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Justice, Like Lightning: the Saga of the Thunderbolts

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The Marvel Universe was in desperate need of heroes when, in 1997, the Thunderbolts came to town. But sometimes, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys…

In 1996, Marvel Comics, desperate to increase sales, hired a group of “hot” creators to re-imagine many of their major characters, but in the process had to write those heroes out of their established continuity. With The Avengers, The Fantastic Four and others supposedly missing, presumed dead, the Marvel Universe was at the mercy of the forces of evil-but in The Incredible Hulk #449, February 1997, a new group of superheroes appeared from nowhere to defend humanity.

The mysterious ‘Thunderbolts’(consisting of sword wielding Citizen V, sonic powered Songbird, the armored Mach One, mechanical genius Techno, the flying warrior woman Meteorite and the oversized Atlas) received their own series two months later, but readers were in for a shock as, on the last page of their first issue, they learned the T-Bolts’ deadly secret-they were actually the villainous Masters of Evil in disguise.

Thunderbolts writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley were both fans of Marvel’s convoluted continuity, and Busiek quickly transformed six minor characters who had been around for decades-Baron Zemo, Screaming Mimi, The Beetle, The Fixer, Moonstone and Goliath (originally Power Man, then the Smuggler and now Atlas)-into people with real personalities and histories, who the readers genuinely knew and, in most cases, cared about.

The fledgling romances between Beetle/Mach One and Mimi/Songbird and between Atlas and the teams Government liaison, Dallas Riordan, and the T-Bolts’ increasing enjoyment of their roles as heroes kept us intrigued as much as the battles with longtime baddies like the Rat Pack, the Wrecking Crew and even a new version of the Masters of Evil did, and the big question was always the obvious one-what was Baron Zemo/Citizen V up to, and when his mysterious plan came to fruition, would his team turn to the dark side once again, or would their newfound heroism win out?

Busiek also introduced a new character, teenager Hallie Takahama, AKA the electrically powered Jolt, who was unaware of her teammate’s real identities and who acted as their collective conscience. In some ways, Jolt is a throwback to an earlier, simpler and less cynical era in comics, when kid sidekicks were commonplace. Her placement in this typically 90s group of morally confused ne’er-do-wells provides an interesting method of highlighting   their duplicity, though many readers never warmed to the character.

Naturally, the initial concept of  the ‘Bolts as villains masquerading as heroes couldn’t be dragged out too long, and sure enough it was concluded by issue #12, by which time the dispossessed Avengers and FF were back where they belonged. It seems safe to assume that Marvel were hedging their bets, slightly-if the reaction to Thunderbolts was less than they’d hoped for, it could have simply ended up as a twelve part limited series, and indeed, many readers seem to have expected this.

But the book was a success, and continued to be so as first Busiek and Bagley and later replacement writer Fabian Nicieza (from issue #34) took what remained of Marvel’s unlikeliest “heroes” (Zemo and his ally Techno having escaped to scheme anew when the others predictably turned on them) on a journey towards redemption which saw several changes to the group’s status quo. It was frequently difficult to remember whether they were fugitives trying to convince the authorities they’d reformed, former criminals given amnesty or back to being fugitives again, but it was certainly never dull!

Thunderbolts was unashamedly fan-centric, and the writers’ relentless pillaging of the history of the Marvel Universe reflects this. The group’s arch foes, the Masters of Evil, included no less than 25 villains from the past-including Icemaster, who had only previously appeared in a one page strip from Marvel’s long running ad campaign for Hostess Fruit Pies, circa 1980! Their headquarters was a hidden base formerly used by August Masters’ Secret Empire (from Defenders), Hydra (from Nick Fury), the Sons of the Serpent (from Avengers) and Factor Three (from the original incarnation of the X-Men), and maintained by long forgotten X-Men foe The Ogre. Their flying vehicle was a reconditioned “’Champscraft’ belonging to defunct superteam The Champions.

One of the Thunderbolts later recruits, the Avenger named Hawkeye, initially infiltrated their base by impersonating obscure Iron Man villain the Dreadknight while another, Charcoal the burning man (created by the winner of a ‘design-a-villain’ readers competition) was empowered by the Imperial Forces of America, created during Jack Kirby’s 1970’s run on Captain America. Even former Defenders hanger-on Jack Norris turned up at one point, while a new version of 80’s character The Scourge eventually turned out to be The Nomad, whose book had been canceled in 1994.

Possibly the most obscure character to surface during the books initial run, though, was Humus Sapien, a fantastically powerful mutant created for another readers competition-in FOOM magazine, 28 years previously. Now that is obscure!

Bad guy books had been tried before, by Marvel and other companies, but Thunderbolts was an unprecedented success. It generated its own spin-off in the limited series Citizen V & the V Battalion (featuring a new Citizen V and a host of characters leftover from Marvel’s WWII superteam The Invaders), revived and revamped numerous characters not seen in years, and piled intrigue on top of mystery to create one of the most convoluted, frequently surprising and always enjoyable series’ of the time.

After 75 issues, two writers and several artists, though (first Patrick Bircher and then Chris Batista having replaced Bagley), Marvel decided to try something new with the book to combat slipping sales. Issue #75, Feb 2003, concluded with what amounted to a reset, the ‘Bolts back under Baron Zemo’s command and plotting to save the world by conquering it! The title continued for another half dozen issues under a new creative team, but with a completely new premise (a kind of superhero Fight Club) and none of the original characters, it was Thunderbolts in name only. It was not a success…

But, you can’t keep a good villain-or villains-down. The Thunderbolts resurfaced in a limited series with the Avengers a short time later, and in Jan 2005 returned in their own title, written by Nicieza and Busiek and drawn by Tom Grummett and Gary Erskine. It was as though Zemo, Moonstone, Mach IV (he’d been through a number of upgrades by then) and the rest had never been away-eventually, even the numbering of the original series was restored, issue #19 of the new series being renumbered as #100!

Several years, several roster changes and a couple of writers later, the Thunderbolts continue to operate, seeking redemption, revenge or just trying to make a living in a hostile world, Marvel’s unlikeliest heroes-because they’re not!

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