"For me, Bloodshot was the least appealing character that Valiant had," says Jeff Lemire with a chuckle. "He was so cold. He was this killing machine. " But those same dark qualities are exactly why the comic book writer ended up choosing to revamp the character. And considering Valiant Comics' unusual history, Bloodshot Reborn actually makes perfect sense.
Valiant Entertainment was founded in 1989 as a competitor to Marvel and DC, complete with its own cohesive Valiant Universe. Even if you haven't picked up a comic in years, you probably know the difference between the Big Two. (DC? That's the one with Batman and Superman; Marvel? Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Avengers.) But Valiant made its name as an upstart competitor with its own set of heroes—a new beginning for readers tired of the same old capes and cowls. Initially, Valiant was a huge success, with numerous bestselling titles and a massive fan base. Books like NINJAK, X-O Manowar, and Harbinger starred newly-minted heroes with their own interweaving mythologies. Soon the publisher would sell to video game developer Acclaim Entertainment for a whopping $65 million and become Acclaim Comics. Unfortunately, the success was short-lived.
Ten years later, however, Acclaim had gone bankrupt and the brand languished in financial uncertainty and comic book obscurity. Then, in 2012, something unexpected happened: Valiant Entertainment relaunched with some of the industry's best writers and new management. Then in December, the company started a new publishing initiative, Valiant Next. Once again, the brand hoped to carve out a place in a crowded comic book landscape. So, considering Valiant Entertainment's unlikely resurgence, Lemire's initial dislike of Bloodshot turns out to be perfectly on-brand for the publisher—like Valiant itself, Bloodshot was due for a reincarnation. "The amount of freedom they’ve been given to make these books their own—it’s all positive," says Lemire of Valiant's current structure.
Lemire's first book with Valiant was, fittingly, The Valiant—and Bloodshot was one of its stars. A hallmark of the reinvented Valiant comics has been allowing talented writers to do their own thing with its stable of semi-forgotten characters. Bloodshot, as originally envisioned, was a genetically-enhanced (actually nanite-enhanced) Punisher-esque super soldier with paper-white skin and a giant red spot on his chest. He was really good at shooting people, but not particularly deep or thoughtful. "How would you make that character more emotionally-charged? How would you give him depth and character and make him not-so-cold?," Lemire asked himself when considering taking on the character. He decided the answer was to directly address the aspects of Bloodshot that troubled him. "Just thinking about [his issues] was actually how the story came about—to make this cold, two-dimensional action hero something much more emotionally-driven," says Lemire."To give him a lot of character, a lot of flaws, a lot of depth and history."
Lemire knew that Valiant hasn't been winning new readers because of what they were, but because of what they're quickly becoming—a place for talented writers to recast characters in often wonderfully unconventional ways. As it turns out, watching Lemire revamp a cumbersome hero turns out to be a large part of the thrill of Bloodshot Reborn; even if you don't have a personal investment in the character, it's fascinating to see the transformation. With every panel, Lemire leans into Bloodshot's weaknesses and explores them—often painfully, sometimes hilariously. "Bloodshot is this ultraviolent character, but I thought, what if the story is actually about this fighting against that, reacting against that?" says Lemire.
In Lemire's hands, Bloodshot becomes a lens through which to view contemporary cultural violence in all its sadness and absurdity. Lemire doesn't shy away from disturbing or raw subject matter, taking American issues, like gun control, head on. "It’s very relevant to today’s world," says Lemire of the book. "The amount of gun violence every year, the mass-shootings, the horror in the real world—these are terrible, horrible things. It occurred to me that I could actually use this two-dimensional action hero to comment on that. If you’re going to show those thing and use them as a plot device, you better have something to say, otherwise it’s just irresponsible, I think."
Asked what initially drew him to Valiant in the first place, Lemire, a two-time Eisner nominee and one of the industry's bigger names, says it had more to do with people behind the company than the superhero properties it controlled. "To be honest, the biggest draw was the fact that a lot of my really good friends had been working at Valiant," says Lemire. (Said friends include Matt Kindt, the man behind the excellent MIND MGMT and Robert Venditti, creator of The Surrogates.) Lemire even admits he hadn't been a fan of Valiant comics when they were at their peak. "I was more of a DC guy," he says. "That was a period in my life where I was in my mid-to-late teens. It was a time where superhero comics had lost my interest in general. I was mostly reading Vertigo and a little more adult stuff."
A large part of Bloodshot Reborn's appeal also lies with its art, which is true of any good comic. "Tonally, it’s pretty different than anything I’ve done before," says Lemire. "I really had a vision of the book that was influenced by some of my favorite things—David Lynch films or, more recently, True Detective." For the look, Lemire enlisted Mico Suayan and colorist David Baron, whom Lemire refers to as the comic's cinematographer—"setting mood and tone with the color palette." Their combination creates a look and feel that is almost uncannily vivid, if often gruesome. "Mico struck me because his stuff is so incredibly photo realistic," says Lemire. "We’re commenting on things that are happening in the real world, so I thought that the closer that you could get to that with the look of the book, rather than a purely cartoony one, it would have more impact."
While it's still early in Bloodshot Reborn's new incarnation, Lemire's take on the character, just two issues in, is certainly deeper and more nuanced than past iterations. "When I do my best work, the stories tend to be pretty emotionally-charged," says Lemire, and Bloodshot Reborn certainly meets that criteria. The result both serves as a microcosm for Valiant's resurgence and a new start for a character that could easily have been forgotten. Thanks to Lemire, that now seems unlikely.
Bloodshot Reborn #1 is for sale April 15.