I love Image Comics, mostly because I love the idea that forms the company’s values and beliefs. Ever since their foundation in 1992 their core philosophy has been that the creative types who pour their own sweat, tears, and grey matter onto the page in order to produce comics should own the stuff they create. Considering the dodgy history that the comic book industry has with paying and crediting its writers and artists, this was a much needed revolutionary idea that has gone on to produce some of my favorite comics ever.
Unfortunately, while the early days of Image Comics were a boon for independent comic books, where titles like Spawn were going toe to toe with Marvel and DC characters, early Image produced a lot of crap that would play a substantial part in nearly destroying the comic book industry all together.
Today we’re going to look at the first comic book that the newly formed Image Comics ever produced; an infamous piece of comic book history filled with weird dialogue, unnecessary violence, and characters with silly names and impossible proportions: “Youngblood” #1.
Written by Rob Liefeld and Hank Kanalz
Illustrated by Rob Liefeld
Colored by Brian Murray
In order to understand how a book like “Youngblood” #1 could be printed and sold, you have to understand that this book wasn’t created to tell a story, it was created for speculators to buy in bulk and hopefully sell for a huge profit at a later date. Early Image titles like “Youngblood” #1 attracted these speculators because they had been created by superstar artists who had been producing some of Marvel’s best selling titles in the late 80’s. These included luminaries like Todd Mcfarlane, Jim Lee, and the creator of Youngblood: Rob Liefeld, who had made a name for himself on Marvel’s New Mutants and X-Force. He was also the co creator of the superheroes Cable and Deadpool.
“Youngblood” #1 has all the hallmarks and tropes that made early 90’s comic books bad. It opens with an assassination attempt on the Youngblood leader, a former FBI agent turned super archer named Shaft, who avoids getting shot by throwing a pen at the would be assassin with enough force to knock him over and kill him. After that, the story devotes most of its page space towards bringing the rest of the super hero team together. These heroes have imaginative names like Combat, Chapel, Diehard, Bedrock (changed at a later date to Badrock due to the Flinstone’s threatening to sue), and Vogue. The team is bland, forgettable, and there is only the barest lip service paid towards any of their backstories or motivations. The comic ends with them heading out to stop a super villain prison break and ends with the team lining up for a showdown that would take place in the next issue.
But wait, there’s more! It turns out that this comic was also using the worst 90’s trope of all: gimmicks. “Youngblood” #1 wasn’t just a book about a single super hero team, it actually had a second story that the reader had to flip over in order to read. This story followed another superhero team that dealt with international threats, unlike the first team that operated on American soil. It followed another group of bland and forgettable heroes as they carried out a mission against a Middle Eastern dictator named Hassan Kussain, a paper thin representation of real life dictator Saddam Hussain (ask your parents kids). To be fair, this story does devote a little more time towards developing its characters, mostly in the form of a hero named Psi-Fire who takes a perverse amount of joy in torturing Kussain and making his head explode. The whole thing is needlessly cruel and mean spirited and if this book had continued it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the international Youngblood team on trial for war crimes.
While the writing is bland and terrible, the artwork is bold…and also pretty terrible. Credit where credit is due, the artwork is incredibly dynamic, the action has a ton of energy, and it only takes one look at any panel of any page to instantly recognize Liefeld’s signature style and look. Unfortunately, at this point in his career, Liefeld’s art style is so unnatural it’s almost terrifying. Everyone in the book is either squinting, growling, squinting and growling, or has their mouths contorted in the most terrifying shapes and smiles imaginable. The costume designs are a mishmash of skin tight bodysuits, large shoulder pads, pouches, and big guns for the guys and skin tight bodysuits, no pouches, large shoulder pads, and breast windows for the ladies.
And then there’s the anatomy, o dear Lord the anatomy. There are entire websites dedicated to Liefeld’s crimes against the human form that you should check out, but here are some of the highlights. Biceps and quad muscles bigger than people’s heads, bodies that magically warp and change size from panel to panel, the aforementioned squinting and weird mouth shapes, women’s spines being contorted in impossible and painful shapes in order to make their chests stick out more, arms being pulled back far enough to where they should be ripped out from their sockets, and tiny little nubs at the ends of everyone’s legs that stick out en pointe and don’t look like they could support the weight of an ordinary human much less a muscle bound freak show. For some reason, Liefeld insisted on calling those nubs “feet”.
“Youngblood” #1 is a bad book that represents the very worst habits and excesses of its time period and manages the seemingly impossible task of being very loud while not really saying anything at all. The only thing preventing this book from being a complete waste of time and space is its place in comic book history, but that’s a story for another time and place.