In the prologue, I discussed the initial appearances of the Thunderbolts and the big hook of the series: a bunch of villains are pretending to be heroes in an attempt to exploit the world’s trust for personal gain. Months ago, I tried to get a friend of mine to read the series, but he’s a DC guy and was reluctant because he didn’t know any of the characters. Hell, I didn’t know any of the characters either! I mean, sure, I had heard of the Beetle before, but I only knew these characters as “those guys who became Thunderbolts.” Regardless, I figure now would be a good time to briefly go over our starting six main characters.
BARON ZEMO/CITIZEN V
Helmut is the son of Heinrich, the Nazi supervillain who got the credit for Bucky Barnes’ death back in World War II. The news of Captain America returning, as well as the death of his father caused Helmut to seek revenge. At first he went with his own gimmick, calling himself the Phoenix. Cap handed him his ass and knocked him in a vat of Adhesive X, which scarred up his face something fierce. He’s since returned again and again as Baron Zemo, always aligning himself with fellow villains in hope of sticking it to Captain America. His claim to fame is the time he led the Masters of Evil into overtaking Avengers Mansion, where he had Jarvis tortured and messed with Cap by destroying his old pre-freeze belongings.
Zemo has no powers, but is an expert swordman and something of a scientific and tactical genius.
Baron Zemo is driven by his thirst for world domination and the belief that he is superior due to being a Zemo. Different writers seem to have different takes on how much he takes after his father. Can he be described as a Nazi or just the son of a Nazi? Does he feel that he’s superior because he’s Aryan or strictly because of his bloodline? Even a recent issue of Thunderbolts delves into this with Jeff Parker suggesting the latter. Personally, I like to just think of him as being a straight-up Nazi who likes to use people who he feels are inferior. It adds more emphasis to a lot of his later moments, from the subtle (the end of Thunderbolts #100) to the not-so-subtle (the last issue of Zemo: Born Better). I’ll get to those far down the line.
Karla was the daughter of a butler who worked for a rich family. While living at the mansion, she became best friends with the family’s daughter, exploiting her for her wealth. After her father’s death, she was removed from the cushy mansion life and her mother worked to the bone to keep them afloat. Karla was disgusted by her mother’s behavior and swore never to slave for the good of someone else. She became a talented psychiatrist and moonlighted with some bad people, ultimately leading her to convince the supervillain Moonstone to hand over the Kree artifact (the Moonstone) that gave him his powers. As the new Moonstone, Karla antagonized the likes of the Hulk and the Avengers.
Oh, and going by Brian Reed’s run of Ms. Marvel, she murdered her mother and convinced some of her patients to kill themselves. A little overboard for her depiction? Possibly, though Busiek has her doing some shady actions that land near that level.
As Moonstone, Karla is able to fly, has super-strength and can phase through walls. When using her Meteorite guise, she uses that last power at a minimum so as not allow anyone to figure out her identity. Her manipulation skills are so top tier that even Loki’s like, “DAMN!”
Moonstone is driven by selfish comfort. She’s the kind of person who would pretend to be lifting her corner of the couch while you end up putting in the brunt of the effort.
Abe worked as a jet mechanic who hated his job, especially when his cutting-edge ideas were shot down by the higher ups. He fashioned his blueprints into battle armor and made himself into the Beetle. From there, he fell into failed plot after failed plot, constantly losing to the likes of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Daredevil. Pretty low-ranking on the villain totem pole.
In his MACH armor, Abe is like a lesser Iron Man. He’s got flight and resistance to damage, along with a big arsenal of missiles and other offensive gimmicks. Coincidentally, being on the team doesn’t make him look all that great, considering Fixer’s standing next to him. While Abe is pretty smart, Fixer is exceedingly so. It’s like having Luke Cage and the Sentry on the same team. It can’t be good for his confidence.
MACH is driven by the need to be respected after a lifetime of being an underachiever.
Melissa came from an abusive, broken home and ran away the first chance she got. She spent years living on the streets before being taken in by a gang of women wrestlers called the Grapplers. They wrestled in the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation while doing some supervillain work on the side. As Screaming Mimi, she was given a mechanical apparatus that was later surgically implanted into her throat. When the Grapplers disbanded, she briefly joined the Masters of Evil and then went on to become a Bonnie and Clyde act with fellow scream-based and arguably-more-70’s-looking-than-Power-Man-and-Iron-Fist villain Angar the Screamer.
