The Marvel Comics Universe contains numerous characters on the hunt for fantastic technology to abuse, subjugate and terrorize their fellow man. Former Air Force General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross believes the best way to deal with these opportunistic villains is to eliminate them and their contingents. As the Red Hulk, Ross could easily crush multiples foes, but he’s still just one man targeting forces that often control nations. So in the debut issue of the Marvel NOW! “Thunderbolts” series by writer Daniel Way and artist Steve Dillon, the Red Hulk puts together a super powered strike force.
The team’s initial mission to depose a dictator of a small island nation armed with gamma weapons has become complicated by the emergence of one of The Hulk’s most unpredictable villains, and before the opening arc concludes, Ross’ team makes a discovery binding them together and into the crosshairs of a massive conspiracy. CBR News spoke with Way about the current arc and his upcoming plans for the series.
At the end of “Thunderbolts” #2, readers learned Ross brought along the super intelligent Hulk foe known as The Leader to aid in their assault on the island nation of Kata Jaya. Then in issue #3 they saw the reason why Ross had brought The Leader along — the villain’s dangerous and unpredictable brother Phillip Sterns, AKA the Hulk foe known as Madman, was in charge of the island.
“I chose to use Madman because I was looking for someone who could physically stand toe-to-toe with the Red Hulk,” Way told CBR News. “That’s something I think is important not just with this book but with any Hulk related book. He’s a huge presence, and it’s just not the same if you don’t have an opposite force pushing against him. That being said, The Leader is also in this story and he’s the polar opposite of both the red and green Hulks. So now I have the entire spectrum covered.
“It also justifies the use of the level of force that the Thunderbolts bring to the party — it’s not just Madman. We later reveal what he’s been up to and what the game plan is which goes back to his history.”
Way added, “Madman doesn’t have a whole lot of history or continuity but what’s there is interesting. He got kind of weird and ridiculous later on, but essentially he’s this really cool Peter David creation. I don’t know the genesis of the character and what Peter was thinking at the time; I meant to reach out to him, but unfortunately he was in the hospital at the time. We do know Madman is Phillip Sterns, brother of Samuel Sterns. This story delves into that connection because Madman isn’t just a huge stumbling block for Red Hulk and the Thunderbolts, but also for Samuel Sterns, who is now The Red Leader thanks to Ross.”
Madman initially had a very obsessive relationship with the green Hulk, and he’ll develop an equally twisted dynamic with the Red Hulk — the two face off for the first time in the second half of the current “Thunderbolts” arc.
“Madman’s take on Ross is not only ‘How did you get the power of the Hulk and not me?’ But ‘Why did you get it and not me?'” Way said. “You have to remember he’s completely nuts. So there’s a sense of entitlement. Ross may not have wanted to become a Hulk, but he wants it more than anything. He has this aspect of physical power but he doesn’t have any control over it. I think that’s really what he wants.
“Plus, he doesn’t just covet what Bruce Banner and Ross have. He also covets the massive intellect of his brother as well. So he’s a guy who wants both brains and brawn, but he has no capacity to control any of those aspects,” Way continued. “If you go back into his continuity, Madman was a dual personality that eventually took over. So there’s not much there anymore and a lot of his actions are an attempt to fill a void that is too expansive. The void maintains itself despite what he throws into it.”
At the end ofÂ “Thunderbolts” #3 it looked like Madman would be the only gamma powered villain the team would have to deal with, thanks to the Punisher shooting the now Red Leader in the head. Long time fans of the big brained villain know not to count out Samuel Sterns just yet.
“Leader’s not as dead as he may appear to be,” Way said. “Remember he’s known for having an ability recreate brain cells at a super human pace. All he would need is a sufficient power supply, like a gamma particle accelerator.”
The Leader was an important part of Ross’ plans for Kata Jaya, and the Punisher’s shooting of the villain came as a big surprise to Ross — he thought he had a solid grasp on what the former Marine would and would not do on the battlefield.
