OUTTA THE WAY, X-MEN (BAM!). CREEP off, Spiderman(POW!)—Youngblood has arrived. Today's toughest and most popular comic-book superheroes—Vogue, Bedrock, Shaft, Diehard & Co., all members of the Youngblood Specialized Task Force—are superstars, '90s style. Not only do they battle bad guys, but they do it in the modern mode, with a phalanx of press agents and wardrobe consultants behind them. And their very young (24), suddenly very rich (he's not saying how rich, though he plans to buy his parents a new home) creator, Rob Liefeld, is happy doing what he's always wanted to do. "I'm just a guy drawing comics," he says. "Guys knocking other guys through buildings. Guys flipping tanks over on each other. I'm just trying to be true to what I liked as a kid."
A kid who grew up watching MTV and sports heroes hawking sneakers, that is. "I started thinking, 'What if Superman or Batman really existed?' " the boyish Liefeld explains. "Superman would be doing Nike commercials. The members of Youngblood take the genre of super-heroes and turn it into a business."
Which is exactly what Liefeld has done. The first issue of the monthly Youngblood, which has sold roughly 930,000 copies—despite the $2.50 cover price, twice what most other comic books cost—since the first issue was released in mid-April, is currently the top-selling comic book in the country. Put out by Image Comics, it is also the first best-seller in recent memory to come from an independent company, beating out both Marvel and DC Comics, the industry giants. Liefeld is himself a star: He recently appeared in a Levi's commercial directed by Spike Lee, and when he shows up at comic conventions, he's mobbed by fans.
Liefeld's obsession grabbed hold when he was a 7-year-old in Anaheim, Calif., and his father took him to a barber who kept the shop stocked with a healthy supply of comics. One visit, and Liefeld was hooked. He became the kid who doodled pictures of the Star Wars characters in the margins of every page of his schoolbooks. His teachers and parents were less than thrilled by what he calls his "comic-aholism." Says his sister, Cheri, 30: "We'd say, 'Oh, what are you going to do, be a comic-book artist?' " Cheri is now business manager of her brother's thriving studio.
His father, Paul, who works in the bookkeeping office of a local department store, and mother, Patty, who works for an insurance company, finally stopped throwing his comic books away, says Liefeld. "They said, 'This kid has a habit. But it's less harmful than other habits he could have.' " And though his art teachers tried to discourage him, he began experimenting with characters like Robot Man and Laser Man ("Brilliant names," he says now. "I'm sure nobody had thought of those before"). He studied art at nearby Fullerton College, but making the move to a professional comic career was harder to do than scaling a wall.
When he was 19, a friend persuaded him to show sample drawings to comic-book editors at a convention. Liefeld landed an assignment at Marvel and was next asked to do the drawing for The New Mutants, a spinoff of X-Men. According to Liefeld, he revamped Mutants so much that its title was changed to X-Force and its sales skyrocketed. But Marvel, following common industry practice, retained the licensing rights to his work, allowing the company to make toys and T-shirts using Liefeld's characters, without Liefeld's approval, and at no profit to him.
Frustrated, he showed the Youngblood idea around, but there were no takers. Says Liefeld: "I admit I do quirky things, like throw proportion out the window. But I'd like to see a little anarchy in the comic-book world, where young artists just tell the companies to screw it." Good as his word, six months ago he and a handful of other Marvel artists defected to start Image Comics. Each artist works on his own comic and will reap the rewards if it's successful. Liefeld works out of a Fullerton, Calif., studio a mile from his apartment and plays basketball with his buddies many afternoons.
Scott Rosenberg, president of Malibu Graphics Publishing Group, which markets and distributes Image's books, says, "Rob's taken the same old superheroes and moved them to the next level." The action is hipper, faster, more dangerous; the first issue ends with the villain Hassan Kussein in bloody pieces.
Though Cheri says her brother has remained "remarkably well grounded," Liefeld can't help feeling a little like a superhero who has faced down impossible odds. He reminds his parents, whom he visits often, "You know you used to hate comics." He's easier on strangers. "I'll be on the street and go up to people—'Have you read a comic book before? Well, here's one,' " he says. "You've got your pro-life people, your pro-choice people, your feminists. I'm a comicbooks activist." POW-EE!
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Fullerton
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