Pipeline: Rob Liefeld, New Mutants & Saving Comics

Tue, December 13th, 2011 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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DIGITAL THOUGHTS: PROMO COPIES

Many comics creators who've been in the industry for a long time will wistfully remember the "good old days" when comic companies were more free with creator copies. Each creator would get a copy of everything the company published, plus a box or two of their own issues.

I'm not entirely sure to what extent, but that's not what happens anymore. In cost-savings mode, those perks have been pulled back. It would seem, however, that there's an obvious solution to this. There's a way for companies to gift their employees with all the different comic comps they'd like. Additionally, it can promote lower digital prices, encourage fewer creators per issue (less fill-in inkers, more creators who can hit a deadline reliably) and cure cancer. Well, two out of three.

Effective immediately, every creator should get a raise for the cover price of the comic they work on per issue. This way, they can go to their digital comics reader/distributor of choice to buy their own comic.

At first, it sounds like a slap in the face. The company still expects the creator to buy their own comics. But there are many pleasant side effects to this:

  • Sales charts. You've just added a half dozen sales to the comic digitally. Someday, sales numbers will be available for digital comics, and every sale will count.

  • Digital distributors are thrilled with their publishing partners, because they're now getting their cut on "comp" comics.

  • Publishers get a cut back from the digital distributor, ultimately.

  • Publishers don't need to ship paper copies all over the world at great expense, and could probably hire a few less interns per year to handle that job. (Or were they always shipped from the printer or distributor's offices?)

  • Publishers would be rewarded for having lower prices on their digital comics, since it would mean a smaller outlay of cash on their part to pay for all the comp digital copies.

  • Readers would be rewarded, because companies would want to use fewer creators per issue. Imagine how expensive "The Incredible Hulk" #2 would be in this system, with its 11 named artists working on it. That's a $33 or $44 hike in Marvel's costs on the issue right there.

There are obviously downsides to this. Creators often can sell those extra physical copies (note the plural) at conventions, or give them to friends or family members as gifts. The cost savings isn't great in real dollar terms, but it does add up over time. Think of DC's New 52: You have 52 titles per month, with at least five creators per issue, at $2.99 digital cover price per issue. 5 x 52 x $2.99 = $777.40, before the costs of shipping, man hours putting that all together, and more.

The easier fix to this, of course, is to build in a back door to the digital distributors so that specific users (current creators of the company) would have free downloads for all of that publishers' output in that specific month. It should be a workable system for the publishers to work out with their distributors.

So, to recap: Creators get their comics paid for, publishers keep the prices low to save money, readers get cheaper digital comics, and sales go up. Ball's in your court, Marvel and DC.

X-FORCE: CABLE & THE NEW MUTANTS

In 1990, I was a young pup in the comics reading world. I was 14, and part of a generation that started reading comics after that "G.I. Joe" commercial. I didn't start until later than that, though, in 1989, and so many of the books of that time have a wistful nostalgic feeling for me that I just can't help. With so much of it now reprinted, it's fun to relive the old times and see what it was that made me fall in love with comics in the first place. Many consider this a "dark era" for comics, but I still think of it as an exciting one, though the lessons of it were wildly misinterpreted at the time. But that's a tale for another time.

I started re-reading Rob Liefeld's run on "New Mutants" recently, spurred on by the acquisition of the three Marvel Premiere Edition hardcovers that collect the whole run. I have all the single issues, most of them picked up off the newsstand at a local stationery store or on the shelves of the 50s-era diner/comic shop that served as my first regular comic shop. This was a glorious era of innocence in which I didn't know what the Direct Market was, or that comic creators were so easily spurred into feuds. It took longer to develop them in those days, as "The Comics Buyer's Guide" letters column ("Oh, So?") only came out once a week, but they were still there.

