Comic book reviews: Bloodstrike “Brutalists”

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.

Bloodstrike 0 cover

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.

Bloodstrike 0 pg 5

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.

Bloodstrike 5 pg 19

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.

Bloodstrike 23 pg 14

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 24 pg 4

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.

Bloodstrike 23 The Pouch variant cover

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.

Mocca Arts Festival 2014: a convention report

Since I’m now working again, I was able to put together some extra money and attend this year’s Mocca Arts Festival, once again organized by Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art and the Society of Illustrators. Michele and I were there on Saturday afternoon. There were a lot of great creators and publishers with some really interesting books for sale. I wish I had more money (and room in the apartment) so I could have picked up more stuff.

It was also very crowded. On the one hand, that’s a pain, since it gets hot & difficult to move. On the other hand, it is awesome to see so many younger people of diverse backgrounds interested in comic books & graphic novels. As I’ve said before, most of the really interesting, innovative material nowadays is definitely coming out through smaller companies or self-publishing.

Mocca Arts Fest 2014 banner

My one big purchase at the show was the new Dean Haspiel graphic novel Fear, My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience featuring, naturally enough, Billy Dogma and Jane Legit. I’ve really enjoyed Dean’s Billy Dogma stories in the past. It’s been some time since he published a new installment of the endearingly bizarre misadventures of “the world’s last romantic antihero,” and so I’ve been looking forward to Fear, My Dear since it was first announced a few months back. Dean had done a drawing of Billy Dogma for me in my sketchbook a few years back, so when he offered to do a quick piece inside the graphic novel, this time I asked for Jane Legit.

Jane Legit Dean Haspiel

I stopped by the Dare2Draw table and said hello to Simon Fraser, who has done a great deal to help organize & promote that program. Simon is a really good guy, as well as an extremely talented artist. He was kind enough to do a lovely drawing of the First Doctor in my Doctor Who theme book. He really captured the personality of actor William Hartnell. Simon had drawn the First Doctor in the Prisoners of Time miniseries published by IDW last year. Now that the comic book license is in the hands of Titan Comics, Simon will be the regular artist on the upcoming Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor ongoing series. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing his work on it. I also picked up a copy of the Dare2Draw Sketchbook, which has several beautiful black & white pieces by Simon, as well as a number of other artists, including one by my friend Fred Harper.

First Doctor Simon Fraser

I also saw Charles Fetherolf and Justin Melkmann. I’m not sure if I’ve had the opportunity to go to any of Justin’s World War IX gigs in the past year, so this might be the first time I’ve seen him since the 2013 Mocca Fest. I know I hadn’t seen Charles in the last year, but we’d been in contact on Facebook. He really felt that he did not do that good a job on the Madame Vastra sketch at the show last year. In his defense, he was unfamiliar with the character, I had limited reference, and it was a quick drawing. But Charles insisted he wanted a second crack at the character, so I arranged a commission with him. He did an absolutely beautiful illustration of Vastra on the cover of his sketchbook, and I picked it up at the show. I definitely recommend contacting Charles Fetherolf for commission work. He’s an amazing artist.

Madame Vastra Charles Fetherolf

One other creator who I was looking forward to meeting was Rachel Dukes. She was profiled on Comic Book Resources only a few days ago. Her mini comic Frankie Comics about her cat looked absolutely adorable, a really cute look at quirky cat behavior. I saw that Rachel was going to be at Mocca Fest, so I definitely wanted to stop by her table and purchase a copy of her book. She showed me a photo of Frankie, who looks very much like one of my two cats, Nettie Netzach. Judging by the antics Rachel portrays in her comic, they also act alike. Michele suggested they could be long lost sisters. You never know.

Frankie Comics #1

I also picked up the latest issue of Copra, a series by Michel Fiffe, whose work I first discovered several years ago in the awesome “Twisted Savage Dragon Funnies” back-up stories in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon. I stopped by Alisa Harris’ table and congratulated her on her successful Kickstarter campaign. I’m looking forward to receiving my copy of The Collected Counter Attack in the near future. I purchased one of animator & cartoonist Bill Plympton’s books as a gift for Michele. And, while we were walking around the show, Michele and I ran into Fred Harper, Jamal Igle and Steve Ellis. It was nice to catch up with them.

That’s about it. Here are a few photos I took at Mocca Fest with my crappy cell phone camera:

Dean Haspiel sketching in Fear, My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience.

 

Rachel Dukes enthusiastically promotes Frankie Comics.

 

A giant Charlie Brown balloon hovered over the festivities
A giant Charlie Brown balloon hovered over the festivities

In conclusion, the 2014 Mocca Arts Festival was a lot of fun, as well as very well organized. As I said before, my only regret is that I wasn’t able to afford to purchase more of the cool books that I saw. But hopefully the large turnout of people meant that the numerous talented creators at the show did good business.