Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Expressionism of Rob Liefeld

Since the first day of class students have asked me when they were going to draw comics. Every time I've told them that this is an English class, not an Art class, and that our focus is on reading. But yesterday I gave the students pages with nine panel grids of empty panels (lovingly hand drawn) and assigned them to draw a comic that explains how to do something, using at least one moment-to-moment transition, one subject-to-subject transition, and one action-to-action transition (see Understanding Comics chapter 3 for more details on panel transitions.) The results were pretty entertaining, ranging from "How to Make a Sandwich" to "How to Assassinate Someone."

I hope that drawing their own comics gave the students a little more insight into how many choices a cartoonist has to make, from drawing a character, to composing a panel, to making the panel transitions work, to pacing the narrative, to composing a page, and so on and so on. It's harder than it looks.

My goal now is to get them to pay attention to the art. I've known plenty of comics fans who focus solely on the story and, unless the art is terrible, don't really care what it looks like. To them the art is just a system for delivering important updates about the life of Batman. But comics is a visual medium, and if you ignore the art you're missing the point. 

Today we talked a little bit about Impressionism and Expressionism (only a little, because my knowledge of art history is much weaker than my knowledge of comics trivia) and then read chapter 5 of Understanding Comics. Chapter 5 is about how cartoonists can express emotions through their drawing styles and appeal to different senses.

There's a great page in Chapter 5 that shows samples of different cartoonists' work and explains how their different use of line conveys different emotions. McCloud writes something to the effect that Rob Liefeld's jagged scratchy lines strike a chord with adolescent readers. He wrote that back in the 90's, when Liefeld was at the peak of his popularity (drawing comics like X-Force, pictured below). While reading that page today, one of the boys in my class pointed to the Liefeld panel and said, "I like that one best!" Apparently McCloud was right, and the appeal of Rob Liefeld's art to teenage boys is timeless.


  1. I'll just go ahead and admit it. I was a big fan of Leifield in the early 90's (I mean c'mon, he had his own Levi's commercial! ha-ha-ha!). I'm not ashamed of this admission, but I've had to work really hard over the past couple of years to shake some of the bad habits I formed by copying him in highschool.

    Have you seen this site?

    I laugh so hard every time I come across it.

  2. Ah, the unrepentant Liefeld. Luckily, even as a teenaged comics geek, I never saw the appeal. Will you be covering the phallic nature of the *guns* Rob draws? j/k

  3. Any chance of us seeing the strips your students made?

  4. I think I liked Liefeld for about five minutes when he was drawing New Mutants, and then got over it.

  5. Josh - No, sorry, I can't really share student work.