By Scott Tipton

November 3, 2004


When it comes to any sort of creative endeavor, particularly comics, there’s not much more valuable or sought-after than a truly original idea. Almost as precious is a genuine surprise ending, one that the reader never sees coming, and which forces the reader to recontextualize everything he’s read along the way. Writer Kurt Busiek managed to pull off both at the same time in 1997, with the audacious debut of his new Marvel Comics series THUNDERBOLTS. Let’s set the stage first.

In 1997, Marvel made the disastrous creative decision to hand over their core characters, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man and the Avengers, to former Image comics “superstars” Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. Not just new creative teams, but a complete revamp of the characters, starting them over from scratch with revised origins and designs, ostensibly to make them more hip and modern. (Didn’t work, naturally. The Liefeld CAP and AVENGERS were so bad that Liefeld was removed from the books halfway through the yearlong contract, while the Jim Lee FANTASTIC FOUR and IRON MAN limped to an unremarkable finish.) To facilitate Lee and Liefeld’s starting the books over, the FF and the Avengers were removed from the Marvel Universe altogether, though the MARVEL UNIVERSE: ONSLAUGHT event, in which the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were believed dead, having sacrificed their lives to stop the mutant powerhouse Onslaught (a creation of the jumbled psyches of Professor Xavier and Magneto) from destroying New York. As a result, there was a large gap in the Marvel Universe, as the only heroes left were the generally distrusted mutants known as the X-Men, the continually libeled and misunderstood Spider-Man, and monsters like the Hulk.

Filling that gap was the Thunderbolts, Marvel’s newest super-team. Created by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley, the team was talked up in WIZARD and other comics press venues as Marvel’s attempt to create an old-fashioned super-team from scratch.

The characters made a couple of guest appearances in other Marvel books before making a big splash with the premiere of their own series, THUNDERBOLTS, in April 1997. The book opened with a news report highlighting just how frightened and unprotected New Yorkers felt following the death of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, before cutting to a team of mercenary scavengers, known as the Rat Pack, looting the wreckage of a New York neighborhood following the destruction of the battle with Onslaught. The looters, expecting little in the way of opposition, are surprised by the arrival of an unknown super-team calling themselves the Thunderbolts, under the command of a masked and hooded swordsman known as Citizen V (as in “V for Victory,” he helpfully explains).

Citizen V’s team includes the colossal and super-strong Atlas, the energy-blasting blonde bombshell Meteorite, Techno, the team’s resident weaponsmith and inventor extraordinaire, MACH-1, an armored aviator with a personal flightsuit as maneuverable and deadly as an F-15 fighter jet, and Songbird, whose voice can create sound constructs as hard as solid steel.

The Thunderbolts make short work of the looters, who do manage to get away, due mostly to the Thunderbolts’ inexperience. Their work done, they retreat to their makeshift headquarters, an abandoned pizzeria in a neighborhood condemned due to damage sustained in Onslaught’s attack on the city. Having been followed by reporters, the Thunderbolts agree to an impromptu press conference in front of their ramshackle HQ, where they introduce themselves to the city, and where Citizen V is asked the question on everyone’s mind: are they here to replace the Avengers and the Fantastic Four? A mournful-looking Citizen V responds thoughtfully:

The rookie heroes quickly win over the press, and are called away when the Rat Pack are sighted again, this time luring the Thunderbolts into a trap on Liberty Island, set by longtime Avengers foes the Wrecking Crew. The neophyte heroes have a little trouble with the massively powerful bruisers at first, and Lady Liberty takes the beating to show for it. Still, thanks to the keen strategy of Citizen V and one supremely pissed-off Atlas, the T-Bolts triumph.

Not only that, they win over the hearts of New Yorkers even more by cleaning up after themselves, repairing the Statue of Liberty. Even the city’s remaining superheroes are fans, with the New Warriors, the Black Widow and even Spidey interviewed giving the Thunderbolts their props.

Back at their home base, the Thunderbolts relax, basking in their good press, when they’re met with a startling sight: their leader, Citizen V, without his mask, revealing a hideously scarred visage.

Noting their discomfort, he agrees to put on another mask: the mask of Baron Zemo! And with that, all is revealed: the Thunderbolts themselves are actually the Masters of Evil, longtime foes of the Avengers!

Techno, MACH-1, Songbird, Atlas and Meteorite are none other than the Fixer, the Beetle, Screaming Mimi, Goliath and Moonstone, veteran supervillains all. This, gentle readers, is what a twist ending looks like. Accept no substitutes.

