In Excess, the second volume of the PanelxPanel’s One Shot series by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, published thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Ian Gregory examines Rob Liefeld‘s production, particularly the one between the last issues of New Mutants and the early X-Force. The analysis starts from and takes as reference the dichotomy between Liefeld’s contemporary success and his current near-removal status. As indicated in the subtitle of the book (Reconciling X-Men’s Most Controversial Creator), the goal of Gregory’s work is a “reconciliation”, to be achieved through a contextualized reading of Liefeld’s work – in particular of its role in the evolution of the storytelling and production system of superhero comic books. This perspective allows to bring out the distinctive features of Liefeld’s approach to the construction of his works, as part of a vision of the superhero serial narrative. That vision did enter into crisis in a very short time – leading Liefeld to become the “most controversial creator” of the X-Men, after he had been acclaimed as their saviour – but nonetheless it must be regarded as an authorial trait, while it allows to better identify some characteristics of other visions that have characterized, or still characterize, the superhero system.
Nowadays, Rob Liefeld is a name that many fans relate to a period of low-quality comics, as graphically gaudy and hypertrophic, as it was poor of good stories, a parenthesis that risks of being considered just an accident. This view sounds as a sort of repression of traumatic experiences, linked to a turning point for both X-Men and superhero comics. Liefeld’s meteoric success marked a significant change, because it put an end to the Claremont era on the X-Men – which many fans still regard as a sort of Golden Age for the team adventures. In his tenure run (16 years long, from 1975 to 1991, a duration unthinkable today for the run of an author on a title), Claremont had been creating a colourful and solid texture weaving plenty of threads, building tales on other tales, making relationships among characters evolve over time. This approach created a universe that fascinated crowds of fans and boosted the comics selling figures, but also ended up becoming a formidable barrier to entry for new readers. The English author’s ability to pick up the narrative threads even after years teased loyal fans, but made it difficult for others to enjoy these tales. Moreover, in the second half of the ’80s Claremont’s narrative style started to be outdated, especially in its rhythm and dialogues: the turnaround of the mid-’80s (caused by new creators like Miller to Moore) had not prompted any changes in Claremont’s approach and the mutant titles were losing readers. And here came Liefeld on New Mutants.
The strategy adopted with New Mutants to face such an issue was based on the thinning of the historical cast and the introduction of new characters – Cable is the typical case. They were involved in action-based plots, in which the relationships among the characters took a back seat and new readers could enjoy the stories with no difficulties. Liefeld’s mutant parable quickly reached its peak of fame and then declined, as he was not able to manage scenarios that had grown more and more complex. The success brought Liefeld to be in charge of a group of mutant titles (acting as the “showrunner”, you would probably say today), and in this phase the author had to deal with the very type of feature he had rejected: he needed relationships among stories and characters that reader would become attached to – a sort of ironic nemesis, which Liefeld was unable to tame.
The “reconciliation” proposed by Gregory takes place by investigating the causes of the immediate and temporary success of Liefeld’s work and by highlighting the factors that have weighed heavily in the evolution of superhero fiction: authorship, which refers to the stardom system; the reduction of the time span of the continuity, which decreases the barrier of entry for readers and offers greater narrative freedom to the authors; finally, the hybridization with the spy genre, which enriches the ingredients of the stories. If the success of his work is to be seen in the perspective of the reaction to an exceeding sclerosis of the X-Men series, the subsequent marginalization testifies that fans value and enjoy medium-term horizontal textures. We still may appreciate this trend in current editorial policies, which favour short and mid-term runs or miniseries and a “weak-continuity” approach.