In “Thunderbolts” #15 by Charles Soule and Jefte Palo, the team takes on Punisher’s mob mission in Manhattan at the same time as Thanos’ army invades Earth. “Thunderbolts” #15 is an Infinity tie-in, and it does draw closer to intergalactic events, but the real substance of the story is smaller and local.
Soule has taken a tangential route to making “Thunderbolts” his own, with two character spotlights and then a lottery framing device in previous issues to give the action structure. In “Thunderbolts” #15, these combined efforts pay off. Soule has given the title a new tone and direction, and he has managed to pull this off this tricky bit of steering even within the demands of the “Infinity” crossover event.
“Thunderbolts” #15 begins with the team setting out on Punisher’s pet mission. Although the Bolts don’t fit together like a traditional team, they finally feel like a unit, with a bond, however tenuous, that was lacking in Daniel Way’s run.
Soule accomplishes this partly by exploiting the rich opportunities for much-needed offbeat humor, and delightfully, it sticks and works its magic. He drops in smaller jokes, like Deadpool staring a little too long at one of those creepy plastic surgeons’ subway ads. He also gives the rest of the team a break from playing straight man to Deadpool, cutting the Merc with a Mouth loose to wander in New York. When Deadpool reassures the team that “everyone usually just assumes I’m Spider-Man”, it seems like a throwaway line, but later on, Soule and Palo give the reader not one, but two instances of Deadpool being mistaken for the webbed wonder. The one-page sequence of Deadpool riding the #1 line in the subway like a regular citizen is comic gold. An exception to these amusing scenes is the cameo of Mercy, whose calm intensity makes even Punisher seem like a regular guy. The awakening of her sudden and rapturous hunger is eerie.
Palo’s figurative art is unusual in its combination of expressive body language and facial expressions combined with highly inconsistent anatomy and facial features from panel to panel. Characters shift in musculature in different panels. The changes sometimes seem intended to match the flow of the action. For instance, when Deadpool is fleeing a scene, he looks skinny; when he prepares to throw down, he looks buff. Palo draws faces and bodies are blocky, sometimes to the point of being vaguely cubist, although this seems to be more a question of style. It’s an odd combination of artistic strengths and weaknesses. The opposite combination (consistent bodies and faces across pages, but with flat expression and movement) is more common.
However, any quibbles with Palo’s angular line shouldn’t overshadow his storytelling contributions and teamwork with Soule. His sense of comic timing is excellent, and his cartoony style works with the lighter tone that Soule has established. Palo also nails the panels that require a sense of outsized drama. His transitions have a fine-tuned awareness of camera angle and pacing. There’s an excellent panel where Venom’s tongue appears enjoyably alarming in dimension, and his double-page spread of the Manhattan skyline on the brink of invasion is an excellent silent climax.
Through crisis and humor, Soule has managed to take these heavyweights, all hardened killers, all of them used to working solo, fit them in a team title. This isn’t to say that the Thunderbolts like each other now. Soule maintains prickly, even dangerous tension between teammates, and he doesn’t gloss over the violence or the unorthodox moral codes and pasts of the characters. Punisher contemptuously calls Venom “you fratboy freak”, an unkind caricature of Flash Thompson that disregards his heroism, but not without some truth.
As a writer, Soule has a broad grasp of tone and atmosphere. He can do grim and serious, as his spotlights Mercy and Punisher demonstrated, but given the cast, it’s even more remarkable that Soule and Palo’s “Thunderbolts” #15 is a fun, lighthearted read.