When it comes to legendary comic book writers and artists, Rob Liefeld is someone who rose to superstardom as the industry hit a huge boom period in the 1990s. Getting involved in the business from a remarkably young age, Liefeld has gone on to have huge success and created some of comics’ most beloved characters – such as Deadpool. Now, with the Merc with a Mouth getting his first ever graphic novel, Deadpool: Bad Blood, we grabbed some time with the controversial, opinion-splitting and fascinating Liefeld to discuss Bad Blood, creating Deadpool and his X-Force chums, Josh Brolin playing fan favourite Cable in next year’s Deadpool 2, taking a dying title in New Mutants and making it the hottest book in comics, being a founder of Image Comics, achieving such massive success so young, the upcoming shared movie-verse take on his Extreme Universe titles, and a whole host of other topics.
STARBURST: So Deadpool: Bad Blood, the new graphic novel that’s out now, what can you tell us about it?
Rob Liefeld: You know, Deadpool: Bad Blood is the first Deadpool graphic novel, so we had to do something special for it. I wanted to introduce a new character from deep in Deadpool’s past, who goes as far back as middle school. The question of this character, as you’ll find out, is what steps did this brand new character who has been working in Deadpool’s life his entire existence, what steps did he take to emulate the Wade Wilson that he looked up to from middle school on. That’s kind of the mystery and the backstory that we got to play with, all set against a bunch of kick-ass action and great humour – we discover the story behind this new character. Quite honestly, I was very nervous in regards to even requesting Marvel in the act of creating a character that maybe would have this much impact at this point in time. But they were, like, “No Rob, run with it.” I would ask, “Hey, I want to stay with Marvel, I want to stay with reference, do you have anything of him in middle school?” “No we don’t, you’re in fresh territory!” When it came to the character’s name, when I was a kid my parents used to take us to drive-ins. For younger readers, a drive-in was a giant screen in the middle of a dirt lot. You parked with your girlfriend or your family or your friends, and you hooked the speaker and enjoyed the movie - it was a more affordable model, particularly here in the States. But I saw Bambi, and those who’ve seen Bambi know that there’s a cute little bunny who very charmingly introduces himself as “I’m Thumper!” and makes a giant thumping sound with his big foot. He’s adorable, he’s wonderful. So they asked me for the name of the character, what I was gonna name this guy. They had the designs and they thought they were great, but man, I was nervous. I was, like, “I’m never gonna get this name cleared.” But thank god for Disney-Marvel synergy! It’s a good thing that Marvel was purchased by Disney, because Thumper got cleared very quickly and we were off to the races. I was, like, “Awesome, my bad guy is a guy who beats Deadpool into the pavement and simultaneously his name is associated with the most adorable little bunny that ever hopped across movie screens.” That was a great thing. And the journey is just… we jumped in to the past, we go back and spend about twenty of our hundred pages in a 1991 adventure where you see Cable and Warpath and Shatterstar as they were during that time, so it’s a nice little love letter to all the fans who’ve cared about these characters as long as they have. Of course, Domino is a major character in the entire story. They appeared in the same book together, made their debuts together, so I figured I’d continue to return the favour they’d given me by being so popular by keeping them together.
Deadpool: Bad Blood
Where Cable is concerned, do you feel that he’s a character who has maybe been a little underappreciated by some over the years?
You know what, Cable has such an enthusiastic fanbase and is so popular in his own right, I actually don’t get that at all. I don’t think it hurt that in the film, in the end credits, that Deadpool told everyone that Cable was coming – that certainly didn’t hurt because it told that fanbase, “Hey, we’re bringing everybody to the party!” And look, the longtime fans, you can interact with Deadpool based on Deadpool Classics Illustrated tomorrow and you’re a true fan, but the thing is, the longtime fans, I hear from them on the road, I meet them, I see them. They’re so enthusiastic! And they have families of their own now, and they are excited to share what they enjoyed so much in their youth. They were there as teenagers! I mean Chad Bowers, he told me, “Rob, I told Marvel I would fight people to get this assignment.” And that’s because he was a teenager growing up reading X-Force. They wanted a young voice to go with mine, and he and Chris , I kind of figured since they came to fame doing a book called X-Men ’92, maybe they would be a good fit. And the editor, when he introduced us, we just hit it off immediately. These guys have nothing but love for this era, nothing but love. Look, I understand that the beginning of the 2000s saw everyone wanting their own new stuff. It saw the ‘90s being thrown under the bus, which was a huge mistake. Thankfully that’s corrected itself. I think we’re going through a resurgence right now, and so much of that stuff was underserved. Now with Deadpool: Bad Blood and all the stuff going on with Deadpool and this opportunity to launch another self-contained story, we were determined to ring every bell and blow every whistle. Certainly, we weren’t going to leave Cable and Domino and X-Force out of the party, so we brought everybody to the party.
