Last time I discussed the initial stories of Thunderbolts, where the heroes were really wolves in sheep’s clothing. They all played the role of hero with different emotional impacts and now it’s all come to a head. Somebody’s figured them out and while at a press conference, SHIELD busts in to arrest them. Everyone’s shocked to hear that these guys are the Masters of Evil, but nobody more than their own member Jolt.
Zemo himself doesn’t seem so surprised and has an escape plan ready. They sneak out and split up, told to regroup at base. Atlas is emotionally gutted from having to see the look on Dallas’ face, but runs off regardless. Jolt could proclaim her innocence in it all, but she jumps out the window, feeling that there has to be something she can do to make things right. They each get to base in their own way, but interestingly enough, Moonstone gets in a brief tussle with Hawkeye, who had come back from being… Wolverine… in a brown mask… on an Earth… on the other side of the sun…?
Listen, comics are fucking weird. What’s important is that Moonstone sneaks away in disguise and thinks about skipping town and starting over. Ultimately, she decides to keep with the team.
One little touch that I’m still not sure if it was planned or if it was damage control over a writing mishap has the media point out that in the footage of the Thunderbolts fighting Arnim Zola’s creations, Techno briefly refers to Meteorite as Moonstone. Even Jolt’s realizing that she was there and that should have raised a red flag if she wasn’t so caught in the moment.
The Thunderbolts think about who could have blown the whistle on them. Black Widow, perhaps? Nah. It was Zemo, who could see that everyone was starting to come around on the hero concept and wanted to speed up the plan to take care of that. Granted, they don’t HAVE to follow him. They could play hero and be arrested or go back to the villain life and be violently ostracized for their actions as Thunderbolts. In a bit of checkmate, he’s got them right in his pocket.
They get in their plane (Thunderjet?) and fly off into space. As an exclamation point, Zemo detonates Four Freedoms Plaza. No word yet if Dr. Doom cried.
So anyway, what’s Zemo’s plan? He had Techno create this computer virus plot device thingy (based on what they went up against in the Spider-Man team-up) that would mentally control anyone who looks at certain monitors. Since they have high-ranking government clearance, that means they’re able to use their mind-control magic on militaries all over the world. In the name of Baron Zemo, dozens of countries are taken down by their own armies. Up in Zemo’s satellite fortress, Jolt, who had stowed away on the aircraft, spies on everyone. She sees Zemo succeed in his plot and can’t help but feel there’s some kind of emotion beneath his evil exterior. Once again, we’re given some hope that there might be some real heart in Zemo until…
Oh. Never mind, then.
Our more protagonistic Thunderbolts feel pretty hollow over the ordeal. They’ve won but have they really? Jolt appears to say that she believes in all of them (well, believes in those whose names don’t rhyme with Bloonstone) and that they can really be heroes by turning on Zemo and busting up the device that keeps his base in stealth mode. They talk it over until Zemo and Techno appear. With but a curling of the index finger and an order of, “Josten. Return to your master,” Zemo has Atlas back on his side, making it four good guys vs. three bad guys.
One of the more intense moments comes from MACH yelling at Atlas for switching sides. Zemo explains matter-of-factly that Atlas is a good soldier who knows that he’ll get rewarded for his actions. When the world is theirs, he’ll get anything he wants, including Dallas if he still cares. Atlas doesn’t turn on Zemo after hearing this, but much could be said about this reaction panel.
Right after that, we’re given a little follow-up with Songbird vs. Techno. Techno is a creepy bastard.
This is one of those things like when people nitpick the end of Back to the Future and how the McFlys never bring up that time Biff tried to rape Lorraine. Years later, when everyone’s calmed down, I wonder if the Thunderbolts ever go, “Hey, remember that time Bert threatened to robo-rape Melissa? Ha! Good times.”
