uncanny X-Men, which came before he took over New Mutants, and issue #88, which is the follow-up issue to Cable’s introduction. I wanted to show these comics because they feature a bit more of what we might call “Liefeldian” art, even though Liefeld still isn’t inking himself, which is where his work really took off. Dan Green inked Uncanny X-Men #245, and Hilary Barta inked New Mutants #88, so let’s see what’s up with those combinations.
X-Men #245 is one of the funniest comics Claremont ever wrote and is still very funny, years later when many of the references are incredibly dated. I just like this tiny panel, in which Liefeld and Green add a bunch of guest stars to the alien invasion force. I’m pretty sure Brian has shown this before (and the previous panel, in which Chewbacca appears), but I just wanted to show it because it’s fun.
Liefeld gets to draw the entire team at the time (this is during the “Outback Era,” which is of course the greatest period in X-Men history and if you disagree I may have to reach through the computer and rip your spleen out!!!!!), and we see some of his tics beginning to emerge. We can’t see Storm and Dazzler too much, but Longshot’s hair is … well, it’s 1989, certainly, and in Panel 4, Liefeld amps up Rogue’s hair and we see a bit of the “Liefeld face,” with the thin eyes and the full lips. Green’s heavy inks on Rogue’s face don’t help, unfortunately. Havok also has some Liefeldian tics, as he gets another terrible hair style – it looks a bit too long to stand up like that, so Alex must have styled it that way – and heavy cheekbones, which might be Green’s contribution. This isn’t too egregious, but it’s a harbinger.
In the previous issue, the X-Women went to Los Angeles to go shopping (women be shoppin’, amirite?), and they happened to pick up Jubilee along the way. Wolverine suggests a “boys’ night out” for the X-Men, and as Peter is stuck as Colossus, Alison decides to put make-up on him so he can move around in mixed company. As this is a comedic book, Liefeld exaggerates for effect, so Logan’s hair is even spikier than usual, while Green heavily inks his eyebrows and his facial hair, making him more animalistic. Panel 2 is interesting, as Peter is gigantic but fairly well proportioned. As we’ll see below, some inkers use thin lines on Liefeld’s clothing, which makes them look baggy, but Green uses some thicker line work, which makes Peter’s pants fit him better. Of course, this is an early example of Liefeld’s clothing bunching around the crotch, which would reach epic proportions later in his career, but it’s not too ridiculous. Meanwhile, Alison is drifting toward the strangely proportioned females Liefeld would draw later, but we can forgive it a bit because she’s stretched out in excitement, so we can understand why her body looks slightly out of whack. Liefeld’s famous foot fetish (in that he doesn’t like drawing them) is also creeping in here, although it’s certainly not as bad as it could be. Green continues to ink very well, as he and/or Liefeld make Storm’s beautiful hair richly detailed. We saw yesterday some early examples of “Liefeld hair,” and this is another one.
Claremont is making fun both of DC’s 1989 summer event, Invasion! (always remember the exclamation point, kids!) and his own mythology with the “Jean Bomb” (I think Claremont making fun of himself is even better than the DC parody) as Invasion! relied on a “gene bomb” that turned a bunch of people into superheroes or changed the powers of those already possessing them. Liefeld has a lot of fun with the “Dominators” – the green aliens that parody the Invasion! masterminds and are never named in this book – as he doesn’t have to make them look remotely human, so he exaggerates their teeth and their bulbous heads. Note “Jean’s” giant hair. Why Liefeld never drew an Inhumans book is beyond me.
Now this is classic early Liefeld. Once again, we get the exaggeration – Logan’s hair is amazing, and although it looks largely inked, I have to believe that Liefeld at least provided a basic framework (and the inking is wonderful). Once again, Green pumps up Logan’s eyebrows to make him even more hirsute. Longshot and Alex have pretty standard “Liefeld faces” – they’re wide where the eyes are and slant inward rather severely at the cheeks. Peter has a Liefeld mouth, with that puffiness around the jaw that is really strange when you think about it. Liefeld puts Peter’s head in between his broad shoulders, turning him into a sloucher instead of making him look powerful, which I wonder is what he was going for. Peter just looks dumb in this drawing, which is too bad. I’ll write a bit more about the influence of this particular panel below, but I wonder if this is a watershed moment for Liefeld.
