X-Force #1 (1991), page 11 panel 1. Rob Liefeld.
I dislike bad comics art as much as the next online snob, but I really try to keep it to myself as much as possible. It's one thing when a positive critical consensus springs up around an artist -- like, it's pretty cool that everybody knows how talented Cliff Chiang is now -- but when the knives come out in comics fandom it's not only brutal, it can bar interesting work from ever getting properly appreciated. It was decades before Jack Kirby's post-Fourth World books ever got anything but slagged off, and we're just now getting to a place where the masses don't consider Dark Knight Strikes Again a failure. What am I getting at? Well, above is a Rob Liefeld panel. Look at it. I think it's pretty great, and I'll explain why in a second, but can you even see it straight? Or have the two decades since the comic it was published in sold four million copies so poisoned your eyes to liney, jumbled, hyperkinetic panels like this that something switches off in you the moment you perceive it? It's a struggle for me too.
In case you don't know, comics fans generally hate this stuff. "Rob Liefeld", unfortunately, has become an industry-wide byword for craftless, overly commercial cash-in comics, stuff with more flash than substance -- and, in a tangent I'm not going to get into, for all the shady creator-screwing that seems, poetically, to be a component part of said comics. But Rob Liefeld (along with his Image cronies Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane) had an influence on commercial comics art that's matched only by gods: Milt Caniff and Jack Kirby. Like those two generally-acknowledged masters, Liefeld has bled into the substance of the medium itself, his mannerisms and tendencies as inextricable from the look of the average modern hero comic as Kirby action blocking was in the '70s or Caniff spotted blacks were in the pre-Code era. Like those two, Liefeld's greatest impact on his field didn't come as an artist but as a stylist, an abstract collection of tics that a whole generation followed. What makes Liefeld's art so interesting as compared to that of Lee and McFarlane, who both shared the lininess and anatomic hiccups, is the same thing that keeps him from getting the fan appreciation those two guys get despite their having done much poorer, uglier work than Liefeld was ever guilty of. Lee and McFarlane were both draftsmen to a certain extent. They knew at least some of the rules of perspective, lighting, et cetera. They put some of the real in their work, and it clashed horribly with their crack cocaine/Fila sneakers/Guns 'N' Roses affectations.
But Liefeld was self-taught and snot-nosed, didn't know or care what supposedly essential elements his panels were missing, what supposedly extraneous bits he was adding in, why it shouldn't by rights have worked. And it didn't matter a bit, because work it did -- commercially, to the tune of more issues than had ever been sold before or have since, and aesthetically, as bizarre, confrontational, visionary comics. There's precious, precious little of anything with even a remote connection to reality in this picture: the anatomy is shot to hell, the rules of gravity are awol, the figures and faces betray no connection to the human and only vague relation to the humanoid. But it's all so self-consistent, all so true to the continuum of mind and hand and eye behind it. Liefeld sees muscles where people don't have them, but always in the same places. He imagines hairstyles that boggle the mind, and he uses his trademark wavering, bleedy masses of little lines to sculpt them. He draws facial expressions that only intense plastic surgery could create in our world, but the surgeon is always the same. He creates superhero costumes that edge into abstract ideology, so "functional" that they're no longer functional at all, pure eye-gouging adornment for the deformed demigods that tangle with each other like a sinewy yin-yang across this thick-bordered box. It's a vision of a world further from the humdrum reality that superhero comics are supposed to free us from than anything else the genre has ever given us. Pure, fully formed, perfection unto itself.
This is the level Liefeld functions best on: abstract art. The crosshatching is ridiculous if you insist on it being some kind of representational device, but look at it for what it really is, lines on paper made by a hand that didn't want to stop making them until every centimeter of space was shouting at maximum volume, and you're getting somewhere. There's a joy in the pure marks of Liefeld's line-blizzards, something most every "Image style" adherent since has missed. A sugared up, perpetual-motion glow. It gets into the background of this panel too, where the raw naturalism of the hatchmarks' asymmetry is dropped for a Jim Steranko spread of geometrics: the shape-and-line toolbox of superhero technology spread across the page in minute, functionless detail. There's a significant aspect of the baroque to that background, so laden with stuff that it vies with the figures themselves for attention. Like the hatching, it's purposeless, but it takes the picture further with enthusiasm, sheer steroided muscle, the delight its creator takes in the task of making it and then making more. And through all the glorious indulgence, Liefeld displays enough working knowledge of the action-comics mechanism to pop the characters out of their frame, increasing the bang of the image while ensuring that no matter how busy the background gets we'll see what matters first.
Liefeld's name may never be one that comes up when people talk about "good comics art", but can anyone really define what those words mean? Is it beauty? This panel has the beauty of a vast metropolis seen from a descending airplane, of vintage computer circuitry, of blazing housefires, of everything rioting all at once. Is it functionality? A Liefeld may not move you along through the story like a Toth or Miller does, but every panel hits so hard and nasty that the giddy guilt-free mayhem of superhero comics ends up better served by it than anything considered or elegant. Is it individual expression? Liefeld never bends to the world as it is, whether in reality or even in the comics that came before him. He pulls from inside himself and draws what comes. And for my money, that's what "good comics art" is.