Robot 6

The Fifth Color | Justice is like lightning

Thunderbolts #170It was right about the time that Merlin stepped up to speak in the most recent issue of Thunderbolts that I had to check the cover and make sure I had picked up the right book. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Thunderbolts and have really seen them bloom into something rather special in the Marvel Universe, but there was this strange feeling in the back of my mind this issue. Something about how all the Thunderbolts had new Ren Faire costumes to fit into the Camelot scheme that were similar to their usual togs. Something about the casual guest star factor with the court of King Arthur (especially the Black Knight, I miss that guy!). Something about how all the characters worked together or didn’t, depending on the situation and the greater needs at hand.

But really, while listening to Merlin I suddenly realized that I had seen a story like this before. Not the exact same story, but going to Camelot, overcoming adversity, the comparisons between the heroes and the knights of old, even the stylish dress up factor made me want to go find old issues of “The Morgan Conquest,” the post-Heroes Reborn issues of the Avengers from Kurt Busiek and George Perez. It’s not too surprising that the T-Bolts would remind me of a by-gone era of Avengers lore. In fact, taking a closer look, there’s a lot to be said for this rag-tag team of super villains being taught redemption and their exploits in battling evil.

Could it possibly be that the oldest trick in the Thunderbolts book was becoming a reality?

Quick refresher: the Thunderbolts were a brilliant trick by Busiek (hey!) and Mark Bagley back in the bygone era of 1997. You see, all the heroes had “died” during the big Onslaught event, and a new team rose to take their place. A new group of heroes declaring the world under their protection who were … actually the Masters of Evil. Our minds were blown, and the book was an instant hit as Busiek really made us think about redemption and how hard you have to work just to be one of the good guys. I’m not saying the book really stayed as good as its first foray onto the main stage (let’s not talk about Fight Club), and it certainly wavered in sincerity and shock value, but Jeff Parker and Kev Walker set us on our current track with Thunderbolts #144, notably the start of the Heroic Age. And that’s not just a banner tie-in, this is indeed the Heroic Age for the Thunderbolts, a band of misfit criminals in a government program who use their powers against the worst the world has to offer.

There are no big names, no major characters splitting time between two books (well, there is Luke Cage, but recent turns of events have left him some free time to handle his other job), just a rotating roster of some pretty powerful people. Back in the day with our rose-colored nostalgia glasses on, I can’t say that sounds terribly different than the Avengers of yesteryear; even Iron Man wasn’t really Iron Man when he started up the Avengers. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes haven’t shied away from having criminals on their roster or helping people change their lives for the better by fighting crime. I’m not saying Henry Gyrich was a warden for the Avengers team, but the heavy hand of the U.S. government has directed their members at times. I’d even go so far as to say that the Thunderbolts have had more of an impression on Avengers Academy than the actual Avengers who started a fight at the school.

But these are situational similarities; the fact that they all have costumes and super-powers make the Thunderbolts similar to the X-Men, but that’s the point. “Classic” Avengers stories, like “The Korvac Saga,” “Bride of Ultron,” “Avengers: Under Siege,” even “The Morgan Conquest” I mentioned above, all have a similar style of putting their heroes in physical and psychological peril. The Thunderbolts have gone through roster changes as well as personality changes, finding themselves becoming new and more complex characters in the stories we read. Despite the rather large roster (13, give or take, depending on the storyline), everyone in that book seems to have gotten a spotlight at one time or another. No one is there as a back-up NPC or limited use “strong guy” for the group. Everyone has a reason, and they all work together, whether they like it or not, or even if it works out for the best. Characters have entirely their own motives, whether they want to actually redeem themselves or are simply biding their time, but in the end, I can say that the Thunderbolts fought back the tide of monsters threatening Lake Michigan and saved most of the day in Fear Itself.

Thunderbolts #170 - Merlin

Kev Walker and the gnarliest Merlin you'll ever see

The Thunderbolts are fueled by a fantastic imagination and some amazing storytelling. That Jeff Parker can straddle the line between tradition and reinvention so well makes him a credit to this book’s clever concept. He’s been able to take a wide variety of classic villains and pair them up neatly with new characters like Ghost and sprinkle in just enough of the classic Thunderbolts lore for this amazing feast of storytelling. Kev Walker is the unsung hero of this title and part of me wishes he was on more books, but here on the Thunderbolts, he can bring a simple and elegant style to the variety of worlds and levels of dramatic tension; we can go from a great splash pages of Man-Thing and the Nexus of All Realities to tight prison politics to out-and-out punch-’em up action–all in the same book. Walker has a texture to his art that doesn’t have the more marketable gloss that paints Earth’s Mightiest Heroes these days and the Thunderbolt’s humble lines, elegant and complex, match the writing style to a T and help bring these characters and the world they fight for (or against) to life.

