My Love for Rob Liefeld X-Force Comics Part I of III: Color in X-Force #4

The genesis of this is probably the same place a lot of pro-Liefeld articles come from.  You’re having a conversation with someone about comics.  Things are going good.  Somehow Rob Liefeld comes up, and you get told how he’s the worst artist ever, a complete joke, and a million other secret handshake meme verses, straight from the fanboy heart.  And then you come back with…well…I uh…kinda like Rob Liefeld.  Yeah I know.  Freak show.  It’s not like this guy wasn’t THE most popular artist in comics for a time.  It’s not like he isn’t the last artist to be a complete superstar just based upon how he made comics.  Who could possibly like this guy?  But I mean, Rob Liefeld is what got me into superhero comics.  To that point, I was mostly a newspaper strip girl. But they used to sell these packages of comics at the local wal-mart(we didn’t have a comic shop in my small town), and my mom would buy them for me sometimes.  These packages would just be random issues of whatever was hot at the time from Marvel.  And some of the first onces I ever got were these Rob Liefeld X-force comics.  I remember being mesmerized by their dynamicsm.  These were comics as big as the stories were in my mind.  Everything done in almost a direct line from the brain to the pen.  No filter.  So I would class Rob Liefeld as an important creator in my story in comics, and I would particularly pick out his run on X-Force as something that I still to this day return to for inspiration.  I wouldn’t have ended up at Crepax without starting at Liefeld.  So this is part one of a three part series I am unspooling in my brain about Rob Liefeld’s X-Force run, and how there are still lessons about how to make bomb ass comics held in these pages.  The three things I’m going to focus on are: color, background patterns, page layout/composition.  It’s about how lame it is that if I try to do a search for Liefeld art on tumblr I just get pages of kids cracking wise about meaningless bullshit, that just underscores a lot of the reasons there’s a shit ton of boring comics on the shelves from companies who should know better.  I’m coming at your lame Alex Ross collection.  I’m hating on you growing up wanting to be the next Jim Lee or Todd McFarlane while you looked down your nose at Liefeld comics.  All kinds of fun stuff like that.

Part I–X-Force #4: Let the Color Express Itself–Brian Murray on the 1s and 2s

When  you look at how weird and conservative a lot of coloring in comics has become going back and seeing someone completely wild out on color is a breath of fresh air.  These comics were sort of right in front of the wave of shitty gradients that were coming to consume comics–and while a lot of the ideas behind how this book is colored are the same reasons the gradient craze took over(the desire for a more dimensional comic–the desire to try ape reality)–but that’s kind of why these are great.  It’s the beauty of putting one crazy flat color next another crazy flat color–I mean take the page above-the way light plays on Cable’s armor goes from a yellow to a hot pink to a red to a blue.  And then on his face, you have his yellow eye, and then this orange X on his face.  And then there are white clouds and his white teeth.  It’s all at once separate and cohesive at the same time.  It explodes off of the page.  You almost need those black boundries for the panels just because they are the only thing that can contain the color.  I believe Liefeld colored these issues himself Brian Murray colored this issues(it’s interesting to compare issue 4 and 5, because 5 was colored with the help of WitterStaetter, and that issue is more toned down in it’s choices), and what this does for his work is incredible.  Compare it to this later Liefeld work which uses gradients:

Or his Youngblood work:

It is so much less dynamic when it is colored this way.  The color choices are so much more literal in these two other pieces, and there is less playfulness in the juxtapositions.

I mean this sequence where Cable fights Cassidy is A-MAZING looking.  It is almost like something you’d expect to see from a Blade Runner comic or something.  The impressionistic use of greens and purples–that perfectly chosen organge doorway–and the way the orange in that doorway meets the Cable’s armor–and shock…COLORS it orange.  There’s an insane play in X-Force number 4 where the colors are not stable–they morph and change reflecting time and surrounding–like y’know…the way light and colors do.  Light isn’t a brick, it’s a wave.  The red, purple, and blue in the top panel of Cassidy in the first page absolutely stuns me everytime I see it.  Why shouldn’t comics look this good?

Look at the purple and golds being used in this top left panel of Bridge.  The way that white hits in the midst of that purple chaos is color nirvana.  Coloring the book this way also plays perfectly with the dynamic hatching techniques that Liefeld uses, as well as his strong composition skills.  It plays completely to his strengths.  Look at the way the purple highlights play with the grain of Liefeld’s marks.  As a mark maker, Liefeld is stylistic in the same way that a Giannis Milogiannis is.  You don’t need perfectly executed crosshatching for a superhero comic.  The messiness and the play of the marks and the shapes they create is a part of the show.  And then the way the coloring is done is like another layer of marks on top of marks.  This is coloring that is working in time with the art style, not against.  I also love the way Spider-man is lit in the last panel on the page.  That faded red to reflect the explosion in the background, is pitch perfect.

It is a shame that so much of Liefeld’s work after this got more toned down in it’s coloring.  It would be kind of cool to see his stuff re-colored in this style–or for his newer comics to go in this direction.  With how far printing techniques have come–I would think you could end up with a truly mindblowing looking book.

17 comments
  1. MikeG said:

    I totally agree about the color choices. Stuff was so much better back then. These comics are a high point for the comic book art form. Genius layouts.

  2. I first started reading comics in the Summer and Fall of 1991. As one might guess, the art of Rob Liefield and Jim Lee had a very big impact on my love of comics. Nice post.