The bad guys win, mostly. Jolt gets the stealth doohickey destroyed and Moonstone proves that she’s more powerful than they’ve realized. The Fantastic Four and Avengers then teleport in for what appears to be the save, but Zemo laughs at the Thunderbolts, for the heroes have already succumb to his bio-modem mind-control thingy. With the Thunderbolts in his clutches, Zemo decides he’ll first take out Jolt, as she’s the spirit of the mutiny. Atlas can’t bear to see this and backhands his boss across the room. He buys them some time and they escape the mind-controlled superheroes. They can’t get any privacy, since Techno has become one with the ship, so their best course of action is to steal a Quinjet and fly off.
Luckily, MACH had been reading Avengers files behind Techno’s back and knew of a space station nearby called Samarobryn that used to be one of Egghead’s bases. As they dock to think of a plan, they find Iron Man waiting for them. Even though it turns out he’s not mind-controlled and wants to work with them, he has a funny way of showing it as he insults them, has his repulsors glowing and gives one hell of a pissed off look under his helmet. Then again, you’d be pissed off too if you just endured the storyline trifecta of Evil Iron Man, Teen Tony Stark and Heroes Reborn. Once the obligatory fight is out of the way, they all work together to counterattack Zemo. Iron Man and MACH work together, where Iron Man tells him, “I hate you and your stupid face and you smell, but you’re a pretty skilled engineer. Kudos.” It means the world to Abe… the last part, I mean.
Right as Zemo’s commanding Captain America to walk out the airlock to his death, the Quinjet busts into Zemo’s space station and a clusterfuck of action happens. The signal jammer Iron Man and MACH created brings the Avengers out of their mind control spell and everyone starts fighting each other. Zemo is cornered by Moonstone, who proceeds to beat him down. And I don’t mean the usual Batman/Captain America style of punching out the bad guy with no lasting effects except maybe soreness the day after. She absolutely BRUTALIZES the jerk.
Techno gets involved to prevent Zemo’s death. There’s been a subtle pattern in the series where we’d see that as smart as Techno is, he’s kind of afraid of Moonstone due to her fast-talking style. She’s a Hannibal Lector type who can trick you into swallowing your own tongue if you let her get a word in edgewise. She proceeds to outwit and distract him by making fun of his lack of human wang and his laughable status as Zemo’s second banana. On one hand, Techno is distracted enough that Reed Richards and Scarlet Witch are able to find his brain and blow it up. On the other hand, Zemo is able to crawl to an escape hatch. He finds Atlas and guilts him into helping him escape. Atlas goes with it because he does owe him, but refuses to follow him any longer. As the escape pod flies towards Earth, Atlas is spooked by the sudden appearance of Techno’s smiling face on the pod’s surface.
The station explodes and the Thunderbolts escape in time. They get in another ship, enter the Samorobryn Station once again and use it to bring in the stranded Avengers/Fantastic Four (they had been surviving in a bubble caused by Reed himself). The heroes are thankful for the save when the Thunderbolts could have left them to die and agree to give them a chance to face the music for their actions and maybe come out all right on the other side. Moonstone agrees to the terms, but suddenly the Thunderbolts vanish into thin air. The Avengers and Fantastic Four are left to argue whether the Thunderbolts did that on purpose or if it was against their will.
Thunderbolts #13-14 is a bit of a necessary evil. The story has to do with Kosmos, the alternate dimension of alien creatures, kidnapping the Thunderbolts. They’ve been preparing for war with Kang the Conqueror, saw Atlas beat up the Growing Man and have now decided that maybe the Thunderbolts could help them out on their Kang problem. Then they see Atlas and realize, “Oh, wait. It’s that guy we hate and used to torture. GET THEM!” The problem here is that it’s a space story and some comic characters just aren’t as interesting when thrust into space. Hell, it screeched Deadpool’s initial ongoing to a halt and Marvel still thought it would be a good idea to turn “Deadpool in Space” into its own ongoing years later.
Please stop putting Deadpool in space, guys. It doesn’t work.
