Rob Liefeld, one of the original co-founders of Image Comics, discusses the early influences on his record-breaking artwork, the roguish independent streak that both helped found Image Comics and drove him away from the company, and how Robert Kirkman brought him back into the fold.
Q: In the episode, you describe your art as a new sound in comics, like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” How did you develop your style in the way you did?
A: Our style, in one word, the Image guys, our approach to the page was bold. … All the guys that I had grown up worshiping had done career-best work in the past. Some of my favorites were guys who drew comics when I was buying them off the rack in 1974. So by 1991, obviously 16 or 17 years of doing the comic book grind — and it can be a grind — [they] were slowing. So, we come in, and we have new energy, a very bold look. My generation was also raised on the short films of MTV. These killer, two and a half minute movies that were much more than music videos; they were stories, by really talented directors like David Fincher, and artists who understood the short-form language of storytelling. And all I did was watch MTV 24/7, especially when I drew. I can speak for myself that that was a huge influence on me.
Also, I grew up consuming tons of anime and manga. … I would go to conventions with these guys; I would walk around with Erik Larsen in the Bay Area at a show where they had way better manga than I had in my area. … We were a bunch of hyper, young dudes trying to make our mark. And at the time, the images were really small, more grid based — these 8-panel grids. … But if you’re the guy who breaks the grid, you’re gonna get the payoff. The gestures that we chose, people leaping out at you, the double borders, the speedlines, a lot of our guys yelling open-mouthed, like “AAAHHH!” — so much of it was forged from manga visual language. … The long and short answer is comics had slowed down and we sped them up. Our comics were faster, and much bolder. There had been nothing resembling punk in comics for a long time.
Q: Despite finding record success with New Mutants and other titles, why was it so important to you to go off on your own and do your own work?
A: I just said, “I gotta get out. There’s no more options for me here.” … I just remade a comic book in my image and gave it record sales. New Mutants #100 went out the door with over a million copies. It is the highest-selling last issue of any comic ever. And that’s when I knew that I spoke fandom. I spoke their language. We got each other, because they jumped on that book in record numbers. New Mutants is the absolute definition of a broken down jalopy, and I took it on and I just remade it. … That’s why I was so cocky and confident, because I was like, “I just turned around this broken down comic book with products of my imagination.”
Q: Was it a blessing or something of a burden for you that the industry’s top artists decided to defect with you to make Image Comics together?
A: I was never thrilled about it, to be honest with you. The bigger we got, the more I was like, “This is a pain in the ass.” I’m not gonna lie about it. … Even in the best of times, the behind-the-scenes of six guys arguing is a drag. It’s a drag mentally, emotionally; it’s not a good time. It was my least favorite part of being together, just being partners. And then we all went and made our own little fiefdoms — Extreme, Wildstorm, Top Cow — because clearly we all wanted our own little kingdoms. … The guys will tell you, I fell asleep at meetings. I was like, “Oh business, I don’t care.” [Snores]… Those are images that will never leave me, and make me laugh. Because the thing is, you never remember the bad times. I don’t look back on them with any sort of emotion. I just look back and think, “Wow, how awesome it was to do what we did.” And in case I haven’t emphasized this enough, we could not have done it without each other. It was one hundred percent when we came together, that is when you saw the full power of Image Comics.
Q: It sounds like whatever rifts there may have been, that your different approaches and different skill sets benefited Image in the long run.
A: One hundred percent… What couldn’t these guys do? We were a legitimate threat because we thought of it, we put it out there and it happened. That’s the great thing with comics… It’s the cheapest and quickest form of telling stories in pop culture that have true resonance and can deeply penetrate an audience. We mastered it, and we wisely exploited it to our benefit, and that’s the story of Image Comics.
Q: In the episode, Robert Kirkman talks about your first meeting in 2003 which turned into a weekend-long hangout. What’s your take on that meeting, and what drew you to this up-and-comer in the first place?
