Being a hero in the Marvel Universe isn’t just about stopping street crime or foiling the plots of would be world conquerors. It’s often about making hard and morally gray choices; choices that would upset other heroes and governments and often lead to unforeseen consequences. In writer Daniel Way and artist Steve Dillon’s “Thunderbolts” #1, readers were introduced to a collection of characters that are more of a super powered strike team than a super hero squad, but who are no strangers to making tough choices.
The debut issue of the newest volume of “Thunderbolts” saw former U.S. Air Force General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross AKA the Red Hulk approached several characters with an offer to join a new team with an as yet to be revealed agenda. Comic Book Resources spoke with writer Daniel Way about the team, Ross’ plans for them, and the writer’s long term plans for the Marvel NOW! series.
The idea of doing a new volume of “Thunderbolts” as a strike team led by the Red Hulk was originally proposed at a Marvel retreat by writer and head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb who thought General Ross would be a good fit for the book based on his nickname. Way accepted the assignment because the idea and the opportunity to write his first Marvel team book intrigued him.
“That in and of itself has been pretty cool because it’s definitely a different way of presenting a story. When you write ‘Wolverine Origins’ and ‘Deadpool’ your audience is expecting to see the title characters. So you can take the narrative away from them sometimes, but the focus has to remain on the title characters,” Way told CBR News. “With ‘Thunderbolts’ I make sure in every issue that every main character gets a spotlight moment, but I don’t have to stick with them through every page of the script. I can show things from different angles, and where actions converge and diverge. So one character’s actions will have an effect on what else is going on, and with this team there’s going to be a lot of that.”
The origin of Ross’ new team comes from the Red Hulk being in a unique position to pursue an agenda that he believes will make the world a better place. “The conundrum with Ross is in becoming the thing that he hates the most he’s become empowered to do everything he ever wanted. Now he doesn’t have to wait for orders or clearance. He doesn’t have to put others in the line of fire, and he doesn’t have to worry about rankling the chain of command,” Way explained. “For one, he’s off the grid. He’s dead as far as anyone knows. And two, any decision he decides to act upon you essentially can’t stop, and if you try that’s on you. It would be foolish and that’s always the way I’ve felt about the Hulk. From a tactical sense he’s a problem that’s best left ignored because once you engage him you’re just escalating the conflict.
“So he plays the role of the 800 pound gorilla and he can now act on all of these things with overwhelming power and he gets the results. At first the results will be cheered, and there won’t be blow back from the government or some network deciding that he’s a bad guy. It will actually be a grass roots thing. Instinctively, we as a race don’t like a vulgar display of power. No one does. If you look throughout history we always recoil from it,” Way continued. “Unfortunately through events that happen in the first arc both Ross and the team that he’s assembled will have put into motion some events that none of them can disengage from. They have to push forward and they’re going to do so without support. We as readers are going to know that they are doing the right thing, but no one else will.”
Ross’ wealth of tactical knowledge and might as the Red Hulk means he is essentially a one man army. One of the questions Way had to answer when he began work on this new iteration of “Thunderbolts” was why the Red Hulk would form a team instead of acting alone.
“Ross’ military cunning and physical power means that he’s both your leadoff man and your cleanup hitter, to borrow a baseball analogy. So what he needs is someone to fill in the middle,” Way said. “Plus he can only be in one place at one time and in all of these ops that they engage in there’s a point where they have to occupy something. And when you’re one guy you can either occupy or move forward. You can’t do both at the same time. That’s really the role Ross plays. He can always break new ground and then hold it, but again, he can’t do both.
“He assumes the authority to do this and that’s partly because he’s an old man. He thought he was on his way out, but once he became the Red Hulk he was born again. He’s not going to be able to drag his past sins down into the grave. They’ll be hanging out for an inhumanly long time now. So they’re going to weigh on him more heavily than what is normal,” Way continued. “One of his biggest failures was that he wanted to eliminate the threat of the Hulk. Not only did he not succeed, he multiplied it. So that’s going to knock someone as objective based as Ross into a pretty unique headspace, and who knows how long he’s going to have to deal with that fact? So he gets to a point where there’s no going back. He has to move forward. Once he comes to grips with that he realizes he’s like the ultimate chess piece and can move in any direction.”
