The powers that drive the superhero secret agents at the heart of Wally Wood’s legendary T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents may be their own curse, but the gig to write the latest revival of the property has been more a blessing for Phil Hester.
The writer and artist has spent time with a number of high profile heroes across his career, but to hear him tell it, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents have always been high on his list of characters to work with. The United Nations-based super squad of haunted heroes like Dynamo, the robotic NoMan and the super speedster Lightning have always struck a chord. And at last weekend’s WonderCon, IDW Publishing made his involvement official by teaming Hester with artist Andrea DiVito and cover artists like Dave Sim and Jerry Ordway for a new ongoing series.
CBR News spoke with Hester about the gig, how he’s been perfecting his pitch since his middle school days, why Wally Wood’s originals stand out on both the story and art front and how he’ll be tapping into the torturous nature of Dynamo’s powers for the opening arc.
CBR News: Phll, we spoke with Chris Ryall when the company nabbed the “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” rights, and he pretty much said he was open to pitches from anyone on the property. Can we assume you fired up your keyboard right after that?
Phil Hester: [Laughs] Yeah. It’s one of those very few times — I mean, this happens rarely in a comic book creator’s career — when they hear about a project, pursue a project and then land that project. Believe me, there have been a million dashed hopes along the way when I hear about a gig and go, “Oh, I want to do that.” But when IDW made that public announcement that they had the “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” license, I dropped Chris a line and said, “Look, I want to be involved in that somehow — writing it, drawing it, doing a fill-in, doing a cover. Whatever it takes, I’m in love with those characters since I was a kid.” Chris said they were having an open pitch and I should throw mine in the mix. And I kind of went overboard. It’s one of those things like when Frank Miller said he’s been writing “Sin City” since he was 14. I’ve been playing with “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” ideas since I was a kid.
There was a crazy time in the late ’80s/early ’90s when everybody thought the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were in the public domain. So me and my friends were like, “Let’s do our T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comics. Why not?” Since that time, I’ve had various T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents ideas swirling around in my head. It’s neat when something in your career works out the way you intended. In fact, it’s kind of shocking. But this was one of those times I felt I really knocked the pitch out of the park, and I think IDW felt the same way. So this was a really fortuitous, happy marriage.
There are all the original Tower T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comics, which is the established cannon, but then there are also a number of different continuations and revivals, most recently Nick Spencer’s DC run. What are you planning on using in your stories, and where will the series grow from that material.
I think that it’s a licensed comics. Someone holds the license for the comic now, and they have final say on what we can do and can’t do. But the license they hold is for the original “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” material. And it was also my basic instinct to base everything I do off those old Wally Wood comics. But the pitch I gave them was to approach the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents the same way Warner Bros. Animation approached Batman when they did “Batman: The Animated Series.” That is, preserve what’s cool about the classic elements of the character, but then tell the story in a modern setting.
So the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stories I’m writing are happening in 2013, but they’re preserving what was cool about the original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comics, which, let’s face it, had a lot to do with how Wally Wood draws. [Laughs] I mean, what the book looks like is a large part of the appeal, and to throw that out when doing a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comic is kind of silly. So we’re trying to preserve certain things about the look of the characters like Iron Maiden, NoMan and Dynamo. But on top of that, we’re putting them in a modern setting.
We’re seeing what it would really be like for superheroes to be working for the United Nations. They wouldn’t just be flying around foiling bank robberies; they’d be running around trying to better the situation of mankind around the world. I think if you’ve read the original series, it’s pretty much the Cold War, 24 hours a day. It’s all about the Russians and the Chinese, and the United Nations fighting them with their superheroes. That element’s gone from our story since it no longer exists. It’s more humanitarian missions than espionage. But of course this is an unapologetic superhero comic. There are plenty of fighting dinosaurs and mad scientists and, like I said, preserving what’s classic about those T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stories.
Was there a specific T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent that you were attracted to in terms of building an arc around them?
There is a character who’s my favorite, but we’re not building an arc around him. I love the weird characters, so of course NoMan is my favorite. Anyone’s who’s read my past work — especially “The Coffin” — know that I love this idea of people transferring consciousness. I love people with cyborg bodies and stuff like that, so NoMan is right in my wheelhouse. Plus, he looks so cool — this blue-skinned, highly evolved person who came decades and decades before Dr. Manhattan. That’s the character I was always drawn to.
But I realize that for readers to be drawn into “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” the way I was, they need a sort of cypher into the story. And to me, that’s Dynamo. That’s Len Brown. And that’s because he’s this everyman who was recruited to being turned into a superhero and a secret agent almost overnight. He’s thrown into the deep end the way the readers are. So this first arc will by largely a Dynamo origin story.
So we’re look at an ongoing with a long term plan, here?
That’s the way IDW is approaching it, and that’s the way I’m approaching it. I’m writing this not so much in arcs made for the trade, but I’m not going to carry stories past four or six issues at a time. I want each trade to feel like its own story.
One of the themes of the original run was how the powers of the heroes can be a curse of sorts. Will that carry over here?
Oh, yes. Putting art aside — because as an artist, that’s what always appealed to me about T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stories — the thing that makes the actual stories great in the original comics were the consequences that all the characters suffered for use of their powers. It was also the fact that a lot of the heroes in there didn’t start out as heroes. They became heroes over time. Actually, they mostly started as villains that became heroes. But the idea that you have a price to pay for using your powers is central to this book. In fact, the old book had a focus on the Thunder Belt, which is the device that gives Dynamo his super strength. That had a time limit on it where it would eventually exhaust Len Brown and use up all his power. We wanted to do something a little different here and more dramatic. So we say that the use of the Thunder Belt is extremely painful. And that pain increase the more you exert yourself. SHe has this belt that gives him incredible power, but the price is an almost unbearable pain.
That toll road for your powers exists in all these characters. Every time NoMan switches bodies, a little bit of his humanity slips away. Every time Lightning uses his super speed, that’s time that’s coming off the end of his lifespan. That idea is front and center in this series, the idea that these guys pay for their powers. These superheroes are more like soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives than they are like superheroes galavanting about on a lark.
Andrea DiVito is drawing the interior art here. His styles seem to have some darker, espionage elements to in in general. What’s it been like seeing his take on the Agents?
Andrea’s a remarkable artist. He handles the athleticism of the characters as a sort of second nature. That’s something a lot of modern artists don’t get: what makes superheroes dynamic and exciting. A lot of modern cartooned superheroes just look like dudes in superhero costumes. They look like cosplayers. Andrea understands that a superhero’s costume isn’t necessarily a uniform but more like their second skin. It’s something that physically expresses something about their identity. The physicality of Andrea’s work is something I feel is going to set this book apart from not only what you see at IDW, but from superhero comics at large these days.
Tell me about the other artists pitching in in terms of covers. It feels like on a Wally Wood-created book, you need to get some heavy caliber people. And are you doing some covers yourself?
Yeah, I’m doing an Iron Maiden one. Andrea’s doing quite a few. And Jerry Ordway is doing one that I’m really excited about. When I signed on, IDW said, “We should think about who can do some covers for us.” And I said, “Well, when I think of Wally Wood, I think about double lighting. And when I think about double lighting, I think about Jerry Ordway. So we need to get him.” That was right before his “Nobody wants me anymore” blog post, and I was saying, “I was there first! Jerry we need you!” As a fan, having Jerry on this book is huge to me.
“T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” arrives this summer from IDW.