The comic-book artist Rob Liefeld often compares himself to famous people. At conventions, when he meets fans dressed as one of his characters, Liefeld says he feels like Gianni Versace. He likens his relationship with the contemporaries Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee to the intra-band conflicts of the Eagles. To illustrate the criticism he encountered after his meteoric rise in comics in the 1990s, he cites LeBron James and Britney Spears.
“Give me a celebrity, I’ll give you your haters,” Liefeld said in a recent telephone interview from his home studio in Yorba Linda, California. “Some people shine, and some people don’t like when they shine. Ask Barack Obama, he’ll tell you.”
He’s been panned for his drawing skill — articles titled “The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings,” “A Gallery of Rob Liefeld’s Anatomical Abominations” and “Worst Rob Liefeld Covers” are among his top Google mentions — and is known for contentious exits from Marvel and DC Comics. He even left amid infighting at Image Comics, the independent publisher that he helped found in 1992 with several high-profile illustrators.
In short, Liefeld has been among the most controversial figures in the comics industry. He is also one of most recognized and best-selling artists. And with the release Feb. 12 of the movie adaptation of “Deadpool,” starring Ryan Reynolds as the sarcastic mutant mercenary title character, Liefeld may soon find an even wider audience.
The youngest child of a Baptist minister and a part-time secretary in Anaheim, California, Liefeld became a sensation when, at 22, he took over the flagging Marvel series “The New Mutants,” a bland junior varsity offshoot of the X-Men. With the comic nearing cancellation, Liefeld took risks: He plotted story lines packed with twists while introducing hordes of characters, including Deadpool, who made his first appearance — “Introducing the lethal Deadpool” — on the cover of The New Mutants No. 98 in 1991.
Liefeld’s assistant at the time, the comic book artist Marat Mychaels, remembers him leaving work upset one night. “He came back the next day with a sketch of Deadpool,” Mychaels said. “He goes, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘He looks awesome.’”
In Deadpool’s origin story, he shared a mythos with the X-Men’s Wolverine, Liefeld’s favorite character. Spider-Man inspired the costume design and red-and-black color scheme — as well as Deadpool’s irreverent sense of humor — and the character became an immediate cult phenomenon.
“He was so popular that we had to fast-track his story,” Liefeld said.
Liefeld’s ascent continued when his next endeavor, X-Force No. 1 — a retooled New Mutants — sold a staggering 5 million copies. Starring in a Spike Lee-directed commercial for Levi’s cemented his status as a young face of the comic book industry, which, naturally, upset his peers.
“I got the target on my back,” Liefeld said. “Some of the old guys in the business were like, ‘Oh, how unfortunate that Rob Liefeld is the spokesman for our craft.’ Sour grapes much?”
Liefeld’s drawing style also rankled traditionalists: He ditched conventional four- and six-panel grids in favor of epic images that pulled inspiration from Japanese anime, manga and MTV. (He admits to watching music videos while working.)
“Every figure that Rob draws has a certain energy to it, a certain excitement,” Robert Kirkman, a creator of The Walking Dead comics, said in a telephone interview. “Every character Rob drew had seven knives and six guns and shoulder pads and pouches and belts and straps and ammunition. It was an aesthetic that as a kid absolutely blew me away. I idolized the guy.”
The superfluous accessories and weaponry were, for better or worse, a Rob Liefeld trademark. (“A Liefeld character without shoulder pads is almost naked,” the comics veteran Stan Lee once joked.)
There were other calling cards: upturned noses, small feet and exaggerated musculature. Captain America’s pecs sometimes ballooned during Liefeld’s run on the character. Afterward, Peter David, the writer who revitalized The Incredible Hulk in the late 1980s, called Liefeld “the Ed Wood of comics.”
Kirkman, a friend of Liefeld and one of his most vocal defenders, said detractors miss the point.
“Everything he draws is interesting, whether it’s accurate or not,” he said. “A lot of people look at the way Rob draws the human body and they say, ‘That’s wrong in my eyes.’ I would say that these people have no joy in their souls. It’s not like Rob doesn’t know what a human body looks like, I think Rob looks at a human body and goes: ‘That’s boring. I can do better.”
Liefeld insists the criticism didn’t bother him. “Not one iota.” Then, referring to his father’s death from cancer in 1999, he added that he didn’t care if people ridiculed his artwork. “I’ve had really hard struggles in my life.”
Liefeld said he hoped that more of his creations, like Cable, a dour soldier from the future, and his X-Force lieutenant, Domino, follow Deadpool to the big screen. At the moment, though, he’s working on the graphic novel “Deadpool: Bad Blood,” set for release this summer.
“I got the color pages in on it this morning and was just blown away,” Liefeld said. “It inspired me to draw more pages. I love my craft. I may have missed it on a drawing or two. But I got more right than I got wrong.”