Smurfing Rob Liefeld


To truly understand the artist, you must walk a mile in his shoes.

Somewhere, I'm sure there's a saying like that. In case there's not, I just made it up. There.

I spent a good chunk of Friday studying Rob Liefeld's artwork from 1991 in more detail than I had expected to do. It started with a single character layout drawing:

I was copying from the cover of "New Mutants" #92. It was Shatterstar in a pose, with his cape flying out, two hands filled with swords, pouches on display, hair whipping around. The works.

I was about to translate that into a Smurf, a famously hairless character. If you squint your eyes just so and don't think about it too hard, it'll be cool. Here, look:

I planned on trying something new, going from single character sketches to a page with multiple characters on it. As comics readers, we don't often think about what extra work that brings on. Having done it now, I can tell you. First, you need to make sure every character in a single frame is drawn to the same scale. That's harder than it sounds if you're used to only ever drawing one character at a time.

The scale becomes doubly important if you're drawing background elements. I wasn't planning on going just that far yet. One step at a time. I did briefly consider a classic Liefeldian geometric pattern for a background, but didn't want to risk picking the wrong rounded rectangle and ruining the drawings.

Second, you need to be careful with how the two characters interact on the page. Where are they in relation to each other? How do you plan to show that? Overlap? Scale?

And while figuring all of that out, do your best to avoid tangents. Those things stick out like sore thumbs.


This multi-character drawing was the latest in my series of adaptations of Rob Liefeld's mutant team into little blue characters who are roughly three apples high and possess blue skin. It started during the week like this:

That was fun, but if you draw Deadpool then you have to follow up with Cable:

What started as a cute exercise had quickly turned into an obsession. I devoured those "X-Force" comics back in the day. I wanted to play more with them. I kept going:

I liked Shatterstar the most, instantly. There's so much ornamentation to his character. There's that ridiculous face guard thing, the pig tails, the pony-tail, the shoulder thingy, the dual-bladed swords, the spikes on the sword's handle, the boots, the pouches, the star emblem... Heck, I didn't realize until later that I completely missed the star-shaped light burst in his left eye!

While most of the previous drawings had stuck fairly closely to Peyo's ink technique (as best as my limited skills could ham-handedly approximate them), I started experimenting with Liefeldian inking techniques here. My drawing was a bit too small to pull off all the small lines, though. I fear some of them are a bit too heavy and didn't give me enough room to give them space.

I started realizing the limitations of the Smurf's bodies with this drawing. Certain superhero poses don't translate very well to the way Peyo drew legs. Thankfully, Cannonball's burst of energy hides that easily.

All of that built up my confidence to go all out and draw most of the team on a single page. Using the cover from "New Mutants" #92, I came up with this:


I mentioned some of the issues earlier with drawing multi-character images. There are more to spotlight here:

Overlaps. In my original pencil sketch, Shatterstar's sword crossed right in front of Domino's face. That's not good. I move the whole sword up about 30 degrees to get out of her way. It looks much better.

Tangents. The sword tip still ended up piercing the top of her hat. At least, that's how it looks. It's meant to be sticking way out in front of Domino, but you might not realize that at first glance.

The Live Area. Comic artists know that the outer border of the page might not show up in print. They don't put anything important along those outermost edges. I didn't realize when I started this that the sketch pad I was using is just a hair wider than my scanner. That's why Feral's finger gets cut off in this image. UGH.

Composition. Cannonball appears to be one of Domino's most epic gas attacks. If I had it to do over, I'd turn that trail of energy hard left at a certain point and make it look like he's just coming into the panel.

The overall design of the page changed with my drawing. Liefeld's original layout for the image was more of a diamond shape than mine. The four new characters on the team are presented front and center. There's a little bit of overlap to show who is in front of who, but they're close together up front. My final design spills out down the page, from the upper left corner to the lower right. Feral in her pose is the most dynamic part leading the eye across the page. Most of that comes from reinventing the page as I went along. If I ever do another page like this, I'll lay out ALL the characters first instead of adding one in at a time.

Or, I can pretend like I did everything on purpose to leave room for the bar code in the bottom left corner. Yeah, that's it.

Proportions. I messed up with James Proudstar. I wanted to make sure it was clear he was the big guy and strong man of the team. Problem is, his head should have been normal size and his body should be bigger. Yes, I missed the chance to draw a small-headed Liefeldian character. The internet screams in dismay at me. (Likewise, I drew too many feet. I do want to start drawing rubble and clouds, though. Someday...)

Use your body. I struggled with a few of the hands in this drawing. In the end, two of them outright fail, I think. The lead hand that Feral is sticking out has a thumb that's too low. Domino's left hand has another thumb that isn't quite sure where it is. That was a problem at the pencil stage that I should have figured out better before going to inks.

I worked out a few of the hands by looking at my own, striking silly poses with my arms and picturing how the camera looking at me from the other side would see my thumb or the side of my hand. I probably should have gone to Photo Booth on my Mac and taken some pictures to be sure I had them right.

Practice. I used some original Smurfs stories to double check my Smurf anatomy, particularly given Feral's position. I don't think I had ever drawn a Smurf butt before. When I got to that point, I stopped and took out a blank sheet of paper and filled half of it with reference drawings of different Smurf poses from the waist down. I needed to get a better feel for how the legs connected to the body. A little bit of practice paid off on the final page.

The saddest loss in the final image is Feral's long tail. Smurfs have cotton ball tails. I couldn't change that to Feral's long skinny one, even if it would have been more visually interesting.

