Sharpening the Image:

Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, the Man and the Comic that Started It All (Part 2)

While one certainly should not judge a book by its cover, applying this adage to the cover of a comic book can be problematic. For many readers, it is the cover art that captures the eye and attempts to lure the potential customer into a purchase. It should convey some elements of the story contained therein to help differentiate itself not only from the other comics next to it on the newsstands but also other issues in the series. Summed up, the cover of a comic book should clearly tell potential buyers “READ ME!”

While comics need to maintain a high level of artistic quality throughout the entire issue, since the narrative of comics depends upon the quality of the artwork driving the story, it is also an industry standard (super-hero comics in particular) that the cover stands out from the rest of the illustrations. After all, one need only look at the collecting community to notice the disparity in fans demand for cover art over interior pages as the former almost always outsells the latter. It is with all of this in mind about comic book covers that we begin a brief overview of the cover art for the first few issues of Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood series before engaging in a more thorough analysis of the visual components to his stories.

The cover of the first issue announces a “new generation of heroes” who have arrived on the scene. Six of the members of the super-hero team, Youngblood, are shown on the cover in a fairly static battle pose as the team looks as though they were awaiting the arrival of some unknown threat. Looking at the cover, readers from the early 1990s would immediately recognize parallels from this supergroup to more familiar counterparts from Marvel and DC. Most prominent is the team’s leader, Shaft, located foremost in red and white while sporting a bow and arrow not so dissimilar to either Hawkeye or Green Arrow. To both his right and left appear heroes who bear striking resemblances to characters from Liefeld’s previous efforts on Marvel’s X-Force. Vogue could easily be mistaken for the femme fatale, Domino while the robotic dynamo, Diehard, is not so dissimilar visually from the sarcastic and deadly Deadpool. Behind them stands Chapel, an African American version of Marvel’s Punisher – complete with a death’s head painted on his face instead of his chest – while Sentinel, a grizzled alien warrior, stands to his left. In the complete background stands Badrock – a sixteen-year old whose role on the team is the same as Ben Grimm’s Thing or Bruce Banner’s Hulk—he is the team “tank” meant to dole out physical punishment like no other.

In all, Youngblood #1 does not boast the most dynamic cover nor does it provide any insight into who these people are or what the inaugural story will be about. However, it seems fair to allow an introductory issue to make use of a posed picture for the first cover since it allows readers a chance to get a good look at the heroes they will read about in between the covers. In later issues, however, one would expect the covers to make more use of the space to address those concerns previously addressed.

Unfortunately, the second issue of Youngblood fails to deviate from the general direction of the first: more heroes are standing around in angry or distressed poses that offer readers little to no indication as to the overall trajectory of the story. We assume the person in the foreground is Prophet—a correct assumption. He is dressed in martial arts protective headgear, football shoulder pads, requisite spandex, and he’s armed with a serrated knife and a handheld crossbow gun with electricity seeming to emanate from his body suggesting his electrifying entrance. Three other costumed persons—members we know from the first issue as members of the Youngblood organization—are on their knees and appear cowed in the presence of this new superhuman. And yet, what does all of this add up to for the reader? Although the artwork for this cover might work as another static pin-up, it does little more than inform its reader that he or she will encounter this powerful and angry looking person at some point in Youngblood #2.

The same holds true for both covers of issue #3 as well as issue #4 for the conclusion of the first story arc. The title for Issue #3 simply says, “Enter Supreme…” and where Issue #4 informs us we see Team Youngblood “In Final Battle.” While a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps more words would have better supported yet another pair of pin-up covers with super-humans standing around and trying to look as menacing as possible. It is also worth noting that there is next to no background on these covers – the reader simply sees a group shot of a new group of heroes without any indication as to where this might be taking place. Although we are shown new characters, such as Supreme or Prophet, we learn absolutely nothing about the roles they might play in the storyline or what their relationship could be to the members of Youngblood.

While forgivable at first, this lack of intentionality behind the composition of the cover art in these early issues does not bode well for what readers will encounter in between the covers. One need only recall the continually popular cover art Neal Adams drafted during his seminal run on Detective Comics with writer, Denny O’Neil, during the 1970s to understand the ways the cover art can provide a dynamic snapshot of the action that both captivates readers’ imaginations as well as represents the story inside.  In Batman vol. 1., Issue #251, Adams depicts a large Joker looking over Gotham City holding onto an ace of spades with Batman fearfully clutching on for dear life.  While visually thrilling, Adams’ art provides an artistic rendition of the epic and potentially fatal game being played out (once again) between the Clown Prince and the Dark Knight.  In yet another example of how cover art can be both eye-catching as well as thought provoking, one can look to Mike Zeck’s cover art from the still-popular “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story arc from the 1980s.  From the cover of Web of Spider-Man #31 with the horrifying image of Spider-Man emerging from the grave to Amazing Spider-Man #294’s image of a powerful and threatening Kraven hunting down a cringing Spider-Man amidst the heads of other fallen prey, each part of this series aims to convey the darkness contained in every panel and text box.

Instead of providing insights into what action and adventure might be taking place, however, these earlier covers from Youngblood fail to capture the excitement of the superhero genre and merely depict static images of the hyper-violent characters therein.  While I’m not advocating comic book covers can’t simply be fun nor must they always perform an integral role in the telling of the story, I do believe artists should view this part of the comic as valuable real estate that should generally be utilized in ways that drive both reader interest and the story.  And many do.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure this can be said about the opening salvo from Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood.

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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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