Marvel Comics' latest “Thunderbolts” team was formed when the Winter Soldier (AKA Bucky Barnes) and several former team members banded together to protect the living Cosmic Cube fragment, Kobik, from S.H.I.E.L.D. and any other forces looking to exploit her abilities. But by doing so Bucky unwittingly put them all in the crosshairs of his former partner, Steve Rogers.
Kobik used to be under the thrall of Hydra and its villainous master, the Red Skull, who utilized her reality-altering abilities to change history. When she was done, the original Captain America had been a secret agent of Hydra for pretty much his entire life. Kobik broke free son after tweaking the timeline, and the Skull's forces have been trying to recover her ever since.
Now, Rogers has discovered that the childlike Kobik is in the custody of Bucky and his team. This February, he'll put his secret weapon against the group into play; a weapon that knows Bucky's comrades better than almost anyone: Thunderbolts founder, Baron Helmut Zemo. It all happens in “Thunderbolts” #10, by writer Jim Zub and artist Jon Malin, which celebrates the team's 20th Anniversary and kicks off a new arc titled “Return of the Masters.”
CBR: You recently brought back a long-time Thunderbolt, Songbird, and this February, you're bringing back another in the form of Baron Zemo. How does it feel to bring him back to the book? And how important do you feel Zemo is to the larger Thunderbolts mythos?
Jim Zub: Zemo is obviously at the heart of the original Thunderbolts concept, so if we have an anniversary issue, we want to bring him into the mix. There's an element of nostalgia to the series, but it's not just about retreading what's been done before. It's about celebrating the elements at the heart of what has been “Thunderbolts.” There are all these different elements that have built this amazing series and we want to address them all, have them in play, and do some very exciting things with them.
In short, having Zemo involved is absolutely crucial. He formed the team, instigating the original mystery behind them and their villainous reveal. He's part of the DNA of villainy that drove the Thunderbolts from the start and that the team members eventually rejected in an attempt to become heroes in their own right. For this special 20th anniversary event he's got to be at the center of it.
What's it like writing Zemo?
It's awesome. Zemo is such a great character because he's powerful, but not in a raw, cosmic sense. He's just got the power of personality. He's pure intent, and I think the way he's able to drive that leadership and push people towards different ends is what makes him such a valuable character when you're building a story.
Whenever you put him into the mix there's always something great you're going to get out of it; an intense, emotional quality. Regardless of what the other cast members of the Thunderbolts think in terms of their own heroism, what he did for them and the way he was able to unify them at the start, and at a number of other points in their history, can't be denied. He's someone who gets things done and I think that's what makes him such a great character. You add him into the mix, and there's this instant spark of intensity.
Has Zemo's personality changed at all in light of history being altered so he and Steve Rogers were childhood friends?
I can't really speak too much about that. I don't want to spoil any of Nick Spencer's story stuff that’s coming up. There are some aspects, though.
One thing I really like about the way Nick is writing Steve Rogers, even when he’s loyal to Hydra and that organization's ideals, is that he's still Steve Rogers. He's still this aspirational figure. He's doing and planning dark things, but there's still a charisma to him. He's still this larger than life figure. It's great that Steve didn't just become a mustache-twirling villain. He's much more nuanced and careful. He's still a leader even if he's leading a group that's villainous or has darker ideas in mind.
Zemo is sort of the same. Helmut has been altered, but at his core he's still this charismatic, capable, driven person. That makes this work a lot better. It's not just corny mind control where a person is outright evil and doing dark things for the sake of darkness. They still have their core personality they're just driven to a different end now because of that historical alteration.
Yeah, I always felt Zemo was a character who had admirable goals, but pursued them via deplorable methods. I think with history being altered Steve has become a similar type of figure.
Right, and that makes for a great villain. You may not empathize with them completely, but there’s a sense of purpose where you go, “I don't agree with what you're doing, but I can see how you'd come to this conclusion even if you're walking the wrong path.”
