Monday, May 21, 2018

Image Firsts: Youngblood #1

            Rob Liefeld single-handedly ends the Gulf War.

             When it comes to comic book artists, they don’t get much more divisive than the inimitable Rob Liefeld. He is one of the top-selling creators of all time, pulling numbers in the early nineties at Marvel and later at Image that the industry will likely never see again. And yet, a whole contingent of fans and critics are quick to denounce him as perhaps the worst artist in the business, citing his abnormal anatomy, wonky perspective and reluctance to draw feet as chief offenses against the comic book page. Liefeld was the poster-child for Image Comics when it first started, typifying the “comic book artist as rock star” with his talk show appearances and Levi’s commercials directed by Spike Lee. His style was flashy and big, emphasizing action and splash pages over any form of subtlety or even basic storytelling. His own Youngblood was the first title out of the gate, and is perfectly representative of the style-over-substance argument that pervaded the early Image years.

            We should first get this out of the way: Liefeld is not the worst artist to have ever worked in comics. In fact, early on, the sheer energy of his work--while still rough around the edges--showed great promise. Even in the absolute trainwreck that is Youngblood #1, the effect of his images is undeniably snappy, as if the characters could leap off the page as they grimace and pose with their shoulder pads, pouches and unbelievably-proportioned weapons. It was later that Liefeld would produce the work for which he is most parodied, as his style atrophied and he leaned further into grotesque anatomies and general laziness in draftsmanship, but Youngblood #1 at least shows why his work caused such a frenzy when he burst onto the scene with breakout titles like New Mutants and X-Force.

            But as energetic as early Liefeld’s lines could be, that’s where all the nice things I have to say about Youngblood #1 end. The comic is truly inept in almost every way, and the fact that it sold over a million copies upon initial release pretty much proves its success is owed almost entirely to the speculator boom that overtook the comics market at the time; no one was buying copies to read the damn things, but rather seal them away in a Mylar polybag and await the day that it would pay for their kid’s college tuition (nobody seemed to stop and think that, if there are a million copies floating around, it can only be worth so much). Youngblood does not bother with things such as story, character or even logic. It could almost be viewed as a piece of avant-garde cartooning, if any of it held the slightest bit of interest in things other than people in tights punching each other. Without any editorial oversight, Liefeld is free to lean into his worst tendencies as a storyteller, favoring action and one-liners over any coherent through-line to focus on. Bafflingly, the comic is split into two different stories, each featuring a separate squad of the Youngblood group (the “Home” and “Away” teams, respectively*). Both teams have six characters apiece--that’s twelve heroes to introduce in about twelve pages of both stories, entirely too many in a book that is totally uninterested in displaying even the slightest hints of personality to differentiate them. Reading the book is almost an exercise in believing that anyone looked this over and said, “Yep. Good enough,” before sending it off to the printers to have a million copies made. The “Home” team story doesn’t even end properly, as the team assembles to stop a prison-break of super-villains and seems to just stop in the middle of the scene--almost like Liefeld realized he was running out of pages and then just decided to end it with a double-page splash.

In that way, Youngblood #1 almost defies typical criticism. The story and characters are such non-entities that it’s hard to get too worked up about it one way or the other. There was a profound lack of care on the creators’ part, and thus that lack of caring extends to the reader. But, beyond what Youngblood #1 is as a comic in and of itself, the issue’s true value (50 cents in your local shop’s dollar bin) lies in the symbolic sense. Image Comics’ central achievement--creating a company where creators retain all the rights to their original creations, unimpeded by the corporate structure--wound up being one of the defining moments in comics history, and a major blow against the establishment in regards to creators’ rights. For what came after it, Youngblood #1 is one of the singularly most important issues in all of comic-dom, the opening shot fired across the bow that kickstarted a company that thrives even to this day, continually producing the best comic books on the market and allowing their creators to reap the benefits by retaining all rights and ownership.

In other words, allowing them to make a comic as terrible as Youngblood #1 and still become a millionaire overnight because of it.

* In a show of just how little attention was paid to the proceedings, two characters (Combat and Photon) appear on the cover and “roll call” pages, but appear to have been swapped out from each team on the interior story pages at the last minute.

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