Jamil Scalese: Following the six month Secret Wars gauntlet we faced in 2015 there was only one thing that could awaken the “Jhawn” Marvel Reviewing Machine — Thunderbolts, the greatest of all comic franchises.
Well, OK, maybe that’s a tiny exaggeration. But how can I hide it? I love the Thunderbolts. The franchise is a swirl of many elements I enjoy: villains and anti-heroes, redemption stories, Marvel myth and D-list characters. Sadly, the brand hasn’t caught fire like its 90’s brethren, Deadpool, and it’s been a tough going for the ‘Bolts the last few years.
Spinning out of the Avengers Standoff! crossover, a story our colleague Chase Magnett aptly called a “tire fire”, this new team is composed of most of the original 1997 roster. That in itself is a pretty good hook, but I have to tell you, I was expecting a lot more depth and pizzazz from this one. I liked bits and pieces, but there’s a certain vapidness that leaves me wanting.
Shawn Hill: Tbolts 4ever!!! Busiek came up with a killer newish idea back in the 1990s, and Nicieza continued it pretty well for like three times his initial run. Not without interruptions and distractions along the way (not to mention usurpers who just used the name), but the concept is still a solid one.
We got to literally see Songbird go through the evolutionary process that makes her an actual Avenger today (she and Jolt are the missing numbers to this new version, and of course others who died or defected along the way as Nicieza had a rather revolving membership), and we saw other villains try and fail at going straight. You know who never really wanted the redemption arc? Zemo, sure, but also Karla Sofen. There’s a lot of stuff she wants, but admiration doesn’t mean much to her. She’s a psychologist sociopath, and the fact that she’s still somewhat relatable is one of the challenges of writing this title.
Erik Josten is cursed never to be happy, but he’s learned things along his suffering track at least. Norbert and Abner are the tech side of our twisted team, but who better to lead them really than Bucky? Cap did see something in this team back in the day, and Hawkeye and Black Widow and others have stuck around at times to try to keep it going. Now it’s the Winter Soldier’s turn, and with a lot of gobbledygook about whatever Pleasant Hill was, we’re well on our way in this formulaic but pretty solid issue. We’ve got a headquarters, we’ve got a mission, we’ve interpersonal dynamics and we have a precocious child star! Let’s face it, Thunderbolts was always a formula. It was just one that happened to access the larger Marvel universe pretty darn perfectly, leaving story possibilities wide open.
Jamil: That’s a beauty of the concept really. The supervillain stuff is great, but the charm lies in how Thunderbolts can tap into any aspect of Marvel lore and expound on it. It was during the Jeff Parker/Declan Shalvey/Kev Walker/Frank Martin run that I started considering it Avengers Jr., a team book with a great formula and a wide scope.
Jim Zub’s writing is technically astute. He presents all the essentials of a first issue by correctly introducing the characters, giving us a status quo update and treating the fans with knowing nods to previous adventures and whatnot. But for me there’s not enough there. In Standoff the Thunderbolts were present but the impetus that drove them to team-up in this first issue felt notoriously flimsy. That’s not truly rectified here even though Zub framed the story to be very expository. Though I like tying the squad into Bucky’s “Man on the Wall” mantle given to him at the end of the Original Sin crossover (which we liked) I have trouble believing all four of the classic ‘Bolts decided to join Buck just for shits and giggles. I’d buy that for Atlas and Mach-X, maybe not so much for Fixer and Moonstone.
The set-up for this ongoing feels lame to me however by the end things shifted in the right direction. Karla makes her obligatory power seize and we’re blindsided with a twist that is either an extremely ballsy move or fodder for Kobik, the team’s portable deus ex machina.
Shawn: Kobik is a type (the child-like deity), but she’s a type that fits right into Thunderbolts lore. The setup is contrived, and they haven’t really delved into the villains pretending to be good trope. But I believe they fled the compound with Winter Soldier’s help just to escape, and I buy that their natural instincts lead them to both hide and band together immediately. Apparently Pleasant Hill was awful, I wouldn’t know. The plot may be familiar, but it’s an okay place to start if they plan to get into the character work immediately.
And Karla’s struggle with Bucky was definitely obligatory, but it symbolizes her refusal to accept the norm if it’s not to her advantage. Sometimes she’s sneakier about it, here she went straight to some very foolish taunts that she had no idea she’d have to immediately back up. That cliffhanger was definitely high-impact and old school all at once!
Jamil: I liked the final page for sure, and I believe Zub has a commanding grasp of the characters and their dispositions. The newcomers, Winter Solider and Kobik, are both interesting additions respectively. It’s kinda cute that Bucky needs to be the moral bedrock of the team considering his modern recent role as shadow agent and disruptor. As you noted he slots magically into the legacy of T-bolt leaders like Clint, Luke Cage, and hell, even Zemo (circa Avengers/Thunderbolts). Alternately, Kobik is actually cute, but that’s shrouded by an ominous aura that could destroy the team and/or the literal scripts. No idea where they’re going with the character. I never expected her to survive Maria Hill’s super secret prison camp.
Alright, so let’s talk art. No doubt, for most, the visuals of this comic provoke a firm reaction. Maybe not a strong one, but it’s likely that someone looking on Jon Malin’s art will have an opinion regarding the quality and appeal. All you really need to know about the penciller is that he was discovered by Rob Liefeld. The cover and interiors of Thunderbolts #1 are something blasted out of a mid-nineties Image comic with its angularly etched linework, warped action and a superfluous amount of hatching and crosshatching. Thing is, I’m not even a hater of that particular era of comic book art, I think it’s definitive and noteworthy and sometimes extremely striking and powerful. But for the Thunderbolts? Nah.
So yeah, they were born in the 90’s too, however their longtime aesthetic was far more bouncy and rounded than the Liefeld approach. Mark Bagley’s original design and feel has mostly held form through the ages. This new (old) look doesn’t come across terrible, especially with Matt Yackey’s colors evening everything out with a touch of modernness, but I’m not exactly championing the art.
Shawn: I don’t hate it. What matters to me about Thunderbolts, visually, is that they need to be high-tech and high-impact, with dramatic reveals. While they weren’t initially a very Image-y comic (Image’s boom and bust cycle had already begun by their debut), I think there’s a place for this retro style now. And the other genius of Thunderbolts is that Busiek used a cast that had been around for ages in various forms, from Moonstone to Songbird to the Beetle. Meaning whatever their surface is like, there’s something else going on underneath. So this superficial look is going to be challenged, if Zub is at all capable of living up the concept.
Jamil: There’s potential here, if only because there’s no bottom line established yet so the concept could sprawl in many directions. It reminds a bit of the new Squadron Supreme, another team book with a broad formula which took more than a couple issues to find footing.
I do question of the muddled feel of Thunderbolts and I look toward the editors, Tom Brevoort and Alanna Smith. I’ll pick one character to whine about: Fixer. How the hell was he pulled out the time loop he created when he killed then replaced himself? (Don’t tell me Kobik…) Why the shit is he wearing his “Techno” gear when he was in the modern version of his costume during Pleasant Hill?
Eh, I’ll lay off. I adore this franchise, and the original crew back together is kind of a dream. Imma stick around for a little. Just do the obvious, Marvel… Bring back Jolt!