Spencer Takes "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" From Past To Future

Though it's not a lynchpin piece of a summer event nor the continuation of a long-standing superhero franchise, Nick Spencer and Cafu's "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" remains one of the more talked about DC Comics on the stands. A reinvention of Wally Wood's cult classic, espionage-tinged superhero comic, the series opens its second arc today with issue #7, and Spencer explained to CBR News how the four-part story will dig into the past of the Agents with a three-pronged arc that incorporates their Cold War origins, family strife as drawn by the legendary Mike Grell and a forward-looking world of the comics fatalistic leads.

While the opening arc on the book focused on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent recruiter/double agent for Spider Toby, the new story explores the complicated history of Toby's partner Colleen Franklin. "The next four issues are a very abrupt departure from everything we've been doing so far," the writer explained. "It is very much Colleen's story and the story of her parents. One of the things that's had me most excited is that in this book, we've been very lucky to have an enormously enthusiastic response and great word of mouth. We know that the people who are reading it are loving it, and when you have that, one of the most fun things you can do is completely blow it up and go somewhere else. That's what we do starting today. For me, it's exactly the kind of thing I love.

"The tone of the book and the structure of the book is going to change. The look and feel of the book is going to change. And it's going to feel in line with what you've seen before, but it really is its own story. It's the story I've been looking forward to since I got the book."

At the core of that story are two women with very different motivations: the aforementioned agent Franklin and classic T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Iron Maiden. "Colleen is without a doubt one of my favorite characters to write. I really enjoy spending time with her as a character thoroughly. To give her some time in the spotlight is really cool for me," Spencer said. "And one of the reasons I've been dying to get to this story is that Iron Maiden as a character is really one of the coolest characters of all time. She's one of the great, iconic comic visuals ever. That was such an interesting Silver Age character, and one of the things we said about how we were approaching this comic is that we wanted to make it feel like 'T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents' comics have been getting produced month in, month out for the last 40 years. And I think that if they had been, Iron Maiden would have been on the level of a Magneto or a Doctor Doom or a Red Skull. Part of the fun is that I'm writing an A-list that nobody knows is an A-lister.

The writer explained that part of the draw to this story was exploring an genre saga from the feminine perspective. "That's always a big source of fascination for me. I think anybody that's familiar with my work knows that I like writing women. For me, it's always a fun challenge to pick apart the stereotypes and to surprise people. I think sometimes with the female characters, that's a little easier to do because comics history has primarily been male leads. This is very much a story about a mother and a daughter. And we have SO many father/son stories in comics. That's just a staple of comic storytelling, which I've been thinking a lot about this week because of another project I'm working on. But the opportunity to do a great mother/daughter story is exciting to me."

On top of the main feature exploring the background of the series women, longtime fans can expect a major return for the classic heroes of the original Tower Comics series by Wally Wood and company. "I think one of the fun things about getting into the second arc was the ability to go back to the classic T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents characters, which we made a conscious decision to play down in the first arc since the main characters needed to exist and survive on their own. While we knew there was a very appreciative cult audience for the original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, we knew this book was going to sink or swim based on what we did now. I really felt that coming in and trying to drop 40-year-old continuity on all the readers would have been a strategic error on our part. We wanted to ground it in the present day while letting fans know that stuff existed, but now is our opportunity to see how the original characters impact the lives of our characters and really connect the two.

"One thing you'll be seeing in these issues that we haven't talked about anywhere is that Nick Dragotta of the 'Fantastic Four' silent issue fame and just one of the hands down best storytellers I've ever worked with is going to be doing five-page Silver Age era T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents story in each issue," Spencer promised. "The things you see in those Silver Age stories will have a connection to what you see in the present day. I got to 'writer Silver Age.' They look and feel like Silver Age stories, which was sooooo tough. We tried our best to replicate that feel without ripping it off - to get the tone and cadence and the structure and pacing right with only five pages to do it. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake, and it absolutely kicked my ass. And the finished product is beautiful. Nick killed it.

"They're fun, Silver Age stories, but the fun thing for me is that it's like when Bendis did 'Avengers Disassembled.' Remember back then that all of internet fandom was screaming about how Wanda would never do that, but then they'd stick these Silver Age stories in the back that made you go 'Damn it, it's right there on the page!' So this was our attempt at that, albeit wholly manufactured. But you can see how the subtext of these moves can be dropped in the Silver Age stories before being reflected in the present day. It was just one of those ideas that you can only get away with in a book like this."

