Well, I sat on the reviews for this so long, I feared that they'd lose any and all relevancy, but thankfully the comics news cycle made sure I had something to sink my teeth into with the news that Thunderbolts will soon be re-titled Dark Avengers (because of . . .reasons?) and Thunderbolts, as it has several times in its history (They're the superhero Fight Club now! They're Warren Ellis' Suicide Squad: Featuring Bastards Fighting Assholes--that last, care of John Seavey) it's been saddled with a remit that will helpfully cause new readers and old to shun in because it's a new version of something they didn't want, or reheated leftovers, respectively.
Plus, it lays bare that Marvel's one trick now is "you can have it in any colour you like, as long as it's black."
I suppose now, the Thunderbolts will just be what everyone assumes the group Rainbow Dash wants to join is called. Whatever. In any event, to my shock, this may end up being the most profundly insular blog post in the history of the Prattle. One might be tempted to consider this a layer of density on par with Watchmen, or the inevitable result of a very narrow focus on the part of the author. There's no right answer, because it's the latter.
This is pretty ironic, because Thunderbolts actually came around at a time when Marvel was kind of creatively tapped out (not creatively bankrupt, as they are today, just financially so) I talked over the circumstances in previous blog posts--namely, Marvel had made a series of rather dubious decisions and had come to a dead-end, and, desperate to make some money, farmed out the Avengers and the Fantastic Four (and all related characters) off to Beach Ball World where Image guys draw them for a year (or more, because Image lateness was still a thing in 1996) This led to a bit of a bit a problem, as Marvel now needed something to plug the hole in their main continuity. I mean, it's not as if everyone could just twiddle their thumbs for 13 months or something, right?
Enter Thunderbolts, which pulled off one of the most masterful first issue surprises of the era (and there's a rather detailed article in this collection that explains how many times they nearly let it slip) as the rather generic in a pleasing kind of Mark Bagley way superheroes who were nobly standing up to take the place of the Avengers and the FF, who had so recently fallen . . .
. . .were the Masters of Evil, who had very nearly beaten the Avengers before. The whole thing was a charade to earn the trust of a world desperate for heroes and conquer the world.
And there's no one to stop them now, either. Well, yeah, Spider-Man, the Heroes for Hire and a few others, but really now.
At the time, reading these issues I remember how pumped I was for it. Partly because Kurt Busiek was using concepts and continuity elements that had lain fallow for quite awhile (but generally not in such a way to where I was completely lost for not reading 50 years of Marvel comics) and creating an interesting tension in the book--the Thunderbolts are the main characters, but engaged in a despicable long con with pretty horrible consequences if they succeed, but they're also the main characters, so we kinda want them to on one level.
Fortunately, Busiek wasn't content just to let that play out on that level and what we have going on simultaneously is that hey, some of the villains actually like being superheroes--it's a means to more healthy channels of respect than they had when their main ambition was ripping of jewelry stores and all that. And so we have an idea of who's who and where in our little menagerie, let's do a ROLL CALL for old time's sake:
CITIZEN V (BARON ZEMO)--The leader of the group, transformed from the norm by taking a faceplant into a bucket of paste. The Baron has nicked the identity of a forgotten Golden Age Timely Comics hero his father murdered, and sees the whole charade as a means to an end, getting gradually more annoyed when it starts unraveling just when he's about to win.
SONGBIRD (SCREAMING MIMI)--Kurt Busiek will always be in my good books (except when I'm complaining about something) because he had Songbird call someone a "jabroni." Thanks for that one, Mr. Busiek. I had to be told just who Songbird was supposed to be by friend of the Prattle Chris Elam because, well, Songbird doesn't really look a lot like Screaming Mimi, but that's explained away by magic surgery that makes them all look different (and thus, unraveling the whole scheme the minute someone takes fingerprints) Songbird almost became one of the book's breakout characters, but it never came off (she was even in Avengers Forever as a future Avenger) generally because about 1999, Marvel quietly decided Thunderbolts was a book it didn't really want to keep publishing.
Songbird's role in the book is to be essentially rudderless without someone to tell her what to do (as Busiek has said elsewhere, this created some problems because Atlas is working in that same zone, more or less) and over time, she gradually draws on her own reserves of inner strength. Plus, she has a pretty rad look.
