Sharpening the Image:

Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, the Man and the Comic that Started It All (Part 3)

Part Three: When Pictures Aren’t Worth a Thousand Words

Originally, I intended to split my focus on the interior art from the storyline itself. When considering the nature of the medium and the relationship of the art to the script, I realized the importance of both elements creating a sort of synergy that drives the narrative. As a result, this final look at Youngblood will attempt to address both the sequential artwork as well as the story itself.

Looking at the interior artwork, it becomes immediately clear that Liefeld is presenting a hyper-real representation of comic book super-heroes in which many elements of the heroes and the world in which they live are visually amplified to an almost absurd level of detail. This is not necessarily a problem providing we understand this type of story is operating within this field of the superhero genre. Comic book superheroes are often used as vehicles for wish fulfillment, and considering one of the target audiences during Image’s initial years were adolescent boys, it would be reasonable for Liefeld to create heroes whose bodies also seemed to be ready to burst… not so dissimilar from his readers though for different reasons. His heroes have bigger muscles, bigger guns, and emote far more excessive emotions—primarily anger, frustration, and hubris—than many other superheroes of the day. If we look at the comics themselves, evidence of this sort can be seen in a number of different places.

A quick scan of the word balloons in Issue #1 show at least seven bold-faced words (or more!) on most pages—even those with little dialogue—suggesting the emphasis Liefeld places on the extreme nature of these heroes and the situations they find themselves. Tonally, this suggests these characters are constantly shouting at one another, and while it is realistic for people to shout to one another while engaged in conflict, it seems odd that even in quiet circumstances, the same need for emphasis is used. This is not the only aspect of over-emphasizing the over-the-top nature of these heroes that readers encounter in the first issue. Readers discover Chapel in bed fresh after a sexual encounter with a nameless and buxom woman as he is being called back to base. Disappointed that she did not get to see him in his uniform, Chapel finishes the job he started with her earlier that night by showing her his big gun: “This what you want? Does this turn you on?” (Liefeld 18). While he literally holds a weapon more than a match for a 50 caliber crew-served weapon, it’s painfully obvious how this scene is playing on stereotypes of the well-endowed nature of African American men. In fact, it is almost laughable when readers today are confronted with an image of a sneering African American male carrying an assault weapon that is so long and hefty that it requires him to carry it with both of his heavily muscled arms.

If there was some form of a “wink and nod” to the reader embedded in this page—or anywhere in the initial issues for that matter—this panel could be viewed as a shrewd commentary of the sort of bad stereotyping that was present in superhero comics of the early 1990s and earlier. However, there is no such indication of this sort of lampooning taking place as the scene quickly shifts and the reader is simply left with this shallow exchange as their last impression of the moment. All the same, I can’t help but ask whether those questions as being directed not to the half-naked woman, but instead to the readers themselves? Even if it wasn’t Liefeld’s intent to pose such difficult questions to his readership, how else are we to respond when asked “Is this all it takes to turn you on? Big guns, cheap dialogue, and bad stereotypes?” I pick this example out as it is probably one of the (if not the) worst offender of the first four issues. But I think it serves to demonstrate the lack of nuance and depth in character and storyline the forerunner of Image Comics offered its readers.

To be fair, I feel it is important to point out from my own experience, I absolutely loved what I saw as a young, adolescent boy…even if I didn’t really think about what some of the visual images were communicating to me at the time. I’m also fairly certain that I wasn’t necessarily looking for nuance in depth in each and storyline I read in every comic book I came across. The fact is I can still remember looking through the pages of Youngblood and the rest of the new Image comic books and thinking how much more “super” these heroes looked than so many others I previously read. Don’t ask me what the stories were about, as I don’t recall much past the way they looked or the powers they had. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I didn’t notice a difference between the depth of the storyline in Youngblood, and say, Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s seminal “Death in the Family” storyline from Batman and Detective Comics only a few years earlier. One scene that many readers asked for, and yet find still haunts their memories is when readers encounter the gruesome beating Joker handed to Jason Todd with a simple yet effective crow bar prior to abandoning the bleeding Boy Wonder to a fiery demise. This particular act of violence reminded readers about the homicidal nature of Joker, which was often glossed over given his typically garish garb. Moreover, it highlighted the ways good storytellers don’t need to rely on overly complex scenes or devices to allow their villains the opportunity to be villainous. A crowbar and an empty warehouse served Starlin and Aparo well in reminding readers of the horrors resulting from such acts of violence.

Notice how much of the gruesome violence is left to the reader’s imagination. There is a certain amount of subtlety at play here with details left to the reader’s imagination.

Arguably, the ante has been upped in Youngblood.

One need only recall the tragic scene of Batman’s too-late arrival as he cradled the corpse of the ward he failed to save from being brutally murdered to understand that when used appropriately, violence and wanton destruction could add poignancy and depth to a comic book superhero storyline. Death is meaningful, and it is not something easily waived away.

Used excessively and with a lack of intentionality, however, readers become numb to the experience and lose touch with the characters involved.

Perhaps this comparison with between the young and uninitiated Youngblood super-team against the more thoroughly developed and matured super-hero, Batman, is not necessarily fair—a sort of straw man argument. However, it was understood that the founders of Image Comics were taking direct aim at the big two publishers—Marvel and DC—and issuing forth a challenge that they could do super-heroes better and bolder than what was currently being published. I chose Batman as my example because many fans might point to DC as being particularly guilty in falling into extreme forms of storytelling to woo back readers through the “Death of Superman” and “Knightfall” storylines. Yet, we see that Jean Paul Valley—the replacement Batman following Bane’s victory over Bruce Wayne—emulates this hyper-real superhero not so unlike those members of Youngblood. His excessive use of violence as the newly re-imagined Batman sees him lose his place to the original, and far more developed conceptualization of Batman best exemplified in Bruce Wayne. Even considering Jean Paul Valley, then, we see his hyper-real self come in a distant second place to superheroes whose stories are driven less by their extreme behaviors and more by character development and personal investment in their heroic mission.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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Also by Forrest Helvie:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism

editor, introduction

The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


1 Comment

  1. For a Doctoral candidate you did some shoddy research. You used the rescripted Youngblood, done by Joe Casey. In the originally published version, Chapel just looms over the girl with no dialogue. Casey added this nudge nudge wink wink moment later on.

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