Claremont takes a small shot at Perry White here, as he’s far more interested in covering the presidential inauguration than an alien invasion (to be fair, in the DC world, if aliens are invading it must be Thursday, so Perry might get a bit of a pass here). We see a bit more of Liefeld’s evolution here. In Panel 4, Perry is inked far too much, and I wonder if Green simply inked all the lines Liefeld drew on Perry’s face. The wrinkles are excessive, turning a not-bad face into a creepy, leathery one. In Panel 6, Jimmy Olsen is a pretty classic Liefeld character – he has the spiky hair with the tuft in the middle sticking out over his forehead. He has the heavily inked eyes, the thin nose, and the thicker lips, and just enough wrinkles to age him prematurely. His abstract shirt is nice, though. I also want to point out Panel 2, in which it’s clear that Liefeld doesn’t steal images and incorporate them into his art, because he obviously had never seen a map of the world before! Little things like that are why I can’t hate Liefeld. He’s so charmingly weird at certain things.
After thwarting the invasion, the men come home and face a disapproving Ororo (um, didn’t they just thwart an alien invasion there, Windrider?). Look at that glorious hair in these panels. Rogue is trying to outdo Wolverine, Storm is ready to head over to the Great White video shoot, and Alison is probably going to sing a duet with Prince. There are some weird signs, though – Peter’s face in Panel 2 is too goofy, and Logan’s hand in Panel 4 is weirdly decrepit. But man, that hair. THAT HAIR!!!!
Why do I think that panel above is an ominous portent (I have to use that word every so often to make Travis happy)? Well, Liefeld began drawing figures in a more exaggerated fashion (not just Peter, but some others in this book), and I’m not sure if he realized that what worked in a comedy book might not work in a more serious book. Peter’s bulk is silly, but everything in this book is pretty silly – Longshot charming all the ladies (one of whom has actual hearts instead of eyes at one point), the Australians not really noticing that they’ve been invaded, the Jean Bomb itself – and Peter’s largeness fits in well. But while Liefeld may have decided that he could exaggerate to ridiculous proportions on everything and it would be his way to parody superhero excess, it doesn’t seem anyone told his writers or even the part of Liefeld’s brain that wrote his comics when he did that. So that panel is full of foreboding, as we’ll see a little less than a year later with New Mutants #88. So let’s get to that!
The interesting thing about Liefeld is that the signs weren’t really there – he seemed to transition quickly from the guy who drew Hawk and Dove fairly well and even from the guy who drew the above issue with its obvious exaggeration to the guy everyone loves to hate, even with solid inkers going over his pencils. I don’t know why Liefeld shifted, but he clearly did, and while the comics world might have lost a fairly decent artist, it gained a piñata, plus Liefeld became a superduperstar, so I guess it all worked out for everyone. But let’s consider this page. Cable breaks out of prison, and he does so by blowing a poison dart into his guard and then using acid to melt his chains. Look at how Liefeld draws Cable in Panel 1. While it’s not egregious yet, the fact that he seems to draw Cable’s fingers in random positions and then places the small blow tube among them foreshadows his bigger errors of placing guns in hands that don’t look like they’re holding anything. He’s making an effort, though, as Cable’s cheeks are puffed up with air, and the first two panels work together pretty well. In the thin Panel 4, we see an early example of Liefeld not drawing feet terribly well, but Cable is wearing boots, so again, we can forgive it a bit. The final panel is odd, as Cable appears to swing upward to knock the guard backward (it’s a different guard than the one he shot in the neck), which seems strange until you understand that if Cable swung downward or forward, as we’d expect, his arm would probably be blocking his face, and Liefeld wants to make sure we see that. I don’t know why, but it’s clear that we’re supposed to see Cable’s grim visage. Barta is a fairly standard inker, so we don’t see the overhatching that we would soon get with Liefeld himself and others who inked him later in his career, but things are trending that way. It’s most apparent in the clothing, which has no thick blacks to create more nuanced folds, with Liefeld/Barta instead simply using thin lines a bit more than is necessary, creating a baggy look that will become more prevalent in Liefeld’s art. It’s kind of strange.
Here’s a good example of where Liefeld was headed, and it wasn’t terribly pretty, although it is dynamic, which might explain his popularity a bit. In Panel 1, Barta inks Cable’s face a bit too much, aging our hero quite a bit (I know he’s supposed to be an older dude, but as the series moved on, he began to look decrepit). I noted yesterday the curve on the forehead with the perpendicular hatching on it, and we see it in the inset panel pretty clearly, but it’s even heavier than in Hawk and Dove. We get the thick ridges above Cable’s eyes, which create huge shadows for eyebrows, and thick ridges from his nostrils down around his mouth, making that sink into his face a little. The white of his face can be explained by the light thrown by Pyro’s device, but it’s interesting because in later issues of X-Force, this kind of blanching becomes common, and it’s very strange. We’ll get to that tomorrow, though.
