Sharpening the Image:

Rob Liefield’s Youngblood, the Man and the Comic that Started it All

By many accounts, it was Rob Liefield who initiated talks about forming Image Comics and encouraged other rock star artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s into breaking away from the mainstream to form their own brand of super-hero comic books. Like the other founding members, Liefield saw the impact his creative efforts were having on the industry, and yet, he did not feel as though he was seeing the same windfall that the corporation was enjoying. Taking his talents elsewhere, he opened the charge for Image with his breakout hit, Youngblood. And so, what other title, then, would be more fitting than to begin this exploration of the first works arising from Image Comics and their comics revolution?

Youngblood serves as an excellent litmus test for the hyperrealism permeating the super-hero genre of the early 1990s, particularly when looking closely at the storyline and illustrative work. Hyperrealism (or hyper-real), as it is used in this article and will be applied throughout the rest of my analysis of Image Comics, refers to an overemphasizing or exaggeration of certain elements or aspects of reality while keeping the general subject of the story grounded in the real world. This book was set in the present (the early 1990s, that is), and to ensure readers felt a sense of realism, it absolutely dripped with cultural references from a Saddam Hussein knock off to celebrity news shows and popular magazines, such as Access Hollywood and Sports Illustrated, being referenced on nearly every other page. Further, Liefield chose to juxtapose the United States against Iraq – whom, in the world of the reader, it had only recently defeated in the First Gulf War – although this hyper-real version of Iraq is one that has managed to equip itself with ultra-high tech weaponry and manufactured weapons of super-human destruction. Liefield made certain to let the reader know that he was experiencing an “in your face, action-packed” and hyper-realistic comic like Youngblood by immersing the very comic in the world which he lived, dropping cultural tidbits throughout each issue helped drive this point home, all the while amping up the stakes facing his heroes [1].

In regards to the story’s content and artistic style, Youngblood seems to take one of its largest inspirations from Jack Kirby and his co-creation Captain America. Certainly, it was no secret that Kirby was responsible for much of the Marvel Universe, and it was equally well known how little he benefited from his labors. That the founding creators of Image would recognize him as a sort of “patron saint” is no surprise. Liefield’s homage to Kirby is made obvious to his readers through incorporating the character of Jackson Kirby into the first pages of Youngblood #1. Depicted as a white haired commando hardened not only on the battlefield but also on the streets of Brooklyn – another nod to Kirby’s past life experiences – this super-hero rendition of Jack Kirby makes his first comic book appearance. Further, many of these super-powered beings are genetically manufactured super soldiers and are subordinate to the federal government just as Steve Rogers was as Captain America – one of Kirby’s greatest comic book (co) creations. It is only in their shared starting point do the members of Youngblood and Captain America find common ground, however, as Liefield makes it clear in their differences that he was not looking to tell yet another tale in the vein of the super-heroes of yesterday. Instead, Liefield – like many of the other Image creators – was like a teenager with the keys to his parents’ car: it might have looked like the super-hero genre at first glance, but these “kids” certainly drove it much harder and faster than the generation before them! And the ways in which Rob Liefield both adapted and deviated from Jack Kirby’s super solider convention makes this all too clear.

Where Steve Rogers’ heroic persona differs from these young and hot-blooded heroes is in both their makeup and methods. While Steve Rogers was not above using a firearm, especially in his earlier years, he rarely used lethal methods to deal with his opponents. Instead, his weapon of choice was and continues to be his shield – a defensive, not offensive tool. Even in Captain America’s more recent incarnation with Bucky Barnes, the shield continues to serve as the definitive icon for the hero. More important than his strength, agility, resilience, and his shield, however, was the moral bedrock upon which he stands. His continued adherence to the higher morals of truth, justice, and the “American Way” empowers Captain America more than the serum coursing through his veins, and it is his desire to “play by the rules” that continues to set him apart from so many other super-powered persons in the Marvel Universe.

The members of Youngblood, however, seem to have no such grounding in the morality of Captain America. They make use of lethal force from the very beginning when one of their members uses his psychic powers to cause the head of the Saddam-look alike to explode. While his team leader verbally chastises him for his failure to abide by some vague set of rules of engagement, the lack of any substantive repercussions is telling. This super-human did what many readers no doubt would have liked to have seen happen. Considering later events in Iraq with the public execution of Iraq’s ex-dictator in 2006, it would seem the lack of response to this form of violence is equally telling about its readership. Not only did it condone such violence, but it would also appear Liefield was tapping into an already existing desire on the part of the reading public to view such events. While Steve Rogers battled with notorious villains such as the Red Skull, at no time do we see him employing this super strength and unbreakable shield to smash the Nazi’s head into a bleeding pulp, regardless of whether or not he merited such treatment. Both parties were constructed by their respective governments to act on behalf of the interests of their country. Both Captain America and Prophet are men out of their times – locked in stasis towards the end of World War II – and brought back into the modern era to serve a new generation of bureaucracy. And yet, it is with Prophet that we see a man out of his time who seems in no way out of place as he proceeds to deliver a super-powered beating to his opponents in ways far more excessive and violent than Steve Rogers was depicted up to this point in time at Marvel.

Liefield’s enthusiasm for the hyper-realistic depiction of his super-heroes is obvious in the ways in which the muscles of his characters seem to be stretched and swollen well beyond the slightly exaggerated depictions of human physique as seen in Jim Aparo’s contemporary Batman work, or Mark Bagley’s rendering of Spider-man at the time. And it is this use of force that appears to drive the majority of conflict resolution and the overall narrative in these initial issues. If “might makes right,” then these characters had more than enough firepower to back up their claims to legitimacy as super-heroes. And yet, it is this lack of depicting greater nuance and depth into the conflicts these super-powered beings experience – both mundane and epic in nature – that opened Youngblood (and many of the other early Image publications) up to much of the criticism they received, particularly in the years to follow.


[1] I am deliberately using masculine gendered language here as there is little indication that many (if any) of the early Image Comics were being marketed to anyone other than male readers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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