Let’s start this bluntly: Steve Lieber is one of the finest, if not the finest, humor illustrators working in the U.S. comics industry today. Frustratingly for every other artist in the U.S. comics industry , he’s also pretty damn amazing when it comes to drama, as well. To make matters worse, he’s also one of the nicest people working in the U.S. comics industry. Somehow, he’s managed this while maintaining a surprisingly low profile, in the grand scheme of things – yet more proof of just how much of a menacing threat Lieber truly is to his artistic peers.
For many, the Portland, Oregon-based artist first came to prominence with 1998’s Whiteout, the critically acclaimed crime thriller set in Antarctica he created with writer Greg Rucka, but he’d actually been working in the industry for some years prior – including an underrated mid-90s run on DC’s Hawkman which established once and for all just how hairy comics’ premiere winged warrior really was. (Very.)
At a point where it was beginning to look as if Lieber was, once again, beginning to be ill-served by the material available to him – with noteworthy exceptions of work made with friends, family and studiomates, such as his Underground collaboration with Jeff Parker, or the acclaimed Me and Edith Head, written by his wife Sara Ryan, both of which are available via his website – fate and Marvel Comics editor Tom Brennan intervened, bringing Lieber onboard a new Spider-Man spin-off title being planned, written by then-rising star Nick Spencer and focusing on a group of low-level villains. When it debuted in 2013, The Superior Foes of Spider-Man introduced audiences to a Steve Lieber they’d never seen before, and one they’d quickly fall in love with.
The secret weapon of Superior Foes is, simply, that it’s funny. Spencer leaned into the idea of characters like Boomerang, the Beetle, and Overdrive as losers and comic relief in a world populated by psychopaths and kingpins of the criminal underworld, to glorious effect – but what sold the series more than anything else was Lieber’s artwork. Looking unlike anything else in comics at the time, Lieber’s artwork didn’t just offer top-level sight gags and an understated sense of timing that allowed each joke to land perfectly; it also gave the characters a humanity and reality that made them more than just generic laugh machines. The characters in Superior Foes might have been the butt of the jokes more often than not, but Lieber’s beautifully subtle line work and sense of pacing gave them a dignity that other, lesser, artists wouldn’t have even considered in the first place.
Once it became obvious just how good Lieber was with comedic material – something that most comic book artists in the American industry struggle with – it’s no surprise that he was offered a number of funny books as follow-up projects. In the years following the end of Superior Foes, he’d re-team with Spencer on Image Comics’ The Fix, work with James Asmus on Valiant’s Quantum & Woody Must Die, and demonstrate his all-time greatest status on DC’s riotous Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen with writer Matt Fraction. (That he wasn’t even nominated for his work on that series, which went on to win both Best Limited Series and Best Humor Publication, will forever be a mistake that the Eisner Awards should regret; just the vomiting cat alone is the kind of thing that should win every single award it’s viable for.)
It’s not enough that Lieber, well, draws real good; he’s also known for helping others hone their craft, as well. For two decades, Lieber has been a member of Portland’s Helioscope Studio, a collective of comic book creators that also includes Erika Moen, Colleen Coover, Jeff Parker and Family Man creator Dylan Meconis; starting earlier this year, he also makes monthly appearances at comic book store Books With Pictures to offer up-and-coming artists advice and portfolio reviews.
During his three decades-plus in the industry, Steve Lieber has demonstrated that he really can do it all, and then some. He’s been remarkably versatile in terms of output, whether it’s in the subject matter or scale of his projects, or their aesthetic – compare a page from Hawkman to something from his current project, DC’s One Star Squadron, and it’s clear to see that he doesn’t stick to just one look no matter the material. Yet, one thing is consistent throughout every single project he touches: a focus on the humanity of others, whether it’s the characters he’s bringing to life, his fellow creators, or whoever he comes into contact with.
To read a Steve Lieber comic is to read the work of someone who is at the top of their game, and only ever gets better by refusing to do anything less than their best on every single project. The same is true of Lieber’s interactions with others; he never gives less than his all, and we’re all the better for it.
Like I said: Steve Lieber makes everyone else in comics look bad by comparison. He is a threat to the comics community at large, and must be stopped before it’s too late.
(Happy Birthday, Steve!)