Rob Liefeld’s Anatomy (X-Men Reread)

The Krakoan era of X-Men comics (sometimes called “The Hickman Era) has revitalized my favorite comic book franchise. Inspired by that run, and by Connor Goldsmith’s excellent CEREBRO podcast, I have been re-reading all the X-books starting around the Australian Outback era in the late 1980s.

I’m up to the line-wide relaunch in 1991, which is right about where I began reading X-Men, and comic books in general. The very first comic book I ever bought was Uncanny #278, which I got poly-bagged at the dollar store along with an issue of X-O Manowar which I didn’t enjoy much and have long since forgotten.

The X-Men book, for whatever reason, grabbed my interest. It’s possible this had something to do with Rogue’s shower scene, but one way or another I was immediately a fan. Like every other comics fan I bought that X-Men #1 and its famous Jim Lee gatefold cover, and re-read it about 100 times. I found myself doodling little Wolverine heads on all my school papers. What can I say, I’m basic.

Little-known fact: Comic books are what made me want to be a writer. I was an avid reader as a child, but I didn’t start writing prose until I attempted to write and draw a comic book and realized how long it would take to write the story AND draw all the pictures.

Anyway, back to the present. When I started reading Rob Liefeld’s run on New Mutants into X-Force, it felt like reconnecting with my childhood. Not only are these the comics I was reading as a pre-teen, this was the specific artistic style I grew up emulating: Thin, loose line work, bulging pecs and quads, perpetually gritted teeth, and hatching. So much hatching.

This style has become synonymous with the name Jim Lee, but in the early 90s it was the definitive superhero style, made popular by Todd McFarland, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Greg Capullo, and Adam and Andy Kubert. Even pencilers like Jim Valentino, who had worked for years in a more Silver Age, “classical illustrator” style, with thicker, flowing brushed lines and spot blacks, adopted this style for books like Shadowhawk.

Many of these pencilers were young and lacked formal training. They learned their craft by imitating other artists, and often developed peculiar habits around anatomy and architecture, but nowhere is this more obvious than with Rob Liefeld.

Liefeld is often mocked for “not drawing feet,” which is not entirely unfair. Liefeld did often hide his character’s feet behind random rubble, or clouds of fog, dust, or smoke (90s superhero comics were full of rubble and low clouds) and often substitute a tiny diamond-shape for a character’s foot. But he also drew feet quite often. With characters like Feral, who went barefoot and tended to jump around, he had little option.

Unfortunately, this did tend to put Liefeld’s shortcomings on display. Take these two panels, for example, in which Beast and Jubilee have put their feet on the wrong ankles.

beast-foot-wrong-leg
jubilee-foot-wrong-leg

Or this famous double-splash-page from X-Force #1, in which both of Cable’s feet appear to be on the wrong legs. Also note the relative scale of these characters, particularly Warpath relative to the MLF soldiers he’s fighting, and Feral in the foreground.

To be fair to Liefeld, he got work because his art was dynamic and exciting, the same as his contemporaries. I can’t compliment his plotting; after chasing Louise Simonson off New Mutants, Rob took the lead writing X-Force (with Fabian Nicieza coming in on scripts) and the book becomes a real slog.

I found myself skimming a lot of Liefeld’s X-Force, despite my best efforts otherwise. Rob just loved guns, and faux-military-talk, and introducing random new characters who would never show up again, and it’s tedious. He also introduces the whole “eXternals” concept with Cannonball, which is just… dreadful.

The only real fun in turning the pages was discovering new and innovative ways to reinterpret character anatomy. People who focus on the feet are missing out on the real joy of Liefeld.

There’s this fight against Black Tom Cassidy and the Juggernaut, for example, where Cable puts on Stryfe-like silver armor that accents his absolute dump-truck ass (and check out that left foot!):

Liefeld’s characters have extremely variable body shapes in general. At left, Shatterstar appears to have shrunk several feet–not to mention that his right leg is sideways below the knee. At right, Cable (again in his silvery Stryfe armor) has progressed from having rockin’ quads to becoming a literal kangaroo.

Then sometimes those same characters will stretch like elastic, as we see with Kane, AKA Weapon X, an extremely boring character Liefeld tried hard to make catch on.

Much is made of Liefeld’s love of pouches, but can we talk about the thighs those pouches must struggle to encircle? Check out G.W. Bridge and Deadpool in the panels below. No Liefeld character ever skipped leg day.

I won’t lie, when I finally got through the Liefeld X-Force, Greg Capullo’s work was a breath of fresh air. His is the X-Force I know better, largely by way of the X-Cutioner’s Song trade paperback I read and re-read in my teens and early 20s. Capullo has flaws of his own, but his anatomy is far more consistent and he has clear ideas of what each character looks like. 

Soon enough I’ll be on to the mid-90s pivot to Manga-influenced styles that swept through the X-books following the breakout success of Joe Madureira. I was a fan of that style at the time. We’ll see how it holds up in hindsight.

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