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It 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.
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.