Thunderbolts are in the same boat, but at least there’s a reason to go this direction. They just ended their first year of story and had a climactic battle and shook their status quo to the core. In its own little way, the Kosmos storyline is the team’s vacation. The group gets to simmer in their own little character moments for a while, but not much of importance really happens. The plotline is never used ever again outside of one minor thing.
Moonstone escapes captivity and strikes a deal with the emperor’s second-in-command. During a big battle, they’d kill the emperor and make it look like the opposing army did it. Then the vizier would be named the new emperor and he would send the Thunderbolts home as a reward. When it’s go time, Moonstone, MACH and Songbird corner the emperor. Songbird has never killed before and can’t bring herself to do it. MACH has killed before, but refuses. The emperor is nervously impressed with their acts and is about to maybe make it worth their while, but then—
Oh. Moonstone’s plan works and they’re sent back to Earth. Jolt knows that the cover story for how the emperor died has holes in it, but Songbird and MACH back up Moonstone. Anyway, they’re back on Earth and the story can progress.
They’re homeless and hanging out in Colorado. It’s decided that maybe turning themselves in isn’t the best plan as turning against Zemo last minute won’t do much to offset all the damage they’ve caused as the Masters of Evil. It’s decided that they try to win everyone over a second time as legit Thunderbolts. With Jolt’s blessing, they go the illegal route to get new identities and MACH unearths some stolen money he had hidden away from his Beetle days. They each get their own jobs, such as Jolt working fast food, MACH washing dishes, etc. Moonstone refuses to lower herself to that and unsuccessfully tries to get herself a more respectable, high-paying job. She ultimately shoots herself – and the rest of the team – in the foot by taking a chauvinistic guy in a business suit who had been ogling her and throwing him through a wall.
The next morning, they find a note from Atlas, saying he’s left the team because they’d be better off without him. I’ll go more into that later in this article. SHIELD arrives at their doorstep to show that blond women with sketchy background checks throwing men through walls is not something that goes unnoticed. The team – now down to four members – gets through the agents, but note that it seems a little too easy.
Well, I guess it’s going to get even easier! See, before the Thunderbolts were exposed, the Great Lakes Avengers showed up in Deadpool under the name the Lightning Rods as a way to ape their style. Now they’re not so happy about it. Being that they’re the Great Lakes Avengers, they’re beaten in about a minute. The Thunderbolts escape by dressing up as them and giving SHIELD the slip. While it may seem like a bit of a victory, not only are they out of a home, but now Zemo has gotten wind that they’re back on Earth.
They regroup at a shady motel and talk things out. MACH is thinking of maybe laying low for a while, but Jolt thinks that means giving up and she refuses. In a breath of hope, they do see that on the news, some of the Avengers have gone out on a limb and said that the Thunderbolts may be on their side now due to their actions against Zemo. Jolt’s jazzed about this, since not all is lost. The report is interrupted with word that the Hulk is on a rampage nearby. Moonstone figures that since fighting the Hulk did so much for their PR once, it can happen again and they should go subdue him. MACH is the only one who thinks that this is less than a good idea and considering it’s just the four of them, I can’t blame him.
The team takes on the Hulk, who himself is an anachronism. This is a time in Marvel history when Hulk is intelligent, yet this Hulk is doing the “HULK SMASH PUNY HUMANS!” routine. Also, his power set appears to be different. While he does have the strength, he’s also able to absorb energy. It isn’t until they pour on the offense that they see him for what he is.
Yes, it’s the Hulk Robot, an energy-absorbing foe that keeps getting destroyed and then rebuilt by whichever super-smart supervillain gets his mitts on him next. In this case, it’s Zemo, who appears to be working towards some kind of scheme based on pulling in all that energy. MACH recognizes that it’s building up towards something and suggests that they think of a strategy outside of joint battery. Then those idiots from the Great Lakes Avengers come forth to beat up the Hulk Robot some more. The Thunderbolts try to warn them, but the Hulk Robot pounces onto Moonstone and sucks in her near-limitless power until exploding.
The Hulk Robot was bad enough, but what replaces him is even worse.
