Rob Liefeld on Image Comics' Origins and Feeling "Ready to Conquer the Universe"

Rob Liefeld attends WIRED Cafe during Comic-Con International 2016 - Getty-H 2016
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The prolific creator looks back 25 years after the upstart company took the No. 2 spot on the comics sales charts: "I cannot, and will not ever, undersell that moment."

The final episode of the documentary series Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics, set to air Monday night on AMC, goes back 25 years to look at the birth of Image Comics — the publisher that releases Kirkman’s own The Walking Dead on a monthly basis.

Image was founded by seven top Marvel artists — Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld — who, en masse, quit that company and created a new one which purposefully owned nothing and allowed its creators to keep all rights to their work. It was a move that changed the industry, and one that at least one founder remembers fondly, even if he couldn’t see himself repeating it today.

“Looking back with the benefit of 25 years, I would not act in the same manner,” Liefeld told Heat Vision while reflecting on the origins of Image Comics. “I wouldn’t take the same risks, because now I’m married. I have a wife, I have children [and] that stuff matters.”

Liefeld, who went from creating Deadpool and Cable for Marvel as part of the New Mutants series to writing and drawing the first Image Comics series, talked further to Heat Vision about his memories of breaking away from the most successful publisher in the comic book industry at the time to create something of his own.

Youngblood, your first series for Image, was also the first series for Image. As the Secret History of Comics episode shows, you were also the first of the Image Comics founders to attempt to go from Marvel to independent work that you would own and control. What was behind that impulse?

I was a different breed — and this is no disrespect to [fellow Image Comics founders] Jim Lee or Todd McFarlane — but their success was on Spider-Man and X-Men, and those books, even when they had uninspired [creative] teams on them, they were the top draw. I had transformed a book called New Mutants, which was on the verge of cancellation — or that’s what they told me, they said, "You can do whatever you want on it, we’ll back you." That’s why, on my first issue, there’s 12 new characters introduced. Otherwise, I was giving my fate over to [existing characters] Boom-Boom and Rictor! And I knew that was not going to end well. My first issue, it’s bigger than Cable — there’s 11 other characters! There’s new bad guys, too! It was very clear there was a new sheriff in town.

I poured out my imagination into New Mutants, and my last issue sold one million copies, without scratch-and-sniff cover, acetate covers, trading cards — New Mutants No. 100 was the culmination of everything I’d been working on since [my first issue]. It was the coming together of all the new content. It went back to press four times, people kept buying it up. Even Marvel was shocked. I was told to lower my expectations for the first issue of [follow-up series] X-Force, because no-one knows what an X-Force is, so it wouldn’t do as well as a Spider-Man or X-Men would do, but again, I blew away expectations.

So, think about it: You’re 22 years old. You have taken all these characters out of your sketchbook and your notepad and built a book around them, none of them existed prior to me, and boom! So I was thinking, well, for my next act, I should probably control that content 100 percent.

What brought that on?

Having been a huge [Los Angeles] Lakers fan since I was a wee child, that was around the time I saw my favorite NBA player’s window close. "Wow, Magic Johnson was done!" As a sports fan, you think like that. Your favorite team isn’t going to play forever. You look at a football team, if they have the right quarterback, the right receiver, it’s like, they have a three-to-four year window. I recognized that my window was right then. So, I thought, "That’s it! I’m doing my own thing!"

Having no children, no wife, no serious relationship — it was just me in my apartment — I could afford to think big. There was a lot of skepticism, even among my peers, until those numbers [for the first issue of Youngblood] came in. Then, suddenly, it was, "Hey, this is a great idea! Let’s do it!"

Did you share that skepticism? What were your expectations of going independent? There were independent comics publishers in 1992, but they didn’t have anywhere near the success of Marvel or DC.

I had a wonderful father, and he came to me and said, "Son. I’m so proud of you, and all you’ve accomplished at Marvel and DC. You’re doing so phenomenal, and we’re just concerned that you’re going to screw that up. Why would you abandon such a profitable endeavor at such a young age?" That was the voice of a loving father concerned for his son, but I had done the math. I sold 5 million copies of X-Force No. 1, and that got me a check for $900,000. That’s a whole lot of cheddar, and I had completely in my mind overachieved. I was thinking, "I’ve done so well, and I’m banking this money and I’m going to help my parents buy a house." But when it came to my expectations for Youngblood, I certainly did not believe we were going to do as well as we did, but I did think I could see 100,000 copies. And if I’m making a buck a book, that’s a good living!