The other question Way had to answer about this new incarnation of the “Thunderbolts” was the exact nature of the team and the role they’ll play in the larger Marvel Universe. “One of the most important questions about this book from the outset was something that [Marvel Editor-in-Chief] Axel Alonso was really great about in helping me work though, and that was, ‘why is this team not the Avengers? Why are they not X-Force?’ It couldn’t be as simple as ‘X-Force only does mutant related stuff.’ What it comes down to is the Thunderbolts deal with global problems that are not black and white. It’s not alien forces invading the Earth and everyone is in peril. That’s Avengers stuff or Guardians of the Galaxy stuff,” Way remarked. “This is a Marvel comic so all of the threats will have alien, superhuman, or supernatural aspects, but these are situations that are extremely thorny whether it’s for political reasons, or corporate reasons. So you’ve got this gray area where the Thunderbolts tend to come in and just summarily lay the smack down.”
To combat these morally murky threats Ross will need special types of soldiers, and he spent the better part of “Thunderbolts” #1 gathering the right men and women for the job. On the first page readers saw him approach a man with with a lifetime of military experience and a sense of conviction as strong as Ross’ gamma powered physique: special forces soldier turned vigilante Frank Castle AKA the Punisher.
“The Punisher is the one guy on the team with no super human or super natural abilities, but if you look at the cover to the first issue there’s some changes to his uniform. There’s a reason for that and it addresses the fact that he’s going to be going toe to toe with some really heavy hitters,” Way explained. “He’s much like Ross except at a certain point in their careers Frank turned one way and Ross turned the other. Yet Frank remains human and Ross is no longer human. So there are other tactical reasons why the Punisher is there, but the core reason why Ross reaches out to Frank and why the Punisher plays a big role in the first issue is really because of that. He’s got a lot more in common with Frank than any of the other people on the team.
“When Frank has something to say about what they’re doing Ross really listens,” Way continued. “Another thing is Frank has absolutely no fear of the Red Hulk. I’m not saying the other characters are afraid of him, but sometimes that apprehension comes out in aggression. Frank doesn’t get mad at you. He’ll shoot you dead, but he rarely gets pissed off. When he clocks in and goes to work it’s just business.”
He may lack the stone cold resolve of the Punisher, but Flash Thompson is an experienced soldier and he goes into battle sheathed in a monstrous and versatile living costume known as the Venom symbiote. Those two aspects and their past relationship from the “Circle of Four” mini-event in “Venom” are why Ross sought out Thompson in “Thunderbolts” #1 and offered him a slot on the titular team.
“Flash was already put in a position where he volunteered to do something dangerous. He came forward and took the reigns on this incredibly volatile and powerful weapon, the Venom symbiote. He agreed to go into the field with it and use it, only to have the guys holding the reigns shorten the leash by about a mile,” Way said. “They gave him this incredible weapon and said, ‘Don’t pull the trigger all the way. Just do this much and stop.’ So he was put in this position where he thought he was doing the right thing, but he just ended up doing their thing.”
The unkillable and loquacious mercenary known as Deadpool is also a highly trained military operative — in addition to being somewhat insane. That unpredictability is exactly why Ross wanted the Merc With a Mouth for his team.
“As chaotic as Deadpool seems the guy does have a plan. He also has a unique perspective on how to lay out a strategy and it’s a perspective that Ross simply doesn’t have. No one has it. It’s truly unique and it’s definitely an arrow you want in your quiver,” Way explained. “When you come under fire from unknown forces the first thing you try to figure out is why are they after me? And What’s their goal? Putting you into that head space is always part of Deadpool’s plan. So he makes you apply logic to an illogical situation and while you’re over in that little eddy spinning around, he’s off doing exactly what he intended to do. He always throws people for a loop and that’s why he can get behind them. His flank maneuver is flawless.”