As Screaming Mimi, Melissa had your basic sonic scream abilities. As Songbird, her powers have been upgraded, giving her the ability to turn her voice into solid sound that can construct itself into whatever shapes she wishes. It’s very Green Lantern, only instead of willpower, it’s based more on vocal strength and endurance.
Songbird is driven by the need to belong somewhere or with someone. If that means breaking the law on a regular basis to do so, then so be it.
Paul Norbert Ebersol
Norbert’s origin is much like MACH’s. He started out too smart for wherever he worked, though to be fair, he was kind of an egotistical dick about everything. He joined Hydra as one of their big science department guys and spent a good chunk of his villain career working alongside Mentallo. After a handful of failures, he split from Mentallo and joined the Masters of Evil, where he ranked high as Zemo’s top minion.
Fixer is a brilliant inventor, mechanic and mad scientist, who would probably rank in the top five smartest people on Marvel Earth if he truly felt like it. He wears body armor filled with all kinds of crazy knickknacks of his own devising.
Fixer is driven by the challenge of putting his mind to use. He’s best described as dangerously amoral. As long as someone can keep him busy by trying to solve technological problems and build outlandish devices, he doesn’t care who gets hurt in the crossfire. As long as it isn’t him.
Erik grew up in a small town and flew the coup after blaming himself for his little sister’s accidental death. He joined the army, went AWOL, ended up doing merc work for Heinrich Zemo and had one hell of a clusterfuck character history. Long story short, Enchantress gave him ionic powers like Wonder Man and a long while later, scientist Karl Malus gave him some Pym Particles to allow him the ability to change size. He played the role of go-to lunkhead super-strong villain for hire for years until at some point ending up imprisoned in another dimension.
The bigger Atlas gets, the stronger and his powers appear to relate to his anger as well. He’s always had anger issues in relation to his powers, though since joining the Thunderbolts, it’s lowered down a couple notches.
Atlas is driven by loyalty, mainly his loyalty to Zemo. It would be a nice quality if it wasn’t for his inability to stand up for himself.
Now let’s get back to the story.
After beating down the Circus of Crime (the Glass Joe of Marvel criminal teams), the Thunderbolts return home to their crappy headquarters. At first, Techno completely snaps from the low-tech living conditions, but Meteorite convinces him with both words and her hand around his throat that they need to look as desperate as possible to get handouts from the government and public.
A memorial is held for all the fallen heroes from the Onslaught thing and Franklin Richards is there. The Mad Thinker’s Awesome Android shows up, splits into an army of Awesome Androids and they fight it out with the Thunderbolts. The robots are able to adapt to their powers and abilities, so at first, they have the element of surprise. They steal Franklin away, the Thunderbolts give chase and they all end up trading blows at Four Freedoms Plaza, headquarters to the “late” Fantastic Four. An android double of the Mad Thinker gets involved, is beheaded by Citizen V and the rest of the androids shut down. The mayor and Franklin are so impressed and delighted that they allow the Thunderbolts to move into the complex.
The final page of this issue is really interesting. Even knowing what Thunderbolts is about and how some of the characters would wind up going in, there’s the guessing game of who’s going to be the first to flinch. Who is going to be the one to take the first step in thinking, “Maybe this really is my calling after all?”
Here’s what the narration has to say.
The plan is working, Meteorite thinks. Better and faster than any of them had guessed. And yet… something still bothers her. She was once Dr. Karla Sofen, a practicing psychiatrist – and while her career has changed, the instincts don’t go away. It’s in her nature to watch, and think, and consider. And she’s not sure she likes what she sees.
It’s a heady feeling to have reporters vying for your attention – to have policemen speak to you respectfully. It’s a heady feeling to play hero – and to be accepted. She felt it herself – in the head fo the battle. She forgot the role she was playing, forgot everything but the need to save the boy – and the rush that came with victory.
It feels good, that rush. Maybe too good.
On first read, it feels like Meteorite is going to be the first one to gain a conscience. That’s how it feels on the surface. Reading it now, having seen the ups and downs of her life as a Thunderbolt and what kind of decisions she’s destined to make, I’m not so sure. It seems more like she herself isn’t playing with the idea of realizing her potential, but correctly predicting that at least a couple of her teammates might walk in that direction. It’ll complicate matters soon enough and she knows it.
In their next adventure, they come across live footage of Black Widow fighting off the Masters of Evil. Techno, naturally, is at a loss here because aren’t they the Masters of Evil? The team heads out and confronts the pretenders. While there are some usual stock villains in there like Klaw and Tiger Shark (guy can’t go five minutes without joining a supervillain team), three will end up having notable roles in the series: Man Killer, Cyclone and the group’s leader, Crimson Cowl. The villains escape, leaving Black Widow furious at the Thunderbolts for their interference. Lady, you’re badass, but not that badass.