Oh, shit. It’s Graviton.
Graviton, for those who haven’t watched the new Avengers cartoon or have read his relatively few appearances in comics, is a scientist whose experiment-gone-wrong has given him control over gravity itself. In battle, it mainly translates to telekinesis on an epic scale. He’s like Magneto, only more powerful and without the backstory to make him deep and sympathetic.
Most importantly, Graviton is a villain with the power of ENOUGH! You see, ENOUGH!, made popular by the likes of Magneto and Dr. Doom, is a supervillain ability to be attacked on all sides by an entire hero team, then simply put both fists in the air and yell, “ENOUGH!” and have everyone scatter in every direction. It’s pretty handy.
Like Atlas before him, Graviton was sent to another dimension as last we saw him and Zemo and Techno used science to bring him back. Zemo figures that Graviton will annihilate the Thunderbolts as punishment and even if they get past him, the public will still hate them anyway.
Just to give you an idea of his superpower in action, Graviton casually defeats both teams without breaking a sweat. Then Atlas makes his grand return, stomping down on Graviton and pounding down at him.
Knowing they’re defeated, Moonstone plays an interesting gambit. She points out that all Graviton does is fight superheroes for the sake of fighting them, but that will ring hollow in the end. He has no drive. Even if he can take out every single superhero, what then? He has no endgame in mind. What does he even want out of this? Intrigued by this revelation, Graviton leaves the scene to contemplate this, but promises that he’ll be back.
Moonstone is pleased with this, but not Jolt. All Moonstone did was buy them time. Who’s to say that this won’t make Graviton even worse the next time they cross paths with him?
Mr. Immortal is the only Great Lakes guy left standing and has no choice but to let the Thunderbolts go. The citizens of that town haven’t gained any trust for the team and are rather bitter that a group of criminals just stopped by, smashed stuff up and got away scot free.
The team finds a home in an old cabin hideout of Songbird’s. As they go through their own drama, it’s put on hold by the appearance of this guy.
Cyclone is a member of the newer Masters of Evil and hasn’t made any major comic appearances since he stopped showing up in Thunderbolts. He’s such a refreshing villain to see whenever he pops up. He doesn’t have some kind of dark background that makes him three-dimensional, but understandably evil. He doesn’t kill innocent people by the dozens or rape people for the sake of giving us a despicable bad guy of the week. He doesn’t kick puppies of slap children. He’s simply so goddamn annoying and punchable that you have no choice but to cheer on the good guys.
Come on! Catch him! Crush him into the ground, damn you!
See what I mean?
He gets chased off in the end and Jolt follows. Once she finds his base, she calls over the others. It’s there that they’re confronted by the Masters of Evil and our heroes get beaten into oblivion. Once that’s done with, Crimson Cowl explains that they aren’t about vendettas and simply want to recruit them into their ranks. They have a kickass headquarters to play around in and are willing to let bygones be bygones, but if they refuse, then every villain will be told where the Thunderbolts are living these days.
The team is let loose to think about this and Jolt grows more and more afraid that they’re going to be taken in by the temptation.
In the next issue, the team is intruded on by three teenagers who desperately need help. They’ve figured out that they’re the Thunderbolts and with the news that they may be on the up-and-up, they’re willing to take the chance. Their town has been taken over by a militia called the Imperial Force, accompanied by a giant, burning rock monster. The Thunderbolts are a bit skeptical, especially since these kids admit that they’re trouble-makers, but investigate their story anyway.
These kids are meant to be the Jimmy Olsens of the series and while they will pop in a couple more times, any importance seems to peter out pretty quickly.
Using a plan of Atlas’ devising, the team drives into the town under the guise of tourists and get themselves captured. Finding that the kids were right about everything, they spring into action and take out many of the armed goons. Then they go a round with another mainstay of the series, Charcoal.
