The first thing you notice is Badrock. It would be difficult, after all, to ignore a 7-foot statue of any kind, but a muscular stone warrior with green eyes, wearing nothing but a red bow around its waist, is as close to an actual elephant in the room as you'd want to get. Badrock would tower over any kid's toy collection, but here, in this shiny new house on a fancy hillside in Yorba Linda, he stands guard over the action-figure cabinet of a grown man. A grown man who just happens to be the creator of at least half the characters represented here in plastic form (the other half are NBA toys mass-marketed by his old colleague, Todd McFarlane).
And to think, Rob Liefeld actually considered throwing out the big guy when he moved. It took his wife, Joy, who isn't anything like an avid comics fan, to persuade him otherwise—she knew he'd regret ditching such a painstakingly made effigy of his signature character, a teenage kid trapped in a super-body. Liefeld himself may be edging toward middle age, but he still has the boyish looks that helped make him a media star during the comics boom of the early '90s, and the energy and expressiveness of a young kid on a sugar high, possibly a result of multiple daily trips to Starbucks. Ask him to explain the video game Halo, and he immediately starts making machine-gun noises with his mouth and tossing invisible bombs. Expounding upon why he loves the movie 300 so much, he goes to work with an imagined sword. "That's my kind of movie!" he says. "I mean FWWWSHT! Splat! Blood and BLEUYYYAAAHH! I love that kind of stuff!" Mention Kill Bill, and he leans back against the wall as if hit by massive G-forces, making a noise that can best be approximated on the page as "NGGGGUUUUHHHH!" before clarifying: "Oh, my God! The best movie!" This must be what folks on the Internet call a "geekgasm."
It's not like you'd expect subtlety. The Anaheim-born Liefeld was, as he'll tell you, one of the first to register the word "extreme" as a marketing trademark for his comic-book company Extreme Studios, and his artwork is both adored and despised for its sometimes grotesquely distorted anatomy, preposterously huge weapons and characters so outsized they don't fit within the panel, prompting some detractors to joke that the artist is afraid of drawing hands and feet. Though he doesn't understand that particular criticism ("Okay, right now on my bulletin board, I have all 26 pages of the last comic I did—and I'm lookin' at hands and feet everywhere!"), he does have a healthy sense of self-parody—and a thick skin. "They always go, 'Oh, Liefeld's characters are either gritting their teeth, or they're yelling, they got their mouth open screaming,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, have you seen a Japanese cartoon?'" he says. "I mean, Dragon Ball—you know, you got your characters, they're playing on the side of the cliff, and then suddenly a guy appears out of the sky—'I must kill you!'—and, you know, for 30 minutes, they have this crazy battle that takes them all over the globe, into the ocean, you know, crashing into the mountains, and at the end, they vanquish the foe, and they go back to playing on the cliff. And it's like, that sustained me for 30 minutes. It wasn't terribly clever, it didn't do anything other than kinda take my breath away with some of those action sequences—but that sort of balls-out approach, I was happy to bring to my pages."
In addition to anime influences, part of Liefeld's signature style evolved out of friendly competition with McFarlane when the two of them worked for Marvel. "They'd say, 'Don't break the panel borders! Everything has to stay inside the frame!'" he recalls. "And Todd and I'd be like, 'Every time they say that to us, let's break more.' And it was goofy, and he was definitely my partner in crime, and he's older than me, I looked up to everything he said, and all his guidance, and then it got to be, like, we'd fax each other pages—'Oh, man, you made that figure that big on the page? Oh! I can make it a figure this big!' and 'Oh, my gosh, you really did a whole page of a guy's face? Well, I'm gonna do the whole page of just a guy's eyeball!' The competitiveness of what we were doing is really kinda what drove us."
Most famously, it drove them—along with a group of others that included Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri—away from Marvel altogether to found Image Comics in 1992, where, as creators, they could own their work 100 percent. Out of Image came such characters as McFarlane's Spawn, Larsen's Savage Dragon, Lee's WildC.A.T.S, Turner's Witchblade, Sam Kieth's the Maxx and Liefeld's Youngblood, a superhero team that introduced Badrock, who was initially named Bedrock—right up until Liefeld saw the teaser trailer for the Flintstones live-action movie. "The trailer was literally just the song," he says, "and the dot bounced on a black screen to the lyrics'From the—town of—BED-ROCK!' And I go, 'Oh, I'm screwed.'" The character was almost renamed "Budrock," but Anheuser-Busch threatened to sue.
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.
* * *
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."
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."
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."
Liefeld quit drawing altogether between 2000 and 2003, then made headlines earlier this year when he announced he'd be returning to Image with all of his characters.
"It's good to have Rob and his characters under the Image banner again," said Image Executive Director Eric Stephenson, in the official press release. "Obviously, a lot of time has passed, but at the end of the day, the most important consideration in all of this is whether it's good for Image—and from Rob's perspective, whether it's good for him. We seem to be in agreement that this is a good thing for all involved."
