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

Another mini-controversy erupted after Liefeld and Image partner Jim Lee took on a project at Marvel titled "Heroes Reborn," in which they got to write and draw such iconic characters as Captain America.

Ask most comic book fans what happened next, and they'll likely tell you that Liefeld was fired, and his next move was to try to rip off Captain America with a new character called Agent America, leading to Marvel suing him, which he countered by acquiring the rights to a similar Jack Kirby creation called Fighting American.

Scott Tipton, the often-painstakingly thorough comic-book scholar who runs the website Comics 101 and authors a column by that same name, summed up the conventional wisdom when he wrote on July 2, 2003, "Marvel successfully sued Rob Liefeld over the similarities between his proposed Agent America series and Marvel's Captain America; Liefeld acquired the Fighting American license and retooled his series to match the terms of the lawsuit."

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.

Liefeld, however, disputes that account, feeling that the story has been consistently mistold. "If I tell you this, get it right!" he insists. "Marvel went into bankruptcy—as a contracted player, they called me on Dec. 26, 1996. 'Rob, we're filing for bankruptcy tomorrow. We're just calling all our contributing players, trying to give you a heads-up, and we just want you to know that your contract will not be affected.' And I hung up the phone, and my wife goes, 'Well, what does that mean?' I said, 'That'll mean that my contract'll be pulled in about two weeks.'" Sure enough, they called back and asked Liefeld to take a cut rate, as Jim Lee apparently already had. He refused, not wanting to have to force the people working for him to take the loss, and was removed from the book.

Liefeld missed drawing Captain America, but he figured he had found an outlet in the Fighting American. "The same guys that created Cap created the Fighting American: Jack Kirby, Joe Simon," he says. "They must have had some of the same issues I had 30, 40 years earlier. I called Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's widow—who I had dealings with—to see if I could license the Fighting American." They agreed, but for a figure Liefeld couldn't accept, "so I said, what the heck, I'll create my own: Agent America. Agent America lasted about one poster—maybe three pinups and one poster image." It wasn't Marvel who threatened to sue at that point, but Simon. Liefeld went back to the negotiating table and came away with a better deal for Fighting American.

"Well, suddenly, the same team who brought you Captain America were bringing you Fighting American—Jeph Loeb, Rob Liefeld, from a new company. It was perfect—if you didn't like the new team on Captain America, guess what, you could have this team. It was, honestly, one of my more prouder, savvy movements. And then Marvel sued me over Fighting American. Their original lawsuit was predicated on accusing me of being the creator of the Fighting American. And when we went to court, and I showed up with the hardcover collections of the Fighting American that Marvel published in 1989 via their own limited licensing agreement with Kirby and Simon, the judge was not too pleased, . . . Fighting American did not have a shield, prior to my publishing him. Fighting American now has a shield. He walked into the trial being less like Cap and walked out being more."

Nonetheless, as one of the terms of the settlement, Fighting American was forbidden from actually throwing his shield like a weapon, apparently a crucial distinction in Marvel's mind.

In 2000, Liefeld left comics behind to start a family, noting that "it wasn't hard to walk away from the comics industry in 2000, when the top-selling books weren't even selling six figures anymore. You go, 'Wow, the X-Men only sold 90,000 copies? If that's the best that comics can offer, you know, maybe I should take a break.' And I'm one of the people who thought in 2000 that everything was going online. I just had become convinced of the doom and gloom." He also foresaw that comics would take a huge hit from video games. "In 1992 to 1995, comics really didn't have a whole lot to compete with other than the movies. I remember the video-game console me and my buddies were playing with at that time. You played Double Dragon, and it was like these little pixelized guys—'Wow, these guys punch real fast!' But it wasn't that impressive! They were still 2D. And then Mortal Kombat came out, and I remember all the young guys in my studio were like, 'You don't have to read the comic anymore; you can be the comic hero! I just ripped this guy's arms and head off!' And he showed me, and I'm like, 'Oh, boy—that's pretty awesome.' And considering where the technology's leapt from since then, you've got these video-game consoles that, I don't care what anybody says, they're comic-book adventures that you can get sucked into for six months. And there's a lot of really talented comic-book guys who've gone into that field, too, who've helped bolster that field, and the visuals and the graphics in that field. Video games are at a place they weren't at, so I'm not sure comics can get back to where they were. I think they can go higher than they are now."

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