And that’s pretty much what I want out of an Avengers book. I know my own issues with Bendis’ views on how the Avengers should be handled has been discussed before, and sales simply don’t lie. But further along down the alphabetical listing on the shelves is a far more dramatic and adventurous path to take than the one more popular in theaters. To borrow a quote from Mr. Bale, the Thunderbolts may not be the Avengers we True Believers want, but they are the Avengers we need.

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Comments

16 Comments

As a long time Thunderbolts reader, I am really enjoying Jeff Parker’s time on this title, and the current time travel adventure has just been brilliant.

What we have is a group of villians who just want to escape, to be free. But instead find thems in a situation where they have to act contrary to their usual instincts. They are not fighting for redemption or to reform, or even because they have been blackmailed/strong-armed into doing so. They fight so they can maintain the status quo of the timeline and have a home they can return to.

But along the way, we are noticing the once villians are beginning to change. Most noticable for me is Boomerang. I guess if his original baseball career hadn’t been interupted, or he had a different influence when he put on the costume, he could have been an adventuring hero, rather than a mercenary/villian.

I am hoping the lack of information about the Thunderbolts post-175 is just because Jeff Parker doesn’t want to spoil the twists and surprises in store.

Month in and month out Thunderbots is one of the best Marvel titles. Unfortunately, they don’t resort to sensational bagged issue deaths and adding Wolverine and Spider-Man to the team to get the hype that Marvel likes to give it’s better selling titles. But if those gimmicks were used it wouldn’t be as good. I like how Jeff Parker has gone back to making the book feel more like the Kurt Busiek/Fabian Nicieza villain redemption days than the Suicide Squad feel that Warren Ellis brought. There’s definitely more heart to Parker’s run though I would like a smaller cast once the time travel storyline is over.

Thunderbolts has been one of my favorite books off and on since I jumped in on Ellis’ run, and the latest issues are no exception. I really dig Kev Walker’s style.

Thanks for spotlighting such a wonderfully entertaining Marvel Universe book, Carla. You, and the posters above, have nailed it – great characters, untapped personalities realising their potential, sharply plotted and executed storylines from Parker, excellent art from Walker, Declan Shalvey and the fill-in crew … Marel should be proudly plugging this book.

Great column, Carla.

One thing you said: “I know my own issues with Bendis’ views on how the Avengers should be handled has been discussed before, and sales simply don’t lie.” I interpret that to mean you don’t like what Bendis has done to the Avengers. If so, I support your view. Sales are not an indicator of quality, and never have been.

McDonald’s has sold billions of burgers, but that still doesn’t make it steak. Lady Gaga has sold millions, but that still doesn’t make her music a fraction of the quality of the Beatles. Millions of people smoke cigarettes, even though it’s obvious how stupid that is. And half of all Americans put a moron in the White House in 2000 and 2004. See my point?

No matter how many copies have sold of Bendis’s Avengers, it doesn’t change the fact that he ruined the title.
Unlike Busiek, Bendis never “got” the classic Thomas-Englehart Avengers. So he destroyed them. Then he created his own twisted image of the Avengers. And yes, they sold like McDonald’s beef-less burgers.

Although Bendis soiled the Avengers title forever, I take some small solace in knowing that the coming Avengers movie does not feature Wolverine, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, or any of Bendis’s other faux-Avengers. And fortunately the movie will contain a complete story (instead of spreading out one story over six movies,as Bendis would do).

“And half of all Americans put a moron in the White House in 2000 and 2004. ”

Exactly! Then they put a guy who could really give a great speech in!

I totally agree with you on the Bendis Avengers.

Spider-Man and Wolverine on the same team of Avengers was a pretty sad market scheme… but it actually worked out pretty well. Just because something starts off for the wrong reason, doesn’t mean that it is doomed for all time. Uncanny X-Force is the same way. Deadpool was put on that team with Wolverine pretty much only for marketing reasons, and yet that book is insanely good.

I’ve read Ellis’ Thunderbolts and that’s it. I’d be interested to check out Jeff Parker’s take. Dark Avengers was pretty much the exact same as Busiek’s original Thunderbolts concept, just done so with bigger names and I enjoyed Dark Avengers quite a bit.

