Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Rob Liefeld, and the issue is X-Force #4, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated November 1991. Enjoy!
After New Mutants ended, Marvel created X-Force, a new title just for Liefeld, reflecting the bold new X-TREEEEEEM!!!!! Nineties, and although Liefeld didn’t work on the book for long before taking off to form Image, his imprint remained all over it and so many other comics of the decade (and even into the new millennium). But while he did work on the book, we got some glorious stuff, including the famous (notorious?) sideways issue, which is the third part of a story crossing over with Adjectiveless Spider-Man in which the World Trade Center blows up. Yeah.
This is the first page of the comic. I love that Fabian Nicieza and Liefeld don’t even care about recapping – “pick it up as you go along,” they order us, as back then, readers didn’t need their hand held to figure out that X-Force and Spider-Man are the good guys and the Juggernaut is the bad guy! This page, though – man. Warpath (Rob Schmidt’s head just exploded), Feral, and Shatterstar are hanging out with Spidey, and Liefeld really has some fun with them. James Proudstar has a relatively normal-sized head, but when you place it in proportion to his wide, wide shoulders, it looks a lot smaller than it is. Liefeld gives him those gargantuan shoulder pads, which are absolutely ridiculous. Feral has the Bride of Frankenstein hair, but otherwise, she’s drawn fairly well. Shatterstar has muscles on top of muscles, especially in his legs (what’s up with that?), while Spider-Man is actually not badly drawn, even with that long, thin foot. It’s the details, of course, that make this weird. Warpath’s arm is wider that Feral’s body, while his fist is as big as the heads of the characters. Shatterstar’s face guard almost blocks his vision. Little things like that make the art odder, but the frustrating thing about this is that we can see that Liefeld, in some places, knows what he’s doing. Feral is inked very well, with the tufts on her fur standing out very nicely and Liefeld using that fur to make her face look more, well, feral. But Liefeld, following other inkers, uses thin lines too much on Shatterstar’s outfit, making it look baggier than it probably is – if we compare it to Warpath’s more skin-tight outfit, we can see that had Liefeld eased up a bit on the inking, Shatterstar would look better. Brian Murray colored this comic, and we can see some hints of what lies farther into the issue, as he uses odd yellow, green, and blue to light Shatterstar’s costume – it’s a strange, almost nauseating scheme, and it sets a strange tone for the rest of the issue.
I wanted to focus on this drawing of Shatterstar, because it’s such a Liefeldian treat. Let’s ignore Warpath in the lower left – he’s stunning, too, but let’s keep our eyes on Shatterstar. The pose is very weird – Warpath is throwing him (which brings up the entire perspective thing, but we won’t get into that here) in a “fastball special” kind of way, so it makes some sense that he would try to ball himself up, but once James lets him fly, wouldn’t he extend his legs a bit? Plus, he’s very flexible, as he manages to get his head almost between his own legs, and it appears that his torso has shortened because his knees are so far out in front of his head (again, the perspective is a bit wonky). His thighs are gigantic, which we saw when Liefeld drew Hawk a few days ago, but this is more exaggerated, which is the way his art was going as he was given more freedom. Of course, we get the famous Liefeld feet, but lots of artists draw feet poorly, and I’m not going to denigrate Liefeld all that much on this count, because it’s just not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I’m not terribly sure what’s going on with the Bondian hole at the “back” of the panel with the radiating lines – if it’s to provide perspective and depth, it doesn’t do the job very well, because Shatterstar and Warpath still appear to be on the same plane, even though James is technically “behind” Shatterstar. What I did want to focus on is Shatterstar’s hands. As we saw with Cable yesterday, Liefeld was slowly going to a weird place with his hands, as often they seemed not to be holding whatever it is Liefeld drew near the hands. I find it interesting because if Liefeld is using models for his characters, where is he finding people who look like this? If he’s drawing from a model of, say, a hand, why can’t he copy a hand holding something that looks like a sword hilt instead of drawing the swords around hands that don’t appear to be gripping anything? If we look closely at Shatterstar’s hands, it appears that he’s clenching them in fists, with the thumbs clearly visible. The hilts of the swords appear to be gripped between the index fingers and the middle fingers, which doesn’t make sense at all. If Liefeld was going to look at a fist and copy that, fair enough. But presumably he knows that to grip the sword, the hilt has to be between the thumb and the curled fingers, not somehow coming down between the index and middle finger. I get that he wanted Shatterstar to be pointing the swords downward to balance the drawing a bit, but couldn’t he have altered the hands a little to get that effect?
