Thunderbolts is a comic that’s like a superhero in origin. You look at a lot of the major superheroes and you see that they were diamonds that expelled from the rough. Parents gunned down led to the creation of Batman. An uncle gunned down led to the creation of Spider-Man. A planet exploding gave us Superman. A war led to the enlisting of Steve Rogers, giving the world Captain America.
Comparing it to murder and genocide might be more than a little over-the-top, but comics in the 90’s were filled with terrible shit. Nobody proved this more than Marvel, who did a nice job of chasing readers away around 1997. Thor had a laughable extreme outfit that included a blue headsock connected to a halfshirt. Spider-Man was stuck in a story about clones that went on way beyond its expiration date. A promising idea about Xavier becoming an unbeatable mega-villain led to an unfortunate story that led into an even more unfortunate story about half the Marvel heroes being vaporized and then reborn in another world. Plus Venom was in a bunch of comics and that was the worst—wait, what the hell am I talking about?
This was around the time when I stopped reading comics for 6-7 years, missing out on the gem that grew out of the Onslaught/Heroes Reborn mess. Even when I got back into comics, I didn’t have Thunderbolts on my radar. I didn’t even know what it was about, nor care enough to check it out. It wasn’t until Warren Ellis took over and gave it the New Avengers treatment (putting beloved mainstream characters on the roster and making it a jumping-on point) that I started reading it. I haven’t stopped since then and later went back to the beginning to catch up on all the stuff I missed.
I found the series to be golden, through and through. Not that it doesn’t have its flaws and headshaking moments, but for a series that’s been around for nearly 15 years by this writing, it’s pretty damn special. There are different reasons for that. Obviously, it’s because of the pantheon of great writers, from Kurt Busiek to Jeff Parker with all the other top-notch guys in-between. I’ve established many times that I’m a major fan of redemption stories and that’s what Thunderbolts perpetually is. Yet I think the main thing that Thunderbolts has going for it is that it’s a comic that’s not allowed to hold still. Most superhero comics are allowed to hold onto the same status quo for decades if the sales and writing are strong enough, but Thunderbolts isn’t able to maintain such a thing for too long, else it begins to fall apart. The comic is in constant motion with its cast developing and moving around to the point that even the mission statement gets mutated a couple times.
I thought I’d give a look at the whole series, which as of now is 167 issues in, not to mention multiple miniseries and specials. With some exceptions, I won’t go as descriptive as I was with We Care a Lot, explaining every issue in detail. I’ll probably gloss through the main plot, then focus on the characters and their personal situations.
This being the prologue, I guess it’s fitting to start at the beginning. No, not at Thunderbolts #1, but even before that. The team made their first appearance in Incredible Hulk #449 by Peter David and Mike Deodato.
Originally, the spot of antagonizing Hulk was going to be given to a team of David’s creation, but they decided that using this as a preview for Thunderbolts was a better plan. Even before that, the team was appearing in ads that didn’t so much explain what it was about, but give the vague tagline of, “One team. One Goal. One Dark Secret.” Perhaps their appearance here might shed some more light on the subject.
The Hulk issue is really cool to read, knowing what we know and I wish I could see the brain process of comic fans in 1997, trying to decipher the meanings. As it is, the Thunderbolts make themselves known by attacking the Hulk, figuring that it’s important to bring him in to save innocents. For the most part, they seem like your average superhero team, only we don’t recognize any of them.
We have Mach-1, the resident armored guy on the team. Songbird, whose vocal powers allow her to make pink constructs and fly. Meteorite, the flying, super-strong blond woman who appears to be second-in-command. Atlas, the confident giant. Techno, the annoyed wise-ass covered in a cage of metallic technology. Leading them is Citizen V, the masked swordsman clad in purple and the colors of the American flag.
Hulk surrenders until the entire team is there. Then he springs into action and mostly fights them off until an interaction with Meteorite gives him the inspiration to escape. He breaks a nearby dam and the Thunderbolts are forced to deal with saving the people rather than capturing Hulk. Like I said, it appears to be just your average team of superheroes. It just so happens that there are a couple interesting hints in there.
1) When they have Hulk caged up, Atlas wonders what to even do with him. He warns that if they bring him back to headquarters, Hulk will find out all about them. Already we can tell that there’s some kind of important secret behind the team.
2) Citizen V seems to be a little hardcore. Meteorite tells the team that they’re going to wait for Citizen V to appear before making a decision on the Hulk and when V does appear, he rewards her loyal dialogue by greeting her with a sword point held only inches from her surprised face. When the fight takes place, he says that they need to imprison the Hulk, but if they absolutely have to, they can kill him.
3) Techno is a raging asshole. He’s prone to arguing and talking back to others, including Citizen V. Atlas suggests that Techno would be totally cool with killing Hulk in cold blood.
4) Hulk and Meteorite know each other. When Hulk is surrendering, Atlas asks Meteorite to assess the situation, due to her history with the monster. At the end of the fight, even Hulk notices something is familiar.
When Hulk is gone, Meteorite complains to Citizen V that she was promised something and before she can say what it is (revenge?), Citizen V gives a very stone-faced expression and says, “My dear Meteorite… you have to learn to prioritize.”
Something is off, but not obviously so. The team would appear soon after in Tales of the Marvel Universe, an anthology of stories meant to springboard all the post-Onslaught comics. The Thunderbolts segment is done by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, the creative team who would conspire to give us the first 33 issues of the ongoing. The story has to do with a group of friends in a bar, distraught over the heroes who fell to Onslaught. One of them, a cab driver who won’t shut up about the time he had Invisible Woman as a passenger, feels that all the good heroes are gone. One of the others points out the new Thunderbolts team and they watch a news report on the Thunderbolts vs. Hulk fight on the TV. The cabbie thinks they’re a pale imitation of the Avengers and looks down at how they’ve caused all that damage by instigating the Hulk.