With yourself, do you see this as a one-off project for you or do you see yourself sticking around for some Deadpool tales to immediately follow Bad Blood?
Well, I’m writing and drawing the sequel as we speak! We had too much story to tell. I did the last fifteen pages and realised I had not given, even at a hundred pages, the implications of who Thumper is and what he’s doing and what we do with him in this book are too great. So I rejigged the ending towards the last couple of weeks I was doing this; I called everyone up and said, “Look, we’re going to change what we’ve talked about, and move it in this direction to open us up to tell more of this story.” And I know that everyone is excited to have that happen. I asked Marvel if I could go ahead and start, and they said, “Absolutely!” So I’m writing and drawing the sequel write now. Chad and Chris will be joining me in the same capacity. I love working with those guys, and we are going to continue to beat this out. Look, everything that I do creatively now, I have to have some sort of creative tether to it. Whether it was actually creating characters, and that could be for Marvel, for Image, or... I mean, it does feel like 1992 right now. Youngblood sold out two weeks ago. The day of release, boom, gone, we needed more! And that was a good number, it was a nice, healthy stack of comics, and the retailers needed more, so we went back to press on that. Now I’ve got Deadpool coming back, then Cable is getting his own new book at the end of the month from Marvel, and I’ve got a nice variant cover on that, so believe me, I do wake up and go, “What year is this?!” These characters, when they were created they were immediately assigned cartoon deals and toy deals. There’s countless Deadpool action figures and Cable and X-Force action figures from the ‘90s. So when people say, “Hey, what do you think now he’s popular?” I’m just, like, “You mean when he was in the main aisles of Toys R Us and Walmart?” He’s never left, these characters continue to have a great shelf life. Truth be told, they’re obviously more popular than ever before now because of the reach in media that they’ve achieved. So I’m going to continue to be associated, absolutely.
Time-travelling, metal-armed son of Cyclops, badass merc Cable
You briefly touched upon Image Comics there. You were part of that wave of comic book writers and artists in the ‘90s who were almost like rock stars, and in turn you and some others eventually branched off to create Image Comics. How was it to be a part of that boom and to be leading the charge?
Look man, those are some of my favourite memories of all time. You’ve got to understand, man, I was handed New Mutants. I wasn’t given Spider-Man or Wolverine and the X-Men. Spider-Man and Wolverine were the two top characters and sellers in comics. I was asked to give a new shiny coat of paint to New Mutants, to a book that people were abandoning. When I look at X-Force, I go, “Okay, so from New Mutants #87 to X-Force #1 is a span of sixteen months.” Characters that people had never interacted with. Man, if I wanted to compete in the market then I needed to load up the page with new characters for them to interact with, characters that they would enjoy, because the existing line of New Mutants characters weren’t cutting it. So Cable, Domino, Deadpool, Shatterstar, Stryfe... I wrote my own story. I took the characters that I had in my own creative sandbox and shared them with Marvel, turned them over to Marvel, signed custody over to Marvel, and it blew up for me! I remember people telling me, “I wouldn’t have my expectations set too high for X-Force. Nobody has ever heard of that. I mean, really, what’s an X-Force, right?” That just cracked me up! It was a buzz, man. It was such an amazing time for me as a creator. It set the stage for me.
Like you say, you were given a title in New Mutants that was a dying book and you turned it around, similar to what Frank Miller did with Daredevil a few years before that. But what was the reaction to that of the established writers at the time, the people who were on the bigger titles of the day?