Zemo has such close ties to the Thunderbolts. He's been through more with them than anyone else in his history so he has a desire to return to that strength. He feels they have value, but if they won't join him he's going to do what needs to get done. I think that's what's going to make the conflict so rich here. It's not just a matter of Zemo showing up and kicking everyone's butt. He brings hard decisions in his wake and that intensity makes the whole thing spark.
Bucky's version of the Thunderbolts is different from Zemo's, but both have been unifying forces, they just put the group in different situations. They’re going to have to make some hard choices especially in the face of stuff we've got coming up in the months ahead.
How big a role will Steve play in the “Return of the Masters” arc?
I can't really say. [Laughs] The fall out of Bucky’s imprisonment in the just-released “Thunderbolts” #8 and Steve's involvement there will answer that a bit, otherwise readers will have to wait and see.
In issue #7, we got a little bit of your take on the relationship between Steve and Bucky, but can you talk a little more about how Steve views Bucky in light of everything that has gone on with him?
"Thunderbolts" #8 gives you a stronger sense of that. I can't go into too much detail, but the way Nick and I have talked about it is that Steve is fond of James. They have a bond there, and they’ve gone on missions together. It's not that they have no history -- it's just that it's different than before.
When Steve talks to Bucky in prison, he wants to get Kobik of course, but there’s also a bond between the two of them. It's not just a cold, calculating kind of thing. Some of that emotion and intensity coming from Steve is genuine.
The way I've thought about it, and I talked to Nick about it and we agree, is that, like you said, Steve has his ultimate ends in mind. He doesn't consider himself a villain. Bucky currently has Kobik, and it's a huge danger for Steve's plans to have her to be out there without Hydra's control. So, when push comes to shove, Cap is going to break towards his ultimate mission, but if he doesn't have to kill someone he's not going to.
With Steve, Zemo, Bucky and Kobik all sort of converging together, this story feels like it could be both a milestone “Thunderbolts” story and a pivotal chapter in the long form Steve Rogers tale that Nick is telling in his book.
Absolutely. Nick and I have been working closely together. Before any of this Hydra stuff was announced, I was brought up to speed on where things were going so we could plan it appropriately.
In the first issue of our new “Thunderbolts” series, we laid in some of the Chitauri stuff Nick has followed up on in “Steve Rogers” as well. We've been back and forth building some of these different elements, and I think people are going to be surprised at how they pay off later on.
If you're reading the “Steve Rogers” book, the “Sam Wilson” book, and “Thunderbolts,” you're getting as complete a picture as you can right now. Obviously, we're heading towards more dramatic things to come.
What's it like bouncing Zemo off some of the new members of the Thunderbolts like Kobik and Bucky?
Zemo has interacted with Kobik before during the “Avengers: Standoff” event. He saw her merely as a Cosmic Cube; an object he desired. It's not as simple a thing now, though. She's a lot more complicated.
Zemo thinks the Thunderbolts are still his to lead. He knows how to push and pull them and he's not wrong in some ways, but he doesn't always have a complete picture and tries to sort of bulldoze over any of the things he doesn't know about them or care about them so he can get to his ultimate goals
To me, it always felt like Fixer and Atlas had especially conflicted feelings about Zemo.
Absolutely. They couldn't deny that he was charismatic and capable. Plus, in some ways he provided them with a structure that they needed.
I've always looked at Atlas as a follower. He's looking for guidance and an authority figure to say, “This is what we need to do, and if we get it done we're going to win.” When he has that kind of structure he feels most complete, and that's why he's really enjoyed being on a team with Bucky. Bucky tells him what to do, and tells him when he's doing it wrong.
Someone like the Fixer is the same, but his issue is literally fixing problems. It doesn't matter if he's doing it for good or evil. I always got the sense the Fixer doesn't have strong moral leanings one way or another. It's more, “You give me a platform to show off how amazing I am? I'll do that for you. You deny my genius and treat me like crap? I'm going to go somewhere else or betray you.”
