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Sunday Slugfest: T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5

Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2011
By: Thom Young

Nick Spencer
CAFU (p), Santiago Arcas (i), & Ryan Sook (pages 1-5)
DC Comics
During the ongoing operation to rescue Raven, the double operative within T.H.U.N.D.E.R. is exposed as a sleeper agent--and his or her life before T.H.U.N.D.E.R. is revealed.

Thomas Crawford:
Danny Djeljosevic:
Thom Young:

Thomas Crawford:

Whatís that you say, dear reader? Everyone has already told you that Nick Spencer is an amazing writer and that everything he touches becomes magical comics gold? Well, okay then.

What about Ryan Sook?

Oh? Heís already made a name for himself as an amazing artist, and continues to live up to that reputation despite merely drawing people in plainclothes talking for almost his entire segment of this issue? Well, okay then. Just thought I should check.

Well then, let me at least talk about CAFU, the main artist on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

CAFU is outstanding, and a great fit for this title. Back when he worked on the Captain Atom back-up feature in Action Comics, he struggled with having characters emote well, but heís really come a long way since then. In this current issue, CAFUís depiction of Lightning terrified about having to use his powers is a powerful image, and one that really demonstrates how much CAFUís art has improved.

Even in a meeting between two brothers, thereís an optimism in Jamesís eyes thatís absent in Fraserís, and itís little details such as this that really sell these characters as human beings. CAFUís no slouch on action sequences, either. No-Man really seems like a force to be reckoned with in this issue.

As for Ryan Sook (you didn't really think I was going to leave it at that blurb up top, did you?), he really knows how to make a mountain out of a molehill. His whole sequence is essentially one long monologue by Fraser, but it packs a punch. You see how sad he is about the state of the world, and you almost want to root for this guy. I mean you don't, because he's crazy, but you almost want to.

In many ways, Sook reminds me of Steranko--not stylistically, but in the way that his limited body of work has become a high bar for artistic quality in mainstream comics. He is truly an impressive artist.

Itís hard to know what else to say about an issue that is, for all intents and purposes, flawless. Even in a story as fantastic as this, Spencer presents a sense of gritty realism. Bullets still hurt in this world, they donít just fly randomly off into the distance.

In the last page especially, itís clear that this series has consequences for its characters, and where it goes from here is anybodyís guess. Spencerís script is a layered work of beauty, and in just twenty pages (imagine what could be done with the old 22?), even with no prior exposure to these characters, a reader can be emotionally invested in every one of them.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is a series a lot of people are talking about, and more and more people seem to be reading. I recommend this issue, and the series, to anyone who loves comics, anyone who likes comics, or anyone who is just curious. The long and short of it is: Buy this book.

Danny Djeljosevic:

Can we talk about the amazing cover to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5? Not only is it drawn by Francis Manapul, but it also has word balloons. WORD BALLOONS! I donít know why this convention went away, but it certainly makes for a striking cover that gives immediacy to the book.

Meanwhile, on the inside, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 follows the traitor seen on the cover, giving him a much-needed back story that allows the ultra-shocking betrayal to transcend its Hollywood plot twist nature. Now, with this re-contextualizing fifth chapter, the urge to go back and re-read the previous four issues is irresistible--which is what good comics do.

It also helps that we have Ryan Sook drawing the flashback sequence this time around; he of the Kamandi story in Wednesday Comics and Grant Morrisonís Seven Soldiers: Zatanna. The guest-artist flashbacks in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents are great for revealing the stylistic differences between artists--CAFUís fairly standard layouts contrast with Sookís often asymmetrical book-ended pages as a subtle way (besides the art itself) to convey the difference between past and present.

Iím not gonna lie: I found this issueís climax more than a little confusing, but only due to my ignorance of what went on in earlier T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series. I imagine most new readers will have to wait until the next issue to get an explanation of what happened, but that ending makes perfect sense if you know how Menthorís helmet works. Thank the gods for Google.

As Colleen Franklin remarks in this issue, ďThings get decidedly more old-school from hereĒ as the superheroes finally spring into action as a team. I canít help but take her statement as an ironic remark, as Nick Spencerís T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents takes an old set of premises and makes them excitingly modern. I canít wait to see how he concludes this story arc.

Thom Young:

Much has been written (both at Comics Bulletin and elsewhere) about how great Nick Spencerís stories are. I donít mean to rain on the Nick Spencer Parade, but the stories Iíve read by Spencer have merely ranged from adequate (the laborious Jimmy Olsen back-ups in Action Comics) to slightly above average (Infinite Vacation, his sole issue of Supergirl, and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents).

