THUNDERBOLTS is probably the most effective story of villains turning good I've ever seen. The only one with greater impact would be Joe Kelly's DEADPOOL, which seems to have lost that focus with Kelly's departure. It's an ages-old conundrum. Once a villain becomes popular, more people want to see him or her. But the publishers dare not have a title about a villain. (Although DC did try once upon a time with THE JOKER.) In order to look more moral, they have to turn the bad guy into a good guy. This has been tried numerous times over the years. Usually, it comes off as crass commercial exploitation. See what Marvel did with Venom earlier in this decade for example number one.
THUNDERBOLTS, however, took a team of villains without a real fan club and made them good. Well, sorta. Creator of the series, Kurt Busiek, hasn't made everything so cut-and-dried. Some characters have fared much better at this than others. Some had to be pushed into it. All have had to fight to be good. And none of them started as "good." They all started out hoping to pull the wool over the public's eyes with this good guy routine, only to exploit that in the hopes of taking over the world.
I should also mention at this point that this title is quite possibly the only good story to come out of the insipid ONSLAUGHT "event."
It's been going on for just under three years now and has proven to be popular. The characters have starred in a couple of one-shot books along the way. There's never really been a heavy rumor of cancellation. The storylines have always been interesting and the characters doubly so.
But last month THUNDERBOLTS #34 premiered, and with it a new writer, Fabian Nicieza. No longer would Kurt Busiek directly guide the fate of the team. He would from the background, in a way. He was nice enough to pass down his notes for the future of the series to FabNic, who will use that at his own discretion.
So how does Nicieza do on his maiden voyage? Pretty good, actually. So let's backtrack to see what made Busiek's book click so much.
Busiek is the poster child of Marvel continuity. He made his big break in comics with MARVELS, a four issue series exploring the early history of Marvel. It seems like all the research he did for that is still coming in handy. Between THUNDERBOLTS and AVENGERS, he's written two books that rely heavily on past continuity and obscure characters last seen when Stan and Jack were on the respective books.
It's a possible fault with the series, as a matter of fact. How many times has the flow or pace of an issue been slowed down dramatically while a character recounts his own history? Or while another character reads the Avengers dossier on the character? Or some such technique. It's necessary, I will grant that. In order to make the readers care about the characters, you've got to re-introduce them. It's more an occupational hazard than poor storytelling.
The characters are the most important thing. The decisions they are forced to make - and there's a new one every issue - help decide whether they will be able to continue along the path of virtue. Sometimes they're small choices, other times they're monumental. It all goes back to the theme of being good versus being evil. The dialogue is mostly functional. No character amongst the group has a strong regional accent or defining speech pattern. But the meaning behind the words and the decisions they show are unique to the characters.
One of the strengths of the series is something that was mentioned here a couple of months ago: the fight scenes. The 25th issue, for example, had a group of villains 25 deep fighting the 6 Thunderbolts at the time. It's tough to manage a fight scene that grandiose, but Kurt Busiek has always managed to do so with aplomb, and with the mighty help of artist Mark Bagley. (More on him in a minute.) More than just that, though, is that the fights are important. Even when it's just power versus power, they're symbolic of great changed and great upheavals. No fights are done for the sake of filling pages of picking up the pace of an issue.
Fabian Nicieza, thus, has some mighty big shoes to fill. His first issue carries on the same feel of Busiek's era, really. There's loads of explanatory captioning done, a very character-based storyline, a focus on the theme of good versus evil and the difficulty inherent in such a change.
But there are still some uniquely Nicieza aspects to it. For starters, there's a greater sense of humor, which fits in nicely with this book. THUNDERBOLTS has always been played rather straight, with the occasional snide remark or witty rejoinder. Under Nicieza, it's become the new status quo. Don't forget - FabNic has a wicked sense of humor. He's the one who co-created DEADPOOL by putting all those words in the merc's mouth. His trademark small lettering is also back, used when a character mutters something to themselves or makes an aside. It's a welcome element in a book that can seem so helpless sometimes. Neither Nicieza nor Busiek have forgotten that public perception is just as key to this transformation as anything else. It seems like the T-Bolts never catch a break, or if they do they get swatted back down right away. You can't help but wondering why the characters haven't cracked yet. Jolt is the closest one to getting there, and even that is due to post-traumatic stress of her school days and the coming of Onslaught. One of the easiest reliefs from such stress is the wisecrack. Why do you think Spidey cracks jokes all the time? Does Peter Parker? No. It's only the stressed out super-hero who does that. Let's also face it, in a world that includes characters like the Hulk or Machine Man or Graviton, things must seen pretty silly. I'm more than happy to see that aspect played around with just a bit.
