In "Thunderbolts #12, Charles Soule takes on the writing reins and Steve Dillon returns to handle the art for an issue spotlighting Punisher, in which Frank Castle launches and concludes a relentless seek-and-destroy for a quarry that his team members have neglected.
For previous ensemble battle scenes in the first arc of "Thunderbolts," the lack of energy in Dillon's figures made the action drag. Dillon's facial expressions and body movements are still a little stiff in "Thunderbolts" #12, but his artistic strengths work fine for Soule's spotlight on Punisher, who isn't the most fluid fighter. Unsurprisingly for the artist of "Preacher," Dillon handles gore and injuries well.
Soule picks a dangling plot thread from Daniel Way's run and expands it. From the first page, his writing feels different from Way's in its personal focus and fluid prose. Punisher's thoughts and dialogue dominate almost all the text, and the white-on-black textboxes emphasize Frank Castle's ruthless and serious personality. Out of all the Thunderbolts, Punisher may be the most uncompromising and merciless. Way's storytelling was mechanically plot-focused, eventually to the exclusion of characterization or anything else. Soule's approach is much more character-driven, and in letting Punisher take up the whole stage, "Thunderbolts" #12 feels less cluttered than its predecessors.
Soule's timeline is simple and linear, with only a quick flashback to explain Punisher's secret, self-appointed mission with some unfinished business, and his dialogue moves Punisher's mission quickly and smoothly towards resolution.
However, Soule's choice to begin his run with Punisher also emphasizes some of the problems with the previous run of "Thunderbolts." "Thunderbolts" #12 doesn't read like a team book. In his run, Way tied the Thunderbolts together with an international terrorism plot and little else. Only Punisher and Elektra have developed a bond. As Soule inherits them, the Thunderbolts remain a group of powerful villains and antiheros, each used to working solo, bound together only by coercion. To say that they don't mesh well as a team is an understatement.
With the spotlight on Punisher, one of the darkest characters even in this group, the tone and atmosphere of "Thunderbolts" also remains unrelentingly grim. Despite the potential for comedy from Deadpool's presence and from so much testosterone and potential mayhem in one room, "Thunderbolts" has been humorless. While Soule's take feels fresh and has more energy than Way's -- particularly in depth of feeling -- it's a not a sea change. According to interviews, Soule's take on the whole team won't be revealed until "Thunderbolts" #14.
Still, the writer's appeal to emotion is effective. It's weirdly touching that what is takes for Orestez to face Punisher is a threat to his sister Elektra, which makes what happens afterwards more potent. The last page of "Thunderbolts" #12 is both a small twist and the culmination of tension that began in the flashback. Punisher is uncharacteristically hesitant, but his version of gentleness is terrifying by normal standards of friendship or romance.
Soule is still settling into "Thunderbolts," and his approach to damaged, powerful characters shows potential in its psychology and his grasp of pacing and suspense. Only future issues will show if Soule can provide a unifying mission and dynamic for the team.