Way is very familiar with the unusual manner in which Deadpool’s mind works having written 64 issues of the character’s solo adventures. Including him in the “Thunderbolts” lineup allowed the writer to examine the character from fresh and different perspectives.
“I never stopped enjoying writing Deadpool, but writing him as part of an ensemble cast is new. So it has that appeal,” Way said. “Every once in awhile you do get to see things from where Deadpool is standing, but you also have that on the ground view of someone who is watching Deadpool in action, and also a character like Ross who on some level is handing Deadpool assignments.
“Ross is smart enough to know that he doesn’t hand Deadpool a dossier with a map saying, ‘proceed from here to here.’ Deadpool is going to get there. So his orders are more along the lines of, ‘This is what needs to be done. Just do it and kill everyone but us,” Way said with a laugh.
Rounding out the list of characters Ross recruits in “Thunderbolts” #1 is a woman with no real military experience, but who is just as deadly as any of her team mates, the ninja assassin Elektra Natchios. “When the modern military see something non traditional in an opposing force that gets results, it gets written down. Ross knows that just because you don’t have an insignia on your arm it doesn’t mean you don’t have some military worth. Elektra has been dealing with a very hard to pin down enemy and she’s had an effect. So you can’t ignore that,” Way remarked. “She has that ability to slide in close and hit those hard targets in their soft spots. Every once in awhile someone may have out to go out quietly as opposed to the Punisher who is going to shake the Earth, or Deadpool who is going to salt it.”
Elektra, Deadpool, Venom, and the Punisher are the most famous members of Ross’ “Thunderbolts” team, but issue #1 also suggested the team’s ranks will include a lesser known character. That’s because Way and Dillon included scenes of Ross rescuing the immensely powerful Hulk foe known as Mercy from a government lock up facility.
“She’s one of those characters that really wasn’t all that well defined on the page in her previous appearances, but she has a history with the Hulk and with Ross,” Way said. “On paper it seems like she could literally do anything. She’s one of those beings who seems to be limited only by her own mission statement and even that in her case is very vague. She’s kind of an angel of death character where if you want to die she’s there to make sure it happens.
“What’s revealed in the character’s continuity is that the people she goes after may act like they want to die, but they actually don’t. She’s a little more concerned with how they seem though, and she’s particularly fascinated with the Hulk probably because of his whole inner struggle,” Way continued. “Because she’s kind of been off the board for awhile Steve and I can realistically change her a bit. We don’t have to pick up exactly where she left off. So in the interim she’s changed, but not substantially. We’ve decided that she’s more reverted than changed. You’ll find out that there’s a reason why she’s been off the board when she first comes into play.”
The “Thunderbolts” are a diverse group in terms of their power level and specialties, but they share a couple common traits. The first is that all of them have made commitments to a course of action that keep them from having “normal” lives, and the second is that all of them volunteered to join Ross’ group.
“They’ve committed their lives to a course of action that they are all fully aware is going to lead to their own death and probably failure at the same time. That gets back to why they all throw in together,” Way said. “Ross also doesn’t want anyone on his team who is acting out of a blind sense of service or who doesn’t really know the stakes.
“So everybody comes into it with a unique perspective. What fuels that fire is because this is a volunteer unit there are certain things that Ross decides not to tell everyone, because at this point they can leave,” Way continued. “At least that’s the case at first, and if they leave he can’t have them out there with all this knowledge. It would compromise his plan. By the end of the first story arc though their ability to leave the group will be taken away and not completely by Ross.”
Being forced to work together won’t be all bad for the Thunderbolts. That’s because the team won’t just be pursuing Ross’ objectives. They’ll also undertake missions to advance the agendas of other team members including the Punisher and Elektra.
“Every member of the team has a sworn mission. They will be working in tandem to accomplish these things. The Punisher wants to destroy organized crime, and Elektra has had a twin agenda emerge through her continuity. For one she’s very anti-terrorist. There’s also the Hand, which are also terrorists in the Patriot Act era,” Way said. “Plus, look at things from the Punisher’s point of view. What is the Hand if not a mob in ninja masks? They’re running all the same rackets and they use all the same tactics. Look at it from Venom’s point of view. The Mob and the Hand both have enemy soldiers. When he signed on to become Venom his mission became taking guys like this off the board.”