Well they were my peers. I was competing against my own peer group, whether it was Todd McFarlane or Jim Lee. And like I said, man, they had some really powerful guns in their arsenal, and I had a fork and a knife. You know that old saying, Sean Connery in The Untouchables, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” I need to get my characters worked up and fast, and it worked out for me. I have nothing but great memories. Our peer group made our mark, we then got together and did Image Comics. My whole thing is that I try to stay close to what I am associated with and have a creative association with. Over the last decade, when I did Onslaught Reborn – that’s a sequel to Heroes Reborn, which was a movement I was a part of – or when I do the Deadpool Corps and I introduce Lady Deadpool or introduce a team of Deadpools on top of Deadpool, that’s me sticking close to my creative associations. So Deadpool: Bad Blood is another extension of that. Then publishing Youngblood with Chad over at Image, we jammed pretty well together on this project. You’ll see immediately why I gave the reigns over based on my wonderful working relationship with Chad. There were a couple of our conversations where he expressed his love for the ‘90s, for that era, and that’s the thing – I’m meeting these guys and they all grew up on this stuff. This is their childhood. Chad Bowers was thirteen years old – it’s a kick to jam! It’s like Eddie Vedder back in the ‘90s getting on stage with Bob Dylan and jamming. It’s a merging of ages.
From speaking to other comic book writers and artists over the years, some are quite happy for others to take liberties with their creations as they view it as just a job. With yourself, you seem a lot more passionate about your characters. So how do you feel when you see someone else writing one of your creations, such as a Deadpool or a Cable?
I knew what I was doing when I decided to take part. Creating characters for Marvel in the ‘90s, it was different then. There was an understanding then. If the deal wasn’t as good as it was, I wouldn’t have done it. But I knew that I was trying to make the next Wolverine all the time. I saw how Wolverine had been interpreted differently over time, and that’s part of the fun - maybe not every version you love. There’s certainly been versions of Cable I did not enjoy, but then there’s always the stuff that you really like and then along the way you go, “Maybe that wasn’t my cup of tea.” With Deadpool, he perhaps has the widest spectrum I’ve seen since I was growing up with Spider-Man. What I mean by that, in the ‘70s Spider-Man was on a kids’ show called The Electric Company, and he appeared in little skits and Marvel published a comic that was more kids-oriented called Spidey’s Super Stories. They were drawn more like colouring books, they had word quizzes and all sorts of games in them. At the same time, you’ve got your Amazing Spider-Man, your Spectacular Spider-Man, your Marvel Team-Up. With Deadpool, you get Deadpool and Moby Dick, Deadpool and William Tell. They call it Deadpool Killustrated. I tell everybody when I go on tour, “Marvel have given you a Deadpool for all ages.” My nephew, he loved the Classics Illustrated. Some of my other friends and acquaintances, they loved Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, they love seeing Deadpool kick everyone’s ass. Then there’s the monthly Deadpool stories that are going on. Like I said, I did ten issues of Deadpool in space. It’s just crazy! Whether it’s the video games or the cute little LEGO Deadpool running through a game shooting you, or if he’s a cute little bobblehead like there is on my mantle here, or the little POP figures. I’ve got these amazing sculpts of Deadpool with his swords and his gun out, and if this guy appeared in real life then you’d be terrified of him. Like Ryan’s Deadpool in the movies, you might have to move the camera away because what he’s about to do might be pretty ugly. There’s a Deadpool for all ages, man! He’s riding unicorns, and he’s shooting three guys in the head simultaneously in some other version. So it’s great, it’s a blast. It’s fun to see all those interpretations - and I collect them all!
A who's who of the comic book world - the founding members of Image Comics
Sticking with the Merc with a Mouth, it’s recently been announced that Donald Glover is developing an adult-driven Deadpool animated series. Do you have any involvement in that at all?
I have no involvement other than to cheer on Donald Glover. I knew about this cartoon for the last fourteen months. It’s been in development. The people at FX and at Marvel and everyone behind the scenes, they’ve been getting the deal together and deciding whether it was going to be an adult, after-hours sort of thing. So I was waiting excitedly. Late last Fall I heard Donald Glover was coming on, and I flipped out because I’m a huge fan and I love Atlanta. So when I saw him at the Golden Globes in January, I rushed over to him and congratulated him. Here’s the deal, he had an armful of awards, he’s the writer/director/producer/star of an acclaimed show, and that guy’s talent is otherworldly. So I think we should all just let Donald Glover be Donald Glover. If you told me, even five years ago, “Hey Liefeld, Ryan Reynolds will be spearheading the film version of Deadpool in the movie world, and now Donald Glover is going to be doing an adult animated series.” Like, dude, pinch me! I can’t imagine it gets much better than this. It has just been a spectacular ride, and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with. But I will presume other people have said about what advice to give him, but I would say to give him no advice. He’s his own brand of creative genius, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
And it’s even more fantastic that this new animated series is being planned as an adult-oriented show…
Oh, that’s it, man. I mean, I’m an older guy, I’ve got teenagers. We’re done with family affairs. I like HBO, FX, Showtime. I want my stuff more adult-oriented. Literally, when I was growing up everything was R-rated – Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Predator, Terminator, Total Recall, RoboCop. People forget those were all R-rated movies. Now we’re stuck in this PG-13 family world. So I love that Deadpool is staying to his adult roots, staying in that adult arena.
