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Reviewed by Joe Crowe, ©

Format: Comics
By:   Fabian Nicieza and Patrick Zircher and Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley
Genre:   Superhero
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

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 over.

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 stuff.

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 jig's up!"

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.

Joe Crowe is Humor Editor (not to mention all-around guru of comics and wrestling) for RevolutionSF.

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