This time around, we look at the sheer blast of awesome that was Jeff Parker’s run on everyone favorite “villains-as-heroes” title! Wait, what do you mean that’s Suicide Squad? Does Suicide Squad have Doctor Doom fighting two megalodons at the dawn of time? I THINK NOT!!!!!
Thunderbolts by Jeff Parker (writer), Joe Caramagna (writer, “Group Therapy” in issue #159; letterer, issue #163-166, 168-183, 163.1), Jen van Meter (writer, “The Ghost & Mr. Walker” in issue #159), Frank Tieri (writer, “Double Cross” in issue #159), Kev Walker (artist/penciler, issues #144-147, 150-153, 155-158, 163-165, 169-171, 176-179; Enter the Heroic Age #1), Declan Shalvey (artist, issues #148-149, 154, 157, 159-161, 166-167, 172-175, 177-178, 163.1), Valentine de Landro (artist, “Group Therapy” in issue #159, 162), Eric Canete (artist, “The Ghost & Mr. Walker” in issue #159), Matthew Southworth (artist, “Double Cross” in issue #159, 162, 168), Gabriel Hernandez Walta (artist, issue #179), Neil Edwards (penciler, issues #180-183), Jason Gorder (inker, issues #153, 155-157), Terry Pallot (inker, issues #164-165, 169-171, 176, 180-183), Frank Martin (colorist, issues #144-147, 149-164, 166-179, 163.1; Enter the Heroic Age #1), Fabio D’Auria (colorist, issues #148, 150, 156-157, 159, 161-162, 164), Brad Simpson (colorist, issue #157), Chris Sotomayor (colorist, “Group Therapy” in issue #159, 165, 172, 180-183), Jordie Bellaire (colorist, issue #172), Antonio Fabela (colorist, issues #176-177), Albert Deschesne (letterer, issues #144-162; Enter the Heroic Age #1), Dave Sharpe (letterer, “The Ghost & Mr. Walker” and “Double Cross” in issue #159), and Joe Sabino (letterer, issue #167).
Published by Marvel, 41 issues (#144-183, plus #163.1 and the 8-page preview in Enter the Heroic Age, which is included in the first trade but isn’t hugely essential, as it simply introduces Luke Cage as the new leader of the Thunderbolts), cover dated July 2010 – January 2013.*
*Yes, I’m aware that the series switched names to Dark Avengers beginning with issue #175. I am highly offended by this cheap cash grab and will not use that name again, but rest assured, I’m painfully aware of it.
Some very mild SPOILERS ahead! Nothing really to worry about!
Almost all of the titles I’ve looked at in Comics You Should Own are centered around writers. That’s not because I think writing in comics is more important (I think at least 60% of the “goodness” of any particular comic comes from the art), but because writers tend to stick around while artists (whose job is harder and more labor-intensive) come and go. So usually I focus on a writer’s run on a title, no matter who the artist is. I’ve done one of these that had two completely separate writers (not co-writers, which I’ve also looked at), but that’s a rarity. Even more rare is to look at a writer’s run not from its beginning and not all the way to the end, but that’s what I’m doing here. Thunderbolts #144 is not Jeff Parker’s first issue on the title, nor is #183 his last. He began his run with issue #138, which was part of the “Dark Reign” story and continued through “Siege,” but I’m not putting those in here because he was just wrapping up the direction that Warren Ellis took the title beginning in issue #110. For Parker, issue #144 was the first one with Luke Cage as the leader of a new group, and it was where his run really took off. As for the final few issues, once the book changed its title to that which we shall not speak, it was clear it was kind of doomed and Marvel was desperately trying to save it. The first arc of that title is Parker wrapping up his “Thunderbolts” work, and the second (and final) arc is nothing to be concerned about. So Parker’s official “run” begins before #144 and ends after #183. But those 41 issues are the only ones we need to care about!
Parker’s great run on the title coincides, not coincidentally, with Kev Walker coming on board as the artist. Walker has toned down his style slightly since 2010, which is fine for a book like Doctor Aphra (which he recently drew), but his aggressively cartoonish style, with muscles on top of muscles and ladies’ boobs as big as their heads, works so well for the tone Parker is going for. Because Parker is aiming for sheer awesomeness, and he cares not what gets in his way. Yes, Parker is too good a writer to ignore character development, and the characters do change and grow during his run, but he’s much more interested in throwing the team at the coolest shit he can think of and letting them hit things. After gathering the team (which includes mainstays Fixer, Songbird, Mach V, and Moonstone, with new additions Ghost, Juggernaut, Crossbones, and Man-Thing), he sends them into battle against Asgardian trolls in Oklahoma (this is right after Asgard was floating over that state, if you recall), where they smash a lot of stuff and pick up a refugee, Gunna, whose father was a troll and who had been living with them. Troll (as they often call her) also joins the team, although more by accident, as she’s simply at the Raft (the prison home of the Thunderbolts) until Steve Rogers can sort out her situation. Other characters come and go, because this is a comic in which prisoners are used to do so-called “heroic” things, so of course they act like criminals quite a lot and get their privileges revoked, but Parker keeps figuring out ways to either shelve them or bring them on board, and it’s a lot of fun. The basic plots, always a bane of superhero comics, tend to be better than average, as well, mainly because of the way Parker writes them and because the character don’t really trust each other. With superhero comics, there’s a basic level of competency we expect from the heroes, and it makes it difficult to think they can’t handle, say, an invasion of Asgardian trolls. Power-wise, there’s no reason the Thunderbolts can’t handle them, either, but they’re so inexperienced at working together and so mistrustful of each other that the trolls become a major threat. That tweak is enough to make the plots much more interesting than your average superhero book.
Parker doesn’t ease up on the craziness of the plots, either. The team investigates a new vein of Terrigan crystals, which affects Crossbones adversely and eventually leads to him going more rogue than we expected him to go (it was really never a question of “if” than “when”). During the “Shadowland” crossover, the team fights underground ninjas. In issue #150, Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor show up to see how a typical mission goes, and Ghost thinks he has a way to escape, but instead they all get zapped to another dimension. Then a “global-treaty animal reserve for megalife” is compromised, which just means a bunch of daikaiju start heading for Japan and the team has to punch them a lot. A bunch of lizard-riding pan-dimensional hunters show up, as they do. Cage brings Satana onto the team because he’s not sure how to handle Man-Thing, and she’s enthused about learning more about the creature, which she calls the “Vagornus Koth” (which it appears Parker invented, although I’m not sure if it actually means anything). There’s a castle in eastern Europe inhabited by ghost Prussians and creepy giant spiders. During the “Fear Itself” portion of the title, Juggernaut is turned into one of Sin’s minions, which leads to a break-out at the Raft, the Thunderbolts desperately trying to stop the Juggernaut, and other convicts figuring out a way to escape their incarceration. Fixer tinkers with the actual headquarters of the Thunderbolts so that he can teleport the entire building, which he does, to Chicago to assist in the fight against Cain Marko. He and Centurius, Mr. Hyde, Boomerang, Satana (with a new seed for Man-Thing, whose body is destroyed fighting in Chicago), Gunna, and Moonstone end up teleporting away, but they get thrown backward in time, and that’s where the real craziness begins. The rest of the story (issues #163-183) are about Cage and the present-day Thunderbolts trying to find the escapees and the escapees moving through time, from World War II (where they fight Nazis alongside the Invaders) to Jack the Ripper-era England (where they help solve the mystery of the killer) to 6th-century Britain, where of course they meet King Arthur and Merlin (who knows who they are and what they’re doing and explains how they inadvertently destroyed Camelot) to a few years before the present day, where they meet the original Thunderbolts (which causes some problems), to the Pleistocene Epoch (which doesn’t narrow it down too much, considering it lasted for 2 million years), where they meet Doctor Doom (because of course they do), who flings them into the future, where the Earth is ruled by people who look suspiciously like Judge Dredd, before they finally return to the present just in time to help the rest of the Thunderbolts stop an extinction-level event. Meanwhile, in the present, Cage is trying to find the escapees, but he’s also dealing with the new group of Thunderbolts, the replacement Avengers – Clone Thor, Six-Armed Venom, Clint Barton’s Evil Older Brother, and Poisonous Scarlet Witch – who are forced on him by the people running the program. Parker does what he can with those characters, and he brings both teams together in an epic finale that ties the two disparate threads up nicely. It’s a pretty impressive achievement, especially because, unlike so many Marvel comics of a more recent vintage, Parker is playing the long game. This run of Thunderbolts is Claremontian in its breadth of plotting, and it’s one of the reasons it’s such a fun comic to read. Parker never lets up the relentless plotting, but like Claremont at his best, he does characterization on the fly, letting the characters reveal who they are through their actions, so by the time we get to the end, we know them very well, better than if they had taken time out to talk about who they are. It’s always a good trick, and Parker excels at it.
Parker is good at writing single-issue stories, as well, and those give us some of the best in the run. Issue #147 is the conclusion to one story, but in the latter half of the issue, the Raft’s power goes out, and the Thunderbolts – the heroic ones, at least – have to take on the inmates, which leads to a great tough-guy confrontation between Luke and the Purple Man, who of course taunts him about his wife, Jessica Jones. Issue #151 is the secret origin of Ghost, and it’s a great twist on the standard trope of the nerdy guy getting superpowers, because our “hero” doesn’t use them for, you know, good. Songbird gets to go on vacation in issue #171, but of course she finds trouble, and the story is a great spotlight on the character. The single-issue stories aren’t the only place that Parker focuses on the characters, as I pointed out. Because he’s going full blast all the time, a lot of the character development takes a while to pay off and comes at us from unexpected places. Parker gives us an odd friendship between Moonstone and Ghost in the forefront, but he slowly reveals other developments, which make them hit harder. Juggernaut was vulnerable to Sin’s machinations because Cage demoted him temporarily, even though Cage didn’t trust Marko only because the ghost Prussian and his paranormal spiders messed with Cage’s head. Despite knowing that, Cage still benches Marko, which makes him look elsewhere for his thrills, and he turns into Sin’s minion. Parker is obvious about that, but all throughout, he’s sowing the seeds of Fixer’s betrayal – Fixer is completely reformed, and wants to help, but Luke keeps sidelining him, until Norbert finally has enough and throws in his lot with Centurius, Hyde, and Boomerang, which leads to his horrible fate. Luke knows that he treated Juggernaut callously, but he can’t see that he treated Fixer in the same way until it was far too late. It’s a clever bit of plotting, because re-reading it, it’s obvious what’s happening, but reading this issue-by-issue, Norbert’s betrayal is more shocking. He’s not a completely bad guy, though, so when it comes time for him to do something noble but tragic, he steps up. Even the Judge Dredd analog in the final arc, who has his own secret connection to Cage, gets a nice moment when he decides that the team should rescue the past even if it’s not in his best interest. Parker keeps things moving, but he’s good enough to make sure that each character moment feels real and hits home well.
A big part of the why this run is so good is, as I wrote above, because of Kev Walker on art. Walker didn’t draw the entire run, of course – beginning with issue #154, the book more-or-less went to bi-monthly shipping, as it came out during the height of that particular insane gambit by Marvel, which is why in 2½ years we got 41 issues of the comic – but he was the main artist, drawing 22 (or parts of some) of the 41 issues (with Declan Shalvey providing the art for 16 – again, or parts of some – more issues), and he gave the book the frantic energy to match the scripts. Walker’s exaggerated pencils might seem too much so for a superhero book, as superhero books often don’t try to play up the ridiculous muscles and giant boobs of their characters (despite the fact that the characters possess them), but the art on Thunderbolts is supposed to heighten the insanity of lesser superhero comics, so Walker doesn’t hold back. His muscular characters – Cage, Marko, Hyde – are mountains, dwarfing even other buff men. His female characters – Songbird, Moonstone, and Satana – have tiny waists and giant breasts, which never seem to hinder them in any way. It’s ridiculous, but simply part of the unrealistic fun. Walker has a great sense of design, so when Parker asks him to draw the weird stuff in the run – and, as we’ve seen, there was a lot of weird stuff – Walker is up to the task. His Man-Thing, unlike many other versions, is fairly buff, but also kind of a hippie – the moss and plants growing on him give him a wizened, bearded look, so it’s as if your drugged-out grandfather got ripped (and green, sure, but let’s ignore that). Walker’s Asgardian trolls are strange monsters, with three-fingered hands, thin arms and legs but oversized hands and feet, and monstrously large heads. When the Thunderbolts and the Avengers get zapped into another dimension, Walker gives us the bizarre human-sized frog riding some strange creature, which heightens the unreality of the situation (and leads to the hilarious denouement). He really goes nuts with the giant monsters attacking Japan in issues #152-153, using inks to give them terrifically tough hides and making sure to furnish them with plenty of ugly-looking spikes. When the team fights the ghost Prussians, Walker draws insect-like “dirae,” offspring of the Furies, and they’re completely freaky. His ghost Prussians are superb, too, with their desiccated skin and clanky steampunk outfits, and Walker’s “incarsicus,” the giant spider that messes with your minds, is great, too. When the rogue team goes back in time, Walker has a lot of fun, too. He always seems to enjoy drawing Satana (hot chick with skin-tight clothing and strategically placed gaps in said clothing? yeah, not surprising that he might like drawing her), but when he gets to draw her becoming truly demonic to kill Nazis, it’s an amazing moment. His monumental depictions of Camelot, with a skeevy Merlin and knights in anachronistic but awesome armor, are extremely impressive. Plus, he gets to draw more monsters in that story, too, so he’s in his element. In issue #171, he draws Lemuel Dorcas, the scientist who created Tiger Shark, and Walker goes all in with his creepiness (he spliced starfish genes with his own so he can regenerate, but it certainly doesn’t help with his appearance). And, of course, he gives us megalodons when the team goes back to the Pleistocene, as well as a tremendously horrific Doctor Doom. He draws very little of the Judge Dredd analog when the team is flung into the future, and it’s a shame he couldn’t do the entire story, considering that he has drawn Dredd in the past and is pretty darned good at it. Walker’s exaggerated style is perfect for the book, and he shows he can handle the most “realistic” aspects of it, as well. He draws a great “schlub” in “Ghost Story,” the secret origin of that character that I mentioned above, so we can easily believe he (Ghost never gets a name prior to his transformation) would be taken advantage of by people with better social skills than he possesses, but we can also believe why someone like Shana might be interested in him. His amazing work with the female form means we get a great splash page in issue #171, with Songbird hanging out in a bikini, but we also get her vulnerability and eagerness for human companionship that allows Doctor Dorcas to kidnap her and her utter terror when she realizes what Dorcas’s plans are for her. But for a few issues when Terry Pallot seems to ink Walker with a bit too much hatching, aging his characters a bit too much, Walker’s art and (usually) Frank Martin’s colors are a joy to behold. I’ve written before about the influence of Martin on today’s colorists and how it’s not necessarily a good thing, but Martin is certainly talented and he works well with a strong artist like Walker. Meanwhile, Declan Shalvey is the other “main” artist on the book, filling in as early as issue #148 and drawing most of the “Fear Itself” story, the Jack the Ripper story, and the Thunderbolts-meet-Thunderbolts story. Shalvey’s style at the time was far rougher than it is today, and he provides a nice contrast to Walker’s more bombastic work. Walker probably would have worked perfectly well on some of the Shalvey-drawn stories, but I wonder. Shalvey’s first work on the title was during the “Shadowland” crossover, and he draws gritty, underground scenes with ninjas, which at this point in his career is right up his alley. His monsters (he gets to draw a dragon in that story, as well as one much later in the run) aren’t as impressive as Walker’s, but his use of thicker blacks than Walker means his violence is more visceral, even when the monsters are dispensing it. Shalvey also uses duotone effects quite well, which, combined with his heavier uses of black, makes the book a bit less “superheroic” when he’s drawing it and a little nastier. This is most evident in the Jack the Ripper two-parter, which is the most horror-tinged of the run, where Shalvey’s style works much better than Walker’s would have. He uses thick inks on Mr. Hyde’s face to make him even more horrific than usual, and the demons in the story are twisted and ugly, which fits the tone of the tale well. Shalvey also draws the story when the modern Thunderbolts meets the originals, and his gritty style suits the dark tone of that story even if his action sequences aren’t quite as polished at this stage of his career as they would be later. Shalvey is a fine artist to provide back-up for Walker, and the other artists who drop in – Valentine de Landro, Matt Southworth, Gabriel Walta – are quite good, too. The book begins to wobble, artistically, when Neil Edwards becomes the regular artist for the final four issues of the run. Edwards is a fairly standard superhero artist, and his work lacks any of the magic that Walker and Shalvey brought to the book. His characters are “realistic,” because that’s his style, but in a book with such outlandish characters, it robs them of their spark. His perspective is often wonky, and when you’re drawing a classic “end-of-the-world” story with a lot of over-the-top moments, everything needs to fit in the panels and make sense in relation to everything else or the power of the story is lost. His action scenes are often stiff and awkward, and his Dredd analog is less a force of nature and more a dude in a funny helmet. It’s a depressing way to finish out the run, and the only reason you should read them is because Parker’s script still works well, plus he’s wrapping up his giant time-travel story, and that’s too good to miss.
Parker’s Thunderbolts run has been collected into seven trades (although the final one is under the onerous “Dark Avengers” title, just so you know), and they all seem pretty cheap. This run still feels kind of like a red-headed step-child in Marvel canon – it’s not the original Busiek stuff and it’s not the very dark (and very good) Warren Ellis run, two parts of the group’s history that loom large over everything else. It’s too bad – I know Parker is proud of this run, and he should be, because these are just tremendously amazing comics. Parker takes a reliably entertaining premise and doesn’t go as dark as some writers have in the past when they turn villains into reluctant heroes, so the book is never so bleak that it drags the amazing stuff down with it. Cage is a great character here, and Parker does marvelous work with both the “heroes” (the reformed villains) and the “bad guys,” so that they gain respect for Cage while remaining their own relatively nasty selves. He adds plenty of humor to the book (the rebirth of Man-Thing after it’s destroyed is a highlight) and he grounds the wild comic-book stuff (like the time travel) in realistic relationships, so that even when the villains don’t get along, they’re not acting out of character. He takes these wonderfully bizarre characters and puts them in deranged situations, and the result, combined with the (mostly) marvelous art, is an underrated comics treasure. Marvel would not be crazy to release two giant omnibuses of this run – issues #144-162 form one “arc,” while issues #163-183 form another – but we’ll see if they ever get on that. In the meantime, track down the single issues or buy the smaller trades. You will not regret it. If you’re interested, you can start at the link below!