Reason #12: He steals badly

Pretty much every artist has at some point "derived inspiration from" or "paid homage to" or "flat out stolen" work from another artist, but the thing is that when you do that, what you come up with still has to be good. Which Rob Liefeld is not. As evidence, and with a tip-o-the-hat to Glenn Hauman, here are two panels for you to compare. The first is from Rob Liefeld's New Mutants #93, cover date September, 1990, and the second is from Fantastic Four #247, by John Byrne back in October 1982:


I don't have a problem with him lifting the design from Byrne, but I do think this is a great example of his deficiencies as an artist. Let me run down the reasons for you.

The most obvious is the feet, which Liefeld has simply lopped off with a panel border. The problem with doing that is that it reduces the effectiveness of the layout; Byrne's Human Torch seems to really be flying freely, whereas Liefeld's "My Face Is Being Eaten By a Starfish" Man seems to literally be trapped by the page itself. Visually a comic book panel has power, able to not only frame the action but affect it. When your eye hits his feet cut off at the ankles intersecting that frame, your brain translates that into "trapped". And that's directly at odds with what this entire illustration is supposed to convey -- freedom, flight, movement, dynamism. Byrne's character looks like he's flying into the panel, while Liefeld's looks like he's hanging from it.

The other problems are harder to see in color, and since the artists can't control that, I've desaturated them for you so you can more easily see what I am talking about:


Look at the linework in the figures' legs. Byrne has all the lines traveling parallel to the figure's legs, whereas Liefeld has them cross-hatched. Partly that's on the inker, of course, but you see the same thing in his pencils, so I think it's probably safe to say this is something Liefeld intended. But look at what a difference it makes -- visually Byrne's lines enhance the movement of the figure, all flowing in the same direction, while Liefeld's are completely at odds with everything else going on. The result is that your eye comes to a jarring halt there, and you have to mentally sort out the dissonance. It's a little thing that makes a big difference.

You also see a similar dynamic at work in the background. Liefeld takes a lot of flak for his complete lack of skill at drawing anything remotely resembling a scene. But here you see why that's important. Byrne isn't exactly laying out the mosaic of the Taj Majal here, but the figures and the rock lines all help reinforce the flow of action. Even the angle of the background lines in Byrne's drawing is steeper than Liefeld's, and that matters because the steep angle reinforces the idea that this is fast, frenetic action taking place. The closer lines are to horizontal the more your brain thinks "horizon", which we translate as flat, placid, still, and serene. Not emotions you want to invoke when you're drawing a fire-flinging character zipping around blasting bad guys.

Finally, I want to point out the arrangement of the figures within the panel. Notice how Byrne's Torch has his head overlapping the shoulder of the background figure at the bottom left of the panel while his rump overlaps the other guy in the upper right. That again reinforces the idea of depth, showing you that Johnny Storm is flying above the other guys. That overlapping is an important tool in the illustrator's kit.

Which, naturally, means it's nowhere to be found in the Liefeld panel. Look at the missed opportunity with the starfish mask touching the outline of the background character's shoulder, but not overlapping it. The effect is much, much weaker when your lines do that -- touching lines set up a tension as your mind tries to sort out which object is on top of which. Byrne drives the point home like a thunderbolt, while Liefeld's pussyfooting around leaves the whole composition on shaky ground.

Yes, these are all fairly minor points, but the thing is, they matter! Liefeld leaves us with a much, much weaker comic book panel than Byrne's, because all those little things add up. That's what being a really good comic book artist is all about -- knowing your craft and making use of every weapon in your arsenal to make the most effective illustrations and pages you possibly can. Liefeld, due to either laziness, haste, or incompetence -- or all three -- badly misses the mark even when he has the shortcut of looking at a better artist's layout to start with.

Rob Liefeld can't even steal right, and that's reason number twelve why I hate his art.

16 Responses to Reason #12: He steals badly

  1. Jose Inoa says:

    “Back, dogs!” And there’s only one dude there who is talking so much that by the time the ‘dogs’ start to run they’ll be fried or extra-crispy!

    Dang you Liefeld! Dang yooouuu…!

