[There are no plot spoilers for Deadpool 2 below, but it does spoil a couple of jokes, if that concerns you at all.]
It’s not a great movie, but there are some very funny moments in Deadpool 2, the new sequel to the massively popular resuscitation of Ryan Reynolds’ career. They include delightfully gruesome character deaths, a steady stream of mockery directed toward the various other superhero franchises (but especially the X-Men), and a moment where Deadpool wanders through the X-Men’s mansion, looking at the many pictures of old white guys on the walls, and muses that he should’ve brought a rape whistle. Also, a certain scene that features Wade Wilson performing a very revealing homage to Basic Instinct is exactly what you think it is, only more unsettling.
But one of the slyest asides is a joke that could very well sail over the heads of most moviegoers. During a discussion with Domino (Zazie Beetz) regarding her hard-to-quantify superpower—she’s, well, very lucky, is the gist of it—Deadpool questions what kind of person would dream up a superhero whose power is so weird and nebulous: “Probably a guy who can’t draw feet,” he decides. It’s easy to infer he’s making some oddball in-joke about the comic-book creator of the character, but without further elaboration, it’s pretty oblique. However, it’s something that comic readers have known since the ’90s: The creator of the main characters of Deadpool 2 is famous for not really being able to draw realistic humans.
All three of them—Deadpool, the film’s much-touted villain Cable (as an adult, anyway—Chris Claremont invented the character as an infant), and Domino—were all created by the same person: Rob Liefeld, the illustrator who came to prominence at Marvel in the early ’90s thanks to his distinct artwork drawing New Mutants and then X-Force, the pages of which birthed all three characters. Liefeld was one of the biggest names in comics in that decade, getting his own Levi’s ad and famously launching the new Image Comics company with a group of other big-name talent. To call him a polarizing figure in the industry is a bit like saying opinions differ on the NRA; he amassed a huge number of fans, primarily young men, during his heyday, but as the years have gone by his detractors have swelled to even greater numbers. And it’s not just because of an outsized personality—more like an outsized drawing hand.
Do a Google search for his name, and one of the top results is “The 40 worst Rob Liefeld drawings.” (The YouTube video above is a reading of that piece.) There’s plenty more where that came from. The argument goes like this: Liefeld is incapable of drawing humans (or the world around us, for that matter), and here’s a bunch of visual evidence. And if that’s the premise, the evidence is damning—body parts going into other body parts, extraneous and inexplicable lines and distortions of faces and muscles, and scenery that obeys none of the laws of physics and/or the color spectrum. He straps guns, knives, fanny packs, and bullet clips around any body part possible: arms, legs, stomachs, chests, with little regard for logic or gravity. In particular, his women make R. Crumb’s look downright demure. They all seem to possess broken spines from their asses sticking out so far and the enormous breasts floating above nonexistent stomachs. It ends up being a Dali-esque landscape of surrealism populated exclusively by humans suffering from the early stages of Picasso Syndrome.
Of course, there are a couple of retorts to this argument. The first is a question of taste: Liefeld’s work was very popular, so who cares if it’s not good? As we noted some years back on this very site, he is “the man who defined what the 1990s looked like in superhero books, so he’s crying all the way to the bank. For every detractor who thinks he’s the worst thing to happen to comic books since Fredric Wertham, there are a dozen ravenous fanboys ready to snatch up whatever he does next.” It’s the old “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong” line of reasoning. If everybody loves crap, then it’s not crap, right? Donald Trump is a big fan of this argument.
The other, more compelling rationale, comes from his defenders in the business. Namely, that Liefeld has little interest in realism, and so his artwork is meant to be strange and askew. The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman is probably the most well-known of Liefeld’s fans, and has spoken often of Liefeld’s influence on him. In a New York Times profile on Liefeld that came out during the first Deadpool film, Kirkman explained his fandom thusly:
Every figure that Rob draws has a certain energy to it, a certain excitement. Every character Rob drew had seven knives and six guns and shoulder pads and pouches and belts and straps and ammunition. It was an aesthetic that as a kid absolutely blew me away. I idolized the guy.
Others have already pointed out the obvious riposte—young kids like plenty of garbage that shouldn’t be applauded as an adult—but the point still stands. Liefeld’s been a large influence on many artists. Yet it doesn’t negate the fact that he seems to have real trouble with the basic contours of your average human body. (Kirkman, again: “I think Rob looks at a human body and goes: ‘That’s boring. I can do better.’”) The feet thing, in particular, was a common criticism, one that became a cliche for his work, leading to later art that suggested he was deliberately trying to push back against that mockery by proving normal human feet were not beyond his capacity. (Liefeld himself has publicly praised the film and its zinger directed at him.) Currently, he’s working on a massive deal to produce films from the Extreme Universe comics, in a partnership with another person whose talents have fallen under scrutiny, Akiva Goldsman.
Rob Liefeld: Talented avant-garde artist experimenting with the human form, or guy who can’t draw so good? We know which way Deadpool himself is leaning.