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Diggle, Like Lightning

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Bad guys usually have a hard time selling comic books. Even heavy hitters such as Dr. Doom and the Joker have starred in books that didn’t catch on with the public. So, the longevity of Thunderbolts in its various and sundry forms is truly spectacular.

Marvel has been publishing one version or another of the Thunderbolts for the last 11 years. The title on the stands today bears little resemblance to the one started over a decade ago, and that continuing metamorphosis is one of the primary reasons it has lasted so long.

The way it started was the stuff of legend. Originally thought to be another new superhero team, the last page of the first issue revealed that the good guys were actually the Masters of Evil, a group of villains who were pretending to be heroes in order to conquer the Earth.

That was one of the best ideas ever to hit comics. And if the status quo stayed as such, then it could have gone on for years or it might have gotten stale after a few arcs. To prevent the latter, writers Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza took off from that original idea in ways that kept it fresh and exciting.

Some of the fake heroes came to like doing good deeds and wanted to honestly reform. Other team members wanted to stay with the plan. A new hero not in on the original plan joined, complicating the whole operation. The characters true identities as villains were revealed to the public. Conflicts like these presented challenges that fans of the series ate up.

The series worked on many layers. On one hand, it was a classic superhero story. On another level, it was a conspiracy thriller. On yet another, it was a classic melodramic soap opera.

This isn’t to say that all the changes were popular. Readership declined during a storyline that took them to an alternate earth, which led to a total revamp of the book that introduced an entirely new cast of characters into a “Fight Club”-type concept. That direction alienated more fans than it brought in and ended up getting the first series cancelled.  

Nicieza returned with the new cast in an Avengers/Thunderbolts miniseries. This led to another ongoing series, the one on stands today. This new series employed the same shaking up of the status quo that made the previous series last so long.

The current series received a major overhaul timed to coincide with the events of Marvel’s Civil War crossover. Warren Ellis was brought on as writer and he brought some new characters with him. These newbies were some of the worst baddies Marvel had to offer—Venom, Bullseye, and Norman Osborn/Green Goblin.

Ellis added a new gonzo sensibility to the title. The themes of Machiavellian manipulation and bad guys trying to be good were still there, but he added a demented J.R. Ewing-like boss in Osborn and a team where you didn’t know if one character would have another’s back or stab them in it.

Unfortunately, Ellis is not known for staying on work-for-hire projects for the long term, so his tenure was bound to be short. But Marvel really did well in getting Ellis’ replacement—Andy Diggle.

Diggle might not be the most famous writer out there, but he is one of the best. Fans of the criminally underappreciated The Losers already know this, and readers of Green Arrow: Year One or his recent run on Hellblazer have found out.

Diggle excels at writing action stories where there is a lot of shadowy intrigue going on in the background. This makes him a perfect fit for the post-Ellis world of Thunderbolts. It will be really exciting to see where the new writer takes this concept and these characters.

Also out this week:

The X-Files #1:

This isn’t the first time The X-Files made its way to comic books. Back when the TV show was at the height of its popularity, it became one of the flagship titles for the comic book imprint from Topps. It ran for 41 issues over three years and a miniseries here and there.

Of course, like I said, that was at a time when The X-Files were most popular. Now, this new series arrives after a critical and financial failure that was the film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Could it be that the cult popularity that The X-Files had has waned in the years since the TV show was on the air? We may be able to tell if this miniseries warrants another mini or ongoing series.

Frank Spotnitz (W), Brian Denham (A), DC/Wildstorm Comics, $3.50. Six-Issue Miniseries.

Ultimate Fantastic Four #58:

Ultimatum has arrived and things look grim for the Fantastic Four. Because if Ben Grimm, also known as The Thing, fails on his mission to the center of the Earth, then his friends very well could be meeting their end. It is a serious test for a true hero, but, sometimes, even heroes fail.

This title is one that is rumored to be cancelled as per the events of Ultimatum. That makes this series one to watch, especially for FF fans. Will the comic truly be cancelled? And if it is, what will that mean for the Fantastic Four in the Ultimate universe? This arc could be the end in more ways than one.

