How do I know that Thunderbolts was one of the last times Marvel's created a brand? Because they've re-launched the book so many times in so many ways far from the initial remit that it's now just a title that has some catchet, but people probably don't remember why exactly.
Which is what I guess these reprints are for (though why you'd want to remind people what they never knew the title was because they came in later is hard to fathom). When last we passed this way, I covered Volumes 1 and 2 of Thunderbolts, taking us up and over it's first year of publication, and past the Big Surprise Twist that anchored the first year of the book. Volume 3 takes us into year 2, and the book's other, major-but-not-quite-as-earth-shaking status quo change and keeps its various subplots ticking over.
After the three-parter in Kosmos, the Thunderbolts return to Earth and try to make a go of going straight. Unfortunately, they're pretty crappy at it, as Zemo and S.H.I.E.L.D. immediately twig on to the fact that they're back and start hunting them down. (Well, S.H.I.E.L.D. more than Zemo at first) It's. . .well, it's fall-out from the first year on the book, and really exists more as a backdrop for the real story--the Thunderbolts are on the point of breaking up, as Jolt's trying to be the positive cheerleader, Moonstone is manipulating everyone so she can be in charge, Songbird's falling back into her pro-wrestling persona (though this does give us some awesome wrestling references) MACH-1 is trying to figure out what's wrong with Songbird and Atlas is mopey because he's feeling like he's a danger to himself and others.
So they fight S.H.I.E.L.D. in issue #15, and in issue #16 fight the Great Lakes Avengers (and. . .honestly, while I appreciate that some people find the GLA funny, all I see is John Byrne's strained attempts at superhero parody and then, despair) who hitched their wagon to the Thunderbolts, only to find when they were outed, everyone assumed that they were criminals too (they aren't--they're just stupid) Even being fractious and not on the same page, the Thunderbolts beat the GLA, as you'd expect (then again, a dead Thalidomide baby on a string swung with sufficient force could defeat the Great Lakes Avengers) and then they go on to fight a Hulk robot sent by Zemo.
The Hulk robot is just a sideshow, that somehow brings Graviton (note: not the Gravitron--that's a fair ride) and this leads to a mildly interesting three-way dance between the Great Lakes Avengers (who apparently can't leave me alone) livened up by a parallel plot wherein Zemo is attacked by . . .Citizen V. The mystery of who Citizen V is get strung out a little more than it needs to be (friend of the Prattle Chris Elam got a letter published in Thunderbolts that had basically figured it out a few issues before the proverbial penny dropped) There's a good bit where Moonstone gets rid of Graviton by pointing out that despite his godlike power, he really has no game plan for it, and that's why he fails. Amazingly it works, even if it is really short-term thinking. They also get the Great Lakes Avengers to finally leave the damn book, but no psychological jiu-jitsu was involved there.
Issue #18 is the buildup to the major status-quo change I mentioned earlier, as the stress fractures on the Thunderbolts are brought to a head just as the Masters of Evil (from way back in issue #3) return to the book. After the contractually-mandated fight between the teams, the Masters' leader, Crimson Cowl, invites the Thunderbolts to join the Masters, and given the loose end the team finds themselves in, they're actually considering it.
But to string that decision out a bit longer, we have a detour to honour a contractual agreement and roll out the winner of the Wizard magazine create-a-character contest: Charcoal: the Burning Man (not to be confused with Burning Man, obviously) Charcoal is an operative of the Imperial Forces (who eventually turn out to be a gestalt of a lot of barely-remembered Captain America villains like the Secret Empire and the Loyalist Forces of America, which is continuity-obsession bordering on the rabbinical) and the whole thing looks like it's going the Thunderbolts' way, except the Masters show up at the end and tell them they don't get to play hero while they're thinking it over.
But they're not gonna have long to keep beating that drum, as in the very next issue, the Thunderbolts decide that they won't be dictated to, and take the fight to the Masters, which doesn't go well for the Thunderbolts until; Dreadknight ("Who? Exactly.") to rescue the Thunderbolts, only it turns out it's actually Hawkeye, thus beginning, more or less, the era of Hawkeye leading the Thunderbolts.
This also means, as I mentioned in the Marvel Universe reviews a few years back, that Dreadknight has shown up as someone's cover identity way more than he has as a character.In the Marvel Universe, Dreadknight must be the equivalent of a french maid's outfit or a sexy nurse costume--it's the go-to choice.
I'm of two minds about it, really. I can see the logic of it--Hawkeye was the first Marvel villain to go straight (right? Mr. Busiek, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.) and as such, is a natural exemplar of the paradigm the Thunderbolts are aiming towards, and Busiek works really hard to make sure that it's not as simple as Hawkeye showing up and hey presto, the Thunderbolts have legitimacy--if anything, getting involved with them compromises him. So it kinda works.
But . . .and I say this as someone who read far too many West Coast Avengers books than is healthy for a human being to read--Hawkeye is not terribly interesting in the role of leader, at least for me. Of course, you can't keep him in the role of Avengers pain in the ass indefinitely either, but in general, when you make him a leader, it tends to blunt the "wildcard" edge of the character.
Anyways, Hawkeye fills the Thunderbolts' head with notions of being pardoned (which is all bullshit) and says that the one known murderer--MACH-1--has to go to jail (also, that someone actually read Deadly Foes of Spider-Man, and that someone is writing Thunderbolts. How 'bout that?) Meanwhile, Hercules shows up to pay Atlas back for beating the hell of him about ten years and change ago, and Hawkeye has to put himself on the line to keep Hercules from murdering Atlas, which is a good story and does tie Hawkeye in with the book's tension more than just making him Happy Smiling Leader Guy.
We take a break for a bit to catch up with the Zemo/Citzen V stuff in Captain America/Citizen V, which is a serviceable enough romp and a means to deliver some of Citzen V's backstory and how this one relates to the Golden Age hero of the same name. Oh, and Citizen V is actually a woman and has a whole team of people on call. These things will become important later, but . . .just sayin'.
We go from there to the Wizard mail-in Thunderbolts #0, which features a brief fight with HYDRA in between a clip-art "the story so far" recap, which sets up the first of the big Avengers/Thunderbolts crossovers (of which I think there ended up being exactly two and we've covered both of them now. . .this one from both sides) in Avengers #12, when the Thunderbolts and Avengers fight, then team up, then they team up and fight the utterly confusing Dominus, The Continuity Backwater That Walks Like A Giant Robot. Hawkeye declares his intention to help the Thunderbolts go straight and that's the end of the book.
Being a collection of an in-progress story, Volume 3 feels a bit jumbled--Hawkeye taking command is supposed to be a proper Big Moment, but it doesn't quite make it there in the end. Instead, it feels like there's a heavier story beat yet to drop (and there is, but that's around issue #24 with the next fight with the Masters) but it's not included in this lot, so the overall package feels a little . . .incomplete. Coupled with the fact that these are not the strongest issues (they're pretty much all transition and as such, a little thin) means this collection doesn't have the punch that the first two volumes had. However, if you can enjoy the welter of references and the long game Busiek is playing with the book, there's plenty you'll get out of it.