In 2017, selling 100,000 seems a lot, because it is a lot nowadays. Back then, the top Marvel books were selling in the high 600,000-700,000 range. I certainly didn’t think I’d transfer the 5 million X-Force sales, but I expected to do well. I thought I could do very respectful, and because I owned it, I figured if I’m selling a book for $2.50 back then, I could make back a buck. I could sell 100,000 copies and I would make a tremendous living. All I needed to do was cover my overheads.

I’ve read people retconning the past as if we knew we were going to be a success. That’s not true. We talked about the possibility of failure. But the mantra we had was, if we fell flat on our face, "We’re going to DC! We’ll go to DC!" Back then, there was always the prospect of going across the street. If Marvel was sore at us, we could go work for DC until Marvel wasn’t sore at us.

It wasn’t as if other artists hadn’t gone independent after working for the big companies, after all, and even come back after.

When Pacific Comics launched, I had been collecting comics since 1974. I was very well versed in who Jack Kirby was, from the tail end of his DC work, his glorious return to Marvel with his return to Captain America, his Devil Dinosaur and Machine Man — so, when he did Captain Victory and launched Pacific Comics, that was a big deal. At that time, it was 1981, X-Men and New Teen Titans are my favorite comics of all time, but the King of Comics was doing his own thing! My whole thing was, I’m going to fast-track what Kirby did. He eventually launched his own independent projects — and I bought every issue of Captain Victory, Silver Star, everything he did — and by 1992, I felt like I was an old hand. I was like, "I’ve done fill-in issues, I’ve done Hawk & Dove, I’ve done New Mutants and X-Force. I’m an old guy!" In reality, I’d only been doing it for four-and-a-half years. But I thought, it’s time. I’m going to roll the dice for myself.

It would’ve been different if someone had come to us and said, "Guys, I have a vision that the seven of you will band together and sell millions!" This was something that, for me, it was burning inside of me. I recognized that I was at the peak of my performance and I had to do it. So I leaped. And that’s why Youngblood Nos. 1, 2 and 3 were solicited alone. I was the Guinea Pig in Progress! A few months after soliciting Youngblood, the numbers came in, and that’s when everything blew up. The collective hubris we had, as competitive peers — say Erik Larsen’s numbers came in, I’d be all, "Oh, I’ll do better than that." We all thought we were better than the other guy, and whenever the numbers came in, we thought we’d do better. But when Youngblood No. 1 came in at half a million, everyone was like, "Oh, my God. What the…? I’m next! I’m next!"

You said earlier that you wouldn’t do the same thing today, because you’re married and have a family. Do you look back at the start of Image as a perfect combination of talent, luck and being in the right place at the right time?

It was passion and youthfulness. Let’s say I did it and it failed miserably, and let’s say DC wouldn’t hire me anyway. I was 22 and 23 years old, so I knew that I could rebound! If I burn out, I’ll come back in a new form! I knew that time was on my side, because I broke into comics when I was 18 years old. And also, I was desperate. It’s hard to stay desperate after X-Force sold, but I still felt like I was at a disadvantage. Todd had Spider-Man and Jim had X-Men, and I felt left behind, and my entire thing was, I did not want to be regulated from the A-list. I wanted to stay on the A-list. I had the benefit of being young, and that I could afford to make a mistake. Todd was expecting his first child, Jim was expecting his first child — the hesitancy on everyone’s part came because they were in a committed relationship and felt a responsibility to provide for their families, and then there was… Rob. In an apartment. Ready to conquer the universe.

There’s an argument to be made that Image conquered comics, if not the universe. The industry changed as a result of the success of the company, especially in the early days. Was there a moment when you realized, "We’ve done something big"?

The point where you could feel the earth shake was August of 1992, with our seven comics becoming the No. 2 comic company. I cannot, and will not ever, undersell that moment. That scared us, actually. It was the moment when we realized, "We've got something here, and it’s serious." Do you know how hard that is? I’m not sure there’s been a company that’s been No. 2 other than Marvel or DC since that month. That scared everybody. We were howling on the phone, but we were also, "We’ve got to be careful what we do next, where we aim this beam. We might just take out Alderaan." We were not aware how potent our reach, our following, and the following we had garnered. At that time, we had seven comics we had published, maybe 10. That was when the phone started ringing. That was when everyone wanted to bring their book to Image Comics.

The season finale of Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics airs Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.