  3. That coloring was done by Brian Murray, who would later go on to start the “Supreme” series for Rob Liefeld. Chris Eliopoulos was the letterer of the series, too, for what it’s worth, though I think Joe Rosen did some pages for that issue, too.

  4. Ah nice, I interpreted his credit of “stays inside the lines” as inker instead of colorist. I’m glad modern acceptations have dropped the need for one to solve riddles. I’m interested now to read those Supreme issues. I didn’t read the early superhero image stuff when it was coming out at the time, beyond a stray Spawn issue or two–and going back to read it, once I was older, was always sort of a daunting task. Thank you!

  5. The colouring does look amazing and I have recently been buying X-Force back issues because they are a blast, but the colouring wasn’t Liefeld’s. It was nothing to do with him.

    The reason people hate on Liefeld (to which I freely hold my hand up) is because he is by most accounts a gimp who’s work hasn’t improved over twenty years. He was off X-Force by issue 13 and had been using inkers to correct his dodgy anatomy since issue 8.

    Yes he was a superstar who influenced a readership, when they were in their early teens. His kind of nonsense simply doesn’t pass muster any more.

    In fact the ONLY positive I’ve ever seen about him is that he did indeed get people reading comics.

    Those colours are bloody good though.

  6. stuart thomas said:

    While I agree with the comments on the dynamic style and experimental use of the colouring it does not hide the fact that Liefeld is a bad artist. The colouring was not done by Liefeld. It is not his work so the discussion has no relevence to his work. I really do not get the point of this article. It’s like saying Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of misunderstood genius because the photo of the rose on the cover is pretty.

    • @stuart: Well the articles are about the X-Force issues Liefeld worked on specifically, and this one is about how powerfully the coloring in these issues presents Liefeld’s art. Particularly in comparison to later work he has done with much more mundane colorists. It shows that, whether you think Liefeld is a bad artist or not, you put him with the right colorist, and he can make powerful comic mojo. A lot of artists get cut off at the knees I think by bad colorists, or bad color choices that work against what they are doing with their line art. Brian Murray has brilliantly worked in concert with Liefeld’s style–and the end result is really beautiful to look at.

      I would put the role of the colorist in comics significantly above the role of the cover artist of Fifty Shades of Grey, ha.

  7. @lead: I don’t think it’s fair to say the coloring had nothing to do with him. In fact, what I’d point out with this article is that this type of coloring flatters Liefeld’s style quite a bit–and it’s that a lot of the colorists he’s worked with since, have gone with a less dynamic approach, I think has harmed his artwork. I think this approach to coloring is more where you are seeing that beautiful marriage of an artist’s particular style and the right approach to coloring it.

    Think of how less interesting Brendan McCarthy pages would look if they were colored in a more straight forward bland way. I think this points to that bullshit like Liefeld’s anatomy isn’t what matters at the end of the day. It’s about the total package with his art. If you put the right coloring with it–his style really does sing IMO. His composition and layouts are very powerful, and his overall comic choices beyond the anatomy of his characters are I think pretty excellent for an action comic. I think to be honest, the anatomy works in more places than it doesn’t. It’s not an issue of whether anatomy is correct, it is an issue of whether it conveys the appropriate meaning–and I think Liefeld gets across an idea of muscles, guns, EXTREME better than a lot of the other top artists of that era, who are more fondly thought of today. I mean you have to remember too your eyes are tainted when it comes to Liefeld by a decade plus meme waged against his style.

  8. Bob Smith. said:

    Liefield can’t draw or write worth shit.

  9. Jason said:

    Murray also colored the first issue of Youngblood, he had a psychedelic quality that worked with Liefeld’s style brilliantly though I also appreciated the subdued colors in some of his later work. Most of the Image period though was overcooked like that Hawk & Dove piece. The colors you posted of Youngblood were by Mtt Yackey and are from the hardcover reprint/redo of the first 5 issues sans Chap Yaep’ s final, ugly pages for Youngblood no. 5.

  10. Vinny said:

    I don’t think it makes any sense to dismiss the huge faults of Liefelds artwork simply because the colourist did a great job on it. I own this comic too and this article is cherry-picking the best looking pages to display his “art”. The entire thing is full of awful composition and layout, terrible anatomy and almost zero backgrounds.

    Yes, the colouring is very vibrant and lively, but it’s also horribly dated. Just because comics these days have gone for a more subtle approach with their colouring it does not make them worse at all, it just means they have learned a lesson from the EXTREME days of the 90s.

    Robs work is ugly, but I am not saying his fame is undeserved. He deserves every penny of it, but that does not mean that he wasn’t a product of the time either. Liefeld was one of the biggest examples of 90s culture and has failed to move on and adapt with the times, and because of that has become the joke we know him as today.

    People idolize Jim Lee and Todd Macfarlane over him because they had the talent and ability to be progressive. Jims stuff looked good in the 90s by 90s standards, and his modern stuff looks great by todays standards.

    • There is nothing subtle about slapping ugly ass ill considered gradients over the top of someone’s line art such that you can’t even see the lines anymore…modern coloring techniques are antagonistic to the medium of comics.

      • I have to agree with the whole gradients argument – I hate the loss of flat colour, it makes a page muddy and losses the dynamic composition of the line work of a draughtsman.

        If you want a painterly, graded effect, work straight in colour is my opinion.

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