What an odd stack of comics.
That's my thought when reading the first arc of the newly relaunched Dark Avengers series. Wait. Relaunched probably isn't the right word. Well, there's the first oddity: the numbering on this bad boy is absurd. In the context of the Marvel landscape, with just about every major title currently in the single digits, a book with #180 on the cover looks extremely odd up next to the others on the shelf.
The choice to keep the old Thunderbolt numbering will make sense in about a year and half when the book reaches its two hundredth issue (although one wonders: what the hell will they be celebrating?), but it's still a very peculiar move considering the shape of the series as it's stands in these issues. The first thing you might notice is there are two separate stories happening at once. One thread follows the Thunderbolts of their former self-titled series, the other reestablishes the second Dark Avengers team from the duo Avengers titles under Brian Michael Bendis.
When we last left the Thunderbolts they were cascading through time, fresh off a meeting with the original 'Bolts and saving the universe from zipping itself asunder. The opening issue of Dark Avengers shows Luke Cage and Hank Pym entering the Nexus of Realties, homeland of the Man-Thing, in order to tap into a temporal stream that will help to find the rouge fugitives. Cage mentions his decision to retire as leader of the Thunderbolts, a move that falls right in line with his departure from the New Avengers.
Meanwhile, a secret military operation in Sharzhad goes hellishly wrong and the Federal Advisory Committee to the Thunderbolts decides to save face by restocking the team with the recently defeated Dark Avengers v2.0. The quartet features Trickshot (Barney Barton), Ragnarok (Stupidface McDumbhead), Dark Spider-Man (Ai Apec) and Toxie Doxie (June Covington), and they're immediately confronted by what's left of the previous Thunderbolts (Luke, Mach-V, Songbird). When the dust clears FACT explains that the new team will venture Sharzard, retrieve their missing man, and return home. And, oh yeah, Luke Cage, you're not invited.
Luke "Where's my money, honey?" Cage don't play that, and instead brings Skaar, the son of Hulk and guy who betrayed the current Dark Avengers, along for the ride. The newly formed country/concept of Sharzhad plays a major role in the entire storyline. Shazhad is a Jeff Parker creation from his Hulk run, and the adventures of General "Thunderbolt" Ross are referenced a few times in the long arc. All you need know about Sharzhad and its ruler Sultan Magus is that they're basically the Middle East equivalent of Latveria and Victor Von Doom. Magnus is powered by Rigellian technology, a race of beings that colonize worlds using tech and methods akin to DC's Blue Beetle backstory. Magus is real, real strong, and he doesn't like Americans, or the "West" much at all. Go figure.
The new team has some interesting individual character hooks aside from awesome costumes, however Parker does not delve into any of the five major players much at all. Trickshot is like Boomerang, except he says "bro" a lot more. As the brother of Hawkeye I'm inclined to hate him then I remember the old adage "the enemy of my enemy…" Ragnarok is a comically foolhardy robot, and we get inside his head for one panel and see he's aware he's a clone but kind of ignores it. I love the classic Kirby costume lurking in the background of scenes so I'm okay with him. Ai Apec the Dark Spider-Man has a more severe god-complex, and really, he just gives me a creeps. June Covington, Toxie Doxie, now rebranded as The Witch, takes on Scarlet Witch's appearance, and the allusion is appropriate because she's a bit batty and like way overpowered. Apparently, June does her genetic experimentations on herself as well as innocent victims, and Parker is so purposefully vague about her powers and their strength it's an apparent nod and scientific counterpunch to how other writers approach Wanda's abilities.
The next issue (#176) focuses solely on the time-tossed Thunderbolts. After the death of Fixer the un-team lands in the Pleistocene Era where not much is happening aside from team dissension and the rescue of some dude in a green shawl. Just as Centurius, Mr. Hyde, Ghost, Moonstone, Gunna the Troll, Satana Hellstorm and Boomerang gain their bearings they're thrust back again to the dawn of life, where the gang is sure they're on the precipice of non-existence. That's when the purpose of their time travel, which started way back in Thunderbolts #162, is revealed: Man-Thing needed to be reborn as the first sentient being on Earth.
The result is a brand new Boss of the Moss, now cognitive and with voice. The neat trick to the reformed Man-Thing is that he sounds different to each individual, morphing to a language and/or tone most appeasing to the listener. Of course Parker uses this to great effect.
