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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

It Came from the 1990s: Youngblood “Babewatch”

Comic books in the 1990s had a great many weird, cheesy, ridiculous storylines and gimmicks. It was a decade of excess & speculation, with innumerable new titles popping up, attempting to grab attention.  Even by the standards of the decade, though, one of the strangest stories was the “Babewatch” crossover that was published by the Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in late 1995.

Youngblood v2 3 cover
Everyone say cheesecake!

Extreme Studios was overseen by Image co-founder Rob Liefeld, who to this day remains a divisive figure in the comic book industry. On the one hand, Liefeld’s artwork has often been characterized by over-rendered pencils, wonky anatomy & minimal backgrounds, and his constantly hopping from one project to another indicates a serious lack of focus.  On the other hand, it is obvious Liefeld possesses both a genuine love of the medium and an unbridled enthusiasm for creating comic books.  Certainly he deserves credit for helping to establish Image, which eventually grew into one of the most important comic book publishers, offering a venue for innumerable creator-owned projects.

The books that Liefeld and his collaborators released through Extreme were, well, extreme. Youngblood and its numerous spin-offs were insanely larger than life, featuring a parade of big guns, bulging muscles, buckets of blood, and sexy bad girls.  It’s that last aspect that’s front & center in the “Babewatch” crossover, which sees the male members of the government super-powered team Youngblood and many of their allies mystically transformed into a line-up of lovely ladies.  Yes, really.

Co-plotters Eric Stephenson, Jim Valentino and Liefeld, working with penciler Todd Nauck and inkers Danny Miki, Karl Alstaetter & Liefeld, get the “Babewatch” ball rolling in Youngblood volume 2 #3. The issue is topped off with a comically curvaceous cover by Roger Cruz & Miki.Youngblood 3 variant cover

There is also a variant cover by Liefeld & Jonathan Sibal featuring Youngblood team leader Shaft… and I shall leave it to the discretion of the individual reader to decide if at this point “Shaft” is still an accurate moniker or not.

The immortal sorceress Diabolique has escaped from her frozen prison. She is an old adversary of Glory, the daughter of Lady Demeter, ruler of the Amazonians of the Isle of Paradise. (Suffering Sappho! I wonder how Liefeld avoided a call from DC Comics’ legal department!)  Diabolique wants revenge on Glory, her mother, and the rest of the Amazonians.

Diabolique possesses the power to control minds, but only those of males. Unfortunately for her, she has an extreme aversion towards men.  To get around this, Diabolique initiates the aforementioned mass sex change, which affects every male on Earth who has ever encountered Glory over the decades.  Diabolique then seizes mental control of the largest grouping of transformed heroes, namely everyone at Youngblood headquarters, and uses them to attack Themyscira the Isle of Paradise.

(No, really, I don’t know why Diabolique’s sorcery would work on men even after they’ve been transformed into women. What can I say?  I must have slept through Nonsensical Plot Twists 101 in college.)

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Stephenson understandably plays up the comedic aspect of this story. In one panel we see the transformed Youngblood members, with accompanying wacky dialogue, such as “My back is killing me” and “Um, I think I’ve got to pee.”  Thankfully there aren’t any arrows pointing to specific characters, so we’re spared finding out which smartass announces that this is “kind of a turn-on.”

I do have to say, even though the federal government is notorious for accepting lowball bids on military contracts, they must have actually gone with a firm that did quality work for Youngblood’s uniforms. That’s some really durable, stretchy spandex they’re wearing that’s holding in their, um, enhanced attributes.

Even though “Babewatch” ran through the entire Extreme line, it was actually a rather modest affair, with the central story only two parts, continuing into Glory #8. That second chapter is written by Jo Duffy, with the art team of Mike Deodato Jr, Carlos Mota & Emir Ribeiro.  Duffy is a veteran writer, having previously worked at Marvel from the late 1970s to the early 90s.  She brings a light, entertaining tone to the scripting of this chapter, which sees Glory teaming up with Youngblood’s actual female members Vogue, Riptide and Masada to repel Diabolique’s invasion of the Isle of Paradise.

I’m a fan of Duffy’s writing. She did good work during her two year run on Glory, bringing interesting plots and characterization to a series that could easily have been a mere T&A fest.  Even though “Babewatch” was a majorly goofy concept, I really enjoyed Duffy’s wrap-up of the story in issue #8.

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The rest of the “Babewatch” tie-in issues that month saw the various other now-female Extreme characters having their own side adventures. This led to at least a couple of odd twists.

