Heroes Reborn Pt. 1: Did We Need This?
by Travis Hedge Coke
At the end of 1995, and today, now, right this moment, there are people ecstatic that Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld returned to Marvel, there are people who wish they had never been there in the first place, fans of their reinvention of many classic Marvel characters, people who despise it, and truth be told, many of them read only some of the relevant comics, or read none of them. It is likely that Bill Blevins, Jerry Calabrese, and Ron Perelman had no real idea what Heroes Reborn would amount to, besides a sales boost and a hypergolic response.
In 1995 (when announced) and ’96 (release of the first issues), it felt as if Lee and Liefeld had been gone forever, though in the strong light of today, they had only quit Marvel and founded Image a few years beforehand. Both at Marvel and Image, sales and critical praise did not go hand in hand. The DeFalco/Ryan Fantastic Four had been running a few years, and while many wrote in to complain and the critical analysis of the day was not in its favor, sales did continue to climb on the book. Iron Man lost its long-term writer, Len Kaminski, to the editorial diktat that the title character would die and be replaced by a teenage version of himself from the past. Teen Tony was incredibly ill-received, both critically and in sales, though I enjoy a few of those stories, or at least, some scenes. Chris Claremont, who left the X-Men books before Lee and Liefeld, had joined them at Image, an early supporter, but by this time, the writer on some of Lee’s WildStorm comics.
According to Liefeld, Marvel’s top brass told him, in person, “You are the perceived as the weakest link in this deal. You want into Marvel offices, people don’t like this deal and they’ll go after you before they’ll go after Jim Lee.”
Sure enough, in late 2019, a critic wrote an entire article on how he despises what Liefeld did on his half of the Captain America revamp, calling it, “Just horrendous — a ridiculous homage to one of Marvel’s greatest heroes and an accepted symbol of the United States.” Whether you like Liefeld’s work or not, and the critic admits he has not actually read most of the run, he is mostly mad because Liefeld art has never cared about proper proportions and because, in-story, Captain America disagreed with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.
This same critic, and again this is 2019, asks of this 1996 comic, “What, if any, credibility would any political organization have in the United States if it was adorned with the Nazi swastika??” Which, to me, is the greatest argument in favor of the HR Captain America comics.
The only title, of the four chosen by Lee and Liefeld to revamp, that did not really need a shot in the arm, was Captain America, having had a banner year with Mark Waid and Ron Garney doing a Clear and Present Danger with Jackie Chan aesthetic and producing, at the end of that run, my favorite single Captain America comic, Sanctuary. Avengers had become a muddled mess with characters redesigned drastically, solely for toy potential, one of the worst big number “anniversary” issues of any book (Avengers #400, History Repeats Itself, with Waid as the credited writer). Fantastic Four had become staid, routine, and the future promised, unfortunately, something more staid and routine. Iron Man was about a teenager out of time, a constant reminder of a crossover people disliked intensely while it was running, and a conceit that ill fit the book.
Liefeld and Lee, on the other hand, were riding a creative high, even amidst mockery that Liefeld just trademarked random words out of the dictionary or that Lee’s books were too much of a shared universe, for a universe so young. Both, and the writers and artists they hired, were accused of only being flash and style, whether the talent be Liefeld, himself, or Alan Moore, writing Jim Lee’s WildCATs. Style is a substance, and the folks who disbelieve that tend to be lacking in style or substance. Image Comics’ loudest critics were, it became increasingly evidence, the professionals who could not get a book launched if that book was not about a character or franchise created by other people twenty or fifty years earlier.
“I didn’t get a chance to play with the icons I grew up with,” Liefeld, who wanted to draw Avengers when he left Marvel to help found Image, told Tim Truohy of Marvel Age. “There was a sense of loss… we were definitely leaving behind an opportunity.”
In an interview with Tom DeFalco for Comics Creators on Fantastic Four, Jim Lee told him, “As much as I love X-Men, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Fantastic Four.”
Being fans does not necessarily translate to better stories, and I suspect some of the weakest aspects of the Heroes Reborn comics are those that presume a cache of prior knowledge. Some characters are smooshed together to form composites, some classic stories alluded to, in what is otherwise a continuity vacuum. But, “weakest” and “better,” are always subjective. The tone chosen for each title, alone, may have been enough to ruin these comics for some fans of the characters. The Liefeld-overseen Captain America went hard after Neo Nazis immediately, which I remember comics shop gossipers at the time lamenting as clearly we lived in an age where that was no true concern. The Fantastic Four, in their title, were more openly cognizant and conversational about sex than readers had been accustomed to. A few years later, you would have “fans” complaining at the Invisible Woman saying, “ass,” and the Wasp wearing a t-shirt, so uptight fans, or even just fans rigid in their range of enjoyment is hard to gauge.
When Jim Krueger asked Liefeld and Lee, for Marvel Age, “Who’s stronger, the Thing or the Hulk?” Rob Liefeld replied that, “I never believed the Thing could beat the Hulk,” and Jim Lee just laughed.
Being fans, we see the four books indulge different styles of greatest hits, with Fantastic Four being a summary of the first five or six years of the original Jack Kirby/Stan Lee run, Avengers looking like a kid emptied his backpack of action figures, and Iron Man playing out as the Iron Man movie we knew then they would never make. But, the previous runs had all, also, been pros very familiar with the characters’ histories, making cosmetic changes and establishing very tried and true versions of superheroes they had probably known since childhood. If there is a difference, a real difference, what is it?
Jim Lee called Fantastic Four “the flagship book,” “the core of the Marvel Universe,” and “the real Marvel Universe.” He and Liefeld agreed that the characters they chose were, largely, “noble” and the comics should reflect that. Heroes Reborn set out to, without saying it loudly as a marketing point, take things back to a classic feel they remembered, rather than a rerun feel, which some of the comics had become trapped in.
“What is the motivation for that guy every day to go and fight people, and hurt himself,” asks Liefeld, who pointed to Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels as an inspiration.
Jim Lee: “It’s not the norm at all. The selfless hero who goes out and fights for the sake of what’s good.”
Rob Liefeld will leave the imprint about halfway through the titles’ runs, and while Captain America seems to run on its course, Avengers has a dramatic twist thanks to oncoming writer, and old hand at making things awesome, Walt Simonson. There is, in general, such a guiding hand from Liefeld and Lee, coordinating and co-plotting all the books, that it is impossible to, at a glance, identify what comes from either of them, and to be honest, what was generated directly by the artists and writers they are working with, or necessitated by outside concerns. The contracts, which Lee took over completely, allowed for a second year, which he declined. Had it continued, Fantastic Four could have seen the Salem’s Seven, She-Hulk, and Carol Danvers.
That these comics take place in a pocket universe created by the son of two of the Fantastic Four was an addition that came external to all the HR talent, but they work it in easy and make it count. Make it seem natural.
Making the characters feel alive and engaging, making the characters and concepts seem plausible and dressed for the year they are living in, this was the value of the revamp. Even now, these stories read alive.
Heroes Reborn Pt. 1: Did We Need This?
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