One thing you’re clearly going to be massively involved in is the big screen adaptation of your Extreme Universe titles as a shared movie-verse. Where do things stand with that right now, and is there anything you can tell us in terms of what characters we can expect?
I am just hugely very excited, elated and grateful again to be involved with Akiva Goldsman, who has an Oscar on his mantle – something I also do not have. You know, he’s a genius writer/producer in the business. When I sat down and met with him he was just full of terrific ideas. He’s had an amazing career. People weren’t aware, but he was the producer of the show Fringe, which I just loved. He’s had Underground here in the States on WGN. Obviously, he is considered by the industry as one of the top creative minds. Having him turn his focus towards the Extreme Universe and wanting to build that universe is extremely flattering and exciting. Then with Graham King, he’s just wrapped on the new Tomb Raider. We had to wait on Graham because he had to wrap Tomb Raider, but now we are starting to assemble talent. Akiva is also a producer on Avengelyne, which is my top selling female, angelic warrior comic of the last couple of decades . So he’s involved in that, too. A lot of writer announcements will come, and then further down the line everything will begin to take shape. These deals, man, everything’s got to be signed before anything goes forward, and these things take time. Like I said, the Deadpool cartoon I was told with great authority in March 2016 that it was happening, and it did not get announced until May 2017. I have had to apply patience, and that is maybe the biggest discipline I’ve had to acquire over the last few years. Now I’m more Zen, man. Everything’s coming together like it’s supposed to, dragging on for fourteen months at a time. But things are about to kick in to high gear. Like I said, the writers will be announced first.
The Youngblood team, who initially debuted back in 1987
Are there any details that you can let out of the bag just yet on what characters we can expect to see in the cinematic Extreme Universe?
Oh, I would get in a lot of trouble. Those aren’t my announcements to make. There’s definitely an idea of how we want to build this. Again, being a huge fan of what they’ve accomplished over at Marvel and obviously not wanting to repeat anything that they’ve done because it’s been seen before, we will have a fresh approach. Akiva was brought in by Paramount to kind of shepherd the Transformers franchise and shape that, and The Last Knight is his first launch in to that world alongside Michael Bay. I can’t wait. It’s very exciting, I’ve had to learn patience. Certain things I would love to tell you but I cannot.
Elsewhere, with two Deadpool sequels, X-Force and New Mutants all heading to the silver screen, are you involved with any of those pictures in a consultancy capacity given your history with those characters?
, Illyana… she has the best story in my opinion of that group of characters. I think it’s great they’ve focussed on her. Hopefully that’s as good as advertised. With Deadpool 2, just trusting in the fact that everything comes together. So far, everything is fantastic. I am a huge David Leitch fan, I love the colour of his palette, the way he shoots things. He’s maybe the premiere action director right now in the business, so I can’t believe he’s come on board. With Deadpool, it’s just ‘in Ryan we trust’. He’s got a great grasp of the character, and I’m just trying to stay out of everybody’s way. I’m just the cheerleader. What I tell people is that they don’t come in to my office and tell me how to do my comics, so I don’t come in to theirs to tell them how to do their work. But I’m very excited by the addition of Josh Brolin – that’s just amazing! I’m super excited, I cannot wait to see the two of them jam together on-screen. It’s got me very excited.
It seemed like there was a spell of six months where everyone was linked to the Cable role. Russell Crowe, David Harbour, Stephen Lang, Michael Shannon, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson…
Man, I remember like a year solid! Everybody! I had actors calling me up saying, “We want to throw our hat into the ring.” That was as exciting a derby as I have ever seen in terms of guys who wanted to play Cable. That was really exciting. I think they nailed it, Josh Brolin is the guy, he’s going to be great, I can’t wait to see them jam real soon. I mean, look, that movie’s coming out in a year or so. It’s going to be exciting.