Over in Supreme #33, Eric Stephenson, with penciler Joe Bennett and inker Norm Rapmund, was continuing the ongoing storyline of the recently-introduced younger, amnesiac Supreme, who was working with the teenage sidekick Kid Supreme. Both are affected by Diabolique’s spell.  Soon, however, Supreme realizes that there’s more than just this going on.  After flying around the globe to clear her head, she returns home, now clad in an outfit that emphasizes her, um, physique.

Announcing that she was never actually Supreme, the woman launches into Basil Exposition mode. Long story short, as a result of time travel, a battle with a mysterious alien foe, telepathy, body-swapping, and explosion-induced amnesia (whew!) Supreme’s daughter Probe from the year 3000 AD briefly came to believe that she was her father.  But thanks to Diabolique’s spell, Probe regained both her memories and her true gender.

In this instance the change caused by Diabolique remained permanent, and going forward Probe became known as Lady Supreme, because of course there’s always room for another sexy babe in the Extreme universe!

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Of course, if you think what happened with Probe / Lady Supreme sounds odd, then please consider Prophet. Unlike the rest of the Extreme books, the ongoing Prophet series wasn’t interrupted by “Babewatch,” instead receiving a Prophet Babewatch Special.  Liefeld had recently scored a coup in hiring popular creator Chuck Dixon to write Prophet volume 2.  This special was undoubtedly a concession to Dixon to avoid interrupting his inaugural story arc, although he did end up also writing it, with pencils by Joe Bennett & Manny Clark and inks by Eric Cannon & Sean Parsons & Jason Gorder.  The cover is by Chap Yaep & Jonathan Sibal.Prophet Babewatch Special cover

Prophet was initially presented in Youngblood volume 1 as a deeply religious man who was transformed into a super-soldier during World War II and then kept in suspended animation for the next five decades. Just imagine a Bible-quoting, gun-toting Captain America who fights alien invaders, and you more or less have the original incarnation of Prophet.  Of course, as his storyline progressed, we later found out that Prophet also did a whole bunch of time traveling (yes, that again) via technology provided by his creator Doctor Wells.

As the Prophet Babewatch Special opens, our protagonist is once again in stasis in Wells’ lab. Diabolique’s spell is cast just as Prophet is transported back in time by Wells.  Now a woman, the semi-amnesiac Prophet arrives in Orleans in the year 1429, where she commences to lead the French against the occupying English forces.

I’m sure that if you have even a passing knowledge of French history you can see where this is going. Yep, that’s correct, the transformed Prophet is none other than… Joan of Arc!  Hey, did you know that Joan fought against the English while clad in a fashionable suit of armor that showed off her bare midriff and thighs?  I certainly didn’t!  Who says comic books aren’t educational?

Prophet Babewatch Special pg 12

Prophet of Arc spends the next two years leading the French armies, until history inevitably unfolds as written. Captured by the English in 1431, Prophet / Joan is burned at the stake, although in actuality he’s snatched from the flames at the last instant by Wells, returned to the present day, where he once again becomes a male.

Oh, yes, while Wells was busy monitoring Prophet’s adventures in France, he was attacked by another of Glory’s friends who was ensorcelled: Roman, amphibious monarch of the undersea kingdom of Neuport. (Imperious Rex!  I’m surprised Marvel’s lawyers weren’t also ringing up Liefeld!)  Diabolique’s spell fortunately ends before Roman can harm Wells.  Afterwards the scientist asks if there were any effects to the spell other than the physical change in gender, and Roman admits “Only an incredible urge to watch… what do they call them? Soaps!”  (Groan!)

Reading these issues 22 years later, I’m surprised that I found them enjoyable.  If Liefeld, or anyone else for that matter, had attempted to do this story at Marvel or DC, I would have hated it.  But since Liefeld owns Youngblood and Glory and the rest, I can just shrug and tell myself that these are his characters, so if he wants to do ridiculous stuff like this then it’s his business.  I sort of look at “Babewatch” as the comic book equivalent of an entertaining Summer action blockbuster movie, except that you don’t have to pay 15 bucks for a ticket, and you can bring your own popcorn.

cat with 3D glasses soda and popcorn

Looking at the artwork on these issues, there’s some rather poor anatomy, especially for the female characters.  Balloon breasts, arched narrow waists, elongated legs, thrusting behinds; all of the excesses that plagued the depictions of women in comics in the 1990s are on display.  Yet many of the creators who worked on these issues, as well as the other Extreme Studios books, would later grow & develop into very talented artists.  Just a few years later Todd Nauck, Mike Deodato, and Joe Bennett were all doing work that blew their efforts here out of the water.  I do have to give credit to Liefeld and Stephenson for helping them and a number of other artists get a foot in the door.

