If you didn’t read comic books in the 90s, “Thunderbolts” #1 is the closest you can get to what they were like; I can’t think of a better capsule of that era of comics than this debut issue. Jim Zub and Jon Malin assemble most of the original lineup with the addition of Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes, who now leads the team as they pivot their focus to handle extraterrestrial threats on Earth. Zub leaves the team with little downtime, throwing them from one fracas to the next, and Malin draws everything with the energy of a young Rob Liefeld.
Coming out of “Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill,” the Thunderbolts are their own team once again as Barnes leads the group on a raid of S.H.I.E.L.D. in an effort to get more intel and to wipe the records of the team from the global peacekeeper’s database. The opening fight seems to pay homage Liefeld’s “X-Force” #1, itself an homage to George Perez’s “Teen Titans,” with a double page spread of the heroes blowing through their opposition with small captions breaking down each character for new readers. Zub jumps from character to character this issue, juggling each a little at a time.
Since it’s a team book, it’s mostly a workplace story, even as we see the team’s new digs and the other new cast member: Kobik, The Energy That Thinks It’s A Girl. Barnes sees a bit of himself in her struggle as a hapless weapon and pawn, but — with her power levels over 9000 — she quickly proves to be quite the disruption. The book ends with her pulling some serious action, the kind you’d expect to see at the end of a comic in the ’90s.
Though this is only the first issue, this series appears to be a little less nuanced than Kurt Busiek or Fabian Niceza’s runs with the team. Zub works hard to get in some personality between establishing status quo, but — overall — he keeps it simple; he shows some heads getting kicked in and how everyone feels about their current situation, then throws them at another mystery. This was the blueprint of most ’90s comics, especially in the wake of the first wave Wildstorm and Extreme Studios titles. Those titles suffered from trying to world build too quickly, but Zub doesn’t need to worry about that with Marvel properties. He has also maximized this kind of storytelling on great titles of his own, like “Skull Kickers.” Zub is aware of what he’s writing and I hope he gets to inject some more of that self-awareness and humor into the series as the story progresses.
Malin’s art has that same kinetic energy Liefeld’s “X-Force” and “Youngblood” had, with lots of contorted faces and big action poses on the page. There’s a self awareness in the art, too; why else show Moonstone standing in the background when you could draw her sitting posed on the back of a kitchen chair? Though there are some perspective and continuity inconsistencies here, especially with Kobik, it all felt like part of the fun. Like a lot of action artists, Malin is more at home with the face-kicking than the downtime.
“Thunderbolts” #1 is a throwback full of punches, guns and crazy twists. This book is like a portal back to the height of ’90s comic storytelling. Zub and Malin turn the volume is up to 11 throughout, from word to page. While I loved this comic, I feel like the exact reasons why I did will also be the reasons some fans will hate it; however, as a first issue, “Thunderbolts” #1 is refreshingly fun to read.