Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Artists: Tom Grummett (p), Gary Erskine (i)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Well, here is Fabian Nicieza’s second to last issue of Thunderbolts. In many ways, this book really has become his own; he took over from Kurt Busiek with issue #34 of the original run and has been at the helm ever since (except for that dreadful crappy Mexican Fight Club period that even Marvel are trying to forget). So it’s with a heavy heart that I now contemplate his eminent departure. Sure, I’m excited about the arrival of Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato, but I sure as hell will miss these Thunderbolts.
Nicieza has written this book for 75 consecutive issues, and one of the main plotlines throughout, even crossing over into a Citizen V limited series, has been the evolution and almost redemption of Helmut Zemo. This issue closes the book on this one, even though it will be continued in next year's Zemo - Born Better limited series. Throughout the run, Zemo has gone from being a revenge obsessed Nazi, to a villain set on world domination, to an accidental saviour, to a conflicted man who really believes he can save mankind from itself. Over the last couple of years, he has also become one of my favourite Marvel characters: he occasionally has his doubts, but I really like his self-assuredness and the fact that no one dares trust him yet always realise they should.
In this issue, the Wellspring story that’s been an ongoing feature of the series since issue #96 (actually numbered 15) starts to move towards its conclusion. Just like last issue, there is a lot going on here, unfortunately perhaps too much. I don’t think that this ending is being rushed too much solely in order to make way for the new creative team; Nicieza just likes to pack a lot of story into his pages. After all, why waste space? But things do happen rather precipitately; even though the Thunderbolts Army is mentioned throughout, there isn’t actually any time to check in on them, nor is there time to check in much on the other heroes’ reaction to this plague of superpowered madmen, and a lot of dialogue has to be used purely as exposition for the reader to have any chance of keeping up.
I’m not even going to try to comment on all that’s going on in this issue; there’s simply too much so I’ll keep it (relatively) simple. In order to save mankind, Zemo has had to resuscitate the Grandmaster who he dispatched a couple of issues previously. This leads to a big old fashioned throw down between the two cosmic-level powered beings. Though Grandmaster has the upper hand, Zemo, using Overmind as an intermediate, politely asks the superhuman population to “lend” him their powers, so he can triumph. It’s quite refreshing at this point to see that, despite past grievances, Captain America, Iron Man and all the rest can put aside their pride and lend a hand when the future of the planet is on the line. He also successfully absorbs all the wild Wellspring energy which he puts to good use de-powering and then executing Grandmaster, using his trademark German Luger of all things. Fantastic! After his victory however, Helmut isn’t so hot on the idea of just giving everyone back their due, wanting to use the power to do some good in the world, which leads to his foretold betrayal by one of his right-hand men. This betrayal in turn leads to the wellspring energies going haywire and one of the T-Bolts sacrifices himself for his friends.
Now, the problem this book has faced recently, and in the last two issues especially, is trying to juggle such a huge cast. Since the death of Genis, and the merging of Songbird and Zemo’s groups, we’ve had a 10 member Thunderbolts team. Nicieza has still managed to advance individual arcs somewhat and given a decent amount of screen time to his main players (Zemo, Songbird, Radioactive Man), but others (Mach IV, Fixer, Smuggler) have been marginalised and now just seem to fill the role of extras who are lucky to get in a couple of lines of dialogue. Add to this the Squadron Sinister, the Thunderbolts Army, the Grandmaster and things are really starting to feel a little stretched. Not that none of these guys get some good moments: Swordsman’s surprising solo fight last issue, Speed Demon’s long overdue return in which he starts to get a bit of good old fashioned payback on Joystick (good stuff!) or especially what appears to be the ultimate sacrifice of one of the original T-Bolts at the end of this issue. But overall, it can get a bit confusing, like the Squadron completely disappearing after their defeat two issues ago. And the person who helps save the world is Overmind. "Who?," you might well ask. I’d never heard of him until he turned up in the “Purple Reign” arc, where even the text acknowledged that he was just a conveniently available plot device. Then he reappeared last issue coordinating the T-Bolt Army and now here he is saving the world. Bit of a rapid character evolution there. Couple of other little quibbles: I’m starting to get bored of Songbird and her “better than thou” attitude; hopefully Ellis will take her down a peg. And I don’t quite get how she shattered Zemo’s Moonstones; maybe I missed something in previous issues, maybe it will be explained in the next. My guess is she’s tampered with them and put in some sort of failsafe, we’ll see.
Still, this remains an exciting superhero tale. It’s fun to see Marvel heroes tackling a truly world-threatening menace, something that hasn’t occurred for a while. The Thunderbolts recently have been taking on the kind of threats that the Avengers used to tackle, while Captain America and Iron Man’s boys have been taking on ninjas, zombies and each other. Real superheroics from former supervillains, always good stuff. Even though by now the T-Bolts have definitely earned the right to be called heroes, they still display some refreshing no-nonsense behaviour, like sending Joystick out to investigate during the Zemo / Grandmaster showdown knowing that she’ll probably get fried but not giving a damn because she betrayed them.
On the art front, Tom Grummett turns in his usual stuff. I think that his pencils have been the perfect complement to Nicieza’s stories and are ideally suited to a real superhero book with lots of action, excitement and explosions. The only slight criticism I have with this issue is his portrayal of the Zemo vs. Grandmaster clash as for some reason it just feels like it doesn’t quite convey all the fury and energy I was expecting.
If the last scene and the solicitations are anything to go by, then next month should see a couple of changes to these characters before the handover to Warren Ellis with Nicieza wrapping up some of their stories. The sacrifice makes sense; this T-Bolt has grown (no pun intended) throughout Nicieza’s run but had definitely started to stagnate recently. In fact, this is unfortunately the feeling I’ve been having about several members of the team. Maybe it really is time for a change and the arrival of some fresh faces? On that same note, I’m looking forward to seeing how the new big shots (Venom, Green Goblin, Bullseye) will fit in with the longer-serving Thunderbolts, and I’m really looking forward to Moonstone’s return next issue; the book’s really missed her. But I’m sad to see Mach IV, Fixer and Speed Demon leave. Why and where to? Hopefully, this will be answered in Nicieza’s final issue.
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