Zemo uses his villain identity to get some dirt on the new Masters and finds out where they’re set to strike next. The Thunderbolts attack as the Masters of Evil appear to be watching over a weapons shipment. The fight appears even from the start, but the Masters gradually increase their hold on things… that is, until Techno is knocked into where all the weapons are kept. Feeling like a child entering Willy Wonka’s factory, he assimilates all the weapons into his armor and holds the entire Masters of Evil at gunpoint.
With a flash of red light, the Crimson Cowl teleports herself and her henchmen away. The Thunderbolts find themselves victorious, but also notice Black Widow glaring daggers into them from the shadows before running off. Awkward!
Earlier in the issue, Hallie Takahama – the kidnapped girl from the first issue – had escaped from her captors and is shown on the run. When the Thunderbolts return to base, they find her as an intruder, incarcerated in wires.
Yeah, they don’t get it. What they do get instead is an eyeful. Jeez, girl! Pull that shirt down! You’re way too young to be flashing that to strangers. Especially with Techno smiling. The sicko.
Oh, and she also has light emanating from her eyes and hands while demanding to see the Fantastic Four OR ELSE. That cliffhanger will be dealt with in a second, but there are two other Thunderbolts comics that come out in-between.
One is Spider-Man Team-Up #7, which is from the same month, though the continuity is a little off. Hallie’s not mentioned, yet it definitely follows the MACH/Songbird developments from the same issue. Whatever. The issue is ultimately pretty important. Sal Buscema takes the art, though with Busiek still doing the writing. The story deals with a group of evil scientists called the Enclave unleashing a killer robot and Spider-Man ends up getting the blame for its crimes. The Thunderbolts are sent to question him and MACH is way too excited about it. He and Songbird take Spider-Man down, but right before he can choke him to death, he’s prevented by the others, who have discovered the truth about the robot. As much as they’d all love to kill Spider-Man, doing so would jeopardize their mission.
Spider-Man uses a tracker to follow them to the Enclave’s hideout. The scientists use a ray that mind-controls everyone into violent slaves, only Spider-Man’s immune due to his spider sense and MACH prevents it by filling his helmet with white noise. The Thunderbolts beat MACH almost to death until Spider-Man makes the save, outright surprising MACH. Back in the game, MACH has a really cool sequence against Citizen V.
The Thunderbolts break the mind-control, bust up the Spider-Imposter and send the Enclave running. Though they have an easy opportunity to arrest Spider-Man, MACH has Techno create a CD on the spot of footage recorded of their fight. It’s proof that Spider-Man was framed and earns some trust from the webslinger. When confronted on his actions, MACH merely points out that Spider-Man knew that they knew he was innocent, so arresting him would only bring up red flags. Makes sense.
That night, Meteorite confronts MACH on a rooftop and we finally get our answer to the question.
It’s Abe. Abe Jenkins is the first to flinch.
The other comic to come out is Thunderbolts #-1, with Steve Epting on art. It’s a part of the Flashback series that Marvel was releasing around the time. I’m pretty sure every single #-1 was a downer and this one is no different. It shows glimpses of the different Thunderbolts before their villain days, which I’ve already gone into, but the bookends show Helmut Zemo meeting his father for the first time in his adult life. He is introduced to soldier of fortune Erik Josten and watches firsthand as his father brings down an attempt at a revolution. Victorious, Heinrich has the ringleaders on their knees and discusses the time he killed the original Citizen V back in World War II.
Helmut would remember this very well, as you’ll see soon enough.
Back to the Hallie plot. She calms down and explains how some unseen madman had experimented on her and many others, especially those younger than herself. Some energy had been unlocked from within her and she now has superhuman speed and reflexes with a touch of electric spark. Songbird seems comforting towards her and Atlas is downright incensed at the idea of someone experimenting on children. They use Techno’s costume-making machine to give her some tights (it doesn’t do street clothes so well) and they’re off to stop whoever is behind it all.
The base of operations is a castle near New York, normally owned by Dr. Doom, but he too had fallen during the Onslaught situation. Meteorite convinces Citizen V that helping the girl is good for their image and he goes with it, though admitting that he knows she’s up to something. Hallie refuses to stay back and joins the crew against Citizen V’s wishes. They enter the castle to find that our villain of the month is monitor-faced cretin Arnim Zola. He sets an army of monsters loose and when they’re promptly defeated, he melts them down and draws them together into some kind of blobby mess of flesh and eyes and teeth. Around this time, Meteorite convinces Techno to broadcast the battle live across the country. Hallie doesn’t fight the blob nightmare, but instead recognizes it as pieces of her friends and fellow prisoners. She begs it to recognize her and in doing so, the creature burns and turns to dust. Whoops!
