Beginning our series looking back at classic Valiant Comics from the 1990s, this week we take a look at Valiant Masters: Bloodshot.
The early 1990s were one of the most violent eras in American history. The rate of violent crime in the country was near an all-time high by 1992, which explains the explosive popularity of some of the angriest super-heroes ever published. Ghost Rider and his friends were in the “Midnight Sons” line of titles, which explored violence in comics, while the Punisher appeared in three titles per month, Wolverine was always at the top of Marvel’s sales charts, and even DC’s Deathstroke the Terminator sold well. That’s not to mention the runaway popularity of Rob Liefeld’s character Cable, who seemed to be the apotheosis of a certain type of take-no-prisoners, hyperviolent hero for the era.
So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when fledgling comics line Valiant Comics decided to release a new series featuring their very own violent action hero from the era, especially one with the very 1990s name Bloodshot (one popular drinking game has people take a drink every time they find a ’90s comic with a title made of a compound word combining phrases like “blood”, “kill”, “shot”, “death” and the like). And with a holographic cover on his first issue that shows our violent hero firing a machine gun directly at the readers, bullets strung over his shoulders and giant knife on his back, there was nothing (at least on the surface) to make this series stand out next to its peers.
But peer inside the book and there’s more than meets the eye. Our violent hero has levels of complexity and strangeness as well as an epic, eternal hero background – and that’s not to mention the whole topic of his eternal quest to find the truth behind his own identity and the men who turned him into an undead killing machine.
More than that: despite its abundant guns and violence, Bloodshot has a heart and a purpose. As conceived by original series writer Kevin Van Hook and as illustrated by veteran comics artist Don Perlin, this comic traded flash for substance, quick resolution for slow burn, and mystery for immediate gratification. The series feels grounded and real, in ways that even the outlandish Punisher seldom did – as real as the neighborhood bar, a back alleyway or a bullet through a leg. And when Perlin depicts exciting scenes, like this battle underwater, it feels like there is real danger and that actions have consequences. Sometimes a lack of flash can be the best kind of flash.
At times Bloodshot feels more like an old-school (albeit extremely violent) TV show than a modern comic. Our hero pops between different cities as the story progresses. He’s in London in his first issue, California the next, Brooklyn, in the third. He eventually settles down a bit by the middle of the eight issues presented here (with a budding romance and some attempt to recover his past) but the globetrotting feel of Bloodshot gives the stories an intriguing sort of loose continuity. These are separate adventures, but as our cybernetic hero discovers criminal conspiracies all over the world, the world begins to unfold for readers and we become more and more curious to understand more about this world.
Maybe most intriguing to me as a reader discovering these issues 25 years after their first appearance, there’s almost no explanation – heck, almost no clues even – about how our hero was transformed from normal human to white-skinned, uber-muscled killing machine. It’s a mystery that Van Hook and friends seem to be in no rush to solve, and that also gives this comic its old school TV vibe. We take it as a given that Bloodshot is the way he is, and count on small moments of continuity to help us fill in the blanks. There are allusions to crime families and mysterious events but no payoffs. I found that to be exciting. Some readers may find that to be frustrating. Because this series (mostly) stays grounded, on a human level, it keeps a feel of normalcy amidst the chaos and gunplay.
There is one element here that pulls the reader away from that element, however. Midway through the run contained in this comic, there are allusions to larger forces at work in our hero’s life. It seems he may be an archetypical eternal warrior based on his resemblance to the futuristic Japanese warrior Rai. Both men are amazing warriors and have bright red circles tattooed (?) on their chests, and both are the greatest warriors of their eras. Though Rai is a costar in several issues, he confusingly never actually crosses over with Bloodshot and there’s very little explicit connection made between the two heroes. He just appears in the midst of Bloodshot’s tale, and there he is. On first read of this issue, I actually thought that there was a misprint in this book, but there appears to be an oblique connection between these characters. More editorial guidance here would have been helpful in this hardcover.
Don Perlin’s art on this book is workmanlike and professional, which sounds like an insult but in fact is a compliment. This ground-level action-adventure material comes alive under Perlin because he’s not flashy, not attuned to the then-current gimmicks in comics. The art here doesn’t appear dated in the way that many cartoonists’ art feels from the 1990s (yes I’m looking at you, Rob Liefeld). There’s a sturdy professionalism to Perlin’s work, with a kind of steadfast attention to the proper detail, that the longtime artist always brought to comics like Werewolf By Night. Perlin’s straight, stolid work keeps the comic grounded in the real world. This is a comic that absolutely could take place outside your window (Rai subplot notwithstanding) and Perlin does a wonderful job of keeping that window open.
It’s completely by happenstance that my first Valiant Masters review is of Bloodshot—it’s literally just the first Valiant collection I pulled off my shelf as I started this series. But this collection is actually the perfect place to start a read of 1990s Valiant Comics because it shows many of the aspects of their line that make it stand out, even now. The stories are solid and self-contained and extremely professional. But more than that, the stories are compelling and natural and a hell of a lot of fun. This was great bus reading.