“Ross came in with a plan and The Leader is letting him down. He’s not progressing fast enough. That was due to Ross being cautious because he wanted to power up The Leader just enough to get what he needs, but not so much that he becomes unmanageable,” Way said. “So when the operation starts rolling and The Leader is not getting with the program, Ross makes a battlefield call to juice him up more. He calls an audible. In doing this, he becomes so focused on the fact that he’s going outside of his own original parameters, he doesn’t realize he steps over Frank’s by about a mile.
“The Punisher’s philosophy is simple: You see a bad guy, you kill a bad guy. Ross viewed the Punisher as a soldier, though. He thought, ‘He’s part of a unit in the field. He’ll take care of it,'” Way continued. “So he underestimated Frank’s very direct line of thinking. That’s going to lead to more subjective decisions on Ross’ part — he’s one of those people that once he’s locked onto a target, he’s committed to a course of action. We know that from his history with the Hulk. The guy just doesn’t let up. Now that he’s this 3,000 pound behemoth it’s even worse.”
While he may have misjudged the Punisher, Ross so far hasn’t had much trouble managing the team’s more chaotic member, Deadpool. Early on in issue #3, the Merc With a Mouth began poking around some secret shipping crates the Red Hulk had brought to Kata Jaya, but Ross was able to quickly distract his attention. While he may be a bit scatterbrained, Deadpool appears to be happy to follow Ross’ lead.
“I think the two of them have quantified each other in a certain way. Deadpool’s take on Ross is split, but with Deadpool everything is always a bit fractured. On one hand he sees him as someone who really has it together. He has a plan and he’s old, which Deadpool will never physically be. He’s wise and people respect him. They salute him and call him Sir. On the other hand he’s this huge raging monster and Deadpool thinks that’s cool,” Way explained. “Plus, Deapool is the one guy on the team with no compunctions about what they do. He’s just happy to be on a team that’s not asking him to switch up his game plan — they actually brought Deadpool in to be Deadpool. They haven’t put any limitations on him.
“As far as how Ross looks at Deadpool, there’s an old Native American tale about a woman getting water by the stream that comes across a snake, which is hurt. She brings the snake into her home and nurses it back to health. Then one day it bites her and as she lays there dying she asks the snake, ‘Why?’ and it replies, ‘I’m a snake. You knew that when you picked me up.’ So Ross sees Deadpool as being unstable, volatile and violent, but that’s what he wants out of him,” Way said. “He holds on loosely. Ross gives Deadpool enough to keep him engaged, and at the same time tells him enough to maintain his position. Unlike almost everyone else, Ross has nothing to fear from Deadpool. I think the flip side of that coin is Deadpool knows this. He’s already had his head atomized by the green Hulk and came back. They’re on even footing. There’s no threat between them. No mortal thoughts.”
The dynamics between Ross and the individual Thunderbolts members continue to evolve and change as the first arc progresses. “If you look at the separate characters, their through lines and what they’ve committed to, they seem very simple but their methodology is vastly different — you would think from the outset you could use some sort of uniform code to keep everybody in line. It’s not until you put that into motion you realize it just doesn’t work,” Way said. “Deadpool may appear to be fine with it, but when all the others progress towards the objective he circles back and checks on Ross to see what he’s up to. This catches Ross off guard. That dynamic — the fact that Ross is the man in control but not as in control as it may seem — is something you’ll see constantly throughout the series.”
Way feels the clash between Ross’ military background and his lack of control is part of the character’s larger story. “He’s compelled towards confronting larger forces, but his West Point style of thinking and the military approach is to contain it,” Way explained. “In becoming the Red Hulk he’s a one man occupying force of his own. The Thunderbolts, at least from the outset, were meant to act as his agent provocateurs. They were there to do the fine tuning, where he’s batting clean up. This whole first arc is really about taking that idea and strategy and putting it on the ground, then pulling the trigger on it.”
Readers have only seen part of Ross’ strategy for Kata Jaya. They’ll see the other half of his plans for the nation in the second half of this arc when Mercy, the Thunderbolt he’s kept in reserve, comes in to play.
“Mercy is another great Peter David creation but she’s a bit of an amorphous character. She’s displayed a dazzling array of super human abilities that could be alien or mystical in nature. All we know in a generalized sense is she wants to help people die,” Way said. “It seems like the more life force within a being the more attracted she is. It’s almost like a firebug chasing fire engines around. Setting fires in trash cans is enough to subside on, but a four alarm blaze is something you really want to see. So with Mercy she’s both of these — not only does she want those situations she has the capacity to create them.
