Last Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
Bloodstrike Volume 1 #2
Writer – Rob Liefeld
Penciler – Dan Fraga
Inker – Danny Miki & Norm Rapmund
Letterer – Kurt Hathaway
In my pursuit of comics I have yet to encounter any specialists that consider the study of iconography in comics a worthy venture. This is strange, given the medium’s endurance that such attention wouldn’t be given to what is, already, an expressive style, filled with symbols, figures, and potent imagery. The lasting impressions of characters and places embodied in the comic books determines the longevity of the symbols. Those familiar with technical artistry are aware of the idea of sketching a “silhouette” of a character in grayscale before developing a character’s look and feel. The more recognizable and distinguished the figure in the grayscale, the more iconic the image is likely to be. Below are two images illustrating this idea, the first image a progressive look at the process of character development (starting with the greyscale), the second a map of uncanny silhouettes.
Even without extensive knowledge of television in the 90s, Hanna Barbara, Disney, or Warner Bros Animation staples, I would be hard pressed to find any figure in that line-up that I find difficult to recognize. Each figure is definite, unmistakably recognizable.
The success of DC and Marvel fundamentally relies on their trademark IP and iconography. Superman, emphatically, was the first superhero, followed by Batman and Wonder Woman in quick succession. Marvel (then Timely Comics) unleashed Captain America, introducing Jack Kirby’s iconic line work to Golden Age comics, and each company since has pedaled characters with longer publication history than our Grandparents’ prospective lifetimes. Were one to apply the same principal to both the Avengers and the Justice League, the uncanny effect would be just as potent.
But where paintings and comics diverge, are symbols, especially when considering DC comics. It is one thing for a character to be iconic, but another entirely to have potent symbolic imagery. In Marvel comics this differs with a heavy reliance on form and characterization, the Fantastic Four is immediately recognizable by their team line up, with the Human Torch and The Thing stealing the show as far as presentation. DC’s active roster of characters, and their enduring runs, are solely due to their companion symbols, and the general emphasis on symbols within the imprint as a whole. Steve Garcia, a silhouette artist demonstrates the prominence given to each symbol, all of which appear on the chest at eye level where they are the most recognizable, and closest to the heart.
With iconography in mind, then, what does one make of the burgeoning growth of comics in the 90s? This was a time when Image Comics was developed by a team of industry artists, including Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, et al, who franchised their work into a collective of studios that were all creator owned. Their work represented the “modern” take on comics, each producing a work that was their own, without any outside intervention by large corporations and their respective “house style.” So why then have these comics all but fizzled out? Certainly Spawn endures, but controversy notes that much of the title’s more memorable imagery was credited to Neil Gaiman in the beginning, including characters like Medieval Spawn, Angela, and Cogliostro, over which the dispute of character ownership entered litigation. The modern comics have encouraged other independent artists and authors to produce their own material, but their original lines have dried up, or succumbed to cult obscurity. The problem here is one of iconography, illustrated by Bloodstrike issue #2, one of Rob Liefeld’s original properties.
Bloodstrike #2 opens with a feud in progress between Cabbot and his brother Battlestone, but little is contextually at stake. Granted, we are at the infancy of the series, but there is not much happening between covers other than testosterone fueled shouts and women with steroid addictions. Imagery is borrowed from other more important Marvel characters like Wolverine or Cable, which frustrates the character’s ability to remain distinguished from opponents or teammates. Characters like Cabbot, also, are so busy in their conception that, against the white contrast of the cover, they bear stark semblance to highly functioning coat racks for hanging munition belts and hand grenades.
The story of Bloodstrike fairs little better. The story centers around a group of KIA soldiers revived to fight another day for a highly secret wing of the US government, which is oddly reminiscent to the plot of Ronald Emmerich’s Universal Soldier from 1992. Cabbot’s relation to Battlestone doesn’t assuage my suspicions either. A similar title, Suicide Squad, which has gained traction since its modern reboot in the late 80s, accomplishes what Bloodstrike attempts but with greater alacrity and interest. The team of antiheroes and villains that live in a prison, being contracted by Amanda Waller to secure high risk assets and rogue supervillains, have lasting impact primarily because of their connection to the expansive and already enduring DC universe, namely the heroes each of these villains oppose. Likewise, the role of morality and inherent evil, are explored through characters that are “forced” to be good in order to commute their prison sentences. Bloodstrike suffers from heroes that the reader can’t relate to, as well as the lack of connection to a greater universe, despite mentions to “nu-gene” persons, AKA, mutants.
What this means on a greater level is the sad reality of conceptual market dominance by the “big two.” Independent publishers must strive to be recognized under the mass inundation of titles and characters that have persisted in the minds of readers since the 30s. There is simply too much out there for much traction to be gained. With the rise of the internet, however, it is possible to break the barrier of osmosis into the hearts of potential readers. Indie comicbooking is a thing, and a viable place to find a voice in the industry. Web comics and niche oriented demographics power this new outlet of creativity, which not only provides good comics, but also a new hope for those that twenty years prior, could never have had their story go into print. Unfortunately, Bloodstrike represents an era where comic books were on the cusp of independence, but not quite matured enough to make it out into the world. Not only this, these comics were primarily targeted at the disaffected readership of DC and Marvel respectively, who wanted darker, grittier stories. And grit they got! At the expense of story and characterization. Maybe in a few more years Bloodstrike would have succeeded at the turn of the new millennium. A new series startup slated for this year will be the judge. Until then, keep the steroids at home fellas.
2 Unshaven Gritted Maws (of 10)