Thunderbolts started up with a great idea.
In 1997, the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and friends had
been written out of continuity in an X-Men crossover called Onslaught.
Their books weren't selling, so some creators from the popular Image Comics
were going to write them in an alternate universe for a while. After defeating
the big bad guy, all of them were believed dead. Instead, unknown to anyone,
they had been shifted to a parallel universe, where the Image guys took them
Kurt Busiek, the writer of Marvels and Astro
City, started up a new superhero book. A brand-new team of superheroes had
been formed to take up the slack now that all the big leaguers were dead. They
were hailed as heroes by the world, in a time when the world desperately needed
some. Then, at the end of issue #1, one of the best shock endings in comics
ever: the Thunderbolts were actually super-villains, in new identities to fool
the public into loving them, thus luring them like lambs to slaughter. Excellent
The Thunderbolts weren't just brand-new heroes. Every
Bolt was a 3-time loser Marvel villain from uncountable issues, all of which
ended with them being smacked around by heroes then marched off to the clink.
Their leader turned out to be one of Captain America's archenemies, Baron Zemo.
As the first year progressed, it got better and better.
Some of the villains decided they liked being heroes. A new character, Jolt,
was introduced, an idealistic teen who had no idea these guys were villains.
Some of the villains discussed killing her -- others realized the good PR of
having a hip new hero as part of their group. While standard superhero fight
scenes and plots played out in the foreground, the subtext of hardcore bad guys
having to play these roles was just brilliant.
All of this with the subtext that as long as the Marvel
heroes were dead, the Bolts would have free reign. Zemo talked about his master
plan, that he would enact when the timing was perfect.
The first year or so of Thunderbolts, the book
explored themes never before touched. The characterizations began and remain
strong through the book's whole run. Every character has something nagging them.
And as super-villain plans go, hiding in plain sight as superheroes is light
years ahead of anything anyone else has ever come up with.
Then the heroes came back.
And, in my opinion, Busiek chickened out. Maybe this
was Busiek's plan all along, but it seemed forced and hurried. As soon as the
Avengers and the Fantastic Four returned to Marvel-Earth, Zemo spazzed out,
revealed the villainous truth, and enacted his master plan.
But the thing was, he didn't HAVE to. No one was right
on their tail. They had made no major breach of the secret. But when the heroes
returned, the Bolts did everything but run away hollering "Tell Zemo the
When I was younger, a kid and I toilet paper rolled
someone's yard when they were not at home. Then as we were walking away down
the street, with no evidence on our person, no rolls of toilet paper in our
hands, they drove up. As far as they knew, we were just two kids walking down
the street. Innocent and pure as the driven snow. But instead of just being
cool, we immediately started running away, as hard as we could. What the hell
were we thinking? That's what the Thunderbolts did.
The series could have milked YEARS out of these guys
having to fight alongside the same heroes who put them in jail, with the unredeemed
villains having to pretend just as hard as the ones who'd mellowed a little.
Instead, the bad guys cut bait and split, and the semi-heroes went fugitive.
And Zemo's Master Plan that he'd been talking about
the whole time? A satellite that would beam a HYPNO-RAY across the whole world,
mind-controlling everyone to do his bidding. That's it. That's the WHOLE PLAN.
I guess I should forgive Zemo. Villains really only have one great plan in them
in their careers, and he'd already shot his treacherous wad on the disguise
idea. Um, in a manner of speaking.
In the three years since then, the semi-hero Bolts went
on a quest for redemption. The Avenger with the bow and arrows, Hawkeye, joined
up with them, to help them redeem themselves with the promise of full pardons
if they really did clean up their acts. Busiek left the book, but prolific superhero
writer Fabian Nicieza jumped right in -- and turned in his best work in the
business. Nicieza added black humor to the mix, as well as a conspiracy angle
with twists and turns that, very un-X-Files like, actually made sense.
Superhero battles against villains took place the whole time, but they were
largely forgettable compared to the ongoing saga.
Leading into issue 50, the book went into overdrive,
leading up to a wrap of the conspiracy in that issue. Throughout the series,
even the happy endings were kind of bitter, and the big, satisfying resolution
in #50 still left unhappy threads dangling. This ain't Avengers.
And that's the best thing about the book. These characters
are in way, way over their heads, and the trouble they get in keeps getting
deeper. Though they try, they get pretty much zero respect from anyone. This
book isn't The Sopranos, which is where it seemed headed at first --
it doesn't revel in the evil that these guys do. Hard choices are presented
-- and a lot of times, the Bolts don't make the right ones.
The book is a couple of issues past 50 now. The semi-heroes
got their pardons and the book now follows them, forced to live civilian lives.
That shouldn't work out at all. I'm sticking with the book, because a new chapter
has started, with new characters and the more heroic Bolts turning down crooked
paths. The new characters don't seem to want to be as good-guy as the others
-- which makes what might happen even more fun.