Play the angles. Characters standing straight up or square to the reader are more boring than characters in action at an angle. Proudstar is the most boring character in this drawing, and that's in large part because he's standing more or less straight up. (That, and I couldn't picture myself drawing a muscular Smurf.) I like the way Domino is running and Shatterstar is twisted back away from the reader. It's one of the first lessons an animation instructor will teach you: draw a line through the spine of the person you're drawing. If that line is vertical, you're doing it wrong. Twist it around in some way.

Smurfs have no boobs. You have no idea how difficult that makes drawing most superhero women. The only clue you have that they're women on the final page is their long hair and eye lashes. Gee, thanks a lot, Peyo.

Smurfs have hats. They get in the way. I've since come to terms with the idea that big hair can replace the hat. Sadly, I didn't realize that before I attempted to draw a hat obscured behind Feral's Wolverine-like hair. At first glance, what looks like her back arm is really the top of her white hat. A fully colored image would make that stand out more. I should get a White Out pen next and take care of that.


Thicker lines jump to the front. Thinner lines recede. The one place I got that right here was with Cannonball. He's all thin lines without any strong black areas. Mostly, that's because he's the smallest on the page and I went to a fine tip Micron pen to draw him in with any detail. I couldn't get my brush line that thin normally. So it's a combination of factors that works in my favor and I'll take it.

I have to be more willing to vary the thin lines and the thick lines to show their differences. The range there isn't as much as it ought to be. I think Shatterstar's nose is the perfect example of where it works on the page. That lower part of his nose is much thicker than that peak at the top of the nose. It works. It felt exaggerated when I first drew it, but I think it's perfect now. There are plenty of other lines on this page where my technique faltered. Shatterstar's hat also works this way. And I like the line strokes I have in Feral's hair on her right side of her head. I think it adds depth, as do the strokes in Shatterstar's head gear just above his ear.

I drew Shatterstar's pig tails directly in ink, and modeled them after Todd McFarlane's techniques for Spider-Man's webbing, only flatter. I think it works.

Solid blacks are your friend. This is a lesson I learned a long time ago, before I even read comics. I remember reading a book about how to draw your own comic strip. And one of the lessons in there is that spotting blacks is important, because it gives weight to the page and helps anchor the eye. It also helps direct the eye, if done right. Blacking out certain areas removes them from your focus. It moves your eye to the point where the artist wants you to look.

While that's less true in color comics where color can be used today to spot darker areas that function as solid black areas, I think it's still something to keep in mind, unless you're going for a specific style. (Think Scott Kolins or Rob Haynes, perhaps.) I didn't have much to work with here. Domino, theoretically, could be rendered in all black, but then I'd lose her form. When you look at her costume on this cover, it's mostly done in gray areas. In drawing in the Smurf style, I didn't think adding in all the detail to approximate Liefeld's technique would work. Rendering that leather jacket would be crazy, much in the same way that Shatterstar's jacket is filled with more folded/stress lines than would be appropriate for a Smurf.

Color can still save you. No matter how good your inking technique, I have to think that there are certain things that just might not look right in black and white without the help of the color to give shaped to them. Try picturing the white stripes in Feral's hair in black and white, for instance. Since the rest of her hair isn't black, creating that contrast needs to happen in the color stage.

I also stand firm in my belief that a modern coloring job over the original "X-Force" issues (and even the previous "New Mutants" issues) would look awesome.

Patience is a big factor, too. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Every line is important. If you mess up one line, it'll stick out. You can't rush the inking stage without having lots to fix in the post-production stage. Or, if you're doubly patient, you'll be using white ink and doing it over again.

If you want to realize what a big difference an inker can make to a drawing, you don't need to compare two terribly different inking styles (picture Mark Farmer against Danny Miki or Scott Williams, for example). All you need to do is ink one page for yourself and pay attention to the ridiculous number of decisions you have lined up in front of you. Then, as you get further along in the page, picture how one bad line might ruin all the hard work you had done up to that point.

Don't choke.

A penciler gets the opportunity to loosely sketch out his lines and overdraw. Even though most pencillers are very tight today as compared to the artists of 20 or 30 years ago, the inkers still have an amazing job ahead of them with each page. And not a single line can be taken for granted. It's fascinating to see the world through their eyes, even on such a small scale.

This might sound slightly fanboyish: Can you imagine being handed a fully penciled page by one of today's top artists and being asked to draw over it?

In ink.



More than just the inking and general art technique lessons in pulling of a drawing like this, there's something specific to be learned from this Smurf-Force art: Rob Liefeld's art is ridiculously cluttered with things, highly detailed in its linework, imaginative to the point of counter-realism, and -- well, that all just makes it plain old fun to play with. He threw it all on the page and got a big reaction from the fans at the time. It's imaginative and it's fun. We can always use lots of that in comics.

You can scoff at it all you like when reading it. You can apply your real world sensibilities to it -- then scoff when artists use lightboxes religiously and colorists work their hardest to mimic photoreferences with Photoshop techniques -- but comics can be about so much more than just looking real.

Let the superhero fantasy play out to its strengths. The most memorable comic artists have quirks in their styles. Drawing pouches and crazy hair and funny head gear and wild guns is fun. I didn't think I had it in me to draw a Liefeld gun, but I built a couple of them last week just by drawing three dimensional shapes and cutting parts out of them. It works. It looks cool. It's fun.

And, if you try just hard enough, the styles can be applied to other types of art with interesting results.

I'm strongly tempted to try Jim Lee's X-Men in this style this week. Inking like Scott Williams is scary, though...

(X-Force owned by Disney/Marvel. The Smurfs are owned by Peyo's estate, I suppose. Thanks to both of them in advance for not suing me for this bit of fun, artistic education, and transformative use/satire. Besides, it's only a matter of time before Disney buys the Smurfs, too, right?)

Next week: Comic book reviews. Actual comics. I plan on reading them! And none will feature blue creatures. Not even Nightcrawler!

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