As long as the Thunderbolts pursue targets like criminal organizations, terrorists, and rogue nations large governmental bodies like S.H.I.E.L.D. won’t have a problem with them. That’s because the independent nature of the T-Bolts gives those organizations plausible deniability.
“No one can say, ‘The American’s sicked the Thunderbolts on us!’ because the Americans can go, ‘Look we don’t even know those guys,'” Way explained. “By the same token the State Department can’t go to the Thunderbolts and say things like, ‘We’re trying to run a pipe line through Syria go clear that area out.’ It’s not going to happen.”
The Thunderbolts receive their first assignment in the second issue, and it will show half of the forces the team will tangle with initially. In “Thunderbolts” #3 Way will show readers the power behind those forces.
“Ross was involved in the initial gamma experiments. He was there at ground zero when things went squirrelly and when the Hulk emerged. The use of gamma power is linked in his mind to the Hulk and the birth of this nightmare that he considers the greatest threat on the planet. So you’ll see that threat is emerging again and some characters who are well versed in Gamma power are involved,” Way explained. “This of course makes it a very personal thing on that level, but as the story digs in deeper you’ll find that Ross’ connection to the origin of this problem goes back decades and it involves him following the orders, doing what was expected of him, and doing what possibly could have been right back then, but it’s not right today.
“Things get really fucked up by the end of the second issue, and you’re going to wonder what the hell was Ross thinking? There’s going to be so much fire power pulled out that you can’t see how this could possibly end well,” Way continued. “Ross has a problem with escalation and this series is an exploration of the application of absolute force. It’s a basic law of physics. There are no actions without consequences. That really becomes apparent and that’s what fuses this team of Thunderbolts together and really identifies them as a unit. They push a particular button in the first arc, but since they’ve really stepped out on their own they’re also the only ones who are there to deal with it.”
Long time fans of artist Steve Dillon, who also worked with Way on “Wolverine Origins,” will not be surprised to see his flair for gritty, emotional and realistic stories in “Thunderbolts.” Way feels readers may be surprised, though, by his collaborator’s knack for depicting the book’s strange and more fantastic elements.
“I don’t think Steve has really been asked since ‘Preacher’ to go really big and super heroic, and if you look back at his body of work, particularly the stuff he did in ‘Warrior’ and ‘2000 A.D.,’ he can do the big, loud and jarringly dynamic stuff,” Way remarked. “When you see his Hulk the character fills up the page and shows a wide range of emotions beyond just anger. With Venom, Tony Moore did a great job remaking Venom’s costume and Steve’s take on it is awesome. There are times when the symbiote is very much a different character or at least a separate character than Flash Thompson. And Steve is very good at showing you whether Flash or the symbiote is in charge at a particular moment.
“If you’re a fan of Steve’s stuff this is going to remind you why you’re a fan. And anyone who is not aware of Steve’s work I think they’re going to be very, very happy,” Way continued. “Not only is Steve throwing off the restraints, we’ve been putting a lot of thought into the coloring of the book and how it’s presented. It’s really cool to see an action book that’s so balls out. If there are any flaws in the storytelling I can guarantee that it’s my fault.”
In their initial arc Way and Dillon will establish the “Thunderbolts” status quo. The duo will then follow that up with a series of stories that establish the characters as both part of the larger Marvel Universe and as a group that’s isolated and entirely on their own.
“At the close of the first story arc it becomes evident to them that they have done something catastrophic. Everyone else will start to find out what they’ve done in separate story arcs where they will have to acknowledge what the hell is going on, but in some cases there just won’t be a play for them to make because the Thunderbolts deal directly with situations that don’t have direct solutions,” Way explained. “So as an unintended consequence of this course of action what emerges is a problem that seems utterly unsolvable, which means the Thunderbolts are wholly responsible and its up to them to solve it. No one gets out until it gets solved. That’s the point where the whole volunteer aspect of the team goes out the window.”
“Thunderbolts” #2 is in stores and available digitally December 19.