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Into the back issue box #24

I should point out the rules for these posts.  I don’t think I’ve ever done it before!

I still yearn for a good comic to read for these posts.  This week, I get my wish!  It’s a Festivus miracle!  After the past few weeks, it’s a welcome change.

Thunderbolts #22 (“Decisions Part Three: Taking a Stand”) by Kurt Busiek, Mark Bagley, and Scott Hanna.  Published by Marvel, January 1999.

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If, perchance, this was the first comic you ever read, you might actually come back and read more.  This is not a great comic book, but it does everything you want in a single-issue comic book: tells a complete story and makes you curious about the stuff that comes afterward.  That’s a pretty good accomplishment.  Kurt Busiek, I think, has a future in this industry.

The first thing you notice about this comic is that the front cover folds out to give us background information on the Thunderbolts.  We learn they were actually the Masters of Evil in disguise, pretending to be heroes, but now they’re actually trying to be heroes.  We learn the team members: Atlas, Mach-1, Songbird, Moonstone, Jolt, and Hawkeye, plus their powers (which I’ll get to as they come up).  Then there’s a “Previously” page.  Good job, Marvel, getting us up to speed.  They still do this, but not as in-depth as they did back in the day.

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The first page is chock full of exposition, and although Bagley’s art is a bit chaotic and confusing, it’s decent enough.  He’s not trying to tell a story on the first page, just catch us up and get around the crapload of words Busiek pours onto the paper.  It comes down to the fact that Atlas attacked Hercules from behind and watched as his teammates beat Hercules nearly to death (a helpful footnote from Tom Brevoort tells us the story is in an Avengers trade paperback coming out the following week).  We shift to the present, as the Thunderbolts have just accepted Hawkeye as their new leader.  He’s telling Mach-1 that he has to go to jail because he murdered Dr. Jared Goulding (when he was the Beetle, in Deadly Foes of Spider-Man #3, as Brevoort helpfully points out).  Hawkeye explains that if they’re serious about going straight, they need to pay for their crimes.  Mach-1 flies away to think about it.  Songbird, who’s his sweety, wants to follow, but they tell her that he needs to figure things out by himself.  Hawkeye says he won’t have murderers on the team, and Songbird is about to spill the beans about Moonstone, who killed some guy named Kosmos (back in issue #14, as Brevoort points out) in front of Mach-1 and Songbird.  Moonstone stops her from talking in time, but Hawkeye’s suspicious.  Moonstone covers it up by saying that she and Songbird were talking about “heroes” who kill, like Wolverine, for example, and Hawkeye, with unintentional and prescient irony, says, “Well, you haven’t seen any of those guys become Avengers, have you?”  No, Hawkeye, we haven’t.  All it took for them to get into the Avengers was your death!

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Before they can talk more (and, to be honest, it’s been three pages of talking, for crying out loud!), Hercules bursts in, looking for revenge against Atlas (remember – Atlas helped put him in a coma!).  Man, Hercules is so awesome -  here are the first words he says:

 

Hear me, villains most foul!  I am Hercules, the Lion of Olympus!  Hercules – the Prince of Power!  And I have come for the one once called Goliath … come for vengeance, and godly retribution ‘gainst him who did most treacherously lay me low!  So scatter, you others – flee like the vermin you are!  Hercules has come to visit his wrath ‘pon Erik Josten – upon Atlas – and NONE SHALL STAND IN HIS WAY!

 

Hell, yeah, Hercules!  That’s telling those vermin!  And remember, kids – referring to yourself in the third person is way cool.  All the cool athletes do it!

So it’s throwdown time, right?  Well, not quite yet.  Hawkeye stands in Herc’s way and tries to explain that Atlas is no longer a bad guy (like Hercules cares!) and then Atlas steps forward to … apologize!  What kind of crap is that?  We came here for a fight!  But no, Atlas tells Hercules he was a stupid jerk and that he’s sorry, even though that can’t make up for it.  You can practically see the vein twitch in Hercules’ forehead as he speaks of how he “spent weeks at death’s door, cur … broken and helpless, with none wagering that I would e’er recover!”  He only just found out that Atlas was “hale and hearty” and “posing as a hero,” so he flew out post-haste!  He tells Atlas, the “craven one,” that he’s right, because …

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Man, that’s some catch-phrase to begin a big fight!  The next time someone gives me the wrong change and apologizes, I’m hitting them this hard and shouting “Your apologies are INSUFFICIENT!”

The rest of the Thunderbolts don’t take kindly to Hercules smacking one of their teammates, so they leap into the fray.  Jolt hits him with a “hyperkinetic punch,” which bothers him not at all (he does say “Aiikh!” when she hits him, though), Songbird screams at him, and “her bionically altered vocal cords interact with the sophisticated circuitry of her carapace, turning that scream into solid sound, stronger and harder than steel …”  Man, that’s a power!  Moonstone is firing some sort of energy at him, even though the page at the beginning of the book mentions only that she has “superhuman strength, speed, and the ability of flight!”  But it’s a comic book – everyone can shoot energy, right?