After this reintroduction the Bolts are now free to use their time machine to return to their own era, expect the man in the green shawl has commandeered Thunderbolts tower. Oh shit, it's Dr. Doom, where the hell did he come from?
Um, apparently Fantastic Four #567, the end of Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch run right before Jon Hickman's tenure. In that story Victor Von Doom is sent back in time by his former mentor, the reality hopping Marquis of Death, to be eaten by giant sharks. When Doom returns in #569 he explains he managed to survive the megalodons, sustain millions of years through hate and passion and master the dark arts while plotting his revenge against the Marquis. According to this mild retcon, Doom actually got his ass saved by Moonstone, and used the resources of "common criminals" to get home. For the sake of pride — and continuity — he makes sure to dispose the evidence of his weakness and sets the machine to drop him in Latveria, and then send the gang to the distant future where they'll explode.
I detailed the first two issues of Dark Avengers for a couple reasons. One, the art is done by Declan Shalvey and Kev Walker, respectively. For the most part they've been the two mainstay artists for the Thunderbolts run, with Walker being on board since #145 the first issue of the Luke Cage era. Everyone who has stuck with title knows these two creators represent something of a jewel in the Marvel landscape; while there are countless talented pencilers in the biz the consistently killer effort from the Walker and Shalvey created not only a distinct, edgy look, but provided innovative paneling, and rare ability for sequential flow. I'm not sure how much the two men worked together, but the look of the extremely diverse cast always remains ubiquitous. Too bad that after doing a full issue each, and then working in tandem in a few more, they simply disappear.
Shalvey works on #175 and does the Dark Avengers/Sharzhad side of the story. His thin inks and vaguely tattered style goes with the tone of the story, as it did in previous arcs. This looks like a book about bad guys, and whether it's the smug Trickshot, or a fierce looking Luke, Shalvey delivers. Venom is going to love him full-time… You're welcome, Cullen Bunn.
On the Thunderbolts side Kev Walker does everything well, which is why he is now one of the all time best Thunderbolts artists. With a the patchwork, energetic cast, and the Jeff Parker scripts that go to every corner of the MU, the book plays to his ability to draw a variety of material. Thanks a lot, Avengers Arena. We didn't like him or anything.
I also cover the first two issues separately because well, look at what happens, while the Luke and the Dark Avengers side is about introduction the plotline is far more mundane and less noteworthy than what's happening on the 'Bolts half.
Parker does a decent job orienting the reader as the series features both stories in one comic. The timeshare is about equal, but the significant action focus on the 'Bolts. First they battle Doom on his home turf, and we're treated to one of my favorite Latverian insults, assuming this isn't a Doombot on the fritz.
Also, an appetizing little cameo by Doctor Strange and Victor's momma, a nod to Doctor Doom and Doctor Strange: Triumph and Torment by Roger Stern. Neat stuff!
The Bolts are flung to the distant future, but thwart Doom's attempt at murder by escaping the explosion which destroys the iconic Thunderbolts Tower (hmm…). As they catch their breath, and try to convince Man-Thing to teleport them back to the present, they're attacked by this guy:
Yes it does, Boomer. His name is Boss Cage, he hails from Mondocity 1 and his mission is to eradicate the mutant populations near his home. He never takes of his helmet, and he's a bad motherfucker.
The Judge Dredd parody/homage by Parker and Walker is pretty damned entertaining, mixing in elements of both the 2000 AD comic and Marvel lore. The only thing that holds it back is the segmented storytelling due to the integration of the Dark Avengers into the title. Parker manages to tie this dystopian future into the events happening in Sharzhad, but just barely enough to give them a reason to share the same twenty-odd pages. Aside from starring villains they're wildly different.
On blessing from Boss Cage, a clone of Luke Cage's grandson (BTW: I believe this arc features the first appearance of an adult Danielle Cage, daughter of Luke and Jessica ) the Thunderbolts 'port to the future and arrive in Sharzhad just in time to serve up a big pile of whoop ass to the Dark Avengers who look totally weak and lame.
After an admirable fill in by Gabriel Hernandez Walta on #179 the new regular artist for the series steps in. Neil Edwards takes over both parts of the series until they converge in something more cohesive in #182-183. The departure of the Walker/Shalvey duo went unannounced, but as I went on about before, their style and effort granted serious credibility to the title. Also gone from the series (after #179) is colorist Frank Martin Jr., who nailed the book's tone and pallet each and every issue. Martin understood that while this book is about villains, redemption and all the lovely bad stuff that feeds into our dark sides it's also about the wackiness of the universe(s) super-people operate in. Songbird's pinks shine bright and Man-Thing's swamp glows majestically when Martin is on color duty, and neon is something he never shies from. Nothing about villainy is "dark" according to the first half of the arc.