I can’t stress enough what a genuine surprise this was. Marvel deserves all the credit in the world for knocking one out of the park here, in delivering a truly stunning twist ending without the secret (or even the fact that there was a secret) getting out to anyone. In today’s Internet-saturated, gossip-column-heavy comics environment, I’m really not so sure Marvel could’ve pulled it off; more to the point, I’m not sure they would’ve even tried to, instead trumpeting “CAN YOU GUESS THE THUNDERBOLTS’ SHOCKING SECRET?” all over the Diamond PREVIEWS catalogue three months ahead of time. All I can say is, I’ve read an awful lot of comics in my life, and only once did I actually yell “Whoa!” out loud at the end of a comic, and that was THUNDERBOLTS #1.

This then was the surprise concept of the THUNDERBOLTS series: in a city that’s desperate for heroes, Baron Zemo and his Masters of Evil will pose as superheroes so as to gain the trust of the world, all toward Zemo’s ultimate goal of world conquest. However, issues to follow would reveal another wrinkle, and Busiek’s true intentions with the series. It’s all well and good to have career criminals posing as superheroes, but what happens when the criminals start to like being heroes?

As the Thunderbolts continue their charade, they find themselves becoming popular and trusted even sooner than they expected, with the city of New York even granting them title to the Fantastic Four’s abandoned headquarters, Four Freedoms Plaza. The T-Bolts also find themselves frequently clashing with a new group calling themselves the Masters of Evil (a title that Zemo, whose father founded the original group, finds particularly galling), under the leadership of a new female Crimson Cowl.

While the series packed plenty of action into each issue, it also didn’t skimp on characterization and subplot. Meteorite, always scheming for control, is constantly looking for a way to leverage control of the team away from Zemo, while Atlas finds himself in the beginnings of a romantic relationship with the team’s mayoral liaison, Dallas Riordan. Also romantically involved are MACH-1 and Songbird, with Songbird’s troubled past causing more than a few bumps in the road.

Another complication to Zemo’s plan arrives in the form of teenager Hallie Takahama, a young girl orphaned in the Onslaught attacks, then kidnapped and subjected to scientific experimentation by the evil geneticist Arnim Zola (who, by the way, is one of my favorite Marvel villains of all time, if only for the fact that he replaced his own head with a camera. Jack Kirby was a frickin’ genius…), resulting in Hallie receiving enhanced strength and speed, and the ability to fire powerful bursts of energy from her hands.

The T-Bolts accompany Hallie back to where she was kidnapped and tormented, and after battling and defeating Zola’s forces, Zemo’s continual drive for popularity and acceptance backfires on him. With news crews in attendance, Meteorite, sensing a potential advantage in her quest to subvert Zemo’s leadership, quietly pressures Zemo to allow Hallie, now known as Jolt, to join the team, reasoning that it would look suspicious if they didn’t.

With Jolt now a full-time and completely unknowing Thunderbolt, the remaining members have to remain in their heroic guises even more frequently, subtly reinforcing their already burgeoning desires to remain heroes.

A standout issue early on was THUNDERBOLTS ANNUAL #1, in which Jolt asks Citizen V how the Thunderbolts formed, and we see how Baron Zemo recruited his team, juxtaposed through narration and crosscuts with Zemo as Citizen V rapidly weaving lie after lie to Jolt, trying to stay as close to the truth as he can without revealing the T-Bolts’ true nature. The annual also boasted art from series regular Mark Bagley, Tom Grummett, Darick Robertson, and all-time greats Gene Colan and George Perez.

This issue, as well as an earlier “Flashback” issue, highlighted how well Busiek chose the characters for his team, utilizing their established characterizations as motivations for their growing acceptance of being a hero. MACH-1, for example, in his very first appearance as the Beetle back in the ‘60s, was primarily motivated to become a supercriminal by a lack of respect for his abilities. Now that he has more respect and esteem than he’d ever dreamed of, will he be able to give it up?

Busiek pulls the rug out from under the readers once again after only 10 issues, when agents of SHIELD bust into a T-Bolts press conference and expose the team as Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil, just as the team has been granted security status equal to that of the Avengers.

After the team flees and regroups, Zemo reveals that it was he who tipped off SHIELD, knowing that the T-Bolts were being seduced by the glamorous heroes’ life. Zemo and the T-Bolts head for Zemo’s satellite headquarters to enact his master plan (along with a stowaway Jolt, who has nowhere else to go), but on their way out, Zemo gives the city of New York a final “f-you”: with the push of a button, he blows up Four Freedoms Plaza, the beloved skyscraper home of the Fantastic Four. Bastard.