Of course, there is one other compliment which I can offer “Babewatch,” namely that no matter how cheesy it was, at least it didn’t have David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson. Although I wouldn’t be too surprised if they managed to sneak into the Glory and Friends Bikini Fest special.

Ah, the 1990s… what a decade 😛

The Week in Erik Larsen

This past week’s new comic book releases saw two issues published by Image Comics which contained work by one of my favorite creators, Erik Larsen.  The first was the latest issue of Savage Dragon, Larsen’s long-running creator owned series.  The second was Supreme #63, which was the first issue of that title’s revival after a twelve year absence.

I previously wrote up an in-depth review of Savage Dragon, covering the epic “Emperor Dragon” story arc.  Since then, Larsen has continued to write & draw some exciting, fun stories in the pages of Savage Dragon.  Nowadays the series is once again at the very top of my “must read” list.  At a time when financial considerations have forced me to drop a lot of titles, I purchase Savage Dragon religiously.

The latest issue, #179, features a long-running minor subplot, namely the space war between the Kalyptans and the Tyrraneans taking place at the opposite end of the galaxy, often alluded to but never actually seen until recently, exploding into life.  The Kalyptan hero Vanguard, a long-time cast member in the series, learned to his horror that the Tyrraneans had finally won the war.  They were now hunting down the last surviving Kalyptans.  Tracking Vanguard to Earth, they found a world ripe for conquest.  Cue massive alien invasion by a horde of unstoppable rampaging monsters.

Supreme #63 is quite a different book.  The character of Supreme was created by Rob Liefeld as a Superman pastiche.  Liefeld saw the character of Supreme as a way to examine what would happen if Superman was unencumbered by society’s laws and morality, if he felt he knew better than everyone else.  It was a grim, ultra-violent book.  To be honest, I never was a fan, and I own maybe two or three issues from the first couple of years.  I especially remember an issue of another Liefeld title, Bloodstrike, which saw Supreme violently dismembering the anti-hero black ops title characters.

But then a strange thing happened.  Liefeld approached award winning writer Alan Moore to take over Supreme.  Moore, who had written a few excellent Superman stories in the 1980s, re-imagined Supreme as a fantastical meta-textual examination of superhero comic books through the ages, featuring a number of whimsical Silver Age homages.  I did not become an immediate fan of the series, but I picked up several issues, which I enjoyed.

Moore’s stories appeared in Supreme #s 41-56 and Supreme: The Return #s 1-6.  Due to financial difficulties, the book was canceled.  I also suspect that Liefeld’s notorious short attention span, which has often led him to over-commit to various projects, may have played a role in his publishing efforts folding up prematurely.  In any case, after the end of Supreme, there were rumors floating about that Moore had written one last script for the series which was never illustrated.

Fast forward a dozen years.  Apparently conditions had come together for Liefeld to revive a quartet of his titles with new creative teams.  The books’ editor Eric Stephenson got together with Erik Larsen to discuss his taking over one of the four.  They eventually settled on Supreme.  This was an excellent choice, given Larsen’s unabashed love of using the tropes of Silver Age comics as a starting point and then putting modern, unconventional spins on them.

Larsen drew pencil layouts from Moore’s unpublished script, with Cory Hamscher providing the finished pencils and inking.  I really enjoyed Hamscher’s inking on X-Men Forever and other projects.  He has a style akin to legendary embellisher Terry Austin.  The collaboration between Larsen and Hamscher is very strong.  They go together very well.

Supreme #63 is a wild, incredibly cosmic story by Moore.  It also ends on a massive cliffhanger.  Starting next issue, Larsen is taking over as writer.  He has the unenviable task of following in Moore’s footsteps, but I cannot wait to see what he does with the series.  Larsen has one of the most ambitious, unrestrained imaginations in comic books nowadays.  If anyone can take the seeds planted by Moore and run with them in an interesting yet different direction, it’s Larsen.

By the way, I also appreciate that Supreme, along with the other three revivals spearheaded by Liefeld & Stephenson, reverted to the original numbering, rather than starting with a new issue #1.  Call me overly traditional, but I really like it when a comic book series has a long, uninterrupted run, instead of getting a rebooted first issue every few years for the sake of a brief spike in sales & publicity.

It’s also great to see Larsen on such a high-profile project.  I hope that people who read Supreme will give Savage Dragon a chance.  It really is a great series.