New artist Edwards has a command of basic comic art, but I found myself completely confused at some of the events happening on the pages. A lot of things can go wrong from idea, to script, to pencil, to finished product, but I don't remember having the orientation issues I had with Edwards' art compared to the rest of the run. The last few issues suffer from subpar mechanics and I'm left scratching my head in regard to the important plot specifics of an action heavy title. For example, at the end, I have no clue where the shield surrounding Sharzhad is in relation to the team, and the moment they break through is completely anti-climatic due to a poor angle choice. Also, there are a handful of continuity errors, like Hyde gaining a brand new jacket, hat and cane after losing all his gear two issues back.
I don't mean to trash the guy's art, he has a sound grip of the characters, posture, emotion, and he can do action fairly well, but there is little synergy between script and pencils. However, I do keep in mind the circumstance, an artist coming in mid-arc for a story with myriad pieces and two separate plotlines. Moving forward I expect a more coherent comic.
Jeff Parker uses the arc's last issue to close out the final portion of his Thunderbolts run and to launch the new era of the series. In his final hour on the job Luke Cage sees the Dark Avengers, plus John Walker and Moonstone, teleport to "Manhattan" by Man-Thing, and essentially lets his former team escape without a fight. A series of nice small moments follow: The self-doubting Cage is praised by a repowered then depowered Cain Marko on his leadership skills; the fugitive Thunderbolts are given individual paradises, and as Boomer comments, not too many of the bastards got killed off; and what's left of the team, mostly those from the "Underbolts" period, reflect on their crazy-quilt make-up functioning on one squad.
It's a quick but suitable ending for one of my favorite recent runs. Since its inception the Thunderbolts title has undergone multiple status-quo changes, and Parker tapped into that very trait. The book always kept you on your tones and occupied a space very few titles can. It was funny, had a strange science vibe going for it and introduced me to characters that would never be allowed to breath so freely in another title. I often felt like this comic read like the sister series to Gail Simone and Nicola Scott's Secret Six, operating in the sliver of space between serious and silly in a place where people shoot fireworks from their fingers and wear tight masks over their faces. The book stars villains but isn't about evil, it's about doing what you need to do to survive in a world with superpowers.
Sounds a bit like a eulogy, huh? I guess it is, because the start of the run looked like the comic I loved and by the end I had something vastly different in my hands. Like all good fiction characters are what matter most, and the Thunderbolts cast was always stocked with overflowing personalities. Whether a guest star (i.e. Hyperion, Jennifer Kale, both Zemos, Pym, the Avengers Big Three, the Invaders, Black Knight) or a roster regular every character filled the page with personality and purpose. I would venture to say that a good handful of characters had their finest moments in the pages of Thunderbolts, just ask Ghost, Centurius or Boomerang. Parker never ever forgot the roots either, giving the original T-bolts integral leadership roles throughout the run.
With a new Thunderbolts title starting soon it looks like fans of the old Bolts brand are SOL. Songbird and MACH-V are literally left standing in the dark at the end of this thing (ahem-Hickman-ahem). The Dark Avengers take center stage for the foreseeable future… hey, who's to say the status quo of status quo switch-ups isn't still alive and well?
Which adds to the oddity that is the first batch of Dark Avengers comics, the books long-term protagonists are the villains throughout. Parker spends marginal time exploring Skaar, Ai Apec and the rest and their motivations are paper thin. Totally obvious to me that the switch to this title came about five issues too soon; Marvel brass should have launched a new Dark Avengers title in the Marvel NOW! rollout and continued Thunderbolts without fuss. Ah, but hindsight, am I right?
Honestly, I'm, real excited for the next phase of Dark Avengers. Jeff Parker, Neil Edwards and gang have kept the premise under extremely tight wraps, but the epilogue shows the team (or at least their jet) wrecked in a city that features an evil looking Iron Man. Parker has promised this is not an alternative universe, and hinted the story will revolve around those who mimic iconic heroes. Somewhere Thunderstrike is checking his email like every four minutes.
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.