Youngblood at Heart

Seven years after leaving the industry that made him a star, former comic book wunderkind Rob Liefeld is ready for his heroes to be reborn

With the X-Men already hitting the public consciousness in a big way thanks to a TV cartoon and the work of many of the Image founders prior to leaving Marvel, and with their new company exploding on the scene, comic books soared in the '90s, prompting the various companies to try to one-up one another all the time, with variant covers, collectible gimmicks and . . . well . . . "It is 100 percent fact that we killed Superman," says Liefeld. "I think, August 1992, we were the second-largest publisher of comics with eight comics. We beat DC Comics and their 50 to 60 comics they were offering that month. And that was the Shot Heard Round the World. Marvel was No. 1, and they publish about 50-60 comics, and now DC is looking up at Image, and they publish 50 to 60 comics, and oh, by the way, they publish Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Justice League. And then they had their emergency meetings: 'Uh-oh, uh, we've gotta do something to regain some attention. Uh, we're gonna kill Superman.' And that got DC into the game in November 1992."

Liefeld and McFarlane were like the rock stars of the comic world, the two most recognizable of the faces among the new upstarts, having also been instrumental in the creation of such up-and-coming Marvel characters as Cable, Deadpool and Venom. McFarlane soon spun off his own toy company, and Liefeld swiftly began licensing characters to Hollywood; there was a time when a month wouldn't go by without news of a new Liefeld-based movie in the pipeline—Badrock, Doom's IV, Prophet, Avengelyne and, of course The Mark, an original creation designed for Tom Cruise (though it eventually ended up in Will Smith's hands). But while McFarlane tightly controlled everything he did and tended to appear scowling in darkly lit photographs (the better to mesh with his brooding antihero Spawn), Liefeld was always seen sporting what he dubs "the smirk" and was more inclined to branch out. In 1991, he famously appeared in a Levi's commercial directed by Spike Lee, after answering an ad soliciting folks with interesting jobs. Liefeld recalls thinking, "'Wow, this is gonna get comic books on TV all the time!' because I knew how much those Levi's commercials ran nonstop. I'm like, 'This'll be great for the medium!'" Instead, he was derided for being a show-off, as fans focused on the messenger rather than the message.

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Milk: It does a body really good! Photo by John Gilhooley. Click the image for more photos from this story.
Milk: It does a body really good! Photo by John Gilhooley. Click the image for more photos from this story.

To this day, Liefeld is described as "controversial"—it's one of the first things you'll see on his Wikipedia page—but he isn't quite sure why. "I ask people, but no one really has a good answer," he says. "It's just one of those things, like, 'I'm controversial!' I've never gotten out of a limousine without my underwear on. I haven't been pulled over for any DUIs. . . . I think the success that I had when I was young ticked a lot of people off because they eventually told me so."

Jeph Loeb, an award-winning comic-book writer and screenwriter currently working as an executive producer on TV's Heroes, admitted to Liefeld some years ago that he had hated his guts.

Liefeld recalls, "We were finally close enough where he could divulge to me, like, oh, he goes, 'Rob, the success you and your buddies had threatened all of us; it ticked us off. And, you know, you guys made us all look like old men, and uh, you kind of were a harbinger of a new generation.' And I mean, I definitely felt that at the time because we pulled a lot of young readers in with us. I saw kids—I guess I'd call 'em skateboard kids, and more 'normal kids'—coming into the comic conventions. Without us, you don't get to where the San Diego Comic-Con pop-culture explosion is now. We were sort of the bridge event for that."

Though it was the headstrong, individualistic nature of the Image founders that had caused them to break away from Marvel in the first place and succeed on their own terms, it also became a problem within Image after a while. Liefeld may have been perceived as in it for himself, however, initially, he was anything but. "I had a very innocent, ignorant, youthful view of what we could all accomplish together," he says. "I'd say, six months out the gate, it became clear very early that some guys were in it only for themselves, and I mean that, whether it was amusement-park companies, toy manufacturers, video-game people—I mean, we had big, big entertainment dollars approach us about doing things together. But the bottom line was, it had to be all or nothing. And there would always be one or two guys that'd say, 'No, I don't want to do anything with you guys; I want to separate it.' It was very clear that everybody wanted to be their own mega-entity, so I created my own label about two years in called Maximum Press—which I owned 100 percent of—and I started moving more of my books into that label, which I wasn't doing subtly. I had no intention of hanging around, and it just came down to an ultimatum: Either put all your books back into Image, or you're outta here. And I said, 'Well, I'm not putting my books back into Image,' and we split, and it got semi-ugly for about four months. It happened all very quickly—it blew up and then repaired itself, probably within six or seven weeks. There was so much hypocrisy, from myself included."

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