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The fight continues, even though Moonstone tries to reason with Hercules (which prompts Songbird to tell her to shut up, to which Hercules responds, “Aye, woman!  Cease your prattle and join the fray!” because he’s awesome).  Hawkeye tries to talk them down, but Hercules punches Moonstone into him, knocking him unconscious.  The three female Thunderbolts attack with renewed vigor, but before we can see the effects, it’s time for an interlude!

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In downtown Denver (this story takes place in Colorado, where the Thunderbolts have their headquarters), at the offices of the NTN television network, a man gives a reporter a photograph of Hawkeye, Mach-1, and Songbird escaping from the National Guard.  The reporter, whose name we learn is Gayle Rogers, must decide how to use the photograph.  It’s a brief interlude and obviously has ramifications for the larger story arc (which we’ll see at the end of the issue), but it doesn’t get in the way very much.  Then we cut to Mach-1, standing on a mountain as the sun sets, thinking about his decision.  We learn that his real name is Abe Jenkins, and he’s killed more men than just Dr. Jared Goulding.  A lot of narration by Busiek comes down to: he’s a killer, he doesn’t want to go to jail, and he wonders if he should just make a run for it.  Then it’s back to the brawl!

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Hercules is pretty pissed at Moonstone, Songbird, and Jolt (he calls them “jackals,” “swine,” and “feral dogs” – make up your mind, Herc!), but before he can do some major damage to their internal organs, Atlas gets back in the game and lays a punch on Hercules that knocks him clear out of the cabin and shatters the rocks he hits.  Physics be damned – it’s a comic book!  Hercules is happy that Atlas has found his courage, and the two throw down!  Hercules gets in a line that’s not quite as cool as Thor’s “‘Tis on”:

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Hercules is stronger than Atlas, so he pounds on him for a while, but Atlas says he’s not going to back down because he won’t let Hercules hurt the rest of the Thunderbolts.  Just as Hercules is about to punch Atlas’ skull into tiny pieces, Mach-1 flies in and blasts him, backing up his teammates!  Yay, Abe – doing the right thing and all!  Hercules doesn’t like this, and picks up a huge boulder with which he will presumably kill everyone.  But then Hawkeye, who has woken up, stands in front of him once again.  Herc tells him to step aside, but Hawkeye says that he gave a speech about heroes not killing, and if Herc proves him wrong, he’s going to look like “an awful chump.”  He tells Hercules that even though the Thunderbolts have been bad guys, they want to change, and they deserve the chance.  Like the manly men they are, the two heroes stare each other down, until, with a petulant roar of “Fine!” Hercules throws his boulder aside and leaves.  But not before he tells Hawkeye: “For the sake of our long friendship, Hawkeye, I will put away my rage – and I will give the lives of these dogs to you.  [Again with the dogs?]  But make no mistake – that friendship has just come to an end.  And when next we meet … it shall be as the bitterest of foes.”  What a tool Hercules is!

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The rest of the Thunderbolts, naturally, are muy impressed.  Atlas even says he always thought Hawkeye was a tool because he didn’t have powers (okay, he doesn’t say that exactly, but I’m reading between the lines).  Moonstone is suspicious, thinking Hawkeye deliberately set the whole thing up to gain their trust, but she dismisses it because Herc’s not that good an actor.  Still, she’s going to keep an eye on Hawkeye.  Abe tells the team that he’s going to turn himself in, and later on, he promises Songbird (“Melissa”) that it’s something he needs to do.  She wants to turn Moonstone in, but he makes her promise not to.  Yeah, I doubt that will cause any problems in the future.  The epilogue to the issue returns to the photograph, which Gayle Rogers airs, causing people to doubt Hawkeye.  The issue ends with a stack of newspapers landing at the gates of Avengers mansion with the headline “An Avenger Goes Bad?”  That J. Jonah Jameson – always ready to pick on a superhero!  And also: an entire stack of newspapers just for Avengers mansion?  I doubt it.  The story is continued in Avengers #12, when the group goes looking for Hawkeye.  It’s a furshlugginer crossover!

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Despite that, this issue would easily be something that could hook a new reader.  It’s mostly a fight, sure, but Bagley’s clean lines and kinetic style make the fight easy to parse, even if you’ve never read a comic before.  Meanwhile, despite a propensity toward too much prose, Busiek does a good job introducing all the players and what’s going on, and even the mysterious stuff – what’s Gayle Rogers’ problem? – is handled decently, even though it’s obvious we’re missing a lot of backstory.  It’s a simple morality tale, with Hercules serving as a convenient lesson to a group of people who are trying to go straight.  Busiek makes his point, a bit heavy-handedly, but not obnoxiously.  And he even manages to give us some nice character development as well as undercurrents of team tension and intrigue.  Not a bad way to write a single-issue story into a larger crossover!

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As a long-time Busiek fan, I know he’s pretty good at this sort of thing, and it’s why he’s a good choice to write continuity-heavy stuff like mainstream Marvel superheroics.  He knows what’s going on, but he’s also very accessible to the layman.  Bagley’s easily digestible art isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, but it conforms to an ideal of what superhero comics ought to look like, so a first-time reader won’t be scared off by it (“scared off” from two directions – it’s so awful, which this isn’t; or it’s so challenging, which this isn’t either).  Busiek does a nice job giving a first-time reader enough to satisfy their immediate need for action! but also hooks the reader enough that they want to buy more.  Heck, I own Avengers #12 (in the form of the big hardcover versions), and I’m curious to go re-read it to see what happens!  As a “gateway” comic, this works well – it satisfies the present desire for entertainment, and it also could lead into the vast world of the Marvel Universe, from which there is no escape!  So Busiek and Bagley do a good job.  I know, shocking, isn’t it?  It’s amazing how easy the good creators make it look.

And, of course, there’s Hercules.  Here are random sentences that the big lug gets to say in the issue:

“But this honorless knave did do most grievous harm to me, years agone … and again, I say, I shall give him the punishment he has earned.”

“You swarm at the Lion of Olympus, biting and snarling like feral dogs!”

“By … my … mace!”  (Yes, he actually swears by his mace.  Whatta maroon!)

“I was content just to visit punishment ‘pon your fellow, wench, but now -”

“Hercules does … what Hercules chooses!”

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Ah, Hercules.  Why hasn’t Garth Ennis written your solo drinking-and-whoring-across-America adventures yet?

So that’s one decent comic in a row.  I’m not holding my breath for another one next week!

15 Comments

FunkyGreenJerusalem

March 31, 2007 at 6:15 pm

Whatta maroon!)

What’s a maroon?

And not to be cruel, but I actually like it better when you have to read a bad book.

It’s definitely more fun to eviscerate a bad book, FGJ, but that’s what we have to deal with! The point is, after all, to find books that help hook new readers, and this one just happens to do a good job with it. But you’re right – ripping Demonslayer to shreds is more fun, even though it’s painful to read.

Cartoon characters (Bugs Bunny among them) used to call people “maroons.” I actually have no idea why a color is used as an insult. Does anyone know?

From randomhouse.com’s Word of the Day:

“The word maroon ‘an foolish or obnoxious person’ is simply a jocular mispronunciation of moron.”

I’m glad this feature was less depressing this time.

The last couple weeks made me sad for comics in general.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

March 31, 2007 at 7:18 pm

ripping Demonslayer to shreds is more fun, even though it’s painful to read.

Demonslayer is the exact one I had in mind when I wrote that.

Man that had me laughing – we all have/had a demonslayer in our collections somewhere.

Those fold-out character/story information pages were a really good idea. Shame they’re not still around.

Ahhhhh, classic Thunderbolts. This was pretty much one of the books that kept me in comics during the long dark night of the ’90s. Emotional drama, a thematic hook with endless permutations, a great cast, and Hawkeye. Good times.

The thought of the vein on Joe’s head bulging out as he reads this column is a great bonus, too.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

March 31, 2007 at 10:15 pm

“The thought of the vein on Joe’s head bulging out as he reads this column is a great bonus, too. ”

Let’s make it worse then….

Hey Joe, I brought the Avengers HC Vol.1 yesterday.

Y’know, the one that collects the Busiek and Perez run.
Can’t wait to read it.

Busiek’s Thunderbolts made me love the hell out of superhero comics in the 90’s. Reading the first issue and hitting the final page reveal was one of the most powerful shocks I’ve ever gotten from a superhero book. I’ve read better stories since then, sure, but very little that stacks up in terms of making me feel both intensely surprised and satisfied all at once.

Oh, yes. I credit Busiek’s Thunderbolts with, quite literally, keeping me from quitting comics. Seriously, the local store I’d been going to had closed, so I’d have to find a different one (the Twin Cities are blessed with having several comics stores, but it was still a strike against continuing), Peter David’s run on Hulk was ending, I just wasn’t finding enjoyment in comics anymore, and when I was at the new comics store, it just hit me that I could stop doing this and never pick up another comic again and I wouldn’t miss it. I bought the comics in my hand, left the store, and figured I’d never come back.

I read the comics in the stack elsewhere in the little strip mall, and they were all bleah. Boring stories, blah art, nothing I felt like I’d miss if I stuck to my guns. The very last comic in the stack was Busiek’s Thunderbolts, and I read it knowing it was the last comic I’d ever read. Then I got to the last page, where Zemo was ranting about destroying the Thunderbolts, little knowing that he’s being watched by…Citizen V!

“Well, crap,” I said. “Now I have to find out what happens next.” I went back to the store, set up a pull box, and then a few months later Alan Moore’s ABC line started up, and that was that.

I don’t think Busiek’s Thunderbolts was bad, just boring. I totally see where Burgas is coming from and where people would like this book. It’s just not interesting enough to me to get past the ugly art.

Thunderbolts was the best comic to come out of the 90’s, bar none.

Yeah, I said it.

Better than Acme Novelty Library?

Better than Flex Mentallo?

Better than Optic Nerve?

Better than Preacher?

Better than Madman?

Better than Hellboy?

Better than the ABC line?

Hell, maybe even Starman was better.

this blog entry made me go to my comic shop and by thunderbolts 2, the earliest issue available at my shop. i hope i enjoy it.

Thunderbolts = great pilot, meh series.

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