“Ross has been keeping her under lock and key because he knows that once he lets her out, she can do a lot of indiscriminate damage as she’s done in the past. It’s for this reason Ross has kept her in reserve. She’s the scorched earth policy. If it can’t be solved than it’s time to eliminate it,” Way continued. “She’s not just there for the problems the Thunderbolts face, either — she’s potentially there for the Thunderbolts themselves. Ross is smart enough to not consciously put himself in a situation he can’t get out of, and he’s in a situation with some pretty hardened individuals. He has to connect those dots.”
Mercy’s emergence in the second half of the initial “Thunderbolts” arc signifies things are about to go south for the team in a big way. “For all the planning and ground work Ross has laid out, it isn’t until the team’s on the ground in Kata Jaya and they start turning over rocks that they realize the scope of what they’re dealing with. It’s not just Madman. There are many big, bad issues. This is just the epicenter of something really, really heinous,” Way explained. “This story arc is an inciting incident that propels the first year’s worth of stories. This is where the genie comes out of the bottle.”
When the individual Thunderbolts agreed to work for Ross, it was on a volunteer basis and they could quit at any time. In issue #7, the beginning of the book’s second arc, that choice has been taken away thanks to the fall out from their exploits on Kata Jaya.
“What happens on Kata Jaya fuses them together as a team. Not willingly, but they all have a level of responsibility both for what they do and what they don’t do. What literally comes out of this situation is on them,” Way said. “It’s a situation they in part created. Therefore it’s up to them to solve this problem and as Ross would put it, to contain it.”
The cover to “Thunderbolts” #7, featuring the Punisher and Elektra locked in a passionate embrace, suggests not all the Thunderbolts are unhappy at being forced to work together. The sight of the team’s two most cold-blooded members kissing has left the other Thunderbolts wondering what exactly is going on.
“The story we’re telling is not a love story. It’s a perceived love story. The friction, tension and danger comes out of what certain people think is happening. It mostly plays out in other characters’ imaginations,” Way said. “Everyone who looks at that picture assumes they understand what’s happening. We know who those characters are, so why would we think they would abruptly switch such fundamental things about themselves? Even if we think about it and it doesn’t make sense that’s what it looks like.
“There are a lot of characters in the book who have the same feeling. They can’t reconcile what they believe is going with what is actually going on,” Way continued. “It’s interesting to explore whether or not the Punisher and Elektra are capable of these types of feelings anymore. Does Frank fall in love? Or is that part of him just as dead as his wife and kids? Elektra has used sex and sex appeal as a weapon for so long. So would she know to use it in any other way? Is it even possible for her to conceive of such a thing?”
Those interpersonal dynamics unfold against the backdrop of the Thunderbolts’ next mission, which finds them dealing with nefarious people who have gotten their hands on some of the Marvel Universe’s more fantastic military technology.
“I think a lot of writers from a certain generation fell in love with the idea of examining how superheroes would solve problems in the real world. How would they tackle the stuff you see on CNN or CNBC? Why doesn’t the FF open source some of their technology and make the world better? I love asking questions like that,” Way said. “I don’t think it drags superheroes down — I think it bonds them more fully to us. It closes the gap a little bit.
“In our first arc, we dealt with a puppet regime on this island nation that’s within striking distance of China and the former Soviet Union. The next story arc takes place all across the Middle East, Northern Africa and in parts of present day Russia. The real world analogy would be the Cold War ordinance that’s just sort of sitting around and then gets gathered up by these suddenly appearing warlords. Everybody is picking over the bones of a former super power and seeing if they can do with what Mother Russia failed to deliver on.
“I’m not saying this is about the rebirth of Communism, but they definitely use some of the tools,” Way continued. “Basically we have a loose nukes style scenario involving a lot of upgraded Crimson Dynamo armors.”
The Crimson Dynamo pilots and their masters won’t be the only villains in the second arc of “Thunderbolts.” Readers also get a glimpse at the mastermind behind some of the horrible revelations the team uncovers in the initial arc.
