What a way to go out.
In the faint whisperings of the Internet, in the crevasses of forums and the canyons of Twitter, there has been a clamoring for Jeff Parker, Declan Shalvey and the rest of the regular Thunderbolts crew to take over an Avengers title. With Bendis on the way out there is a void for a creative team that can balance a diverse roster and create new stories while respecting old ones. Some might argue it’s been around since 2005.
Viola! The Dark Avengers. You probably heard that in June Marvel will bring back its Dark Reign-era series, but will replace Thunderbolts and commandeer its numbering. My anticipation is roaring, but unlike the rest of the world it’s not time to talk Avengers.
If you’ve been following the title lately — and you should be — the roster is primarily a gathering of escaped convicts lost in time, runaways of the Thunderbolts program for rehabilitating criminals. After saving the city of Chicago during Fear Itself, these Thunderbolts have been whipped across time, from team-ups with the Invaders, to now landing in the lap in of Citizen V, Atlas, Meteorite and the gang. Their romp has landed them ” years ago” during one of the original Thunderbolts’ first missions, forcing them to come face to face with their origins. The roster is drastically different since then, with only Fixer and Moonstone being repeats.
The three-part “Like Lighting” is a truly inspired time-travel tale. Considering that about roughly 16% of all contemporary fiction is based on temporal anomaly and time machines made out of classic cars I understand the gravity of that assessment. The specifics of their method of the travel is never truly defined, nor is important, but it’s implied an unseen hand is guiding their journey. During the entirety of their trip the team has pondered the varies paradoxes and dangers of the interacting with figures like WWII-era Captain America and Merlin of King Arthur’s court and here, in the recent past (implied to be a handful of years ago, as opposed to 1997, the actual debut of the Thunderbolts), we see what happens when someone throws a huge “fuck you” into the timestream.
For the maybe the first time in his long history Fixer’s star shines brighter than his co-stars’. The running subplot of Norbert’s dissention and disappointment comes to a head in a surprising and beautiful way, and led me feeling for a character I didn’t even know I cared for. I’ll go ahead and spoil that the creative team does a very inspired bend on superhero death, one of the better I’ve ever read, and in his last moments, the old school Kirby/Lee creation delivers some of his best. Fixer is one of those characters that has been around forever and just has never stepped out in his own. “Years ago,” Norbert Ebersol, going by Techno at the time, is shown to have been a cut loose, cocky and, most importantly, jubilant figure. Compared to the more astute, subdued Fixer of the modern era it’s a glaring switch, especially when contrasted with the other charter member, Moonstone, who is just as dastardly and snarky “then” as she is “now”
The arc’s big moment comes in #173 and the ramifications sprawl out into #174, which is undoubtedly one of the best issues in the Parker/Shavley/Walker/Martin run. The tension around a paradoxical decision by Fixer (hint: he kills himself) is rife and presents an opportunity for all the Thunderbolts, new and old, to work together to save the universe. The triplet of issues is stuffed with character moments and bits of dialogue that demonstrate the top-notch chemistry of both the roster and creative team. Each issue carries it’s on unique flavor, too. Jeff Parker has demonstrated great ability in maximizing each issue in this series, giving them beginnings, middles and ends and still finding ways to link them together into coherent arcs, even when they aren’t.
This final arc of Thunderbolts is a celebration of 15 years of existence, an unlikely vein from an era considered by many to be a low point. Thunderbolts burst into the scene post-Onslaught, and delivered unforgettable moments in their reveal as the Masters of Evil. However, who knew the concept could spawn as many issues as it did, because once you get past the big reveal, and the eventual redemption, they’re just a bunch of nobodies, right? The current run on Thunderbolts celebrates this to a degree.
The art certainly does. I’ve rambled on in my previous Thunderbolts reviews about how great the rotating duo of Declan Shalvey and Kev Walker are, and it might get worse here. Shalvey takes the reins for this entire arc (and also launches Dark Avengers. Busy man!), and delivers some impeccable work throughout. Thunderbolts is a series full of patchwork; it’s a soufflé with a touch of Satan’s daughter, a dash of intangible hacker and sprinkled with a bit of Man-Thing. The art team gets that, and once place it shines is in Frank Martin’s colors. Parker is always quick to mention Martin in interviews and on Twitter as an essential cog in the machine and it’s difficult to argue. Issue #172 is colored by Chris Sotomayor and Jordie Bellaire, two legitimate creators that get work all over the biz. However, the comic is noticeably less vibrant, and the sense of “mismatch” is lost a bit. That issue tries to pull together the cast in unnatural ways while Martin highlights the fact these characters are a dissident bunch. The machinery of MACH-I and the Fixer look odd next to the dreary cape of Hyde, and it bleeds success. Additionally, just like the rest of the regular creative team he isn’t afraid to get weird with it, and occasionally throws a color palette at you that wouldn’t expect.
Shalvey’s A-game is done brought. The story has three discernible parts, the promised fight between the two teams, an alcohol-infused gathering (I think you kids call it a “party”) and the climatic, the-cosmos-is-ripping-apart ending, and the artist nails each with the energy it deserves. The surprise middle portion, the entire cast sharing a drink together, is something to remember, and carries as much clout and emotion as the big action panels.
Marvel, never one to miss an anniversary or special occasion, correctly and judiciously nods to the decade and a half this title has been around. The last page of each of issue contains a portion of Jeff Parker interviewing Kurt Busiek, Mark Bagley (who deserves a shout-out for providing a trio of great covers for the arc) and Tom Brevoort, the original creative and editorial team behind the launch of the title. It’s an extremely r
evealing piece, detailing each step of the creative process, from concept to how it got to the finished, now infamous, product. It’s fascinating to see how the idea came together, some of it inspirational, some editorial, and how Busiek viewed the founding members at the time. There is a subtext in the interview I find to be particularly revealing: it wasn’t necessarily the best idea, or the most profound work either creator had ever done, but it caught fire because of unforeseen synergy, freshness and appeal. I think this is a wonderful truth about the book when it’s good.
If all goes according to the assumed plan, we might not see the Thunderbolts logo on the cover of a Marvel comic for some time (well, after Dark Avengers #175). So this marks a fake end to a great series, and it’s an awesome grand finale that lights up the sky. I’ll miss the Thunderbolts, that is, until I see them again on June 6th. Meet you back here!
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.