Iíve seen reviews that compare Spencerís writing to Alan Moore's work (in terms of characterization and plot development) as well as to Grant Morrison's (in terms of innovative concepts). In fact, I'll admit that Spencer's ideas in Infinite Vacation and Supergirl were innovative--possibly at the Morrison level. In both, Spencer used the contemporary social networking phenomenon in a unique manner--in ways that are so obvious (in hindsight) that one marvels at the fact that Morrison hadnít already thought of the concepts himself.

However, unlike Morrison, Spencerís Infinite Vacation and Supergirl stories hinged on just one amazing concept involving social networking--rather than imitating Morrisonís use of wild concepts as a framework for an improvisational approach to storytelling that allows the layering of related images and ideas. The resulting free association of Morrison's wild concepts allows for contextual meanings that may be obtained from the relation and juxtaposition of his various images and ideas.

In other words, while he can come up with a Morrison-level innovative concept for a particular story, Spencer is no Morrison.

The better comparison is to consider Spencerís approach in relation to Alan Mooreís. Both Spencer and Moore tend to come up with a single innovative concept for a particular issue that they then incorporate into a fairly straightforward narrative--with the only innovative storytelling technique being the non-chronological narrative that mixes scenes of past, present, and future occurrences.

However, in this regard, though both are revisions (or re-imaginings) of a team of superheroes from the 1960s, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is no Watchmen.

The problem with T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is that Spencer is not taking the time to fully develop his plot and characters. He has an engaging style, and he demonstrates an ear for natural-sounding dialog. However, Spencer conveys his plots and characters with broad strokes without taking the time to go into the minute particulars of the world he is creating (a criticism that my colleague Dave Wallace made as well in his review of Spencerís Infinite Vacation #1).

I donít mean that Spencer should spell out everything for his readers. The revelation of information central to a plot should unfold at a reasonable pace, and readers should not expect everything to be made clear at every turn. No, Iím not referring to the pacing of Spencerís plots, but in how well those plots have been thought out.

Similarly, I do not find that the traits of Spencer's characters have been fully considered and planned out. Just as there are too many logical inconsistencies in his current T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents plot, there is too little revelation about the motivations of Spencer's characters beyond the ďbroad strokesĒ approach in which we know that Lightning loves to run, Dynamo loves to brawl, the two brothers in this issue want to change the world, and Colleen. . . .

Actually, I have no idea what motivate Colleen--though I still think she might be the daughter of the woman known as ďRustyĒ in the original Tower Comics series.

Anyway, though I donít read all of the various comics he is currently writing, I am aware that Spencer is producing a lot of work lately for both DC and Image. Thus, I have considered the possibility that the reason his plots and characterizations are presented in such broad strokes rather than as fleshed out concepts is that Spencer is spreading himself too thin. Perhaps he has to do everything in broad strokes to meet his deadlines.

If thatís the case, then Spencer might well bring himself up to the level of craftsmanship that Alan Moore has achieved if he would only reduce his workload.

In the meantime, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is an enjoyable series that could be much better if we actually knew enough about the characters to care about them--which might have required a different plot for the opening arc. In fact, the arc that has run through these first five issues (and the revelation of the double agent in T.H.U.N.D.E.R.) would have worked so much better as a story that took place in issues numbered in the teens or twenties.

Finally, while Ryan Sook's work on the first five pages is good, it's not up to the level of his work on the "Kamandi" strip in Wednesday Comics. As for the rest of the issue, the illustrations by Carlos Alberto Fernandez Urbano (CAFU) continues to look nice with its clean lines and beautiful-looking people. However, there's nothing going on in the drawings other than the basic visual information that is needed to tell the story.

Finally, the cover by Francis Manapul is an interesting reworking of the splash page of the Menthor story illustrated by Wally Wood and Steve Ditko in the original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 from 1966. The use of word balloons in the contemporary version made me dig out my issue of the Tower Comics series to see if the same dialog appeared on the original image.

It did not.

However, as I skimmed through that 45-year-old comic book I noticed that the shooting of one character by another in that story is essentially mirrored (as in reflected, but reversed) in this contemporary issue. It's such details as the mirrored aspects of the two stories that gives me hope that Spencer might actually develop into the elite writer that so many people believe he already is. However, he's not yet there.

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