‘Bloodstrike’ Looks Back at the ’90s… And Makes Them Look Good [Review]
I’ve never read an issue of the original Extreme Studios title Bloodstrike, but I feel like I learned everything I need to know about it by looking at the front of the first issue from 1993. I’ve seen this thing a hundred times in back issue bins, and the cover’s invitation to “RUB THE BLOOD!” has never failed to crack me up. It seems like such a stereotypical gimmick, except that it’s something I’ve never actually seen any other comic do, something that captures the weird essence of that first wave of Image comic books. Say what you will about their quality, but a lot of people were drawn to them solely because they were doing crazy things you’d never seen before, putting it all out on the page without a hint of subtlety or irony.
Tim Seeley and Franchesco Gaston’s Bloodstrike relaunch, which hits stands in March, does not have any blood to rub on its cover, but I feel like it should. It’s exactly that kind of high-energy, irony-free, over-the-top super-hero book that the stuff in the ’90s wanted to be, and it’s a damn hoot.Let’s be honest: Two years ago, it would have been really weird to get excited about a new Bloodstrike comic, but the relaunched Extreme Studios titles have been giving you every reason in the world to look forward to them. They’ve been a string of hits from creators at the top of their game, to the point where it’s become a running gag that we’re as excited about the Extreme books as we are about X-Force, and it’s somehow not 1991. Even so, Bloodstrike is a little different.
I think it’s fair to say that books like Glory and Prophet have found success by using original titles as a springboard to transform them into something new. Bloodstrike, though… I hate to call it a “throwback” because that word has such a negative connotation, but in a lot of ways, that’s exactly what it is. It fully embraces everything about those ’90s comics, full of ultraviolence and cussin’, higher-ups who are just unrepentantly evil caricatures of sneering businessmen, and super-muscular dudes solving their problems by shooting them in the face. It’s all here, right down to the fact that when Cabbot Stone takes off his mask, he has the same Grifter-esque markings on his face that he has on his mask. Because face tattoos are extreme.
But the thing is, Bloodstrike isn’t a throwback to how those books actually were. Bloodstrike is a throwback to what you thought these books were like if you read them when you were 13. And they’re somehow better than your memories.
It’s a tough trick to pull off, but it’s one of the things that Seeley’s best at. Between this, his Masters of the Universe-inspired Colt Noble and the Megalords, and his recent shot at reviving a character that he came up with when he was five years old in the pages of Double Feature, it’s become his specialty. He takes things he loved as a kid, strips them of nostalgia, and then figures out how to work with them in a way that’s actually good and not just a callback to something you remember.
That’s exactly what he and Gaston have done here, and the fun they have comes through on the page. The premise they’re working with is a pretty simple one: The government has figured out how to resurrect dead super-humans, so they’re bringing them back to life, sending them on suicide missions, and then patching up whatever’s left to send it off on another mission. As you might expect, this has left Cabbot Stone, one of the superhumans in question, in a pretty grumpy mood. Throw in a boss with a callous disregard for life that walks hand-in-hand with the abilitiy to give it back to anyone that he decides should have another shot, and you’ve got all the elements in place.
That’s really all there is to it, but Seeley and Gaston combine those pieces to create a story that is just relentless in the way that it tosses ideas at the reader. More than anything else, their first three issues remind me of that first year of Warren Ellis on Stormwatch, and how it took these goofy, amped-up characters and put them in goofy, amped-up situations that still managed to have that sinister, dangerous edge to everything they did.
The same thing’s happening here, but Seeley’s script flips back and forth between the hilarious and the horrifying, sometimes even on the same page. The first issue’s a great example: Half of the book focuses on a Stone duking it out with a mountain of cyborg zombies pieced together from rotting corpses and outdated computers, and it’s one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen in comics in a while:
The other half? Stone being analyzed by a psychologist in a sequence so depressing that one of the characters actually commits suicide, which gets flipped around into a punchline that’s grim, but also pretty funny. The book bounces back and forth in tone throughout the first three issues, especially once Seeley and Gaston start to embrace the slapstick potential of a cast of characters who can recover from any injury they hand out. I said before that the book embraced the ultraviolence, but it’s also completely aware of how silly that stuff can be when you apply it to super-heroes, a group of people for whom even death is a notoriously temporary condition.
It’s tempting to look at this as commentary, but it’s not quite that, either. It’s just accepted as how things work: that these are characters that exist to do crazy, brutal things, and have equally crazy, equally brutal things done to them in return. It’s why they’re here and it’s why we’re reading about them, so why not go for it? And it ends up reading like Wolverine by way of the Three Stooges, in a good way.
There’s a bit in the third issue where the Bloodstrike team is going after a guy with magnetic powers, and he ends up ripping nails out of a wall and spiking them right into a speedster’s leg:
It’s brutal, and it’s clever, and it’s a great use of a character’s powers that just looks painful. But it’s also the start of a sequence that couldn’t look more like a Looney Tunes bit unless he dropped an actual anvil on their heads and little birdies flew around. Then it’s right back to a more serious moment of action and death, before the scene switches to another new idea.
The constant oscillating between styles and approaches is certainly jarring, and in a different comic, that’d be a bad thing. But here, it’s part of the fun. It means that you never really know what’s going to come next, and the sheer number of bizarre ideas being thrown at you are like a magician’s assistant, distracting you while Seeley steadily builds a compelling, serious narrative about life and death behind them.
It comes together for something that’s every bit as weird and overwhelming and enjoyable as you want it to be. It’s a comic where an offer to rub the blood would fit right in, and in this case, that’s a good thing.
Preview of Bloodstrike #26: