Remember when David Lapham would start issues of Young Liars off by suggesting a soundtrack? I’ve always wondered why more writers don’t do that kind of thing, especially since comics don’t need to deal with the hassles of licensing and royalties the way movies and television do, leaving a potentially infinite number of soundtrack possibilities for comics. Which is why it was a pleasant surprise to see Nick Spencer adopt a similar trick in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents seven, with the bulk of the issue’s first story unrolling to the subtly creepy Dion hit “The Wanderer.”
“The Wanderer” on its surface may seem to be a glorification of womanizing, like the macho counterpart to Dion’s other hit, “Runaround Sue,” both of which were fittingly penned by the same songwriter, Ernie Maresca. But as Dion himself was once quick to point out, the song is actually about the loneliness of the wandering life, hinging on the line “I roam from town to town/And go through life without a care/I’m as happy as a clown/With my two fists of iron but I’m going nowhere.” Conveniently, that’s also the line Spencer most emphasizes.
Spencer has of course utilized pop music in the past, most notably in Morning Glories, but never to the extent that “The Wanderer” is used here. Spencer’s adoption of the song for a scene showing the domestic and professional lives of Dynamo and the Iron Maiden crashing and burning is at first a little odd but the more you focus on “With my two fists of iron…I’m going nowhere,” the more it starts to make sense.
Mike Grell’s highly detailed pencils — themselves eerily similar to David Lapham’s own work in Young Liars, especially with the palette choices Val Staples makes with the coloring — further fill in the gaps. Spencer doesn’t spell it out in his narrative but Grell’s depiction of Dynamo and Iron Maiden’s home is a plethora of paradoxes, from the contrast of “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Shooting Times” stacked on top of each other on the kitchen table to a fridge full of vegetarian items. This is a family built on lies and deception, on running from the life that brought them together but also on the paradoxical nature of their relationship.
It’s an incredibly potent section that thrives thanks to the trust Spencer has in his readers. Spencer makes a brave choice here by advancing so little of the main story of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, especially after two high stakes issues preceding it. Issue seven is instead a character study, meant to offer some insight into Colleen’s motives and personality even though Colleen is seen in most of the issue as an infant in flashback. But more than that, it’s an evocative portrayal of the psychological toll the superhero (and villain) life takes on a person, forcing close relationships to be overlooked, especially if those relationships are with people on the other side of the law.
All that makes it even more infuriating that Spencer closes out the issue with a completely unnecessary additional flashback, this time to a decidedly S&M-tinged first kiss between Dynamo and Iron Maiden. Placed at the end of the issue, where its twist has negligible impact thanks to everything we learned at the beginning of the book, the B-story feels like a distraction rather than entertainment. Fortunately, it looks beautifully poppy thanks to Nick Dragotta’s pencils, with Lee Loughridge’s perfectly bright, soft coloring completing the vintage effect. But the lack of narrative stakes or the kind of character development the first section brought ultimately causes it to feel like a rip-off.
Still, if that’s the price to pay for the stellar first section, so be it.