Since this is a 20th Anniversary issue, are there also nods to other incarnations of the Thunderbolts like the brief “Fight Club” version, and the groups that served as Norman Osborn and Thunderbolt Ross' personal strike teams?
When I took over the book, I read every single “Thunderbolts” issue with a notepad by my side. I also read “Dark Avengers” -- not because I thought I was going to bring everything into play, but I wanted to have a good sense of what had come before. The way I look at continuity is that it all happened, but what areas do I want to emphasize? Or what rings true to me when I'm writing a story? If I can put in little asides or those elements dovetail into the story in a way that makes sense that we can mention stuff from the past, great. I don't want to shoehorn things in there or make it feel like the Greatest Hits collection; where all I'm doing is callbacks because I feel like that's disingenuous. Our job as storytellers is to keep this thing moving forward, but the good and the bad of continuity is that it all happened. If an element makes sense, I make sure I bring it in.
The characters have a past and a shared history. I'll include funny little lines where they talk about Zemo as a leader compared to someone like Norman Osborn. That kind of contrast is something I like to play with, but I'm not trying to check off boxes of every single iteration of the team. When you do that it just becomes a cold exercise in nostalgia. I know that’s not a direct answer, but I’m trying to keep from revealing too much.
How will the action in the “Return of the Masters” arc manifest? Is this a story where Zemo is coming directly at the Thunderbolts? Or is it more of a tale of machinations and subterfuge?
It's not subtle. [Laughs] It gets pretty intense right from the first chapter. It's funny because when we were planning it out I had to make sure it was going to work with some of Nick's plans and I realized that, based on the timing, we had to kick it into gear quite quickly but that actually worked for the best. Rather than starting off slow I thought, “Okay, let's just open strong and intensify it from there.”
In issue #10 Thunderbolts creators Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley are coming back to do a short story. When we were bouncing ideas back and forth, I realized what would actually work best based on the pacing was for Kurt and Mark to do the prologue. They’ve created a 10-page opening story that tees up a bunch of cool things for me. It’s part of the big payoff, not just an aside.
We know your artistic collaborator, Jon Malin, can handle action, and it sounds like this arc will have plenty of that, but it also feels like we'll see him stretch his character acting skills as well since it involves a lot of interpersonal conflict and conflicted feelings.
Yeah, what's nice about this arc is there's an emotional intensity. There's fisticuffs of course, but there's also a lot of harsh conversations dripping with tension. I think readers are going to be surprised where we take things with issue #11.
So, is it safe to assume that by the time the “Return of the Masters” arc comes to an end the Thunderbolts will be in a very different place as a team if they're still together at all?
[Laughs] Issue #12 will be apocalyptic. We're going to be breaking and building all kinds of stuff. We'll also be putting them in some pretty cool spots. I hope people who have read “Thunderbolts” are pumped to see the next chapter and excited to let us run with the ball and keep working with such an amazing concept.
The Thunderbolts concept is so rich because it has a complexity to it. They’re villains trying to be heroes and often failing along the way. There are areas of redemption and failure in the concept that I don't think a lot of other books play with. I like that the characters mess up but keep trying.
I knew Thunderbolts and had read it back in the day, but before I got this assignment I’d never sat down and tried to take it all in at once. When I did that I realized these were the threads that spoke strongest to me and I think speak strongest to the readers. They're aspects I want to explore, but not just retread. So how can we move things forward in a way that makes sense, but also isn't too easy to telegraph? Answering those questions while playing in the larger sandbox of the Marvel Universe has been a ton of fun.
I love that a book like “Thunderbolts” can have a 20-year legacy. There was a while there where it became a wonderful gathering place for a lot of lost characters that didn't necessarily have a home. The Thunderbolts became this weird family that doesn't really get along, but have this bond with each other. That bond is that they’re all trying to be more than what they are. Sometimes that's in a villainous direction. Sometimes it's heroic. It’s a great platform for telling stories.