This post originally appeared on The Greatest Comic Book of All Time blog.
Rob Liefeld is the subject of a recent profile in The New York Times. I repeat, Rob Liefeld is in The New York Times. To many – who gleefully post and share “worst Liefeld art” listicles on the web and can't help but say his name with a self-satisfied smirk – it must seem like the comics-world equivalent of pigs flying or Hell freezing over to see Rob "Big-Guns-Tiny-Feet" Liefeld profiled in the paper of record. (Actually, a search for his name on the Times website results in 11 hits since the early 1990s – none too shabby!)
Chapter seven of our book, which we believe may be the first scholarly contribution devoted to his work, addresses Liefeld as an example of an author oriented to what Pierre Bourdieu calls the heteronomous principle of cultural production. That is, oriented to external measures of success, like sales. Thus, we placed him in the right hand quadrant of our "diamond" diagram of the field of American comics – representing a skewed composition of his symbolic capital towards economic, rather than cultural, sources. It's the corner of fields of cultural production oriented to what Bourdieu calls “industrial art,” or what the rest of us might call “pop culture.” As part of the marketing blitz for the upcoming Deadpool movie, the Times profile by Thomas Golianopoulos reinforces this view, rehearsing (though also providing a rebuttal to) persistent criticisms of his visual style, drawing attention to the “industrial” mode of production used in mainstream superhero comics, and stressing that his notoriety is inextricable from his commercial success:
In short, Mr. Liefeld has been among the most controversial figures in the comics industry. He is also one of the most recognized and best-selling artists.
Mr. Liefeld’s ascent continued when his next endeavor, X-Force No. 1 — a retooled New Mutants — sold a staggering five million copies. Starring in a Spike Lee-directed commercial for Levi’s cemented his status as a young face of the comic book industry, which, naturally, upset his peers.
We are told that the criticism does not bother Liefeld "one iota." And it shouldn't because it embodies an orientation to making comics that is entirely different from Liefeld's own. As we discuss in the book, Liefeld doesn't want to make "graphic narrative"; he wants to make dynamic, entertaining, popular comic books.
But wait – towards the conclusion of his piece, Golianopoulos broaches a subject that does seem to raise Liefeld's hackles, and to have generated a certain amount of social media hubbub as well: who is the creator of Deadpool? While Heidi Macdonald reports at The Beat that this may have been something of a misunderstanding, who deserves the real credit for creating a work (or, in this case, a character) is a suspiciously auteurist concern. Golianolpoulos further notes that Liefeld is currently at work on a Deadpool graphic novel . This isn't the first time that the populist Liefeld has made some (relatively) highbrow position-takings within the field of comics. A number of years ago, he was proudly announcing his new inspiration from European comics albums. More recently, he turned several of his properties over to young independent cartoonists. As with Robert Kirkman, who is quoted as a Liefeld supporter in the Times piece and arguably occupies the same position in the field today that Liefeld did in the '90s, these indie cartoonists are contributing to a nostalgia-fuelled recuperation of Liefeld's reputation. Just as symbolic wealth can eventually be turned into the real thing, it is a truism that the economically rich but culturally poor (that is, the nouveau riche ) engage in strategies to convert the capital they have into what they lack.
In the book, we suggest that Liefeld suffered for being merely a generation removed from the present, so his stylistic excesses seemed as egregious as our parents' teenage fashions. But fashion is endlessly cyclical, and the '90s may be coming back – or at least receding enough that we can judge their comics more fairly. In this context, it may be possible to value Rob Liefeld as a true auteur – the author who impresses collaboratively produced entertainment products with his unmistakeable hallmark – on par with the other "greats" of commercial comics.