This week Marvel is renaming Thunderbolts to Dark Avengers, presumably to boost sales by disguising the comic as an integral part of the Avengers franchise. I’m not sure it’ll work, but Thunderbolts has always been my favorite comic book so I appreciate the effort. Since I’m concerned that Dark Avengers #175 won’t exactly be a perfect jumping-on point, I’ve decided to help out with a quick introduction to what T-bolts has been about, and why I hope Dark Avengers will continue along the same themes.
Marvel readers probably know Thunderbolts best for its first storyline, about a team of new superheroes that turned out to be supervillains plotting to take over the world.1 Since then T-bolts has widely been regarded as a villain book, but I think that’s an inadequate description. Thunderbolts is less about guys in black hats as what it means to wear the black hat, or to take it off and try on a white one. This is where redemption is usually brought up as a major theme, but I don’t think the book is about becoming good any more or less than it’s about being bad. It’s really about good and people put in a position where they must question their goodness or badness. Thunderbolts is the comic where Baron Zemo found his principles and Henry Peter Gyrich abandoned his; where Hawkeye became received a 20-year prison sentence and Venom became a federal agent. It’s where Radioactive Man developed into a three-dimensional protagonist and Speedball degenerated into a one-dimensional lunatic; where Songbird found a cause worth dedicating her life to and Nighthawk just found a bunch of assholes mooching off his money. In short, saying Thunderbolts is about villains is like saying Legion of Super-Heroes is about teenagers.
That might sound like I’m knocking other well-known “villain books,” most notably Gail Simone’s Secret Six and John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. Far from it. But what sets Thunderbolts apart is its central theme of hope–hope that bad guys can become better guys and the control of hope to influence the world for better or worse. Ultimately the Suicide Squad is only trying to survive its next job to get a reduced prison sentence, and the Secret Six is only out to take care of themselves, but the Thunderbolts usually have loftier ambitions, even if they sometimes end up tilting at windmills. The book plays upon multiple contradictions–villains as heroes, sociopaths as teammates, the forces of evil as a force for hope–and it tends to feature characters who can find methods in that madness; lateral thinkers looking to accomplish big things with unlikely resources. The T-bolts are the kind of guys who plot to defeat an Elder of the Universe with a handgun and recruit the Man-Thing to be their Batmobile.
For most of the past fifteen years, Thunderbolts has been at the top of my reading pile. It’s at its best when its cast is devious enough to be cunning, but not so professional that they could hack it as A-list heroes or villains. The recently-concluded time-travel story arc (#163-174) is a perfect example: The Thunderbolts stomp around the past with little regard for the damage they might cause, but they prove surprisingly competent in overcoming whatever problems are thrown at them. The appeal of a villainous character, as Jeff Parker recently observed, is that they can fail and make mistakes in ways that heroes won’t. But more to the point, a villain playing hero can also think outside the box and make unexpected choices about both heroism and villainy. Thunderbolts has tended to take flat or underutilized characters and revamp them in this way, giving them choices to ponder and problems to confront that are more stimulating than robbing a bank without being caught by Spider-Man. Baron Zemo, for example, is a pretty decent antagonist, but he’s more interesting when he’s trying to be his own definition of a hero, and far more compelling when you’re not sure if he’s out to save the world, rule the world, or both.
There isn’t room here to relate the entire Thunderbolts backstory, so I’ll only briefly recap the past five years. Originally the T-bolts were independent operators, but when Iron Man nationalized the superhero population in Civil War, the team was reorganized as a federal program for rehabilitating supervillains and putting them to good use doing superhero work. Norman Osborn (of Green Goblin fame) was put in charge, and although he perverted the team’s mandate of redemption, he was eventually promoted to Iron Man’s job. Osborn recreated the Avengers in his image, restaffing the team with several of his Thunderbolts in what is commonly called the “Dark” Avengers. Eventually, the real superheroes put a stop to his psychotic notions of national security, and the Dark Avengers were disbanded.2
In the aftermath, the Thunderbolts program was revived with Luke Cage at the helm. Along with longtime Thunderbolts like Mach-V and Songbird, Cage ran the team like a work release program, recruiting hardened criminals willing to do superhero jobs in exchange for preferential treatment. But this setup was a little to Suicide Squad to work in Thunderbolts, and was doomed to fail–the chain gang found an opportunity to escape and took it. At the same time, Norman Osborn came back with a second phony Avengers team, which was quickly defeated and incarcerated by the real ones. This new Dark Avengers team has been assigned to Cage as replacements for his missing prisoners, and their first mission is to hunt down the Thunderbolts. 3
That brings us to Dark Avengers #175, which starts a storyline written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Kev Walker and Declan Shalvey. They’ve done a great job with T-bolts for several years, and by now they have my full confidence that they can take a new cast of obscure and unimpressive characters and come up with something fantastic. (I never gave a crap about the Ghost or Boomerang before they joined the Thunderbolts, but under Parker they’ve become two of my favorites.) Parker’s scripts are a perfect blend of the ribald humor we got from Fabian Niceiza and the grim earnestness of Warren Ellis’s classic run, along with his own flair for the bizarre and grotesque. Walker and Shalvey keep up with wherever the stories take them, from Satana’s harem of succubi to the inside the Juggernaut’s soul to the dungeons of Camelot.
Over the years people have wondered why I’m so crazy about Thunderbolts, but the simple fact is that the comic has had an almost uninterrupted streak of good-to-great creative teams, and it’s pretty hard to pick out a bad issue.4 As long as Dark Avengers remembers where it came from, I expect that it’ll continue that streak and be some damn good comics. I highly recommend giving it a try this month.
- They successfully conquered two thirds of the world, for a few hours, and I don’t think they get nearly enough credit for that. That’s more than Lex Luthor ever did. [↩]
- This is a very abbreviated summary of Thunderbolts #103-143, Dark Avengers #1-16, and Siege #1-4. [↩]
- For more details, see Thunderbolts #144-174 and New Avengers vol. 2 #18-23. [↩]
- Hell, even “Fightbolts” wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t a Thunderbolts story. [↩]