Reading "New Mutants" #86 today surprised me in a few ways. It was the first official issue of the series that Rob Liefeld drew, fresh off his "Hawk and Dove" miniseries at DC, a fill-in issue of "Uncanny X-Men," and an "Amazing Spider-Man" annual. With Bob Wiacek's inks in the issue, Liefeld's art looks different from much of the rest of the book. In comparison to the later, almost painfully-thin, lines used by other inkers to interpret Liefeld's pencils, Wiacek looks like he inked this issue with a Sharpie marker. The results are pages that look, for Liefeld's usual work, almost unstylized. So many of the little dashes of lines are missing. I'm not sure if that's because Liefeld wasn't pencilling them in as much yet, or if Wiacek was making an artistic choice in completing the art.

The nuts and bolts are still there, though. Liefeld's way of drawing hair is distinct, and his hands often bend in the same ways in the same proportions to the rest of the body. The camera angles and the way the people relate to the backgrounds is unmistakably Liefeldian, holding true to today's work in "The Infinite." There are also moments in the art that look like they're drawn by Erik Larsen. Bodies leap in parallel ways, leg muscles are constructed similarly and The Vulture looks like he's drawn straight from Larsen's "Amazing Spider-Man" work around that time, as well. Take it from someone who wanted to be an artist in his teenage years and traced the artwork of those who he enjoyed, I can tell you that many of the same stylistic tics are there.

Panel construction-wise, I'm reminded of Todd McFarlane's "Amazing Spider-Man" work. The ways that panels overlap or suddenly have thicker black borders fits right in with those Spidey issues. McFarlane was inking Liefeld's covers at the time, so the comparison might not be so far-fetched.

Speaking of which, I really liked McFarlane's inks over Liefeld's pencils. There's enough of a similarity in styles to mesh well. McFarlane can take some of Liefeld's art's features and smooth them over with his slicker line. It's still pure Liefeldian construction, but McFarlane gives it a nice gloss, strengthening the overall image. I wish McFarlane had inked Liefeld's interiors at the time, though he was obviously busy with his own work.

The story, as written by Louise Simonson, has the New Mutants' Rusty and Skids going after Nitro, who wants to blow up Speedball. (I had "Civil War" flashbacks reading this in 2011.) Simonson's script is of its time, leaden with caption boxes and expository dialogue to explain every little thing going on. It's not a bad style, though. I can remember reading this as one of the first X-books I had started picking up at the time, and feeling comfortable in the world immediately. All of that overexplaining in a time and age of single issue dominance made sense.

Simonson develops strong personalities for every character in the book and then puts them in pressure-packed situations to see how they do. It's strong writing that feels antiquated in today's market in its style, but from which lessons might be learned and applied to modern storytelling. There are also panels, to be fair, where characters are explaining things that can't be seen on panel. I have a feeling that Liefeld at the time might have drawn some panels slightly tighter than Simonson was writing for, crowding information off-panel that had to be replaced with dialogue or caption boxes.

In this reprinting, titled "X-Force: Cable & The New Mutants," the art is reproduced beautifully. There's no dropping of lines or obvious photostat work here. The art looks just as solid as it did on the original newsprint paper, if not more so. Too many reprints suffer from incomplete restoration, bad scans, or cut corners in general. This one -- collecting 10 comics for $24.99 -- looks pristine. Even the colors are as accurately reproduced as you could expect on modern glossy paper. Colors might be a bit too bright for some in the earlier issues, but by the time you get to Brad Vancata's more distinctive work later in the book (somewhat Joe Rosas-esque, but more browns than pinks in the skin highlights), you'll see the power of this reprint. There are still some areas where the color was meant as a subtle shading but that get picked up as a full cut of color, but my eyes initially read that as a testament to off-register four color printing of a day gone by. Nostalgia does funny things to your senses, doesn't it?

That said, we're spoiled by modern computer coloring. Take a look at the recolored front and back covers. The difference is amazing. The new atmosphere and depth added to the art with proper modern styling is awesome. It's too bad there's no money to be made in paying someone to recolor all these pages in today's style. Even though the art wasn't drawn with it in mind, I think it would be a real treat to see this stuff updated. I know they've toyed with it, such as the recent reprinting of the Chris Claremont/Jim Lee "X-Men" #1 and on a larger scale with the "Walter Simonson Thor Omnibus," but I'd love to see more. In some ways, I'm still a fanboy at heart, and I make no apologies for that.