Joe Pokaski (W), Tyler Kirkham  (A), Marvel Comics, $2.99. Ongoing Series.

The Spirit Special #1:

Fans of the Spirit have been arguing about the previews for the upcoming Spirit feature film. Some fans think Frank Miller is desecrating Will Eisner’s most famous work. Others trust Miller’s genius and have faith that he will deliver an exciting film that Eisner would have loved if he were alive today.

While comic fans might be divided about the film, the success of the Sin City and 300 movies might mean a lot of non-comic reading fans could be drawn to the flick. And these non-initiated might like what they see so much that they are looking to read more. For these newbies turned of by the ongoing’s 23 issue count and the $49.95 price of the archive series, DC is providing a special issue reprinting several of Eisner’s most famous Spirit stories. 

Will Eisner (W/A), DC Comics, $2.99. One-Shot.

Pax Romana #4:

When Jonathan Hickman burst on the scene with the critically acclaimed Nightly News, people thought they were seeing the birth of the next big thing. That series was so well received that just Hickman’s name on a series became a sign of quality. He appeared to be a creator who would shape the landscape of comics for the foreseeable future.  

However, some of the momentum towards this task was taken away by the chronic lateness of his follow up projects. This four-issue series was scheduled to start in November of 2007. In other words, this miniseries took a year to complete. Comic fans can be, at times, fickle. For some, if you can’t deliver the goods in a timely fashion, they won’t care how good your books are. 

Jonathan Hickman (W/A), Image Comics, $3.50. Final Issue.

Leviticus Cross: Shadows of the Heart #1:

The key to writing good fantasy lies not only in creating great characters and situations, but also in creating realistic settings. If the place your story is set in can seem like another character, then you are partway to success. And that’s what critics have been saying about Leviticus Cross.

The story is set in prehistoric times and the Leviticus Cross refers to the city the story takes place in. It is an ideal city where sickness, filth and differences do not exist. That’s because the rulers of the city get rid of anyone who falls into these above categories. But their tight fisted reign has a few cracks in it, and corruption and horror are creeping in. Soon, the perfect world might just become undone.

Jose Torres (W), Perez Sevilla (A), Hays Entertainment, $2.99. Five-Issue Miniseries.

Punisher #64:

They thought they had the perfect way to get rid of the Punisher. Make it look like he killed an innocent little girl. Since Frank Castle kills to protect the innocent, this might just shove him over the edge. Too bad Castle was just a bit smarter than them. He caught on, and now he’s got more of a reason to come after them. It was going to end badly for them anyway, now it’s only going to be bloodier.

The first post-Ennis arc on Punisher has come to an end. My opinion? It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t Ennis. Granted, I am majorly biased because I loved Ennis’ run so much, but Gregg Hurwitz didn’t really do much to win me over. Let’s see if any of the other writers have better luck.  

Gregg Hurwitz (W), Laurence Campbell (A), Marvel Comics, $2.99. Ongoing Series.

Ex Machina #39:

Mayor Mitchell Hundred is about to speak at the 2004 Republican National Convention and the woman who has made it her mission to humiliate him is about to perform her biggest stunt ever. She’s been relatively harmless up to now, but as New York becomes a national stage, her trick might blow up into something fatal.

This series started off with a depressed Hundred talking about a horrible tragedy that ended his tenure as mayor. That end begins here. Ex Machina   is one of the best books on the market and I will be sorry to see it go. Anyone who wants to get in on something special before it’s too late should pick this one up.

Brian K. Vaughan (W), Tony Harris (A), DC/Wildstorm Comics, $2.99. Ongoing Series.

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William Gatevackes is a professional writer living in Mamaroneck, NY and is expecting his first child with his wife Jennifer. He also is the comic review editor for PopMatters and is the comic book movie editor for Film Buff Online. Links to his writing can be found at his website, www.williamgatevackes.com.

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