In 2009, when Disney purchased the publishing and film-making entity that is Marvel, millions of comic readers groaned. I wasn’t one of them. I never believed that a parent company specializing in family entertainment would alter my violent, challenging comics. It just wouldn’t be good for business.
And really, nothing has changed. But it’s curious to note that, in 2010, when the dark, politically-charged Siege storyline ended, the so-called “Heroic Age” began. Many titles were relaunched or refurbished (with new creative teams), and an emphasis on straight-forward swashbuckling returned. The comic with the best new coat of paint was Thunderbolts.
Far from being about Asgardian pets, Thunderbolts is about super-losers trying to do right. Wunderkind Kurt Busiek (Marvels) created the series with artist Mark Bagley (Amazing Spider-Man) in 1997; Songbird, Citizen V, Mach-1, Meteorite, Atlas, and Techno appeared out of nowhere, helping to fill the void after the Avengers and Fantastic Four vanished while fighting something called Onslaught.
Citizen V, however, was actually the lunatic (and second generation Nazi) known as Baron Zemo. His team, the Masters of Evil, were disguised as heroes, hoping to gain the public’s trust before enslaving everyone. Further summarizing would ruin a perfectly good post for another day–but suffice it to say that Busiek’s love for (and skill at) crafting tantalizing psychological moments reigned supreme.
Several great writers have followed–like Fabian Nicieza and Warren Ellis–each sculpting the premise of villains choosing heroism into unique runs. Today I focus on the first three issues by the phenomenal (and underrated) Jeff Parker.
His inventive work with various Hulks and the Agents of Atlas is continuity-heavy but rewarding, especially for longtime readers. Like Nicieza, his writing is the unsung freighter that carries the Marvel Universe between monstrous (and often hazily-conceived) crossover events. Here, with much clean-up to do after the Asgard-crumbling Siege, Parker and artist Kev Walker are nothing short of stellar.
Their twisty-turny arc begins at the Raft, a maximum security island prison. Avenger Luke Cage (who’s got super strength, impenetrable skin, and ‘tude to spare) has been tasked by S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Steve Rogers with running the Thunderbolts program. This involves field-testing a carefully selected group of super-powered cons, getting them ready for the next emergency too filthy for the Avengers to touch.
Cage starts his recruiting with Iron Man foe the Ghost. Walker’s sharp, grimy pencils offer us a soiled man, surrounded by flies and studying the bottom of his own foot. Then he hits the women’s block, with Thunderbolts mainstay Songbird, to collect the manipulative Moonstone. “I know I don’t get a vote,” says Songbird, “but she’s a bad choice. Already been through the program. Didn’t help.” Cage checks his notes, then quotes: “Powerful fighter, quick to adapt…has identity issues, prone to creating tension/drama.” Songbird says, “See? I’m telling you, that’s a bad mix.”
“That was your old profile,” Cage answers, ending a scene that’s better than an entire episode of most network TV shows. He moves on to enlist the unstoppable Juggernaut, and the assassin Crossbones, who “killed” Captain America at the end of Marvel’s nonsense-infused Civil War.
But it’s the characters that Parker brings from the bottom of the toy chest that work the best. Marvel’s answer to Swamp Thing, the mutely menacing Man-Thing, is the Thunderbolts mode of transport–as Hank Pym explains, the everglades are, “a nexus of space/time, and that creature has a special connection with it.” Then there’s the first issue’s cliffhanger, which leaves Cage and Songbird unconscious and Baron Zemo back to save his former team.
As Ghost can see, through his multi-spectrum visor, this is a ruse. It plays out wonderfully, and reminds us that all Thunderbolts carry weaponized nanites within them, controlled by Cage and Songbird, to prevent an actual escape. Other adventures featured in Parker’s jolting first three issues include the taming of Asgardian Trolls, and the search for missing S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in a cavern full of Terrigen Crystals. Not sure what any of these focal points are? No problem. Parker not only delights in juggling Marvel’s lower-caliber characters, settings and artifacts, he does so respectfully, and in ways that welcome new readers. This might seem like a big ole’ DUH?!, but when writers ignore or trample Marvel’s history, it’s painful. This Thunderbolts run, however, is the kind of romping greatness that turns kids into fans for life. Heck, it might even get some of them to pick up a pencil.