There are little touches in the book that I appreciate, too. Besides including a full page cover reproduction at the start of each issue, there are a few covers and pin-ups used in trade paperbacks that are included here, at full size. There's even an extra page originally drawn to allow for proper pagination in a later collected edition. It's done by Mark Pacella in his best Poor Man's Rob Liefeld style. (I guess Marat Mychaels wasn't available?) An untrained eye might not notice the difference, but it's obvious to the rest of us. You thought Liefeld's anatomy and artistic quirks were strange? Wait 'til you see what it looks like one step removed! It's a problem the entire industry ran into in the wake of Image's formation, and it took years to back pedal from it and recover.

I'm only a couple of issues into this book, but I've flipped through it all without the worry of spoilers. It's been a couple of decades since I first bought these books for a bunch off the shelves, but I remember enough of it. The quality I see in the reproductions of the earliest issues holds true throughout, and now it'll be fun to watch Liefeld's style develop through this book and the next two. I'm looking forward to seeing how Hilary Barta inked Liefeld's pencils, for example, and then seeing Liefeld inking himself.

So if you're an old fanboy such as myself, these books look to be the real deal. I'm having a lot of fun going back to this stuff, even if it isn't exactly "literature." It never was meant to be. But it's as fun and entertaining in its own way as "Little Nothings" is to the humorous auto-biography, or as "The Walking Dead" is to Zombie stories. It accomplishes its mission; what more could I ask for?

NEW MUTANTS PANEL EXCERPT TIME!

Who are the new New Mutants? I'll let Boom Boom handle the introductions, as she did in the seventh Annual, with self-aware writing by Fabian Nicieza and art from Guang Yap:

This Annual, by the way, is not collected. Liefeld did do a pin-up in the back of it, though I don't know if that shows up in the second or third hardcover collection. I haven't unwrapped those yet.

I did not like Yap's artwork. It popped up in "Marvel Comics Presents" at the time, as well as an "X-Factor" Annual. It was painful. Yap hasn't done comics since. His last credit is from 1992, over in the "Green Lantern" offices at DC. He's been reprinted a few times in recent years, so there's a royalty check still coming his way from a very small body of work.

Now it's time for a lettering lesson. This page is from "New Mutants" #87:

All of these images, by the way, are scanned from the original comics, not from the reprints. You're seeing the old-style coloring here, slightly yellow and faded. It's impossible to flatten a hardcover book to show all the edges of a single page without breaking the binding.

But read those first two panels and follow the balloons. It's hideous! Your eye is supposed to go from the panel in the upper left to the caption box above the panel to its right. The word balloon in the first panel, though, guides the eye down to the footnote for it that's actually in the next panel, at which point your eye has to track all the way back up to the top of the page, past the first dialogue balloon for the panel.

The solution is simple: Put the word balloon at the top of the first panel. It might mean pushing Asgard down the panel a bit. Today, they'd do that with Photoshop and the paint bucket. Back then, it was a much more manual job. Putting the lettering in an awkward place was likely a more frugal solution, or perhaps the one that had to be made given the other issues the production crew (maybe Romita's Raiders?) were dealing with at the time.

The other lettering oddity is in the bottom corner of the scan, where the caption boxes are butted up against the outside of the border of the previous panel. I'm guessing there was nowhere else to put it without obscuring the drink in the outstretched hand in the panel to the left, but it looks weird. To me, caption boxes like that belong inside the panel borders when they're that thick, not the outside edge.

Here's a page that shows what I mean when I say that Liefeld's art reminds me of Erik Larsen's. This looks like a layout straight from "Amazing Spider-Man," though the little fists are unmistakably Liefeld's.

As I recall, those cross-checked backgrounds (see panels 2 and 3 above) were the dead giveaway to tell which page of "Spider-Man" Liefeld inked over Todd McFarlane's pencils during the Wolverine arc there.

What, you thought Brian Bendis was the only one to call for pages where each panel is just a tighter zoom on the person's face as they think? Rob Liefeld beat him to it.

Here, for comparison's sake, is a small sample of the current hardcover's look, so you can see the before and after:

WHERE TO FIND ME

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TAGS:  pipeline, digital comics, rob liefeld, new mutants, marvel comics

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