As well as Cable and Domino debuting in Deadpool 2, a recent rumour suggested that Sunspot, Feral and Shatterstar would be making appearances, too…
When it comes to those rumours, I can’t comment. What we know for sure is we’ve got Ryan reprising Deadpool, Josh Brolin and Zazie Beetz as Cable and Domino. That’s a lot to take in, and it’s very exciting. If I was excited when they called and told me these characters were going to be action figures, you better believe I was excited when they told me, “Oh hey, Zazie Beetz is going to be Domino. Oh yeah, Josh Brolin, how do you like him?”
Fantastic fan art (via Spider Monkey) of what Josh Brolin may look like as Cable
One thing we can’t not ask you about is how you’re often viewed as one of the most controversial figures in comics. How do you feel having that status thrust upon you?
Oh, I love it. You’ve got to be doing something right if people are talking about you - that’s how I’ve always viewed it. I’m a huge sports fan. People love their teams, they pick their teams. I’m a Laker fan for life, I’ve grown up here in Southern California. The reason I’m using a sports analogy is that I think comic book fans, genre fans, fans of artists and writers, they feel the same way; you pick your favourites, you back your favourites. If somebody else gets some of that rub, you’re quick to either come to their defence or tear them down. It’s all part of the game, man. I’ve been at games where players I don’t like are doing well and I scream at them and hope to distract them, have them miss their shot. I was really young when I achieved all this success.
Are we right in thinking that you were just 19 when you first got in to the business?
I got hired in comics at 18 years old! You’ve got to understand, Hawk & Dove came out in 1988, X-Force #1 launched in 1991. Within four years I had the #1 selling comic in the industry. I took New Mutants from selling 100,000 copies to 1 million copies. X-Force sold 5 million copies. I launched Image Comics with Youngblood. Youngblood sold 1 million. Next you’ve got Supreme, Prophet, Bloodstrike. I imagine I pissed a lot of people off. You just shrug it off. I’d rather be me than the people pissed off at me.
And X-Force #1 is still ranked as the second highest selling comic book in history, behind X-Men (Volume 2) #1?
It’s the second highest in total sales, yeah. X-Men, that launched with more covers and variants. I’ve got to be honest, I thought we’d turned a page in the industry and that everything was going to sell that well. I truly thought that record would fall, but twenty-six years later I realise that was a special moment in time. There wasn’t trading cards or different covers or gold foil. People followed the excitement they had over the talent involved.
The hugely popular, legendary X-Force #1
Obviously that’s a huge achievement for you personally, but in a way does it make you sad that the comics industry didn’t rise to knock X-Force #1 off the #2 spot?
No, the comics industry evolved. Electronic media was always coming for us. During that time when Image Comics was launched, video games went from little 2D games. I used to play a game called Street Fighter, then one day a guy from my studio came in. With Street Fighter, they moved towards each other, very one-dimensional playability. Then a guy came in to my office and said, “Oh my god, you’ve got to see this Mortal Kombat game. You can rip a guy’s throat out and tear his heart out!” I remember I watched that and just knew we were in a different arena now. Comic books at that time really traded on male fantasy projection. Now we’re in a world with virtual reality and all the VR technology. With comics, I’m just thrilled comics hung in there. In the early 2000s they were on the ropes, a lot of distribution mishaps, a lot of retail mishaps. The business was kind of in a rough spot, but it rallied, it fought. I think the gun was put to comics’ head and they said, “Are you gonna fight back or are you gonna fall?” And they fought back, and now they’re in great shape. We have sold an enormous amount of these Deadpool graphic novels at $25 a pop. The numbers in the mass market are ridiculous. People have embraced this again, and we’re kind of seeing a renaissance. I had a retailer this weekend tell me that they’re seeing an uptake that they haven’t seen in twenty years. Things rise and fall, and we’re in good shape again.
Any last words you’d like to share with our readers or words on future projects?
Just buy Deadpool: Bad Blood! Buy Youngblood! There’s going to be Deadpool: Bad Blood Volume 2 coming out! No man, I want to thank every fan who has continued to support my career. It’s been a great ride, it’s been thirty years, and I look forward to many more years.
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