A: I had seen this comic called Invincible created by two people I had never heard of before, Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker, and I was a huge fan. Invincible probably had five or six issues under the belt, and the book was so impressive to me, I was surprised that I had never heard of them before. It’s like they came out wholly formed. How are these two guys I’ve never heard of before making probably the best book I’m reading in comics right now? So I was at a convention in Chicago [in 2003], selling my Youngblood comic at my table, and I look up and there’s this burly guy, and he tells me he’s Robert Kirkman and I flip out. And he tells me what a big Youngblood fan he is, and I tell him I’m so flattered, and I go, “We should hang out.” … We hang out, we go to dinner, and he told me I was like Jack Kirby to him. So, we have this mutual love fest — and then we went to go see S.W.A.T.. I grew up loving S.W.A.T. as a kid. So we do movies, we do breakfast, lunch and dinner, and he got to hear a lot my takes. At that point I was “Forbidden Rob.” I was no longer associated with Image and he was “Mr. Image Comics,” so he knows all those guys and now he gets to talk to “the Rogue.” … I offered him some Youngblood work and paid him as a freelancer. I didn’t know how bad he needed the money at the time, but I thought he was really good, and I liked the takes he did on my characters. Then a couple years ago, I get this big thing in the mail, this long package, and I undo it, and it’s a painting that a comic artist did of the cast of S.W.A.T.. And he was like, “To remember our first date!” So I have this painting commemorating our first time together when we went out to the movies.
Q: How did Robert bring you back to Image after over a decade of being away from the company?
A: I was ramping up to do more of my comics, and I had some offers from some other publishers. And Robert said, “Don’t do that, man. You should be doing these with Image. I got a lot of pull there now.” This was Spring of 2006, and he comes back and says, “Everyone wants you to bring your books back to Image. You’ll get the Image deal,” and I’m like, “Get out of here! There’s no way.” And he said, “No, everyone wants it to happen. I’ve talked to everybody; everybody said it would be great.” It was really touching, and not something I had ever anticipated. I would see Erik Larsen. I would see Todd. There was no animosity. We were all fine, but it never occurred to me that I would have my books through Image Comics again. But Robert really reignited the band. He said he was like a child of divorce [Laughs] watching his parent fight and he wanted to bring them back together. He goes for the heartstrings. But he rallied to make it happen, and now I’ve been back at Image Comics for 11 years.
Q: What was it like coming back, after the way things had shaken out?
A: I admire all of my fellow founders, my former partners — I’m a big fan of all of theirs. It was just nice. It was like a final turning of the page. Erik Larsen got on the phone with me, and when he said this, I remember exactly where I was standing… because I couldn’t believe he said this: “Rob, you know, I thought a lot about it. Nobody could beat us. We were so strong together. The only people who could have taken us out was each other, and when we turned on each other, that’s when we f—ed everything up.” And I went, “I feel that way too!” It was possibly the most honest thing we had said to each other in a decade. … The conversations couldn’t have been more honest. It was like hanging with the guys again.
We ran hard and fast in those early ’90s. Tremendous egos, branding, who’s gonna be on top, who’s gonna kill this deal today. To get on the other side of it is fantastic… When we get together, fans explode with affection and approval. We feel it. I think everyone was like, “Wow, this is nice to embrace this again.” So it’s great, it’s fantastic, and it’s all because of Robert Kirkman. You cannot take him out of that equation.
Q: When it was founded, Image embodied the punk rock attitude of the early ’90s. How would you describe Image’s sound today?
A: Smarter, on every level, in terms of being a publisher and a publication. The company is smarter, more confident, on surer footing. Part of that is just time; time creates back catalogs and more consistent revenue streams. The passage of time has calmed everything down, settled it, gotten through the rough periods. The early 2000s were Images roughest period. … But then things settled. They got some good books, and the Robert Kirkman brand, which cannot be underscored. And [Image Comics Editor-in-Chief] Eric Stephenson has been a calming force. He has great instincts, he knows how to get everyone to work together. … I think possibly Image is in the best position it’s ever been. The leadership is strong, the content is fantastic. … But the punk rock of it exists because of the option! If you want to go wild and crazy on your own, [Image] is there for you.
Read Q&As with Robert Kirkman and Todd McFarlane, one of the co-founders of Image Comics.Read More