“This is a villain who’s going to be around for quite awhile,” Way said. “It’s still too early to say much about this character, but this was all masterminded a long, long time ago. The plan was then broken up into billions of pieces and now it’s being reassembled. It’s a process that began on Kata Jaya and will then be exported.”
Artist Phil Noto brings to life this mysterious mastermind and all the other major players in this arc. The artist, who is an old friend of Way’s, is no stranger to stories involving super powered strike teams, having just come off of an acclaimed run on the first volume of “Uncanny X-Force.”
“Due to ramping up of the shipping schedule, we brought in another artist and Phil’s a great choice. Obviously the guy has big chops. He knows exactly what needs to be done with a team of this nature,” Way stated. “At this point I’ve only seen thumbnails, but when you look at thumbnails and already get a sense of kinetic action it really frees you up as a writer. You know your artist has got it — I don’t have to take a lot of time to make sure Phil understands things.
“In our first conversation we talked about a scene taking place at a CIA headquarters in Afghanistan, this dilapidated run down hotel. I was like, ‘It’s a hotel that you can imagine was totally luxurious back in 1971. Since then it’s just been bombed to shit and has leaky pipes and things like that,'” Way continued. “Phil was like, ‘Oh yeah! I love that stuff!’ It’s easy for an artist to get excited about a scene involving super powered characters, but when your artist is getting excited about drawing some old janky hotel in Kabul you know it’s going to be great — especially when it’s an all action scene. It’s cool to have a conversation like that knowing he’s going to Google image search to try and find that hotel.”
The CIA continues to be a presence in the Thunderbolts’ lives moving forward. Sometimes they’ll be embroiled in operations where they’ll clean up the Agency’s messes, but other times the CIA acts in a beneficial way by exerting their influence to keep a major Marvel super team from interfering in the T-Bolts’ operations.
“The Thunderbolts are out there doing what they do in the same world as the Avengers. Now, especially with some things we’re planning out across Marvel, there exists a bigger level of interaction. Until that happens, we have to delay a confrontation between the Avengers and the Thunderbolts. We really want that showdown to be resonant when it happens,” Way said. “We have to introduce a reason for the Avengers to not get involved in things at this point, which is simple. The mechanism used is one that happens all the time — so much of what the CIA does is inherently compromised and hard to act upon. You can’t really back them up one hundred percent because there’s no way you can agree one hundred percent on what they’ve done. You can guarantee they’re not telling you the whole truth.
“It’s the actions and inactions of agencies like the CIA that end up putting the Avengers at bay for now,” Way continued. “The Thunderbolts have definitely popped on the Avengers radar, though. They’ve just done so in a way that the Avengers aren’t looking to get involved because this isn’t an Avengers problem. From what they’re able to see it’s simply not something they should get involved with.”
When the Avengers do decide to confront the Thunderbolts, it’s at the worst possible time for the team — the Red Hulk’s super powered force has their hands full for the foreseeable future, battling the various cells making up the larger organization of the mysterious mastermind introduced in the book’s second arc.
“There are several villainous characters who have a piece of the larger puzzle. There’s only one guy though who can put them all together. The villains are basically seeing what they want to see because they have things they want to do,” Way said. “Each of these underbosses are not aware they’re all being fed from a common source. All they’re seeing is an availability of power they can use for their separate agendas. They don’t realize it serves a larger purpose that’s been mapped out by someone else.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to think they should feel sorry for these guys because what they do definitely justifies a Thunderbolts response, but they’re part of a bigger and ultimately much more destructive type of plan,” Way continued. “Since we have this kind of ultimate team of bad asses, the worst and most disappointing thing we could have done is to put them up against people they could just mow down without much effort.”
As the Thunderbolts dispatch these various villains, their war with the mysterious mastermind above these adversaries escalates, taking them into new and dangerous territories. “The more force the team exerts — and the harder they hit — results in exposing more of a larger and sinister plan, propelling them towards bigger action. The Thunderbolts have to get more extreme to deal with it. When you start hitting that critical mass a whole new spectrum of stories opens up,” Way concluded. “The Thunderbolts are facing a many headed adversary — what brings them deeper into this is their unquestioned assertion that evil is evil, and the solution for evil is a bullet to the head.”