MACH-1 (BEETLE)--Nothing says "mid-90s" like MACH-1's ponytail. Tired of being a punchline as the Beetle, MACH-1 is a more Top Gun-inspired version of his Beetle armour (and the similarity between the two looks is one of those things like the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo, one of those things you never see at first and then can't help but see every time after) There's some retroactive stuff about how the Beetle got into the whole criminal game to get respect from people, and upon getting it as a Thunderbolt, he becomes the first of the villains to turn (after jeopardizing the whole scheme by committing petty theft on a thief) Gets paired off with Songbird, a relationship that takes some rather convoluted (some would even say "tortured") dimensions as the years go by.
TECHNO (THE FIXER)--Techno, like Dolph Ziggler, lives to show off, and playing at being hero is an ideal chance for him to do that. His tech-pac (not to be confused with "Tupac") allows him to do pretty much whatever the plot requires of him (up to and including resurrecting him from death) and while he doesn't have as involved a character arc as the rest, he gets a few creepy bits after he's died.
METEORITE (MOONSTONE)--Before she became Team Slut and faux-Ms. Marvel (wherein we learned that she killed her parents and shit because in the new Millennium, you have to be like, stupidly evil in ways that make absolutely no logical sense), Moonstone functioned as the unreliable second-in-command, allegedly using her experience as a psychiatrist to better manage the intricacies of the Thunderbolts' public charade. In practise, she's rather more occupied with trying to undermine Zemo's leadership of the team and, if she has a plan at all, it's generally to keep the con going and not get caught. After the first 12 issues she stays with the team, not quite the leader, not quite reformed, and never not stirring the pot in one way or another.
ATLAS (GOLIATH)--Longtime Zemo flunky and man of a dozen identities, Atlas is the team brick, and the fulcrum of a number of the book's conflicts, as he's torn between wanting to be a hero and the fact that he owes Zemo pretty much everything (several times over, as we discover)
Gavok over at 4th Letter! has done a way more in-depth recounting of the early issues, so my analysis of the two volumes (so far) of the Thunderbolts Classic trades (which go up to issue #14) will be a bit lighter on details.
The first trade rather neatly covers the initial arc of the book, including the first appearance of the team from Incredible Hulk (It's . . .something watching Mike Deodato try to handle the Thunderbolts's designs.) and the "getting to know you" story from Tales of the Marvel Universe (in this age of year-long miniseries, sub mini-series and Frontline companion minis, it's amazing there was a time when Marvel rolled out such things in a low-key manner like this) Issue 1 we've already discussed obviously, and Issue #2 sees the Bolts take a major step forward by fighting the Mad Thinker and doing so well they get to move into Four Freedoms Plaza (recently vacated by the FF)
After that, there's an issue of Spider-Man Team-Up (oh man, I'd forgotten about this one) that focuses on MACH-1's history with Spider-Man and features a McGuffin that will come into play a bit later on. It's a bit slight, but I do like how the book's threads flow with such cohesion through even their crossover appearances.
Issue #3 sees them fight a new version of the Masters of Evil (because it would be too irresistible not to) and features the first appearance of the leader of the new masters, the Crimson Cowl (the Cowl's identity eventually becomes an albatross around the book's neck, getting as overlong and confusing as the Triune Understanding plot in Avengers. Well, that and the Citizen V stuff) and has the Bolts running into the Black Widow, who, we are led to beleive, senses something is very wrong with them.
Issue #4 introduces Jolt, the spunky young ingenue who shows up and becomes a permanent impediment to the Baron's plans, as her attitude erodes his ability to keep the other Bolts on task (as he sees it) and the danger of her finding out their secret adds yet another ticking clock to the book. One of the things I really liked about Thunderbolts early on was that while not every issue seemed to advance Zemo's plans, every issue usually complicated them, added some wrinkle previously not known, or otherwise raised the stakes.
We then hop over to the Thunderbolts Annual 97 for some backstory on the Thunderbolts and how Zemo first concocted the plan to impersonate superheroes (actually Atlas did, but . . .) Zemo's utterly hilarious improv about Moonstone's "harmonic convergence" burbles up a couple times because sometimes excuses are so bad they become something wonderful in their ridiculousness.
We hop back to Thunderbolts proper for issue #5, which is my least favourite of the early issues, because it has them fighting the boring-ass Growing Man. This leads to a sequel story later on that involves Henry Pym in a roundabout way and I. Just. Cannot. Be. Arsed.
The first trade concludes with Thunderbolts -1, reminding me once again about Marvel's Flashback Month. The idea was that Marvel would publish origin stories for all their titles, all narrated by Stan Lee. Unfortunately, Thunderbolts being Thunderbolts, these aren't stories that naturally lend themselves to his brand of bombast (possibly only Tomb of Dracula would have been more downbeat), a fact which he pretty much ends up admitting. Steve Epting handles the art chores here, and he's really good, employing a thinner line than his Avengers stuff but not quite his later Captain America style either. I've actually never seen him use this approach again, but it's really rather good.