Citizen V figures Zola is working for the same benefactor as every other goon they’ve faced in the past several issues, but Zola says he’s only been doing this for his own interests. Boredom, really. Hallie tearfully freaks out and promises that Zola will rot in prison. She’s above simple vengeance. Once outside, the media appears to ask questions about this new girl. The nation’s been taken in with her actions from moments ago and they want to know: who is she and is she part of the Thunderbolts? Meteorite puts Citizen V on the spot and suggests that if he refuses her membership, people might wonder why and dig deeper. Reluctantly, Citizen V offers her a spot on the team, which she accepts. Hallie – now known as Jolt – is the newest Thunderbolt and her very inclusion adds an uncomfortable wrinkle to the situation.
Thunderbolts Annual ’97 follows, based on Jolt asking Citizen V about the Thunderbolts’ origins. He gathers his thoughts and gives an altered take on what really happened as we see the truth contrasted against his lies and half-truths. Having gotten wind of Goliath being imprisoned by whatever dimension has a hold of him, he decides to get some help in bringing him back. First he finds the humble abode of Fixer, giving me one of my favorite little Zemo moments.
If it was Dr. Doom or Magneto, he would have bitched out Fixer for daring to ask such a question in such a crass tone. But Zemo? Doesn’t bat an eye. It’s there that you begin to find that despite being a couple of grade-A dirtbags, Zemo and Fixer genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company. Erik follows out of loyalty, but Fixer simply just gets along with his evil boss.
Screaming Mimi and Angar the Screamer’s latest heist ends in disaster when Angar takes a bullet to the chest and dies in Mimi’s arms. Zemo is there to take advantage by enlisting her in his next big plan. He also saves Beetle from getting caught by Daredevil and has no problem getting him to join up.
As an aside, this issue is drawn by a myriad of artists and when Darick Robertson takes the wheel, I can’t help but notice how much Fixer resembles Spider Jerusalem.
Now that I think about it, I distinctly remember Fixer reminding Deadpool about the time they used a bowel disruptor on Captain America. Guess it works after all!
Zemo is all, “We’re going to kick the crap out of those Avengers so badly!” until turning on the TV to see that Onslaught beat them to the punch. On the upside, they do at least rescue Goliath from the otherworldly aliens called Kosmos. I wonder if these characters instinctively know to spell it with a K. Upon making his return, Goliath cries at Zemo that he has his undying allegiance and collapses. Sometime later, Beetle tends to Goliath and goes into what he’s missed since being gone.
Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Baron got a wonderful, awful idea!
They set up a prison break, then put the kibosh on it as the Thunderbolts. Secretly, they remove Moonstone against her will and she is NOT happy. She planned to serve out her sentence yet now she’s a fugitive. Zemo explains his plan and says that he need her behavioral skills to help control public relations. With no choice, Moonstone agrees. And so, the Thunderbolts are born!
Accepting the explanation, Jolt leaves the room. Moonstone appears to warn Zemo that it’s only a matter of time before Jolt figures out the truth.
The next issue deals with the team fighting the Growing Man, a futuristic robot who gets bigger the more impact he experiences. They get the best of him by having Atlas punch him repeatedly to the point that the Growing Man’s circuits are big enough for Techno to mess with. This pisses off Citizen V, who was in the middle of trying to convince the mayor’s liaison Dallas Riordan that this would be the perfect time to send him all the Avengers’ computer files. Man, they’d totally have that Growing Man problem taken care of in a jiff—what’s that? He’s destroyed already? Damn it!
On the upside, at least he figured out who’s the big bad behind all their recent problems. None other than Baron Zemo’s old bowling partner, Wolfgang Von Strucker. Citizen V sends him a message to lay off or else and Von Strucker takes it to heart. Still, he can’t help but notice how familiar this hero is.
For three issues, the Thunderbolts deal with the Elements of Doom, a group that gave the Avengers trouble back in the day. They’re a bunch of sentient beings made up of all the different elements on the periodic table. Think of them as the Metal Men, only there are way more of them and they’re all assholes. Citizen V puts a wrench in the adventure by taking his ball and going home, explaining to Riordan that he refuses to put his team in harm’s way unless he gets those blasted Avengers computer files. And a Slurpee too! The Thunderbolts go off to fight behind his back (Atlas and Techno needed some prodding from Meteorite), some rather important stuff happens that I’ll get to in a second and the good guys win. This time they do it AFTER Citizen V is granted those encrypted Avengers files, so it’s win-win.
