In the early 1990s, self-taught artist Liefeld became prominent due to his work on Marvel Comics' The New Mutants and later X-Force. In 1992, he and several other popular Marvel illustrators left the company to found Image Comics, which rode the wave of comic books owned by their creators rather than by publishers. The first book published by Image Comics was Rob Liefeld's Youngblood #1.
He is married to actress Joy Creel.
In 1986, he was a last-minute replacement penciller for the first issue of Stetch, published by Silverwolf Comics.
In 1988, at the age of 20, he completed his first significant published work, as penciller for DC Comics' Hawk and Dove limited series by Barbara and Karl Kesel, who also provided inks. Liefeld's layouts were oriented sideways in story pages taking place in a chaos dimension, so that a reader would have to turn the comic book at a right angle to read them. Because this was done without editorial input, editor Mike Carlin cut and pasted the panels into the proper order, and Kesel lightboxed them onto DC comics paper to ink them. The letters column of Hawk and Dove #5 mentions that Liefeld "showed something new to an editor who thought he’d seen everything." In his defense, Liefeld offered that that was how the dimension had been drawn the only other time it had been featured in the comic, although Karl Kesel claims this is untrue.
Liefeld moved to Marvel, where in 1989 he became the penciller for The New Mutants, starting with issue #86. He is generally credited for turning this lowest-selling title of the X-franchise into a financial success.
With The New Mutants (vol. 1) #98, Liefeld assumed full creative control over the series, pencilling, inking, and plotting, with Fabian Nicieza writing dialogue. The New Mutants series was retitled X-Force (vol. 1), whose 1991 debut issue sold four million copies, setting an industry-wide record later broken by Jim Lee's X-Men (vol. 2) #1. The sales numbers were propelled by 1990s direct market sales strategies; variant editions were issued to encourage sales of multiple copies to single collectors. Lee's X-Men was published with five variant covers, and X-Force relied on multiple variant trading cards polybagged with the comic itself.
Liefeld and several other popular young artists including Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino and Marc Silvestri left Marvel in 1992 to form Image Comics in a migration dubbed by fans as "the X-Odus" since many of these artists had worked on X-Men related titles for Marvel. Each co-founder formed his own studio under the Image banner, such as Liefeld's Extreme Studios. Liefeld's superhero team series Youngblood, which is loosely based on a 1991 Team Titans series Liefeld had proposed to DC Comics, was the first comic Image published. Extreme Studios comics contained elements that became Image stereotypes: huge muscles, breasts, and guns. However, Youngblood immediately began to suffer from delayed publication dates and major changes in direction. Critical approval of these characters was scarce, and while Liefeld's wholesale sales to comic books dealers were strong, sales to consumers, especially of secondary titles from Extreme and Maximum Press, were not as spectacular.
In 1996, Liefeld's and Lee's studios signed with Marvel to re-envision several of the company's core series, an event called "Heroes Reborn." Liefeld was contracted to write 12 issues of The Avengers, co-written with Jeph Loeb, and was to pencil 12 issues of Captain America. However, he failed to meet the publishing schedule and his overall output met with a less-than enthusiastic response, failing to reach the sales targets required in his agreement with Marvel, although Loeb noted in Wizard Magazine that their run on Captain America had three times the sales of issues prior to their run. Marvel terminated the agreement after six issues, and Marvel re-assigned the two series to Lee's studio.
In addition to allegedly siphoning funds, he was said to have used Image staff to do promotional and production work for Maximum. In early September, Liefeld issued a press release stating he was resigning his position at Image and leaving the group. Nearly simultaneously, the Image partners issued a press release stating that they had fired Liefeld. The other partners had already voted once to remove Liefeld from the group, a move he protested on the grounds that he was given too short a notice period. His resignation came only minutes before the second meeting that would have forced him out.
The comics press variously reported several underlying issues: the effect of Liefeld's erratically published and critically derided lines on the company's reputation, his supposed misuse of his position as Image CEO to unfairly benefit his own publishing efforts (including Maximum Press, which was not a part of Image) and attempts to recruit artists employed by his Image partners, a violation of their informal agreements. As further financial reversals followed, Liefeld moved all of his publishing ventures into a new company, Awesome Comics. This new enterprise, announced in April 1997 as a partnership between Liefeld and Malibu Comics founder Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, concentrated its efforts on newer properties.
Meanwhile, Liefeld hired acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore to revive many of his creations, which had declined in popularity. Moore wrote a few issues of Youngblood and Glory, but his most lauded work for Liefeld was on Supreme, which played on the character's more generic traits in a clear tribute to the Mort Weisinger-era Superman.
Awesome's initial releases, including entirely new properties like Kaboom! created by Jeff Matsuda, were generally received more favorably by critics than the Extreme and Maximum lines had been. However, Awesome soon collapsed under the burdens of disputes among its partners, and an abrupt departure of its primary investor.
In the 2000s, Liefeld returned to his former characters in the X-Men franchise, providing pencils for the occasional cover and/or interior of Cable and X-Force. These books had continued to be somewhat popular properties until the early 2000s, when both were cancelled.
In 2004, he reunited with Fabian Nicieza for an X-Force limited series and illustrated the early covers for Nicieza's Cable and Deadpool. In that same year, Liefeld formed Arcade Comics and once again announced plans to revive Youngblood.
Liefeld's new website was launched in May 2005. In August 2005, his first assignment for DC in many years began, a two-issue arc on Teen Titans with writer Gail Simone. Orders for his first issue increased more than 10% over the July issue, moving the book into the Diamond top 20. The second issue of the arc dropped in orders to a point almost 5% below what issues of the series before Liefeld's were solicited.
Liefeld returned to the Heroes Reborn Universe with writer Jeph Loeb with the Onslaught Reborn project and released as a 5 part monthly title starting in November of 2006.
To commemorate the event, and the 15th anniversary of Image Comics, the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con was headlined by the Image Founders panel, where all seven of the original Image Comics founders appeared on stage simultaneously for the first time in history.
In interviews, Liefeld has compared himself to other popular artists who experience meteoric success and acclaim early in their careers but near-pariah status afterwards, notably Britney Spears, who "became vapid pop music, and perhaps I was nothing more than a vapid comic book artist." He seems to credit his success tapping into the zeitgeist: "I'll be the first to tell you that we [the Image collective] were never the best artists. We were never the best at anything, but just like a song or a band or whatever, we caught on and we toured rigorously."
Similarities between other Liefeld creations and established characters have been remarked on. He created Deadpool for Marvel Comics and some fans have commented on similarities between this character and DC's Teen Titans villain Deathstroke. There are also strong similarities between his super-strong, flying Amazon princess character Glory and that of DC Comic's long established Wonder Woman character. Also, the blond magic using sword expert with horns who can teleport named Genie in the comic is very similar to Marvel Comics' character Magik.
In addition to this, Liefeld is also alleged to have made a habit of copying art from other artists, (a practice known in the comics field as swiping), particularly during his years at Image.
Liefeld remained on lukewarm or hostile terms with most of his former Image partners. After the San Diego Comicon panel in 2007, Liefeld was interviewed by Wizard Magazine about his feud with the Image partners. He claimed the feud was in the past, saying: "The divorce was ugly, but to me it didn't linger ... I realized you just need to let it go.