Zemo’s plan for world conquest works like a charm, by connecting the bio-modem, a device that allows mind control through electronic systems (which the T-Bolts had “rescued” in an earlier issue), into all the world’s computers thanks to their newly granted Avengers-level security status. Soon Zemo is in control of more than half the world’s military, and rapidly gaining. The remaining T-Bolts, already conflicted about giving up their life as heroes, are beseeched by Jolt to help her take Zemo down, but are soon confronted by Zemo and his loyal henchmen Techno and Atlas (who, despite his desire to remain a hero, can’t bring himself to betray the Baron). The battle rages until the arrival of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers on the scene, granting Jolt and her teammates a moment’s hope, before realizing that, thanks to the bio-modem, the heroes were already under Zemo’s control.

Hopelessly outnumbered, Jolt’s team surrenders, and all seems to be lost until Atlas, unable to accept Zemo’s intent to execute young Jolt, switches sides, providing Jolt’s team the brute force needed to escape the satellite. With the help of Iron Man, whose armor provided him protection from Zemo’s mind control, the T-Bolts are able to return to the satellite, wrest control of the Avengers away from Zemo and destroy his bio-modem, putting an end to Zemo’s dreams of conquest. Zemo himself receives a restaurant-quality beating from Meteorite, and barely escapes with his life, making it to an escape pod with the help of Atlas, who was still unwilling to turn his former commander over to the authorities. The battle won, the T-Bolts seemingly agree to turn themselves in, before vanishing in a flash of light before the eyes of the assembled heroes.

After a brief adventure in another dimension, the T-Bolts return to Earth to find themselves wanted by the law and on the run. With little other options available, they decide to continue acting as superheroes, in the hopes of eventually winning back the public’s trust. However, without the leadership of Zemo, and with the manipulative and self-serving Moonstone (having abandoned her “superhero” name of Meteorite) a poor substitute, the Thunderbolts find themselves making little headway, until they’re met with an intriguing and completely unexpected offer:

Yes, Hawkeye the Marksman, veteran Avenger, has tracked down the T-Bolts, but not to apprehend them. Having started his own career as a supervillain (although in his case, it was more by happenstance than design), Hawkeye had taken it personally that the Masters of Evil were posing as heroes, thinking their example would make it that much harder for young heroes like he once was to gain acceptance. However, when they fought alongside the Avengers to defeat Zemo, Hawkeye decided to investigate for himself, and now that he’s convinced their intentions are good, he brings a proposal to the table. Having felt reined in by merely being a member of the Avengers after having led his own Avengers team in the past, he’s looking to lead a superhero team again, and if they agree, he’ll bring the team a necessary air of respectability and prestige as an Avenger, and see to it that they eventually receive pardons if they prove themselves as heroes, thanks to his agreement with the government’s Commission on Superhero Activities. Intrigued by Hawkeye’s offer, the T-Bolts accept.

What they don’t know is that, while Hawkeye did consult with the Commission, they flat-out rejected his proposal, and informed him that if he was spotted near the Thunderbolts, he’d be charged as an accessory after the fact to their crimes, and jailed alongside them. In typical Hawkeye fashion, the archer went ahead with his plan anyway, hoping to figure things out when the time came. Unfortunately, Hawkeye also had one more condition: the only known murderer on the team, MACH-1, had to agree to serve his time for the homicide, carried out back when he was the Beetle.

The addition of Hawkeye jumpstarted the series, which had admittedly gotten a little less exciting once the initial charade was exposed and Zemo was defeated. It was clear in retrospect that this change in pacing was intentional, to highlight the T-Bolts’ loss of direction following their fall from grace, and heighten the excitement of a bold new approach with the addition of Hawkeye. Even Mark Bagley’s art, which had already been quite good, seemed to take on a more vital, dynamic feel with Hawkeye’s induction. Bagley’s THUNDERBOLTS work once Hawkeye joins the team is still, I think, some of the best work of his career.

Hawkeye found himself having to prove his loyalty to his new teammates almost immediately, as the team was suddenly surprised by an enraged Hercules, having only just heard that the one of the Thunderbolts was actually Goliath, one of the Masters of Evil who beat the Olympian god so savagely that it left him comatose and brain-damaged during the Masters’ invasion of Avengers Mansion in the classic AVENGERS arc “Avengers Under Siege!” The T-Bolts are no match for the Prince of Power, and Hercules is about to crush Atlas with an enormous boulder, before the all-too-human Hawkeye calmly steps in:

Hawkeye’s willingness to risk his life against an unbeatable foe further convinces the T-Bolts that Hawkeye’s intentions are good, and cements the team’s newfound loyalty to their brand-new commander. Under Hawkeye’s leadership, the Thunderbolts’ teamwork skills and confidence improve by leaps and bounds (even without the absent MACH-1, who per Hawkeye’s request has turned himself in to serve his time). Hawkeye also finds himself contending with a new Citizen V, who claims to be the granddaughter of the original, and seeks revenge against Zemo and the Thunderbolts for sullying his name. Also joining the team around this time was another villain-turned-hero, Charcoal the Burning Man, actually teenaged Charlie Burlingame, a kid who can transform into a monstrous carbon-based behemoth, thanks to more scientific experimentation by Arnim Zola, now working for a militaristic cult called the Imperial Forces.