Liefeld likes to exaggerate, which isn’t a terrible thing, but when you put it in conjunction with everything else, odd things start to pile up. In Panel 1, he gives Cable that ridiculous armor, but it’s not necessarily the armor, it’s the fact that the calves of the armor are bowed outward so wildly and the fact that Cable looks uncomfortable in it and the fact that his gun looks like a tube of aluminum foil and the fact that Murray colors him purple and orange and the fact that Liefeld chooses to cross-hatch haphazardly on the front of the armor. The overall effect is strange, and it gets stranger on the right side of the page. Liefeld over-hatches, turning both Black Tom and Cable into creepy desiccated versions of people, as he etches along Cable’s cheekbone so severely that the lower half of his face falls inward. The reasons behind this frenzy of inking are mysterious – Liefeld obviously knew what he was doing before this, but maybe his confidence failed him and he was trying to cover things up? Was he under a deadline crunch and needed to ink quickly and with little regard for what he was doing? It’s probably just that he thought it looked good and people kept buying the book. Why change if everyone thinks you’re great?
Siryn manages to get Juggernaut’s helmet off, and we get this sequence. As usual, Liefeld pays extra attention to characters’ hair (Liefeld’s always had a good head of hair, so it’s not like a bald guy expressing his sadness through his work) – Siryn’s lush mane splays out from her head, almost surrounding her face, while Shatterstar’s glorious ‘do is always stylin’ under Liefeld’s pencils and inks. His inking once again is tough to look at, as he gives Siryn a face of someone who has just smelled something awful (maybe Juggernaut wears a mask because his head stinks?) and Juggernaut himself, in keeping with the theme, looks emaciated thanks to the powerful inking lines on his cheeks. Liefeld has fixed Shatterstar’s grip, as we can see in Panel 3, so his drawing in the earlier example makes even less sense. Murray is still coloring the issue oddly, with the yellows and blue blazing around Shatterstar – I know they’re on top of the World Trade Center so nothing is blocking the sun, but the heavenly light in Panel 2 seems a bit much.
The mystery continues, as Liefeld inks Juggernaut with so much cross-hatching that his face looks like it’s about to shatter, while the thicker lines make his cheeks jut outward unhealthily. This is Liefeld dragging comics kicking and screaming into the X-TREEEEM! Age, where nothing mattered except rage and inking lines. In Panel 2, Domino is holding another aluminum foil tube, while Liefeld has given up trying to make Shatterstar’s cape look like cloth and instead appends white tubes to his back. The speed lines in the back do nothing except give the reader vertigo, which was already happening thanks to Murray’s psychedelic use of oranges and reds in Panel 1 and his reliance on yellow, purple, and blue in Panel 2. I don’t know – there’s nothing more to be said about this sequence, I guess.
Let’s finish with this panel of Cable, which is a good indicator of everything Liefeld was doing around this time, art-wise. The armor is gigantic, with Cable’s shoulder pads sticking out so far he probably can’t walk through a garage door. The sloppy inking on his face not only ages him but makes him look unhealthy, and I don’t know what those things sticking out from his armor underneath his chin are (I’m sure it was explained in another issue of X-Force, but I’m not going to look it up), but they almost give him a Fu Manchu mustache. His thighs are gargantuan, and he’s still holding a tube of aluminum foil. The cross-hatching is out of control, as Liefeld even cross-hatches what I assume are supposed to be plumes of smoke on either side of Cable? I don’t have any idea what those white spaces are, but they get inked just the same! Finally, Shatterstar is standing still, yet his beautiful, beautiful pony tail is standing upright on his head and waving in … the breeze? I mean, why give Shatterstar a pony tail if you’re not going to draw it all the time, even when it makes no sense, right? To complete the picture, Murray is now using pinks with the blues, because our eyes haven’t been assaulted enough.
It was about this time that I began getting off the Liefeld bandwagon – I bought some more issues of X-Force, but soon dropped the book, and I didn’t follow Liefeld over to Image. Even when he returned to Marvel, I stayed away from his work. It just wasn’t my cup of tea any longer. So I don’t have very much of his 1990s work, and tomorrow, I’ll show a story of his that I own almost by accident. But it’s a good example, because it’s from later in his career and he’s not inking it, so we’ll see if that reins him in a bit! Be sure to peruse the archives while you wait!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.