The news changes to a major apartment fire and just like that, the Thunderbolts are on the scene. Citizen V leads them to the rescue and they each competently take care of the situation. The only caveat is how Techno seems to play to his own ego when rescuing a man inside the building. While the guy is barely able to breathe, Techno laughs about how lucky he is that he’ll one day be able to tell his grandchildren about the time he was saved by this awesome superhero.
Back in the bar, the cab driver has pulled a 180. He’s had the Thunderbolts all wrong. They really are worthy successors to the Avengers and he’d be proud to give any one of them a ride in his company car.
That brings us to Thunderbolts #1.
It’s such a ballsy move, really. Between their two previous appearances, there’s not a single selling point outside of the kickass creative team. If there’s a hook to this team, they certainly haven’t advertised it outside of there being a secret of some sort. The only thing that can truly save it is word of mouth and that depends on the quality.
The double-sized issue begins with a news reporter going over the damage caused by the Onslaught battle. A neighborhood is in ruins and unseen by the cameras is a kidnapping. A teenage girl by the name of Hallie Takahama has lost her parents in the ruins and has been trying to survive on her own. A man grabs her, shoves a chloroformed rag in her face and steals her away. The reporter goes over how the lack of heroes means supervillains will go unchecked. The likes of the Lava Men, Blastaar, the Frightful Four and Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil are still at large, likely plotting and scheming. Who’s going to stop them? Hated vigilantes like Spider-Man? Monsters like the Hulk? Outsiders like the X-Men?
A group of paramilitary grave robbers known as the Rat Pack are the first to be cornered by the debuting Thunderbolts. The fight is mostly one-sided in the heroes’ favor with two notable moments. One is when Techno foregoes the plan and attacks the bad guys as he sees fit. This allows the Rat Pack to nail Atlas from behind with a rocket launcher, which luckily didn’t do any lasting damage. Atlas would later lament that he’s a military man and he needs to be able to count on his teammates. He can’t bring himself to trust Techno. The other incident has Songbird save the life of Mach-1, giving a brief, tense moment between the two before they go back into action. The Rat Pack is defeated, but succeeds in making an escape. At the very least, they got the media’s attention, as the whole thing was caught on camera by a news helicopter.
They return to base and drama ensues. Techno whines about how they live in such a dump until Citizen V glares him into shutting up. Songbird and Mach-1 flirt while Meteorite thinks to herself that Songbird is throwing herself at him and doesn’t even realize it. Eventually, the media appears on their doorstep with a myriad of questions for the group.
Before they can give a guided tour of their dump of a headquarters, they get word that the Rat Pack have been sighted yet again. They follow the criminals until realizing they’re being led into a battle with heavyweight supervillains the Wrecking Crew. The fight is a lot more challenging and everyone watching on TV gasps when Piledriver throws a piece of rubble into Meteorite and knocks her into the Statue of Liberty’s arm, causing it to snap off. Songbird puts a bubble of sound around their heads, causing them to breathe only the smoke from the debris while Atlas kicks Bulldozer into the distance. They fix the damage to the Statue of Liberty and everyone is happy.
The news shows that just about everyone supports the new team. The New Warriors and Spider-Man give them the thumbs up. Dallas Riordon, the mayor’s secretary, is introduced to the team as their government liaison. Immediately, Atlas finds himself infatuated with her. Even the unions, who should be pissed about the Thunderbolts hogging the reconstruction work, are okay with things. Black Widow doesn’t seem so enthused, but says she’s glad to have them help out. Yep, everything’s looking pretty good.
Then we return to headquarters, where our heroes are happy to find out that everyone loves them. Citizen V casually walks through without his mask on. His face is burnt beyond recognition and Songbird is pretty shocked by it. He seems pretty used to it.
“Not a pretty sight, is it? You would prefer it remain hidden behind a mask, eh? Very well. But not the mask millions have come to trust today. Instead, I’ll wear a rather older mask – a mask with darker associations –”
Yeah, you know how they said earlier about how the Masters of Evil are still on the loose? Now we know where they are. Techno is really the Fixer (Paul Norbert Ebersol), the self-serving mad scientist who only cares for the intellectual challenge. Mach-1 is really the Beetle (Abner Jenkins), one of Spider-Man’s lesser villains. Songbird is Screaming Mimi (Melissa Gold), the corrupt professional wrestler who became an expert stick-up artist. Atlas is Goliath (Erik Josten), the super-strong thug who’s not unlike the Wrecking Crew goons he fought earlier. Meteorite is Moonstone (Karla Sofen), the manipulative villainess who uses her psychiatric understanding of the human mind to get whatever she wants. They’re all led by Baron Zemo, a Nazi madman disguising himself in the American flag. His master plan? To gain the world’s trust and exploit it until they conquer the world.
Goddamn! Now that is a twist. That’s definitely something that would translate into good word of mouth and it most certainly did. I mean, the series has lasted this long hasn’t it?
That would be the first of many, many reveal scenes in this series. Unmasking scenes sometimes seem to happen every other issue in this comic due to how often a mysterious newcomer shows up. I might as well keep a tally, counting Zemo’s big scene at #1.
And with that, I’m going to stop for now. In the next installment, I’m going to go over the team’s first year. Can they keep up the charade? Will these villains backstab each other? And where does that kidnapped teenager factor into all of this? Check back and find out.