  2. John says:

    Absolutely well stated, Jeffrey. Your point about the flow of linework and directional cues is one of the more subtle, and thus overlooked, aspects of illustration. Liefeld doesn’t even understand what he’s swiping.

  3. Cavalier says:

    It’s fascinating, because when I first saw the Sunfire panel I though it looked like a trapeze act. I now understand WHY it looks like that. This whole series has helped me understand the subtleties in art. It’s like an Art Appreciation class without the pretentious Fine Arts majors.

  4. Ky2030 says:

    It actualy looks like he is dangling from something over a speeding conveyor belt or something like that…kinda gives you ideas as what to do to Mr Liefeld

  5. LoneWolf6155 says:

    Hey Jeff, notice the movement lines on the legs. Byrne has just two and they’re slightly curved giving the impression of almost a summersault. Liefields on the other hand are strait and make the movement seem unatural.

  6. eternal soul says:

    i agree with john also i think lyfeild really gave the wrong impreesion with the mask i think it looks sorta like a butterfly

  7. Skiriki says:

    Ahh. And again!

    I mean, the same drink again, while I read actually very useful stuff about Why You Really Should Understand What You’re Doing When You Draw Comics.

    I swear, this actually teaches me better to appreciate the penmanship of better artists, because now I can see where they do things right, after having shown what not to do.

    (It is the same reason why I have a three-book manga/anime drawing guides and why I find them better than any other series of the same topic: they have “do not do this” examples littered right next to a “correctly” drawn one, and they explain why the “wrong” example shouldn’t be used.)

  8. thejay says:

    It just proves how juvenile is Liefeld conception of composition. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I think this is how proffesionals drew when they were in high school. Little Robbie hasn’t grown past this point.

    BTW, Thank you Jeff. This column of yours might be a great pointer for me, since I’m having an illustration 101 class next year (if the Freshmen’s Portfolio won’t get me kicked out of school). Thanks for the pointers.

  9. The Imp says:

    Another thing I noticed is that while Byrne’s Torch has some depth to his head/face, Liefeld’s Sunfire does not – Sunfire’s face looks like a cardboard cutout on a stick.

  10. Xavier Kain says:

    Another obvious difference is that human torch looks almost surrounded while we only see one enemy soldier in panel with sunfire, the enemy says ‘we’ like there should be others with him, though he appears to be all alone.

  11. Collex says:

    The face also makes a great difference. The Human Torch face has a look of “take that,and that and that” on it, while Starfire’s face is a silly Liefieldian SCREAM, complete with closed eyes (why would anybody close their eyes while flying, unless they’re afraid?)

  12. Jigglypuff says:

    The Liefield panel you spoke of is badly thought through, and it have badly planned composition. Also compounding the problem is the crosshatching. I mayself hate the fact that there is some of the worst anatomy in the panel I’ve ever seen. The flow of the panel also doesn’t work here in Liefield’s thanks to the blasted crosshatch. NOW that is what NOT to do when referencing another panel.

  13. William says:

    Plus, is it me, or does Sunfire only have one leg in that panel?

  14. robert ball says:

    Aaargh! It’s – it’s – it’s downright disgusting. To me, anyway. Ol’ Rob probably TRACED that that scene! Take away his crayon!!!!!

  15. SharlesBrickwindow says:

    I always thought that Sunfire was being throw in this panel. Thanks to LoneWolf6155 I understand now why. The straight movement lines on Sunfire’s legs (and considering his proximity to the ground) make him appear out of control. The reason this position makes sense in Byrne’s panel is the ever so slight curvature. The Torch looks like he’ll be landing on his feet. It’s amazing how such a slight difference can make such a huge change in perception.

  16. ginger says:

    Here’s what bothers me even more than one-legged Sunfire hanging in a folded pike position from the top of the panel: where the Human Torch’s right arm is illustrated breaching the flames that cloak his body, by clustering parallel lines that suggest the biceps, an impression reinforced by the colorist, Sunfire has two sequentially diverging clusters of lines from his upper torso, and no hint of a right arm at all. The net effect, to my non-artist eye, is that our double amputee gymnast’s armpit is farting flames at the word-balloon in the corner of the panel.