Wizard Magazine had a contest for fans to create their own villain. Charcoal was the winning design and was introduced here, in Thunderbolts #19. Ultimately, he’ll end up as one of the most tragic characters of the series, but not completely in the story sense. It’s more of a meta thing, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
Charcoal gets manhandled by the five Thunderbolts, despite his array of powers and durability. Once it seems everything’s well in hand, Man Killer and the Masters of Evil pop in to help Charcoal and the Imperial Force get away. They aren’t in cahoots or anything, but they simply want to make sure the Thunderbolts stay away from the hero route.
The team doesn’t take to this strong-arming well and Moonstone leads them to the Masters of Evil’s headquarters to take them out and take them in. Jolt gets her hands on Crimson Cowl and destroys her ability to teleport, meaning the Masters of Evil have no choice but to fight. While the Thunderbolts do a lot better this time around, a moment of hesitation allows Klaw to take out the team with one rage-filled blast. The team is at the Masters’ mercy yet again, but this time they’re helped out by an unexpected face.
Dreadknight is a Latverian supervillain who used to serve Dr. Doom, but has unsuccessfully tried to take over his country. Before the fight can begin anew, the authorities announce themselves outside. The Thunderbolts had alerted them before showing up. Klaw is able to use his sound powers to escape with the Masters of Evil and Dreadknight uses his Atomic Steed to lead the Thunderbolts away. He tells Jolt his backstory and how he wishes to turn over a new leaf. The example of the Thunderbolts has given him the inspiration to do this. Jolt finds something trustworthy about him, but also notices that elements of his story don’t jibe correctly.
Back to that in a sec. Here’s what the Thunderbolts have been up to on an individual level.
Jolt has gone through a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. As the heart of the team, she’s devastated at the reveal that the Thunderbolts are really bad guys, but is quick to regain hope that they could be true heroes. The experience of being with them for a couple months, especially seeing them complain about how the public sees them, begins to wear her down. It’s not just that, but she can obviously tell that Moonstone is trying to manipulate her for her own means. When the Masters of Evil give them a job offer, Jolt can’t handle it anymore and goes on a rant.
When the teenagers come by looking for help, Jolt is in her room, crying her eyes out, but she overhears everything. When MACH decides not to ask Jolt what to do but decide for themselves, her spirits begin to heal. She’s afraid that the interference by the Masters of Evil will ruin it, but the anger it causes in her teammates makes her suddenly optimistic.
Moonstone reveals her true self when almost beating Zemo to death. All she wants out of this is the comfort. She doesn’t want to be a hero, but she also doesn’t want to rule the world. She only wants the perks that come from playing the role and the scarred Nazi ruined it for her. She appears to want to rebuild the Thunderbolts so she can go back to receiving those perks on some level.
One thing that works here is that Moonstone gets a lot of thought bubbles that give us an idea of what she’s up to. Comics have evolved to the point that nobody uses thought bubbles anymore and I think of Moonstone as a casualty. As a protagonist, it’s nice having an idea of what’s making her tick and what she’s leaning towards every once and a while. A problem in the current run of the series is that we don’t know what Moonstone is really around for. Sure, she’s an original member, but what is it she’s working towards? Simply amnesty? Something more? It would be nice to have an idea.
While Moonstone is an expert at understanding the human condition and exploiting it, that doesn’t prevent her from succumbing to it herself. At times, her own need to get what she wants causes her to make rash decisions that could have been better thought out.
Atlas has a lot of issues that stem from betraying Zemo and defecting to the Thunderbolts. He feels that he’s less of a human being due to letting Zemo down. He isn’t trustworthy and he feels it’s going to cost the team in the end. After finding out that the Thunderbolts situation led to Dallas becoming the fall girl for the mayor’s office to the point of her termination, he becomes incredibly depressed and decides to leave the team. He goes to his hometown to find that his villain life as Power Man (before Luke Cage made him change the name) led to his family losing their farm due to scandal. Since then, his parents had died, one of his brothers had left town after changing his name and his other brother, Carl, is an alcoholic who owes a lot of money to some bad people. Atlas makes an attempt to save his brother, but Carl gets shot and dies, leaving Atlas feeling even more guilty. Realizing that running away only does more damage, he rejoins the Thunderbolts during the Graviton fight, now truly feeling that he belongs.
