Michel Fiffe, the talented writer and artist on the creator-owned series Copra, recently made a brief visit to the Extreme Studios corner of Image Comics via a three issue revival of Bloodstrike. “Brutalists” is simultaneously a love letter to the wild, high-octane superhero comic books that Rob Liefeld and his collaborators produced in the 1990s and an effort at straightening out some continuity & tying up a few loose ends.
Comic books from the early 1990s often get something of a bad rap. It was a period when a lot of young, up & coming creators who grew up on the works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore took the trappings of their grim & gritty stories and attempted, probably unwisely, to apply them to the superhero genre as a whole. Liefeld was one of the foremost among these young turks. As I noted in my review of his Youngblood crossover “Babewatch” the books that came out under the Extreme Studios umbrella were characterized by copious amounts of violence, gigantic guns & swords, scantily-clad sexy babes, and more gritted teeth then you would likely see in an entire career as a dental hygienist.
Having said all that, the Extreme books were probably the perfect reading material for teenage boys of the time, including Fiffe himself, who fondly recalls the original run of Bloodstrike from his high school years. Just as Miller and Moore had influenced the Image founders, so too did Liefeld and his colleagues then go on to influence the next generation of creators, among them Fiffe, who learned the importance of owning your own characters and going completely wild with them. So I guess that the three part “Brutalists” story is something of a tip of the hat by Fiffe to Liefeld for helping to inspire him.
Bloodstrike was a series about a covert government entity known as Project: Born Again that utilized a strike force of undead super-powered agents to carry out all sorts of secret and illegal missions. They were the flip side of the coin to Youngblood, the handsome, sexy, media-friendly super-heroes who the government thrust into the limelight. While Youngblood was grabbing the headlines and fame, the top secret Bloodstrike team was off skulking in the shadows, taking care of the really unsavory work that enabled the people in power to remain in power.
The Bloodstrike team was the ultimate in superhuman cannon fodder. They died on numerous occasions, always violently, only to be brought back to quasi-life each and every time by Project: Born Again.
I did pick up a few issues of Bloodstrike back in the day, mostly due to Keith Giffen being the plotter & layout artist for issue #s 4-6. Giffen tied the book in with events taking place in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon series and its spin-offs SuperPatriot and Freak Force. Specifically, Giffen set up a subplot involving the high-tech subversive organization the Covenant of the Sword infiltrating Project: Born Again. After his departure this plot was continued for several more issues by scripter Eric Stephenson, and then finally resolved by Robert Napton in issue #11, with Dragon and his adversary Cyberface also showing up.
Giffen’s brief run was genuinely bat-shit crazy, with insane amounts of over-the-top violence. That was especially the case with issue #5 (Nov 1993). Bloodstrike is dispatched to take down the arrogant and brutal super-human vigilante Supreme. They fail… badly. Supreme literally demolishes the team. For those who have never seen that story, here’s the page from it which has Supreme violently dispatching Bloodstrike’s leader Cabbot.
Oy vey! Kids, do not try this at home!
Re-reading those three issues recently, I’ve become convinced that Giffen was writing Bloodstrike as an incredibly dark comedy. I would not be surprised if he saw how popular violent anti-heroes had become and decided to just go ahead and produce the most exaggerated send-up of grim & gritty that he could possibly conceive.
At the same time, Giffen also really brought across the horrifying circumstances of Project: Born Again, as readers witnessed the five despairing members of the team were trapped in a revolving door of life & death, brought back to a semblance of life over and over again, each time violently dying anew.
These two aspects very much appealed to Fiffe, the comedic ultra-violence and the ultimate in existential crises, as he delves into both within “Brutalists.” Fiffe succeeds in giving these twisted characters a certain humanity and pathos while telling some comically dark stories.
Fiffe also uses this opportunity to resolve a couple of subplots that were left dangling do to the various creative team changeovers on the original series. One was Max, the guy who had a one night stand with Bloodstrike member Tag, and consequently became infected with some sort of disease that literally left him rotting alive. The other was Heaton, a private eye investigating the gruesome murders of several young women in rural Virginia. Fiffe brings them back in the second chapter of “Brutalists,” with the Covenant of the Sword also popping up.
Even the numbering of these issues is a testament to filling in the gaps. The first part of “Brutalists” is Bloodstrike #0, giving the series the prequel “year one” type tale it never got back in the day. The second and third parts are in Bloodstrike #23 and #24. For the completist-minded or just anal-retentive (and I guess I fit both categories) that fills in the two issue gap created when Bloodstrike jumped forward to issue #25 for Extreme’s “Images of Tomorrow” month, then jumped back to issue #11, only to then get cancelled with issue #22. So there you go; all these years later we finally have an uninterrupted run of Bloodstrike volume one.
The original Bloodstrike definitely didn’t flinch from depicting blood & gore, and Fiffe certainly continues in that vein. It’s an interesting contrast, though, because the artists on those books such as Dan Fraga, Chris Alexander and Richard Horie were going for the ultra-detailed look that was red-hot back in the early 1990s.
Fiffe, on the other hand, has a much more abstract, surreal quality to his art and coloring. His layouts & storytelling are also possessed of an unconventional nature. As a result, the violent sequences in “Brutalists” have the quality of a hazy yet still disturbing feverish nightmare. It’s very unsettling, even more so than the exhaustively busy house style of Extreme Studios back in the day ever was.
“Brutalists” works well both as a stand-alone piece for fans of Fiffe’s work on Copra and other projects, as well as a continuation of the original storylines & characters for fans of the original Bloodstrike. I happen to sort of fall in between those two categories, having certainly enjoyed Copra, yet also possessing a casual knowledge of the old Bloodstrike stories.
By the way, for those who are not familiar with them, Fiffe provides an extended recap of the series’ history on his website.
Bloodstrike “Brutalists” is an unusual project to be sure. Coming off of a second reading of the three issues, I felt the main strength was in seeing Fiffe being able to energetically tackle these characters he was fans of from his teenage days. The result is some incredibly bizarre and stunning artwork, as well as stories that are simultaneously warped and humorous. Hopefully this will also lead those unfamiliar with Fiffe to read his excellent series Copra.
Thinking it over, there are probably a few other series from Liefeld’s stable that Fiffe could also work his magic on, long-forgotten characters with convoluted histories and dangling subplots who are just waiting for someone to come along, dust them off, and give them a fresh coat of paint. Hey, maybe Fiffe could be Roy Thomas of Extreme Studios! He’ll come in, straighten out the back stories, tie up the loose ends, and get them up & running for the 21st Century.
Okay, all kidding aside, Liefeld did create a lot of characters with really dynamic, imaginative designs, so there’s a lot of potential there for Fiffe, or others, to explore. And I know that several other creators have been doing just that over the past few years, producing some entertaining stories.
Oh, yes… I would be remiss if I did not mention Rob Liefeld’s own contribution to “Brutalists.” One of the things that Liefeld has often been criticized for over the years is his predilection for designing characters and costumes with pouches… lots and lots of pouches! Who needs all those pouches? I don’t know. Anyway, Liefeld demonstrates that he has a sense of humor about the whole thing via a short back-up piece, as well as a couple of variant covers, which introduce a new character known as… The Pouch! Well, I’ll admit it, I laughed.