Added founding member and current Image partner and Publisher Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon), "Youngbloodstarted at Image and kicked off the company in high gear. I really wouldn't want to see it continue anywhere else, and I'm sure fans will join me in enthusiastically welcoming Rob Liefeld and Youngbloodback to the fold. 'Nuff said."
The continuity that was rewritten after Liefeld left will not likely be changed—originally, Liefeld's Chapel character was the one who killed Spawn, but McFarlane rewrote the tale after Liefeld left the first time, implying that had only been a "false memory." Liefeld says fans still say to him Chapel killed Spawn, a declaration similar to that of Star Wars fans over Han Solo shooting Greedo first. The biggest difference for Liefeld this time is that he's not on the inside, but rather he's just another creator making a publishing deal. "I know the structure that I left behind and how good it is, and I'm glad to be able to take advantage of that. And I think the reaction to it was shocking to me, the reaction to going back with them—and not just from the point of view of my fans being excited, but of people being excited from the Image side." Soon Badrock and the gang will be making their way into Wal-Marts once again, as part of Marvel Toys' Legendary Comic Book Heroes Line.
But what about all those movie projects he sold back in the day? They're not dead, he insists, just slowly going through the development process . . . so slowly, in fact, that many of the people involved with them at the start have gone on to bigger and better things. The first Badrock script was written by the Weitz brothers, who went on to make the American Pie movies and this December's fantasy epic The Golden Compass; though their version of Badrock was dubbed prohibitively expensive in the early '90s, CGI advances make it more attainable today. Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, writers of the upcoming Russell Crowe adventure flick about the sheriff of Nottingham, were the original scribes for Liefeld's Prophet movie.
As for The Mark, originally set to reteam Will Smith with Independence Day director Roland Emmerich, it's still in Smith's hands, but it has had to undergo some retooling, ever since Smith invited Liefeld to a premiere of The Matrix and he had a Flintstones flashback. "I remember sitting there, sinking in my seat!" he recalls. "Because the whole 'You are the one' and all the savior aspects of The Matrix, the sort of messianic structure of Neo's rise as a hero and being surrounded by a group of disciples—it's The Mark. And I remember [thinking] this is really bad for The Mark. So then there was an attempt to make it more like Raiders of the Lost Ark. We took it back in time to 1945 so it would take place during World War II, which was always sort of an aspect of it. It's in a good place now, but I have no control over that stuff at all." He has faith that he'll be seeing his creations onscreen eventually. "Stan Lee didn't walk down the red carpet for almost 40-some years after [Spider-Man] launched. And I said, 'Honey, you'd better get your walker ready.' You know, we'll be walkin' down the red carpet."
* * *
For some creative types, becoming afamily man means toning down the more extreme aspects of your persona. So is there any chance the guy who founded Extreme Studios might ease up on all the violence? Some of his extended family have suggested he should, but Liefeld has a ready-made answer: "I got a killer, giant-size book when I was 7 years old of paintings from the Bible, and you had Samson standing on top of a pile of a hundred guys with a bloody jawbone, and he'd just beaten 'em all to death. There was a page with David lifting up Goliath's head that he just severed from his body, killing him. The Bible is extremely violent: We give it to our kids; we have 'em read it. My kids go to Sunday school, and if they're preached the Bible in its truest form, that is the most violent book on the market—it's got violence, rape, incest, all sorts of bloody crucifixions. I think that's why The Passion of the Christ was so great. Mel [Gibson] just said, 'I'm gonna show how this looked, and I'm not gonna apologize for it.'"
The Bible defense would sound cynical coming from some—notably McFarlane, who has practically made a career off Satanic imagery in his comics and toys. But Liefeld is a sincere believer whose father and grandfather were both Baptist ministers. Though many of his fellow congregants have a problem with violence in action movies, he sees no inconsistency, noting, "The Bible made me want to read comics because there were no further adventures of Samson—he died. There were no further adventures of David—he died. Gideon, Joshua . . . So when I saw comic books and action heroes, it was a natural progression."
His next big comic-book project fuses all of those interests: Armageddon Now: World War 3, based on the book of Revelation and the prophecies of Ezekiel, but set in a sci-fi, testosterone-soaked, Halo-type setting. The familiar hallmarks are all there—big guns, huge muscles, extreme facial expressions and so on—but the style is more like a painting than the linework-heavy Liefeld approach we're used to. The intent doesn't seem to be to preach the Gospel, particularly—just to tell a kick-ass action story.
Beyond that, he has another dream project in mind: an uncensored telling of the life of King David, a story he believes "trumps everybody else's hands down, whether it's King Arthur or Luke Skywalker." Like Gibson, he doesn't want to shy away from the darker aspects of the Old Testament tale, including the sex scenes. But don't expect a lot of nudity in his superhero books any time soon.
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"Doing a book full of naked girls doesn't interest me—never has," he says. "But guys shooting heads off, putting knives through each other? I'm all for it."
Click here for a slideshow of images from LYT's Youngblood at Heart.