Tell me if you’ve heard this before: A talented mercenary is framed by those he served, losing everything he loves and placing him on a one-way trip toward violent redemption. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least the early ’90s, when it became an incredibly popular comics trope.
Spawn, The Darkness, Marv from Sin City, and Valiant’s Bloodshot were among the sordid anti-heroes of an era defined by a collective desire to stick it to the Marvel and DC status quo. Many of these characters have enjoyed mainstream success beyond floppies and graphic novels, while Bloodshot has remained largely unsung — until now, as the nanite-filled assassin assumes the form of Vin Diesel for his first theatrical effort.
Even dedicated readers of the major publishers may not be familiar with Bloodshot’s comics origins. Across multiple owners in two and half decades of industry ups and downs, his bloody past has proven at least one thing: Some characters are truly unkillable.
As with many popular heroes of the time, Bloodshot’s roots start in a willful break from the big two publishers. After attempting and failing to buy Marvel Entertainment in 1988, former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and a group of investors founded their own company, Voyager Communications Inc., with investment from Triumph Capital. Preceding Image Comics, Voyager would create its own shared universe through Valiant Comics using talent and intellectual property gathered and poached from other publishing houses. Starting in 1991, the initial lineup proved wildly popular. Bloodshot joined as a cameo in late 1992 before getting his own series in 1993.
A product of his time, the cybernetically enhanced killing machine embodies many of the archetypes popularized by the likes of Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Marc Silvestri. A ruthlessly efficient hired gun for the mob, Angelo Mortalli is double-crossed and winds up on the operating table of the mysterious Project Rising Spirit, which erases his memory and replaces his blood with microscopic robots that can regenerate his tissue and commune with nearby machinery. Escaping the facility, the once sociopathic, power-hungry mobster becomes dedicated to fighting evil and overthrowing abusive hierarchies. Equipped with a samurai sword and handguns, and bearing a literal target on his chest, he’s a lone underdog in a world where a lifetime of service means little.
Created by Marvel heavy hitters Don Perlin and Bob Layton alongside then-newcomer Kevin VanHook, the first run of Bloodshot is relatively paint-by-numbers superhero fare with some inflections from the gangster films of the previous decade. The sharp suits, criminal dynasties, and seedy underbellies of De Palma and Scorsese are the core of Bloodshot amid all the heightened violence and absurdist science fiction. Everyone and everything is corrupt, right up to the climactic two-parter involving a double-dealing cop. The series ran right up to the ebb of the comics crash of the mid-’90s, to which Valiant was an unwitting major contributor thanks to its inter-universe crossover with Image, Deathmate — an unmitigated disaster due to Image’s inability to hold a schedule.
Video game publisher Acclaim Entertainment acquired Valiant in 1996, and immediately began an edgy relaunch. Bloodshot got a new, bolder logo; the covers became more audacious; and he received that most late-’90s of not-your-mom’s-caped-crusader accessories: a leather trench coat. Although the same broad ideas were carried over, more emphasis was placed on the weird science, going hard on the nanites and their relationship to Bloodshot. The tiny robots living in his body are sentient, it turns out, and they form a cohesive bond with their human host as the story progresses. In the mid-’90s run, writer Len Kaminski got around the red-circled killer’s ties to the mafia by turning his identity into a layered mystery, leading to the revelation he’s actually former marine Ray Garrison. It was a keen workaround that also doubled as the kind of shrewd psychological horror that had become a benchmark of the character.
A Bloodshot game was being developed by Acclaim, which put out several games based on Valiant IP, but it was inconspicuously canceled with only months before release. He makes a playable appearance as an unlockable in 2002’s Shadow Man: The 2econd Coming, his only post-1998 outing before his resurrection as part of Valiant Entertainment in 2012. Following Acclaim’s 2004 bankruptcy, a number of investors came together to purchase the Valiant properties and begin a gradual overhaul of the lineup, rehiring Jim Shooter to oversee the process.
Under Duane Swierczynski, Manuel Garcia, and Arturo Lozzi, Bloodshot became a retired man, living the simple life after being the greatest weapon in the American government’s arsenal for so long. Convinced to return for one last mission, he’s deployed in the Middle East and kidnapped, when a Dr. X explains that it’s all a fabrication. He never got out; to keep him docile, he’s just given false memories over and over in a rotating set of nuclear family scenarios while inactive. Truth in hand, the unstoppable soldier begins his insurgency against the military-industrial complex, accompanied by the fake wives and children implanted in his mind, which the nanites use to warn and protect him.
In this run, Bloodshot is basically Deadpool, except he doesn’t realize he’s in a comic. Surrounded on all sides by deception and misdirection, the former goodfella turned vigilante knows he’s part of some anomalous machine that’s forever twisting and distorting his sense of self so he’ll play the appropriate part. He’s a hero who’s becoming more aware of the messy, convoluted nature of his existence every time his issue number resets to 1; there’s just no way for him to see us reading along.
Two subsequent runs by Jeff Lemire and Mico Suayan play on this further, Bloodshot: Reborn finding Bloodshot in self-exile as a group of look-alikes force him into the open, and Bloodshot: Salvation using time-separated plots involving the namesake, his partner Magic, and their superpowered daughter, Jessie. There is no escape for Garrison, his best hope being that he equips the next generation with the tools to suffer the same gauntlets he did in better stride. The last finished series, Bloodshot: Rising Spirit, is a prequel looking at the damage wrought over the years before Ray tears away from the puppet strings holding him. A current ongoing series, by Tim Seeley and Brett Booth, is a Punisher-esque dive into the driving force behind Bloodshot, coming back around to the savage compulsions that fuelled him when he was Angelo Mortalli, stalking New York City for his next step up the ladder.
The up and downs of Bloodshot’s comic life lead directly into his big-screen debut, a film that’s been gestating for eight years between two studios. We probably aren’t going to get any creepy nanite-made hallucinations, nor Diesel’s Garrison having lived a thousand simulated lives, but we’ll know what it took for Bloodshot to get here.