Trade #2 culminates the first story arc, and it's a humdinger, man. Once again, it also has the advantage of being well-coordinated (in a way that Onslaught wasn't--in fact, this whole run-up to the Heroes Return stuff is handled with a really deft and disciplined hand. No "books coming out in the wrong sequence" here) bringing the "Thunderbolts as heroes" stuff to a head with a three-part story featuring Avengers trivia questions the Elements of Doom, a rather plot-convenient assemblage of bad guys who are sufficient to hold off New York's heroes for three issues, but not really require much character work beyond zapping people, killing people, and/or saying "BAH!" a lot.
Techno gets killed and handles it with a surprising amount of stride (which will ultimately grow to be creepy as hell as things heat up) and Songbird starts getting to be more aggro and Jeff Johnson sits in for the middle issue of this trilogy. Whatever happened to him, anyways? He was a good hand, I thought.
The BIG story, beyond the Elements, and the Bolts linking up with the rest of New York City's superhuman population is that the Thunderbolts have gone against Zemo's orders in fighting the Elements, which is the first hard indication that the Grand Plan is in danger of unraveling.
We briefly stop off with a quick "they meet and fight" crossover in Heroes For Hire (another of my favourite all-but-forgotten books from this era. I know it wouldn't have worked with the Avengers & Co. coming back, but it was fun while it lasted . . .) wherein they fight the Super-Adaptoid. Then it's back to the main title for the finale of the first year, beginning with Black Widow's return (looking entirely different than she did last time, but whatever) as she drops by to tell Songbird and MACH-1 that she knows something's up with the Bolts and relates a untold tale about the Kooky Quartet version of the Avengers (which gives Ron Frenz a chance to do a reasonably good Don Heck impersonation and hint, ever so slightly at Hawkeye's future role with the Thunderbolts) and warns them that they can stop Zemo, or be put down alongside him.
Before they can get going on that, in issue #10, the penny drops--hard. Zemo himself, realising he's losing control, dimes out the Bolts to S.H.I.E.L.D. (Man, G.W. Bridge was the black Nick Fury before black Nick Fury was a thing, wasn't he?) to force them to do things his way. Hawkeye shows up again (the heroes having returned from Beach Ball World by now) and fights Moonstone as they Bolts get chased into space (and blow up Four Freedoms Plaza) From space, Zemo puts his plan into action, having used the bio-modem (oh, 1998, you so crazy) they grabbed in that Spider-Man Team-Up issue (and you thought it was extraneous at the time) to do some mind-taking and conquer the world.
Jolt. meanwhile, manages to talk the rest of the 'Bolts into fighting back against Zemo, and while it looks like the Thunderbolts might get a reprieve from having their asses kicked when the Avengers and the Fantastic Four show up, in a cliffhangers that's almost as impressive as the one for issue #1, as Zemo reveals, nahh, he's actually mind-jacked them already and they're on his side.
Well, shit. It was a hella long month waiting for the wrap-up to this, lemme tell ya.
Issue #12 is the payoff for the entire first year of the book, and it doesn't disappoint. It also manages to play with the idea of villains as heroes (the good 'Bolts vs. Zemo) heroes as villains (the mind-jacked Avengers and F.F., who apparently talk like cut-rate villains under the influence of the bio-modem) and heroes pretending to be villains (part of the Bolts plans involve confusing the mind-jacked heroes with a pointless battle in order to gain their objective, which is really clever in the midst of what is a big big fight.
Fortunately, things wrap up in such a way as that while the immediate crisis is averted, it spins off several lingering plot threads which will sustain the book through it's second year. Unfortunately, before we get to that, we close the second trade with an ill-advised trip to the land of Kosmos, longtime Marvel continuity backwater. Busiek gamely tries to make all of this interesting, but it never quite comes off, and bless him, he wisely pulls the plug on quickly and shuffles us on to more interesting matters.
In all, this is a good run of books, and reads well even now, a decade and change removed from the immediacy of its various twists and turns. I continue to be impressed by Busiek's ability to make odds and sods of Marvel's publishing history work without being slavishly rabbinical continuity points, and managing to build interesting characters out of what were initially little more than things to punch. For all that the standard narrative has been that Marvel did naught but screw everything up until Quesada and Co. arrived to right the sinking ship (a narrative that is so wrong on so many levels . . .) I recommend taking a look at these and trying to see how well you can do when you're willing to play with the toys in the toybox without necessarily breaking them.