Nicieza also seems ready to add an element of teen angst into the mix and social commentary. It's something he started with on the original NEW WARRIORS series, and a couple of brief hints are shown in his first issue, as one student appears to be a racist. Expect to see that played out.
I hope he doesn't forget the storylines Busiek set up, though. Although he reminded us of most of them inside of his first issue, the problem with the students who know who Charlie and Hallie are has never been properly addressed. Even Busiek seemed to forget about that or got preoccupied with other stuff shortly after introducing it. Or, quite possibly, it's a bit of Claremontian plotting and wasn't due to be paid off on for a while yet.
This isn't to say everything is just golden yet. Nicieza seems to be relying too heavily on the Busiek formula. The number of captions and exposition in this issue is amazing. Granted, they're trying to make this an easy jump-on point for new readers of the series, but there are certain things that get way over explained. The key moments, though, play out well, such as the scene hinted at on the very first page.
This is a very good book, with a different look at characters than we're normally used to seeing. As much as Busiek created this title, though, I don't know if it would be nearly as good without the rest of the creative team behind it, which has also stuck around for so long. In particular, there's penciller Mark Bagley and colorist Joe Rosas.
Mark Bagley has always been a very solid penciller. He has the ability to draw large team books, as he did for two years with Nicieza on THE NEW WARRIORS. He even rose to the occasion in his early issues of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, when there were so many guest stars in the book that it looked like a team title. With THUNDERBOLTS, he puts them all to shame. I've already mentioned the crazy issue with 25 villains in it, but there's more in every issue. Generally speaking, teams don't fight individuals. Even when the T-Bolts fought Graviton, they were fighting not only him, but also all his new recruits, seen flying through the air. Crowd scenes are a major part of this book. Bagley doesn't blink, he doesn't take shortcuts, he doesn't draw lots of panels with silhouetted figures or extreme close-ups to make his work easier. He draws full figures in full combat mode. It can be quite impressive, and is too often overlooked today. He's also been given plenty of quieter scenes to do, stuff that's straight talking heads. There are no extreme close-ups there, either. At the least, you get a head shot. Bagley doesn't shirk from his duty of drawing characters with facial expressions.
Scott Hanna took a couple of issues to blend his style with Bagley's, but I think the stuff they're doing right now is the best of both their careers. Check out the opening splash page of issue #34. It's wonderful, detailed, gritty stuff.
That splash page wouldn't be as dramatic as it is without the help of Joe Rosas on colors, though. I've been a fan of Rosas' since I first noticed his work on the Jim Lee era of UNCANNY X-MEN. He started using some intricate color work, placing shadows using different shades of the same color as if it were part of the drawn art. This was before the day and age of computer coloring for everything, where gradients were the norm, and sculpted colors were expected. The color palette he uses is unapologetically bright, filled with solid primary colors. The skies have the greatest shade of blue I can recall seeing, right next to the one that went on in my parents' dashboard when they turned on the high beams when I was a kid. =) He doesn't overdo it with computerized coloring effects at all, even to this day, but his color schemes are still far from flat.
Finally, given this column's recent focus on lettering, I suppose I should throw in a good word for the folks at Comicraft. The font they use for THUNDERBOLTS is one that looks very much like Tom Orzechowski's lettering. Even if only subliminally, it gives it that classic team book feel, and it's very easily read. It doesn't contain any of the usual computer lettering hang-ups, such as poor spacing.
So, yes, this book is the complete package. It's a superhero yarn, but with everything turned upside-down. Issue #34 would make for a great jumping-on point if you wanted to start now. Unfortunately, and much to Kurt Busiek's stated ire, there isn't much in the way of a collected presence for the back issues of this title. Aside from one initial trade paperback, the rest of the issues will have to be bought individually. It is a fun series with a decidedly warped perspective.