All this talk about Dark Avengers recently inspired me to start a new feature here at the Prattle--a feature wherein we take a look back at the comics of yesteryear, which, given the current strain of Ouroborsity in comics is more than likely having its serial numbers filed off and served to you yet again even as I type this. It is in that spirit that I present Way Back When, this week featuring the Dark Avengers from 12 years ago, the Thunderbolts.
Thunderbolts #1 (April 1997)
1996 was a pretty down time for Marvel Comics. The direct market was in the throes of melting down and a few creative gambles had come up lemons. The Clone Saga was sputtering along, long after any charitable person would have said the storyline potential had been exhausted, the X-Men had just blundered through the Onslaught crossover, which had started as a perfectly serviceable idea for an interior line-wide crossover that got had been hijacked for another purpose: Take out the Avengers and the Fantastic Four to get them available for Heroes Reborn.
(Man, Heroes Reborn. Remember when we all hated that and thought it was a stupid idea? Remember when they waited three years, called it the Ultimate line and we thought it was the greatest thing ever?)
First, a word or a dozen about why the Avengers were ripe for speedy deletion:
Earlier in the year, the powers that be had decided that the Avengers titles needed a shot in the arm. The standard operating procedure at Marvel in the 1990s was to take whatever the X-Men had done that was even a smidgen successful and map it onto their other properties whether it belonged there or not.
So Joe Madureria was asked over lunch to redesign some of the Avengers, and approached it with just about the same level of concentration and good design sense he brought to Ultimates 3. Remember Wasp redone as some sort of weird-ass bug lady? That was him. Of course, Madureria only designed the characters--as it took an act of federal law to force him to put down the N64 controller and actually draw, it was laughable even then to think he could handle two books--and remember, somehow his work ethic would get even worse in the decade and change that followed.
So, Thor began dressing like he-man and buggering about in some incomprehensible storyline Warren "Typin' For The Paycheck" Ellis wrote which was read by very few, understood by fewer, and cared about by even fewer. Iron Man became a murderer in the Hal Jordan mode, died (not in his own book) was replaced by a teenager, and then killed again (again, not in his own book--we will revisit this during Iron Man Week. Oh yes.) as his own book was slaved to Avengers, which became mired in a ghastly, incomprehensible storyline wherein, due to the tortured logic of the plot, characters acted wildly out of established character, a bunch of people died So We Knew They Weren't Fooling Around, time travel was involved, and ridiculously obscure bits of continuity were used to justify a story that did very little except piss most of its established readers and offer naked incomprehensibility to anyone new who might have been interested enough to check it out.
If any of this sounds familiar, you were probably reading Avengers in 2004, weren't you?
(I should add here that there was one bright spot during this time--Waid and Garney's run on Captain America, which was sadly cut short by Heroes Reborn and upon trying to re-establish their arrested momentum, fell far short of the mark the second time around.)
So it was decided that things were broken enough to where handing the Avengers over to Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld as a better idea than going forward with what they had. That's how bad things were, y'all.
Heroes Reborn I'll have to cover another time, but the point of this whole preamble was to set the stage thus--After Onslaught gets deaded (sadly, despite many playthroughs of Marvel vs. Capcom, Jin Saotome, Strider Hiryu, and Mega Man destroying Onslaught is not canon, I understand) he took the Avengers and the Fantastic Four with him.
This leads to a fictional and non-fictional conceit that, while it's not run with as much as it should have been, actually led to a couple interesting books during the Heroes Reborn interregnum. Non-fictionally, with the "big" heroes off the table (and the X-Men floating in their own isolated bubble, as usual) writers of non-HR books brought little-used characters to the fore and ran with them. The books weren't Great Art, but it did freshen up the line to a large extent.
Fictionally, the Marvel Universe took a different turn--with their most beloved and trusted heroes gone and those who survived (the Hulk and the X-Men) viewed with even more suspicion and fear afterward no one stepped up to the plate.
Enter, the Thunderbolts.
Citizen V, MACH-1, Meteorite, Songbird, Techno, and Atlas come along at exactly the right time--they're bright, personable, and spend most of the first issue getting into two big fights, one of which involves the Wrecking Crew at the Statue of Liberty. They're just what a weary, fearful public wanted--they may not be the Avengers of the FF, but there's something about them that captures the public imagination and they get anointed the New Avengers. No, not them. So they get swept up in enthusiasm. They get access to the Avengers files. They get fancy security clearances. People miss the Avengers, but these guys just might do OK after all.
There's just one problem: The Thunderbolts (in one of those plot twists that would be damn-near impossible in the Internet Age) are actually the Masters of Evil, or to be more specific the version that wasn't a punchline and starred in one of the best of the later Avengers arcs there is. And in what's an unusually sensible plot for world domination, the Masters aim to gain the trust of the world, then take over after they've entrenched themselves.
That, at least, is the plan, anyways. As time goes on through the book's first year, it becomes a tug of war between those members who still want to execute the plan and those who are beginning to like being thought of as heroes. And to further complicate matters, the long-thought-dead Avengers and FF return just as the last stage of the plan is about to be put into effect.
Thunderbolts was a curious title, and probably the best argument for Heroes Reborn one could have imagined. Only under those circumstances could a book with no big names (c'mon, you know if it were done today, Wolverine would have to be in it somewhere. Oh wait.) and a hook like this be allowed to find its audience and play out the way it played out.
It's funny, considering the knocks the 90's gets (justifiably sometimes) for being style over substance and full of ill-advised experiments, rarely gets credits for those rare rolls of the dice that actually worked.