The bigger panel is problematic, too. Liefeld, as we saw yesterday, didn’t start out making his characters grotesque giants, but he does that with the Blob, and it’s fairly ridiculous. Part of the problem, it seems, is that he drew Cable pretty large, so the Blob had to be even bigger to make it even more impressive when Cable took him down. As we saw above, Cable’s pants are inked oddly – Barta or Liefeld uses some more blacks, but the hatching along those blacks make the pants look rigid, and the way Liefeld draws Cable’s left leg makes his waist look gigantic. The Blob and Pyro both have the same mouth, but as Fred’s is more obvious, let’s focus on that. Liefeld makes it gape very wide, which isn’t in itself a problem, but the way he extends the upper ridge is bizarre, making Fred’s mouth look more rigid than it should be. Glynis Oliver, who colored this, uses red on that inside portion, which makes it stand out even more. Liefeld gets across the Blob’s terror, but his work is slowly becoming more cartoony, which has unfortunate side effects.
Boom-Boom, who was so memorably revamped in Nextwave, shows up dressed in killer 1989/1990 fashion just so she can impress Rictor, which, in retrospect, is pretty funny. The side panels are a bit difficult to see, except for the final one, where we get Angry Tabitha. That’s not a bad drawing, as Liefeld narrows her eyes, crooks her eyebrows just a bit (it’s not quite supervillain-y!), and wrinkles her mouth in disapproval. Whether he or Barta inked Boom-Boom’s hair, it’s done well, and is a pretty good example of “Liefeld” hair, some of which we saw yesterday. The first panel, though, is where the action’s at, and it’s certainly something. How does Liefeld draw something like this? If there’s one thing we can say about Liefeld, it’s that he doesn’t cut and paste from other sources, whether it was magazines back in the day or the Internet today (at least, it certainly doesn’t look like he does). Yet Tabitha here looks completely divorced from her surroundings. Her right hand on her hip is … okay, although it seems like a strange way to hold your fingers. Her left hand, meanwhile is resting on something that isn’t there. That’s kind of strange. If that blue … thing where her hand lies is supposed to be a platform, Liefeld doesn’t do anything to distinguish it from the blue machinery behind it, but if we’re supposed to believe it’s next to Boom-Boom and not behind her, okay? Finally, Tabitha is standing on tiptoes for no discernible reason. Why wouldn’t she just wear heels instead of those Peter Pan slippers? The shortness of her skirt (don’t bend over to pick up a quarter, Tabby!) doesn’t really bother me, as it’s perfectly plausible that a young girl trying to catch a guy’s attention would wear something like that (not that I would know, as most girls when I was young spent their time around me wearing large, shapeless burlap sacks). The way Boom-Boom is drawn and inked, though, is also weird. I noted yesterday that Karl Kesel seemed to ink every single muscle in every character’s body, and here, Barta is following along with that. The deep “V” of the collarbone and the inking on Boom-Boom’s forearms makes her look more emaciated than is healthy, yet Liefeld still gives her thicker legs than usual (although her left leg seems to be twisted really painfully). These little things make the drawing odd, even if it’s not awful. Just don’t get me started on Panel 2, where she bends awkwardly backward and we get an inked starburst around her crotch.
Liefeld’s lack of training is evident in Panel 1, as it’s clear what he wants to do, but he doesn’t do it very well. Silver Sabre stops short of getting decapitated, so his head stays where it is while his body keeps going. Liefeld draws his chest sticking out, but his hips are twisted really gruesomely and his legs don’t seem to be moving the way legs would. His right leg is sticking out of his hip like an insect’s, while his left calf is gargantuan, even for someone whose mutant power is running really fast. His back comes in toward his waist at a very strange angle, and again, we know what Liefeld is trying to do, but it’s rather creepy. Panel 3 is also horrific, as the Blob opens his mouth wider than should be possible and Liefeld draws in a waterfall of drool (Fred has 35 teeth, too, but let’s let that one go). For some reason, Liefeld gives him a constipated face, as if he’s trying to pass a whole watermelon, even though the dialogue doesn’t exactly match the expression. Barta/Liefeld is using too many inking lines here, which contributes to the constipated look, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the corners of Fred’s mouth. This is just a bizarre panel.
[I apologize for using two more comics in this post instead of sticking to one comic per post. I know it's my series and I can cheat if I want to, but I try not to, and I originally only had New Mutants #88 in this post, because I completely forgot that he drew Uncanny X-Men #245. The latter is fairly important in his development, however, so I decided to slot it in. I wrote that part this morning, so it was pretty last-minute. I hope you guys don't mind!]
As we can see, very early in his career, Liefeld had already decided on a direction. He took his basics and exaggerated them to insane degrees, and the comics-reading public rewarded him for it. Soon he would be inking himself, and we’d get this kind of art, even more unrestrained. I hope you join me tomorrow to check some of that out! Fortify yourself in the archives!