Thunderbolts #6 is notable for a handful of coloring snafus that gives Techno the superpower of “mood race”. His skin changes from panel to panel.
I’ve gone over the broad strokes for the plot, but what of the characters themselves? Jolt is there to be star-struck and to keep everyone on their toes. On one hand, Atlas mentors her in a way that he says she reminds him of his late sister and that’s kind of sweet. On the other hand, Meteorite is most definitely manipulating her for her own means with her own mentor act.
Other than his relationship with Jolt, Atlas has a thing going on with Dallas Riordan. Though falling in love with her, he feels guilty even associating with her because of his house of lies. Despite his secretive identity, she’s just as into him as he is her. Atlas is shown to be pretty likeable through most of this and can be mistaken as a good man. The question is, when push comes to shove, where are his super-strong loyalties going to lie?
Techno doesn’t get too much play at first, outside of giving Zemo someone to talk to during his scheming scenes. His big development comes from the Elements of Doom storyline. One of those element guys gets his hands on him and snaps his neck. Norbert is able to cheat death by moving his consciousness into a body made entirely out of metal, circuits and electricity.
He feels pretty jazzed about the change in body, figuring he can do far more than he ever could made out of flesh and blood. It gets pretty funny how he’s so excited about his newfound abilities that Zemo loses his temper and has to constantly remind him, “OKAY! WE GET IT! YOU’RE AWESOME! NOW SHUT UP!”
Citizen V is rather interesting during this time. He’s our villain and he’s terrible, but there are times when we’re given hope that he can be more. As the swashbuckling Citizen V, we get to see a lighter side to him via his smiling, cheesy one-liners and even minor things like using the out-of-character phrase, “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” You see his genuine surprise when Jolt hugs him and you want him to go with the flow, but then you’d get a scene of him maskless and cackling over how great his plan for world domination is turning out. Any hope for him peters out completely by the end of the first year as we see how he’s watching the positive behavior in his team while growing silently frustrated.
It’s hard to pin down what makes Meteorite tick so far. She’s definitely plotting against Zemo in some way, and he’s most definitely aware of it, but to what end? Does she want to be an actual hero? Does she want to take over the operation and be the leader? She’s the x-factor in all of this.
That leaves MACH and Songbird. With Abe, I get the feeling that he was meant to be the true protagonist of the series, but it never quite worked. He certainly has his moments, but none of the writers could ever make him stand out as the most interesting guy in the room, worthy to be the centerpiece. He gets an amusing segment where he catches a jewel thief, steals his loot, hands him over to the police and goes off to catch that guy’s “accomplice”. After the Spider-Man incident, MACH appears to be on the up-and-up and never pulls off anything shady like that again.
Melissa — who you can easily argue is the true main character of the collective comic series — comes off so pure that you have to wonder if she was ever really a villain in the first place. This is Screaming Mimi? She’s so timid and unsure of herself and genuinely caring. Not some violent psycho in clown makeup. During the Elements of Doom episode, she ends up forced to fight solo and doing so awakens some gusto yet unseen in this comic. That in itself will have ramifications that I’ll get to in the next article.
The two attract to each other pretty easily and early on. Songbird is reluctant at first, realizing that bad things happen to people she loves and not wanting to go through that again, but the two work past that and become the item of the team. MACH helps Songbird with her confidence and the two ultimately find what they’ve been looking for in each other. In the end, they both only want acceptance.
This leads to Thunderbolts #9, where the two are confronted by Black Widow. Widow strongly suggests that she knows the score and tells them a story about the Captain America/Hawkeye/Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver era of the Avengers. With a lesson on redemption, she points out that it isn’t too late for them and soon enough, they’re going to have to make a decision on which path they’re going to walk.
Lot of pressure all around. Black Widow is onto them, having Jolt on the team is just asking for trouble and SHIELD agent GW Bridge is getting restless over figuring out what’s become of Baron Zemo. Something’s going to give and soon.
By the tenth issue, the Heroes Reborn stuff has run its course and all the Avengers and Fantastic Four members are back on Earth. The Thunderbolts hold a press conference, where it’s said that they’ve been granted the highest of access to government secrets. As Citizen V accepts the accolades and talks up how great the returning heroes are, they get a couple of guests.
Ladies and gentlemen, the grits have hit the pan. We’ll pick up from here next time.