Hoping to kick-start the team’s acceptance by the public, Hawkeye forges an uneasy alliance with television reporter Gayle Rogers, so that the outlaw team can reach the people, and does so with a bold prediction, that the Thunderbolts would bring to justice the new Masters of Evil, who had been a thorn in the T-Bolts’ side since the very beginning of the series. Already taken aback by Hawkeye’s bold approach to leadership, the T-Bolts are even more surprised at the bowman’s gleeful reaction to the discovery of the Masters’ hidden base of operations:

Their moment of joviality fades, when they realize that the Masters of Evil’s leader the Crimson Cowl, has been doing some serious recruiting in recent days:

Thanks to a clever (and funny) bit of subterfuge by the Thunderbolts, and several reversed betrayals by Moonstone, Hawkeye and company manage to collar the Masters and put the kibosh on their latest scheme, winning themselves a snazzy new HQ hidden inside Mount Charteris, just outside the small town of Burton Canyons, Colorado.

They also finally manage to unmask the mysterious Crimson Cowl, discovering to their shock Dallas Riordan, their disgraced ex-mayoral liaison from New York City.

Unfortunately, writer Kurt Busiek left the series with issue #33, setting in place one last significant subplot before he left: the beginnings of a romantic relationship between Hawkeye and Moonstone.

The overeducated, elitist Moonstone, who had intended to get closer to Hawkeye so as to manipulate her way into more influence over the team, finds herself, to her shock, genuinely attracted to the working-class slob of the superhero set, while Hawkeye has always had a tendency to date his teammates, and particularly seems to have a weakness for blondes who could kick his ass.

With Busiek’s departure, THUNDERBOLTS was turned over to writer Fabian Nicieza, who, while demonstrating a strong affinity for the characters, seemed far too interested in continually bludgeoning the reader with shock ending after shock ending, in what one assumes he thought was the “tradition” of the series. If you look over Busiek’s 33-issue run, there are only two truly shocking moments: the initial revelation of the charade, and Hawkeye’s surprise arrival to lead the team. Nicieza seemed determined to try and keep that kind of high-adrenaline momentum up month after month, and without ever giving the narrative a breather, it very quickly became exhausting and a little hard to follow. Another critical error Nicieza made very early on (his very first issue, in fact) was the murder of Jolt. Although he eventually resurrected her in a no doubt planned-from-the-beginning storyline, Hallie had long been the heart of the team and the entry point for the reader, and killing her off in what looked like a schoolyard shooting took the wind out the series’ sails, and no doubt cost the book more than a few readers.

Making things worse for the series was the departure of co-creator Mark Bagley. His replacement, Patrick Zircher, had a much edgier, more angular, darker style, which wasn’t a good fit with the series, which had always had a more classic, Silver Age quality to the art.

Still, even when the series was foundering, it was still pretty solid, with plenty of narrative twists and turns; it just didn’t measure up to the book’s outstanding first 33 issues. Despite decent if unspectacular sales, the book was cancelled with issue #75 in the face of changing tastes in Marvel’s editorial staff, and replaced with a new concept ripped off from FIGHT CLUB, yet which bewilderingly kept the title and numbering intact, despite having no connection to any of the characters. Unsurprisingly, it failed to find an audience, and was soon cancelled.

A recent AVENGERS/THUNDERBOLTS miniseries by T-Bolts writers Busiek and Nicieza and artists Barry Kitson and Tom Grummett did quite well, proving that there’s still an audience for these characters, and in response, Marvel has announced the ongoing monthly series NEW THUNDERBOLTS, written by Nicieza and drawn by Grummett, with Busiek serving in a supervisory capacity. If Nicieza can keep the “shocking twists” under control, it should do quite well. In the meantime, do yourselves a favor and track down those first 33 issues of THUNDERBOLTS. Excellent writing, handsome art, and great characters. What more do you want?

And if we’re really lucky, NEW THUNDERBOLTS will eventually feature the return of a certain recently deceased bowman, whose recent “sacrifice” in the pages of Bendis’ just plain awful Avengers run has to be the least satisfying death of a character in decades. Not like this, indeed. If you have any questions about the Thunderbolts, or comics in general, send them to stipton99x@comics101.com.


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