Good with no superlatives.
That's final grade for the first six issues of Thunderbolts. It's decent and nothing else. I thought about ending the review here, but I guess there's a little more to talk about.
The basic premise of the book is this: Put an arsenal of loose cannons on an island and you're bound to get a mess. Daniel Way and Steve Dillon embrace organized chaos, and their work on this title embodies that.
Both Dillon and Way spin a pretty good story, a violent romp that follows Red Hulk and other major anti-heroes as they try to hit the reset button on the small island nation of Kata Jaya. I reviewed the first issue back in the December, and thought it good despite very little happening. I now find that issue, in context to the others, to be near essential for the mere fact that it drive homes the overarching mission statement of the comic. Eradicate villainy with brute force and relentless acuity. Ross puts it even more poetically in Issue 2:
"No longer will large-scale aggression be ignored. Or hidden. Or condoned. It will be met in kind… and with overwhelming force. We will strike without mercy. Without fear. Without reprisal. Without consideration for political allegiance or stature. We will strike as lighting strikes the earth."
It's good that this is proclaimed early because its potency wanes by the end. Due to Way's penchant for flashbacks and nonlinear storytelling the momentum is often sapped, and while the events are not a puzzle the cast is all over the place on their first mission. By the end of the sixth issue I was a little confused as to what "Thunderbolt" Ross was trying to achieve. To sum up — the plot is not going to make your head spin off your shoulders.
One look at the covers and it's apparent what this title is about — those hugely popular characters — and Way delivers wonderfully in that regard. Not only does he handle the main five well, but the side and background characters all serve up nice moments too. In previous works Way has fallen into a trap of giving small-time players big-time roles, only to have them disappear five or so issues later, but there is a skilled balance here. He's in his wheelhouse, working with gritty psychopaths, and given his writing style I'm starting to think his first team book might turn into his most successful endeavor yet.
If I take a step back and really look at what the opening arc of Thunderbolts is about, I'd say it's primary focus is coalescing five huge personalities into one focused entity. While they'll never be on the same wavelength, the book tried to give them similar problems, and after their first mission the friction between members is high.
Foremost, this is Thaddeus' book. Red Hulk is central to the action and is the pacesetter as far as knowing what the hell is going on. One of the most unexpected additions to the Marvel mega-lineup Red Hulk has really come into his own, evident by his presence in a book that has nearly nothing to do with Bruce Banner. The big reveals at the end of the Kata Jaya arc tie in to Ross' pre-Hulk past, and resonates that "consequences" theme which mists the entire book.
The comic's best moments are in the Deadpool/Elektra/Punisher dynamic that flares up dramatically in issues #5-6. Way again handles the characters well. Punisher and Elektra are silent killers, and Deadpool is the noun but hardly ever the adjective. All three are very good, and very eager to perform their jobs of murdering en masse. Throughout his run on Deadpool Dan Way wrote Wade Wilson as finicky, habitually impatient and extremely impractical in his tastes. Even with next to no real page-time with Elektra, it's surprisingly believable that Wade has fallen for her hard. When he catches Frank and Elektra in unholy, wanted-murderer carnal embrace the tension leaps off the page, and future dealings between the trio should be pretty damned awesome. "You might kill me first, but I #&%*&#$ guarantee I'll kill you last. Take it to the bank, Frank" is hands down one of Way's best Deadpool lines, and he's written more Deadpool lines than anyone.
Special Agent Venom serves are the moral anchor of the book, which is shocking "on paper" but makes sense in contrast to the rest of the gang. Flash plays a marginal role, but his disdain toward the way Ross handles the leadership role does provide more tension.
Shrouded in billows of mystery is the sixth member, Mercy, a Hulk villain from the '80s kept in cold storage. Way does very little with Mercy, though she does incinerate an entire group of innocent natives for little reason. Mercy fancies herself the god of suicide, and looks to be into gathering the "secrets of gamma power," presumably to kills miserable Hulks like Bruce and Thunderbolt. (Betty, you're safe!)
Those gamma secrets are stored in the brain of the Leader, now a shade of crimson due to a repowering by Red Hulk. Despite his presence Samuel Sterns does not play an antagonist role in the activities; rather he wanders around amnesic, only really gathering himself in the final pages of #6. It's Sam's brother, Phillip, super strong Madman, who is the main villain, though we don't much from him before he's put down. The Leader is low key throughout, but given he's still lingering around he might be a candidate for the first true big bad of the series.
By now I would've talked about art, because good, or terrible, or mediocre or whatever its real important to comics (duh) but, I mean, it's Steve Dillon. I like Dillon a lot. He's drawn so many comics I've fallen in love with. He has a fantastically steady style, and, for me at least, most of his faults are easy to ignore. That said, Thunderbolts is hardly his finest work. Indicative of the entire comic, it's enjoyable, but not something that deserves high recommendation. The colors by Guru eFX are standard, though there is an indistinct murkiness, perhaps the results of too much shading. Given the openness of Dillon's approach there is always a danger a colorist will try to overcompensate, and that happens just a smidge here.
The first half dozen issues of the re-launched Thunderbolts did their job, galvanizing five unique characters into a story, giving them common wants and needs and setting them at odds with each other. It's a balance of twisted emotions, subpar battle scenes, plot contrivances that made little sense and cool ideas with buds of potential.
With Phil Noto coming to pencil the next set of stories I look for the title to improve, but given Way's track record I wouldn't be surprised if all inertia stops cold. This Thunderbolts story will only mean something if the next one is better.
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.