Matt Streeter continues to dig deep into the well of retro comics. Check out his review of Thunderbolts!
Continuity. Some writers use it like a hammer to bash away at tired, old retreads of stories we've heard a hundred times before. Some writers ignore it completely, opting instead to confuse the complete crap out of every last person unfortunate enough to pick up their “bold, new direction” for their take on a well-known character. It's not all negative, though. There are skilled writers who use it for what it is, like LEGO bricks with which you can build something new and fun atop that which already exists, or deconstruct it to build something new and interesting. And then you have Kurt Busiek, who took a book called The Thunderbolts and unearthed enough obscure Marvel lore to fill what could have been an easily-cancelled 12-issue maxi-series and turned it into one of the best superhero comics of all time.
The first twelve issues of Thunderbolts dealt with a team of brand-new superheroes who pop up from the ashes of the Onslaught event who are not even close to the people they claim to be. We got to watch Citizen V, Atlas, Meteorite, Songbird, MACH 1, and Techno fight the good fight in a world that now lacked the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, with an all-new character named Jolt joining them in issue 4. I picked up issue #1 back in 1997 expecting it to be maybe a classy, fun superhero book to brighten my angsty, X-Men-heavy collection of the time. But then I read it and that bomb Busiek drops at the end, it was a jaw-dropping twist I had to re-read twice to make sure I got it right. It was as skillful a twist as any I've seen, and the way he rode the concept and piled the tension on them over the ensuing year made for one of the most incredible reading experiences I've ever had.
One of the greatest gifts Kurt Busiek brought to the book was his encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel history. Combined with a few new faces, he seemlessly works the most obscure characters into the stories in new and compelling ways. Reading his late 90s Thunderbolts and Avengers works (especially Avengers Forever) paves the way for anyone to become a burgeoning scholar of hidden Marvel Comics history. The Growing Man, an old weapon of Kang the Conqueror, wreaks havoc in issue 5. He used the Elements of Doom to drive a wedge between Citizen V and his team in issues 6, 7, and 8. If that wasn't enough, we get a flashback sequence told by Black Widow in issue 9 that Roger Stern and Ron Frenz help tell.
Even though Busiek wraps Marvel continuity up into the neatest, tightest of knots during his tenure there, that wasn't what made this such an interesting book. The twist at the end of issue one, the Thunderbolts' “SHOCKING SECRET” proclaimed on the cover of issue 1, is what made this one of Marvel's absolute best arcs. Sometimes you get a great concept like this, only to see it fizzle and result in an unsatisfying end, like almost every single Wildstorm book, or the Onslaught thing that went from an almost horror comic atmosphere to the goofy thing it turned into from Onslaught: X-Men. Nope, not here with the T-Bolts. Busiek ramps up the tension every month, heightening the tension within the ranks of the team, adding depth to what were once barely two-dimensional characters. The addition of Jolt gave us another way to see the strain their big secret was putting on the team. Black Widow shows up a couple times, her harsh eyes making it clear that she's on to them. And then towards the end of the run when their SECRET gets out and they come within a fingertip's brush of their goal, well, I've never felt the kind of anticipation for a monthly book that I felt when this was coming out.
This was about as perfect a run on any superhero book as you'll ever find. It has plenty of action, lots of internal strife amongst the Thunderbolts, and great art by one of my personal favorite pencilers, Mark Bagley. I'm not gonna lie, there was a flaw or two. Songbird and MACH 1's relationship was cheesy to the point of belonging on a pizza. Mark Bagley missed an issue (#7). It didn't last forever.
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This comic book series makes me want to go into full-on Grumpy Old Man Rant mode. This is what comics used to be! Writers used to actually care about the characters they were writing, they respected the past without being slaves to it! Writer and artist teams used to be able to hit monthly deadlines no problem despite working on multiple books! Good storytelling trumped sending a political lesson, PC or not! Rararar! Get off my lawn! But the truth is that this was an exceptionally good series not only compared to today's books, but for its time and, well, for any other, too. This kind of excellence is rare throughout comics history. So, if you have some money to spend on some old, cheap, high-print-run funnybooks, this is an absolute must read. Find it, enjoy it, and then keep buying them because when you get into issue 13 the Growing Man thing from issue 5 pays off.