The other major "get" for Spencer and company was artist Mike Grell, who will be contributing 13 pages to isseu #7 (along with two pages from regular artist Cafu and the five pages of Dragotta). "Grell's got a big chunk in #8 as well, and pages in #9 and 10," the writer said. "Mike is one of my all-time heroes. I'm a huge fan of his, and 'Longbow Hunters' is one of my favorite books of all time. Getting to work with him on this is one of the greatest joys of my career so far. I asked for him. I was like 'Pleeeeeeease can I get Mike Grell?' In this sequence, he's writing Rusty and Len Brown - Iron Maiden and the original Dynamo - and telling their story from a good deal of time back. The things that happened to them in that era have huge ramifications on what's happening now. It's really a three timeline book for the next four issues. So there's a lot in the pages, and his work is just breathtaking to look at. He's shown why he's one of the best ever. It's going to knock people out.

"What's fun for me is giving the people what they want when it comes to [our guest artists] and make a book feel like it's coming from a specific era. That's what I love doing. If you want your book to feel like it's set in the '80s, it helps a lot to have Mike Grell drawing it. It just feels right! At the same time, this has a lot of modern sensibilities. It's a unique, fun mix, and I'm so eager to see the response to Mike's pages."

Of course, Grell is only the latest legend to grace the pages of "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" as artists from George Perez to Howard Chaykin covered previous flashback chapters in the lives of the Agents. "A lot of the credit for that goes to Wil Moss who is our editor extraordinaire," Spencer said. "Wil has been this tireless force of nature on the book, and has just been so dedicated to maintaining a high level of quality throughout. He's been treating this like it could be and should be something special. A big part of that was getting some legendary talent to be a part of it."

While the original plan for the series involved co-features as was DC's practice last year, the team decided to expand to 30-page stories with other artist's chapters worked in to the main series. "After the second issue, the winds of changes swept through at DC, and 'Hold The Line At 2.99' was started. But we already had Howard Chaykin and George Perez lined up, and there was no way we were going to lose them. So we instead compressed the stories down to 15 and five. As a result of that, I got to work with Chaykin, Perez, ChrisCross and Ryan Sook. And for me, working with those guys - particularly Chaykin and Perez who I've been a lifelong fan of - was a terrific opportunity. It was an embarrassment of riches for a pretty fresh writer to spend time with a couple of masters. And for Cafu, it's incredible to look at the book at a guy who's still making a name for himself and see that he hold his own. He never got blown out of the water and rose to the challenge."

Overall, Spencer said that all of his collaborators have been informing how he approaches his other comics work, including his regular partner who holds a striking similarity to the artist on the writer's hit Image series. "The similarities between Cafu and Joe Eisma who does 'Morning Glories' is interesting. Some of that is script direction because I script both books similarly. But I've noticed a lot of similarity in their storytelling ticks and layout decisions, and It's really fascinating for me. I don't think I've ever worked with two artists with such similar sensibilities. With the pages for Perez and the others, I tried to script very loose and let them make the decisions. They know infinitely more about what makes a page work than I do - at this stage in my career especially. When you're working with guys who so clearly know what they're doing, and you get out of their way. It was fascinating to see what they came back with. Perez did something so much more visually interesting and so much more dynamic than I could have thought. It taught me a lot about how you do that, because it was fun to look back at my script and see what he'd done with it. With Chaykin, it was interesting because I'd given slightly more direction on that because I had the scenes very mapped out in my head, but the changes he made were more subversive and were in their own way fascinating to see what he'd done with a novice script. It was a great learning experience for me."

In the end, Spencer and company have much planned for Colleen and Toby, Iron Maiden and all the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agenst as the new story explores a battle over Daniel - the all-seeing A.I. that has been predicting the destiny of the cast. "I think one of the most interesting things for me about this book is that we started it with the initial hook of 'If you could do great things to redeem yourself, but they came at the cost of your life...would you do it?' The whole series revolved around that offer," the writer said. "As we progressed through the arc, I think the real question people started to see us playing with was 'Why would you ever ask someone to do that?' The book is as much about the world that's asking this of people than it is about the people saying yes. That's a large part of why Colleen and Toby are the heart and soul of the book. I think fatalism and predeterminism and inevitability are huge parts of the thematic core of the book - what you should do in the face of death and unmoving resistance from the big world around you."

And speaking of possible death, could "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" continue in the face of mid-level sales and the rumor of major shake-ups heading to DC in September? "I'm not done," said Spencer. The writer noted that the road to getting the book together has had many sharp turns - "Some day you could write a book on the trials and travails of this iteration of 'T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.' It is like 'Oral History of Saturday Night Live' level hilarious at times," he laughed - but ultimately he has faith that with fan support, the creators will make it to their planned finish line.

"Stay tuned, and the best thing that you can do if you want to ensure that this story continues and sees its proper finish is to pick up the book. DC has made a nice move in putting up the first six issues digitally via comiXology and the DC App. The first issue is free, so you can grab those and then head into the shop for #7. It's an easy way to jump on for like $10. And be vocal, and spread the word about the book. Everybody would like to see this story continue and see it finished in the way we've been planning from the beginning. There is an end we've been planning from the start, and we'd like to give it to you. Don't give up hope!"

"T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" #7 is in stores today from DC Comics.

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