In one of the most unexpected comebacks in the history of comics, Rob Liefeld’s old Image imprint Extreme Studios has been putting out some of the better comic books this year. Mostly, this has been done with the revolutionary method of putting decent writers and interesting artists on a title and letting them release whatever stories suit their fancy (a fine experiment, though I’m certain one that will never catch on). The result has been a primarily Euro-flavored mix devoted to experimental art and text of the Moebius variety being injected into the super-book, akin to Luc Besson, Wolfgang Petersen, and Paul Verhoeven’s intrusion into Hollywood. It’s the kind of thing that’s been creeping at the edges for a while now–Dave McKean, Frank Quitely, and Paolo Rivera spring to mind, among others–but largely has had to adapt to fit the stylistic excesses favored by Marvel and DC. Here, the creators on Prophet, Glory, and Bloodstrike refuse to limit themselves by genre (mainly Prophet, where Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, et al. have been fashioning an epic poem constructed by twisting sci-fi, fantasy, and religious iconography into pulp with Big Ideas and lovingly elaborate set pieces).
The Youngblood relaunch, on the other hand, appears to be a different beast altogether. One constructed out of an ironic, almost hipsterish, nostalgia for Liefeld’s shoulder pads and suspect anatomy (Liefeld is co-credited with the art duties, making it more pronounced). Where the others try to focus less on the superhero aspects of their titles, Jon Malin’s art puts it front and center in Youngblood, with a great deal of the layouts consisting of the heroes posing for the camera in both the figurative and literal sense: newbie comic writer John McLaughlin (screenwriter for the movie Black Swan) has the new Shaft, leader of the team, worry about ride-along reporter Gail writing down the portions of the team’s outing where his teammates act foolish (dialogue about strip clubs) and undermine his authority (making him say “please” when giving orders). Pinup shots like the one that opens the issue, as well as a later one where the group starts a fight with the villain who kidnapped the entire population of Las Vegas after winning a game of poker, become about looking good both in-universe and to readers and collectors. While this embrace of the style that birthed it leads to a some interesting shots–including one that is a direct mirror of a panel in the Liefeld-plotted Savage Hawkman #11–the drawback is that cleverly aping a flawed style won’t always work out. Page 22’s depiction of a crime scene, for instance, places too much emphasis on juxtaposing the moon with a fly’s eye, and less on there being a dead body, so it’s hard to tell what you’re actually supposed to be looking at.
Whether intentional or not, Malin also recreates some of the awkwardness of Liefeld’s staging in the form of characters like cyborg Diehard hunching over to remain centered in a panel he would barely fit in or when Vogue contort her back so that she can look “sexy”… in a sewer. This works better than when Malin tries to be clever, if only because it reinforces that these heroes are all artifice. Image is everything with them.
Further illustrating such vanity, and nudging Youngblood #74 towards being a self-parody, is how Vegas itself is depicted: many of the signs and light shows one would expect are there, but with empty streets (“Very ‘lights are on but nobody is home.'”). The first three pages establish the setting in a way that’s inviting of examination, and has a few disturbing implications–three words: Aunt May cameo–while the rest hinge on the snarky, narcissistic superheroes and action scenes drawn over speed line backgrounds. Coupled with McLaughlin’s self-conscious dialogue, it gives a sense of hidden emptiness in the kind of blatant consumerism of the entertainment industry, from the Vegas strip to superhero comics, and a press that goes along with it (“Day seventeen: I”m starting to get the idea–these super heroes actually know what they are doing.”). These roots existed all the way back in Youngblood‘s early issues, which arrived with the advent of 24/7 cable news and talk radio dumping down journalism and discourse: Liefeld was savvy enough to posit a government sponsored superteam as unaccountable media darling, the way Reagan was such for the Presidency, even if not skilled enough to realize that vision.
On its own, none of this is as compelling as it could be, since Millar and Hitch did it better with The Ultimates, but Malin and McLaughlin manage to deliver on the promise lurking withinYoungblood. As part of Extreme’s rebranding of itself as Arthouse 90’s, however, it represents a genuine movement within the American comics industry defined less by hype and more by art.