The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 218 | Project: Youngblood vs. Youngblood

Leaving Proof 218 | Project: Youngblood vs. Youngblood
Published on Thursday, April 3, 2014 by
What did an obscure, unsanctioned 1984 “non-crossover” between Eclipse Comics’ DNAgents and DC’s Tales of the Teen Titans have to do with Image Comics’ Youngblood? Maybe nothing… or maybe everything.

It’s no big secret that Rob Liefeld frequently “draws inspiration” from other creators and publishers. You know it, I know it, Liefeld knows it, Peter David knows it. His reputation for swiping character designs and page layouts transcends language barriers. His two most enduringly popular Marvel Comics creations, Deadpool and Cable, were quite clearly informed by pre-existing works created by other artists and writers, even as Liefeld occasionally downplays their design influence. Deadpool, as New Mutants/X-Force writer Fabian Nicieza once noted, is basically recurring Teen Titans villain Deathstroke. Is Alpha Flight‘s Nemesis also a part of Deadpool’s design lineage? It’s certainly possible, seeing as how Liefeld is on record in saying that he’s a huge Alpha Flight fan and he has a history of swiping from Nemesis creator John Byrne.


Design Arithmetic, Liefeld-style: George Pérez and Marv Wolfman’s Deathstroke + John Byrne’s Nemesis = Rob Liefeld’s Deadpool

In the case of Cable, more than a few bloggers have noted that the mutant cyborg’s design is reminiscent of Beilert Valance, a.k.a. Valance the Hunter, a minor character introduced by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson in Marvel’s Star Wars #16 (cover-dated October 1978). It’s also worth noting that Liefeld’s former collaborator Dan Fraga once wrote on the now-defunct Cinescape message boards that Cable’s “starting point” is found in Marvel’s Star Wars #16.


Left: Walt Simonson and Archie Goodwin’s Beilert Valance reveals his cyborg nature in Marvel’s Star Wars #16 (October 1978); right: Cable, as drawn by Liefeld on the cover of X-Force #9 (April 1992).

I mention all this to establish context, and not to make any rigid value judgements, positive or negative, about the integrity of Liefeld’s page layouts and character design work, however one would want to define a concept so malleable in the face of practical concerns as integrity in commercial art and entertainment. After all, no less than the late Eisner and Kirby Hall of Famer Wally Wood worked by the credo: “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up.


In the care of Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell, Liefeld’s Glory became more than just an imitation Wonder Woman.

Indeed, the relationship between the oppositional qualities of “original” and “derivative” in comics character design isn’t so much binary as it is a continuum, and more often than not, the execution of a design is just as important as its novelty. How well a design is implemented and rendered matters just as much as the quality of the design itself. In the hands of a sufficiently skilled and practiced creative team, even a character that is blatantly unoriginal in design and pedestrian in notion can become an asset in a comic—in fact, the ability to take the familiar and meaningfully subvert it is a foundational aspect of comics that engage in satire, parody, and other metatextual commentary.

As we’ve seen in our prior discussion of Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell’s Glory, a comic that features a Rob Liefeld-created, transparent Wonder Woman clone as its lead, skilled comics creation can overcome any perceived flaws related to a lack of originality in basic concept and design. It’s a cliché and an overgeneralization, but there is a measure of truth in the old chestnut that there are no bad characters, only bad writers (or bad artists). On the other hand, no amount of character design innovation can redeem a comic that is crafted with poor technique.

The interplay between a concept’s origins and its execution came to the fore in my mind a few weeks ago, as I was absent-mindedly browsing the International Catalogue of Superheroes and landed on the articles for the members of “Project: Youngblood,” a superhero team created by the DNAgents creative team of writer Mark Evanier and artist Will Meugnoit back in 1984 as a pastiche of the Teen Titans and featured in a DNAgents/Tales of the Teen Titans “non-crossover.”


The DNAgents and Project: Youngblood’s first meeting results in a brawl. Pictured: DNAgents #14 (July 1984)

Now, I read some of Eclipse Comics’ DNAgents and New DNAgents comics back in the day—a classmate had about a dozen or so issues in his possession, although how they ended up in the Philippine mountain town where I grew up, I can only guess—but either I’ve totally forgotten about Project: Youngblood or I missed the issue where they appeared. However, I was so intrigued by the idea of the “non-crossover”—I sort of have a thing for veiled crossovers as returning readers might have gathered from the articles here and here—I just had to track down a back issue or a reprint.

Here’s a quick summary of how it went down [30 year-old spoiler alert!]: The Teen Titans “guest-starred” in Eclipse Comics’ DNAgents #14 (cover-dated July 1984) as a team of superheroes called Project: Youngblood while a version of the DNAgents “appeared” in DC’s Tales of the Teen Titans #48 (cover-dated November 1984, with writing by Marv Wolfman and illustrations by George Pérez) as the RECOMbatants. The basic plot of either comic mirrored that of the other: The comic’s protagonists get into a misunderstanding with the ersatz guest stars, they battle but eventually work out their differences, and then combine forces to stop a nuclear meltdown, with the “visiting team” sacrificing their lives to save the “home team.” It’s fairly standard but nonetheless entertaining (and even affecting) superheroics, made all the more interesting by the “non-crossover” conceit.

So what does any of this have to do with Liefeld?


The Project: Youngblood roster (clockwise, from left): Roboto, Celestia, Amazing Girl, Heartstring, and Black Owl.

Well, you guys may have heard of a certain Rob Liefeld comic called Youngblood, his contribution to the 1991 Image Comics launch line-up. I wouldn’t call myself a Youngblood fan (I’m really not) but nevertheless, at the time of its release, I thought its take on the superhero-as-full-fledged-celebrity was fairly fresh (it would be several years before the conceit would be run into the ground). Liefeld was also somewhat uncharacteristically candid about the pre-existing, previously published character designs informing the work. According to the Image Comics co-founder, Youngblood was based on a rejected pitch for a Teen Titans “reboot” built around a team featuring Speedy (represented in the Youngblood team by Shaft), Duela Dent (paid homage to by Youngblood’s Vogue), a sentient S.T.A.R. Labs android (whose design evolved into Youngblood’s Die Hard), and a Khund warrior (who became Youngblood’s Combat).

Now, I have no reason to doubt Liefeld’s word that Youngblood was the result of a re-purposing of a failed Teen Titans pitch. After finding out about Project: Youngblood however, I have to wonder if Evanier and Meugniot’s creations had a direct-if-unacknowledged influence on Liefeld’s Youngblood. Granted, Project: Youngblood is a nod towards the Tales of the Teen Titans-era roster (Black Owl = Nightwing, Amazing Girl = Wonder Girl, Roboto = Cyborg, Heartstring = Jericho, Celestia = Starfire), but given the timeline, the obvious similarities in name and basic idea as a Teen Titans stand-in between the two teams don’t appear to be a coincidence. DNAgents #14 preceded Youngblood’s first published appearance by about seven years—three years if you count a 1987 ad for the aborted Megaton Special #1 as the team’s first appearance in print, but I don’t, since that earlier version of Youngblood features different designs, with the costume of the character that would become Youngblood’s Cougar seemingly lifted from the duds worn by the Legion of Superheroes’ Timberwolf during the early 1980s.


The DNAgents and Project: Youngblood eventually clear up their initial misunderstanding and team up to counter a common threat.

It is those surface similarities however, that really underline how execution and technique can supersede concept novelty. Project: Youngblood and Youngblood are two teams with the same name and the same basic conceit as a pastiche of the Teen Titans, but with ultimately distinct expressions.

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