People also forget that Stan Lee’s original Avengers were a marketing scheme! Based off the Justice League, the Avengers just put Marvel’s heroes who made logical sense on one team. The Avengers aren’t the Fantastic Four. Spider-Man couldn’t be there because back then, it was against the essence of his character. If Stan Lee created the Avengers tomorrow, Spider-Man and Wolverine would both be there.

Too bad this is the worst roster of Thunderbolts we had for a long time.

Been a fan of T-Bolts since day one, and aside from the regrettable “Fight Club” issues, this book has never ceased to entertain and interest me.

I totally agree; this is more an Avengers book than Bendis’ Avengers have ever been.

Huge T-bolts fan. Loved the Busiek run. Ellis’ run was my absolute favorite. Diggle’s run was ok. I was weary of Jeff Parker taking over a new team of T-Bolts because of his less so stellar run after Diggle’s run. I’m glad I was wrong. Jeff Parker can write a hell of a story with his B-list class of villains mixed with some guys we know like Juggernaut. He even made characters like Boomerang and Hyde relevant again. Can’t wait for the T-Bolts vs T-Tbolts run.

Wow: Kev Walker’s Merlin is amazing > enough to make me buy this arc. I’ve read a little bit of T-Bolts here and there, but this sounds like a fun storyline.

I’ll be curious to see how Avengers this is since I don’t generally go for team books (funny, I am starting to read several team books, go figure). Anyway, great article Carla and thanks for the tipoff.

I remember missing out on Thunderbolts #1 because I thought (like most readers) it was just another superhero team to replace the Avengers. A few years ago I got a copy from Kurt Busiek himself who signed it for me.

Ok, so you’ve got Avengers VS X-Men coming in April. Fine, I can live with that, but the “time travelling” Thunderbolts VS “Masters of Evil” Thunderbolts storyline is gonna be even more outrageous!

I’m a long time fan of the Thunderbolts and Parker does a lot of things with them that (I think) wouldn’t be possible in more mainstream books. His pacing can be strange, some ideas may sound bizarre and leaving the known established cast out of the picture for quite some issues surely isn’t easy on some fans, but (perhaps beside Songbirds haircut :-) ) it feels organic and I absolutely love the current run.

I can’t even count all the little things I love about the book. I think the characterization is pretty much spot on currently (except perhaps for Luke Cage, but I like Parker’s Cage more than Bendis’ Cage, so who am I to complain?), with the characters evolving slowly and organically. The cast is large so the character moments might be few, but as subtle as it is, it works for me. Boomerang went from seeking the next best chance to escape, to actually work with the team (let’s see how this plays out, once there’s a chance to actually escape). Troll as some kind of ersatz-Jolt (in a cute cannibalistic way), giving the others reason to aspire to… ok not to be heroic but at least better human beings. Even Mr. Hyde can relate to her in reverse becomes a more well rounded character. Satana is still a succubus (as much as Marvel allows it, and I got the feeling they allow more in Thunderbolts than in other comics), but in a strange way Satana cares (and fears) for her teammates/experiments. Moonstone is still a manipulative beast (at least against Fixer and the late Zemo) and yet Mr.Hyde’s hands-on approach seems to rub off on her a little and let the (seemingly) destruction of the Man-Thing (in Shadowland) get under her skin.

The atmosphere in the book is cool as well, often bitter-sweet, such as Merlin’s reasoning for his Dungeon, or the unfortunate frogman in #150. But also it’s not without closure. At least Parker doesn’t give us the impression that he forgets his story-seeds. Man-Things is perhaps the best example for a bizarre idea and strange pacing. His use in a team (or rather as the team’s bus) was a story seed that evolved over all of Parkers run and we haven’t seen the end of it yet. Other writers would have done this in a six-parter (or forgotten by now *cough*Bendis*cough*).

Kev Walker and the rest of the artists deliver some truly amazing art, which carries the story, often saying more than a thousand words (such as Satana’s care/fear for the team), or just being drop dead gorgeous (For example all the redesigns for the time-traveling Thunderbolts). I really really hope Parker, Walker and the rest of the team stay on the Thunderbolts for MUCH longer. Thanks for the article.

I think the “Fight Club” issues at the end of the first series were underappreciated. Sure, it wasn’t a team of super powered people fighting a six-issue-arc-spanning threat, but it was different from what else was out there. Which has pretty much what T-Bolts has always been. Not that I would have wanted the series to continue in that vein, but it was an interesting book-end to Volume 1.

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