Thanks to some fantastic art, killer action scenes and wonderful characterization, this new Thunderbolts run was easily the best thing to come out of Civil War.
With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Mike Deodato
Issues: Thunderbolts (2006) #110-121, Civil War: The Initiative #1
House of M had created lots of interesting new series, both limited and ongoing for the X-Men and various mutant teams, but Civil War, marvel’s next big crossover event, didn’t seem to achieve the same level of success with its new series. The event itself was a resounding success and the aftermath changed the state of the Marvel universe for years afterward. The one series to receive a major post-Civil War makeover was Thunderbolts, the dysfunctional team of former supervillains that leapt at the chance to join Tony Stark’s gestapo and hunt down unregistered heroes.
The issues leading up to the Warren Ellis and Mike Dodato run were a confusing mess for someone like me that tried to jump in at issue #100, and their Civil War tie-ins were nothing special. In the one-shot Civil War: The Initiative (included in the Ultimate Collection TPB) we’re introduced and teased to this new Thunderbolts team, lead by Norman Osborne (Green Goblin), consisting of Songbird, Moonstone, Radioactive Man, Swordsman, Venom, Penance, and Bullseye. They take down their fleeing unregistered hero with ruthless efficiency and professional organization – not at all what happens during their official run when Warren Ellis takes over to jump start this series into one of the most action-packed and interesting series I’ve ever read beginning with issue #110.
“Faith in Monsters” (#110-115) actually starts off a bit slow. Ellis takes his time introducing the D-list heroes that our nanite-controlled ex-villain team are tasked with apprehending. Frankly I don’t need several pages of Jack Flagg’s emotional state, nor American Eagle talking politics. The drama bubbling up within Thunderbolts Mountain is much more interesting. These individuals are mostly volatile, conniving, and a few meds or pokes away from going crazy and murdering everyone (save for previous Thunderbolts members Songbird and Radioactive Man, the only two that seem to want the team to work).
Each team member fills out an important role, both on the team and in the drama. Venom is the caged animal, the giant beast that’s drawn like a rippling Hulk. Penance is pure firepower, though his emotional state and character drama makes him dangerously unreliable. Bullseye is the ace in the hole – yes, Warren Ellis somehow makes Bullseye a terrifying psychopath. He’s so dangerous and unpredictable they don’t even use him on the regular team – he’s unleashed when no one else is around for when things get really out of hand.
The reason Bullseye is kept in the shadows is because Thunderbolts is a very marketable, TV friendly task force. Ellis embraces the political implications and discussions that naturally follow the state of fear in The Initiative era of a post-Civil War Marvel universe. Montage panels of political talking heads are used in nearly every issue to discuss the ethics of using former villains as a government task force. Norman Osborne and Moonstone have to constantly wrestle with running the team while also putting on an appropriate show for the TV cameras (which is ironic considering the Civil War’s inciting incident started because of a superhero reality TV show).
The real treat throughout the entire run is the incredible art by Mike Deodato. Artistic preference can be a difficult thing to vocalize, but most people know what they like and what they don’t. Often I come across art styles that I hate and love, but never encountered anything that completely blew me away in every other page. Deodato is a god living amongst mere mortals. The staging of panels in action scenes is brilliant and inventive – often laying them slightly askew to give a sense of motion, or layering them into a bigger, two-page spread dripping in explosions, scene-filling characters or brutal fight scenes.
Few times when comic characters fight do I believe anyone’s actually getting hurt, but Deodato excels at really putting characters through the ringer. In the first arc alone, Bullseye has his neck snapped, Swordsman is shoved through a window and into a television, and Venom tears the arm off of the Steel Spider. It’s exhilarating in a way few action-packed comics come close to achieving. I’m sure it helps that the roster is much more malleable than traditional Avengers or X-Men teams as well.
“Caged Angels” (#116-121) switches focus from the team fighting and capturing heroes on the streets (and mostly fucking it up spectacularly) to fighting each other. A group of telepaths cleverly get themselves captured on purpose, then begin wrecking mental havoc with our already edgy anti-heroes.
Penance nearly kills a heckling prisoner before Moonstone knocks him out. Norman begins seeing the Green Goblin mask beckoning to him in his desk drawer. Swordsman goes off the deep end, shaving his head and bribing the guards and blowing up the Thunderbolts plane. Venom’s inner animal is unleashed, fully taking control of Mac Gargan’s body and devouring guards left and right.
Everything builds up to an epic climax when Norman finally dons the Green Goblin uniform and goes after Swordsman (who managed to take down Venom). He’s portrayed as very Joker-like, relishing in his insanity. Soon it’s just Songbird and Green Goblin left, and the two have a knock down, drag out fight that ends with both on the ground.
Bullseye actually saves them all. After his neck was snapped in the previous arc, he spent the majority of the comic being repaired and steps onto the stage to swiftly kill the imprisoned telepaths after all hell has broken loose. Surprisingly the team is still together in the aftermath and they manage to keep everything that happened under wraps, writing off Green Goblin’s appearance as pure rumor and conjecture.
The art throughout these action-packed scenes is nothing short of stunning. Warren Ellis does a great job making these characters interesting, and drawing a line between likeable (Songbird, Radioactive Man, Penance) and detestable (everyone else) while still making everyone fun to watch and read about it.
Penance particularly has a wonderful side story involving Doc Samson delving into his own psychosis and hang-ups (he’s indirectly responsible for the explosion at Stamford, which triggered the SRA and the Civil War). What could’ve been a sad-sack character is actually made starkly relatable and very human.
Sadly this Ultimate Collection ended Deodato and Ellis’ run on Thunderbolts; it will be interesting to see how different creative teams continue to breath success into the series, as it ran for an incredible six years (going all the way to 2012).
Thanks to some fantastic art, killer action scenes and wonderful characterization, this new Thunderbolts run was easily the best thing to come out of Civil War. My only complaint was that it really should’ve started over with a new #1 numbering system, as it’s completely different from the previous Thunderbolts team, story, and creative staff. Highly recommended if you love amazing art and interested in an unconventional super-team when some of Marvel’s most dangerous villains try to work together.