NYCC: Zub Celebrates 20 Years of Thunderbolts with Return of the Masters

In 1997 writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley gave readers one of the greatest twists in Marvel Comics history with the release of “Thunderbolts” #1; the final page of which revealed that a team of all-new heroes trying to fill the role of the recently vanished Avengers were in fact the Avengers' opposite number, the Masters of Evil, in disguise. Many more twists and turns followed that bombshell revelation along with many different incarnations of the Thunderbolts, but the group has always been it's most intriguing when it stayed true to Busiek and Bagley's original concept: supervillains suddenly thrust into the strange position being heroic.

In the latest volume of “Thunderbolts,” writer Jim Zub and artist Jon Malin put a unique spin on that core concept by bringing a number of the team's classic members back together under the leadership of Captain America's fugitive former partner Bucky Barnes (AKA The Winter Soldier), who uses them to defend Earth against alien invaders and to protect the youthful cosmic entity known as Kobik from forces that would exploit her ability to alter reality. So far they've been successful and Bucky has managed to inspire and keep the T-Bolts together, but temptation is coming and just in time for the team's 20th anniversary.

It all happens this February in “Thunderbolts” #10, an extra-sized anniversary issue celebrating two decades of T-Bolts comics, that kicks off a new arc by Zub and Malin, titled “Return of the Masters,” and features a back up tale by Busiek and Bagley that brings back the team's original adolescent member, Jolt. CBR News spoke with Zub about the milestone anniversary issue, the upcoming return to the book of classic Thunderbolts member Songbird, and how the return Jolt fits into his larger plans for the T-Bolts.

Thunderbolts Mark Bagley
Thunderbolts #10 variant cover by Mark Bagley

CBR News: This February you and your collaborators will celebrate the Thunderbolts' 20th anniversary with a special oversized issue. Were you reading comics back when “Thunderbolts” #1 debuted? And if so, do you remember your reaction to the big twist in that issue that the characters were in fact the Masters of Evil in heroic disguises?

Jim Zub: It feels a bit surreal but also really wonderful. I'm thrilled to see Thunderbolts still around and viable 20 years after its inception. It's an absolute honor to be building new stories of a team that has such a great legacy and so many loyal fans.

I wasn't reading Marvel books regularly when “Thunderbolts” debuted but, a few years later when I dug back in, it was definitely one of the books I followed and enjoyed. Kurt and Mark created the ultimate super hero heel turn and it's resonated for two decades now. I've felt the pressure of living up to that and it drives me to tell big emotionally intense stories readers will remember.

What can you tell us about the upcoming issues that set the stage for issue #10?

I can't say too much without spoiling our upcoming issues. After “Thunderbolts” #5, our “Civil War II” tie-in, Bucky has been captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. and the team has to decide if they're going to go get him or leave him high and dry. The ramifications of that propel us toward the big anniversary event.

One of the big things that happens in these upcoming issues is Songbird returns to the team. What do you find most interesting about Melissa Gold? What do you feel she adds to the book and the team dynamic?

Songbird is a beloved character and I'm thrilled to have back in the mix. She arguably has evolved more than any other team member and her growth from a timid follower of Baron Zemo to a capable leader, Avenger and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is complex and engaging. She's been through so much and knows this team better than just about anyone, but she's also been away and the experiences she's had make it clear that she can't just walk back in and expect things to be the same as they once were. The team is different. Their mission is different. Finding her place, if there even is one here for her, will be a challenge.

Let's talk about the story in issue #10, which kicks off a new arc titled "Return of the Masters." What inspired this story and sets it into motion? What kind of obstacles and adversaries are Bucky and the T-Bolts up against in this tale?

As everyone knows, the Thunderbolts were the Masters of Evil in disguise way back when. The Masters of Evil are woven into the fabric of what the Thunderbolts were and may yet be. It's a history they can't easily escape. Issue #10 kicks off a big storyline that drills down to the core of what Thunderbolts has always been about -- the nature of villainy, redemption, and making really hard choices.

Beyond that, all I can say is that if people have been reading this latest series since issue #1 they'll start to see those pieces really coming together in the next couple months.

Thunderbolts Masters of Evil Mark Bagley
1997's "Thunderbolts" #1 revealed the Marvel Universe's newest heroes were really the Masters of Evil in disguise

What's it like writing the “Return of the Masters” arc for Jon Malin? Are there any sequences you're especially excited to see him draw?

Jon's action is big, bombastic and unrelenting. Giving him the chance to cut loose is always a blast. He knows when to amp things up and I'm working to write action sequences worthy of that intensity.

Finally, I understand the story you and Jon are doing isn't the only story in issue #10. Original Thunderbolts creators Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley will be doing a tale featuring Jolt, a character from the original series. Are they setting up something that you might pick up later?

As soon as I knew that “Thunderbolts” #10 was the 20th anniversary we started talking about how to make it extra-special and bringing Kurt and Mark in was a natural choice. I've been chatting with Kurt about it for a little while and it's been an absolute pleasure. He's writing a story that ties into our future plans and brings some old plot elements full circle. Jolt's involved and it reverberates with the “Return of the Masters” material also in play. I can't say too much beyond that right now.

“Thunderbolts” launched 20 years ago with an incredible plot twist but, what's kept the series going and helped build such a loyal fan base over the years is a cast of characters that readers have bonded with. That's not a gimmick or a fluke. If our current creative team can keep that momentum going and continue to engage and entertain, then I have no doubt there will be many more Thunderbolt anniversaries to come.

"Thunderbolts" #10 is scheduled for release in February 2017.

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