Unfortunately, Atlas loses the ability to think for himself. He’s so dead set on being a team player that he’ll do anything when it comes to popular opinion.
Songbird was once the kindest member of the team and the one who made you wonder what made her so bad in the first place. As time goes on, she becomes the least likeable, even compared to Moonstone. The mix of overcoming her uncertainty and the emotional blow that comes from Zemo exposing the team leads to her becoming, to put it bluntly, a total bitch. Instead of she and MACH exchanging flirty banter, she responds to him in the battlefield with open disgust. At first it’s because she feels like he wants her to be constantly fawning over him. Then she simply feels that he’s weak and even cowardly. When she isn’t doing that, she gets way too into the violence when fighting her enemies. The life on the lamb gets to her more than anyone else and she’s the first to openly suggest going back to her criminal roots. Even when they go against the Masters of Evil, it isn’t because it’s the right thing to do, but because she’s angry and feels slighted by what they’ve done to her.
MACH doesn’t know what to do about all of this. He loves Songbird, but all of their interactions lead to her freaking out at him. He also feels a lot of distrust towards Moonstone for icing that alien king, but decides to keep to himself as not to make a scene and possibly destroy the team completely. His worth to the team comes into question as his armor is pretty busted and there’s little chance to fix it. He’s working without blueprints, a working lab or acceptable tools, not to mention Techno did a lot of work on the armor in the first place and he can’t keep up with that.
Then there’s Baron Zemo and Techno. After their big defeat, they return to Earth and Techno uses a healing chamber to bring Zemo back to good enough health. As they plot to bring back Graviton, Techno briefly makes a clone body of Zemo’s. Moonstone’s talk about Techno’s lack of legit sex parts has got him thinking and he’s got the idea to put his mind in a clone body. Since Zemo refuses to be given back his original face, Techno figures that makes Zemo’s body fair game. Zemo doesn’t see it that way and destroys the clone.
As that’s going on, we see that somebody is watching them from the shadows. Who could it be?
Oh man. The balls…
To be fair, this is the mid-to-late 90’s and during this time, it’s not unfounded to have Marvel and DC characters simply show up in the opposite universe for the slightest of reasons. Hell, Busiek is even the writer from the final Marvel/DC crossover, albeit years after this comic. It’s almost buyable that we’re going to get Batman, but we know it’s really not happening. Busiek’s really laying down the gauntlet for himself because whoever he does put in that role, it has to be somebody to knock our socks off. He can’t simply put Nighthawk in there. It has to be a big deal to make up for the fakeout.
After another month or so of us seeing someone with a cape and pointy mask in the shadows, we finally get Citizen V saying, “No, Baron – the Thunderbolts are MINE!”
…okay, well played…
Citizen V takes Techno out of the picture and then swordfights Zemo to a standstill. He shows that he’s spent the last few days setting up explosives and Zemo’s headquarters begins to fall apart. With too much pride to run off afraid, Zemo walks through the debris as the whole mansion falls apart around him. Citizen V doesn’t know if that took care of Zemo, but if it didn’t, he’ll have his revenge soon enough anyway. Revenge on Zemo AND the Thunderbolts.
Speaking of mysterious newcomers, let’s get back to Dreadknight. Back at Songbird’s cabin, MACH decides that the team needs new leadership. Moonstone isn’t cutting it, but nobody can really do better. Atlas refuses because he’s too much of a follower. Jolt is too young. Songbird is too independent. MACH doesn’t like the idea of himself being a leader, but he will if he has to. Then, all of the sudden, Dreadknight’s mask bounces across the floor.
Unmasking Count: 2
That is most certainly a cliffhanger! Next time, I’ll finish up the Kurt Busiek run and we’ll find out just what it is Hawkeye wants.