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First, I am going to re-read Fabian’s run next. But first I wanted to just focus on Kurt Busiek’s run of Thunderbolts. If you know anything about me, you know how much I love obscure characters – or, more so – characters who are not fleshed out, and suddenly given a chance to shine. One prime example is The New Warriors. Fabian’s original run of The New Warriors was amazing; because he took these characters that had been used on and off again, only a few times, and fleshed them out beautifully. (Evan Skolnick, who picked up after Fabian left the book, continued the incredible book until the end).
So what’s the concept of Thunderbolts – let’s start there. Well, after the events of Onslaught, which led to the Heroes Reborn fiasco – in an attempt to stop some merger between Professor Charles Xavier (of the X-Men) and Magneto, which became a being known as Onslaught, all the heroes (except for the X-Men, pretty much) were apparently “blinked away” when Onslaught was defeated – this left the world without heroes. (What had actually happened is they were transported to a “Second Earth”). So, our world is currently without any heroes, so a new team shows up consisting of Citizen V, Atlas, Meteorite, Mach-1, Songbird, and Techno.
The first thing that stuck out to me, was how great their costumes looked. These “new” heroes looked pretty amazing. (Still some of my favorite costume designs to this day!) Anyway…
So the Thunderbolts are seen fighting this organization who is going around kidnapping people (kids, mostly) who are homeless after the carnage of Onslaught, and they even go toe to toe with the Wrecking Crew (and again, if you know me, you know how much I love the Wrecking Crew!) So, as they go around, getting good press, Dallas Riordan – who represents the Mayor asks to officially endorse the Thunderbolts, and Citizen V agrees. (Note that Atlas immediately notices how attractive she is – that comes into play later).
But then, at the very end of the very first issue, the big reveal happens. There aren’t heroes at all. As a matter of fact, they’re some of the most notorious villains in the Marvel Universe, led by, undoubtedly, one of the most intelligent, and also, one of the most vile villains of them all!
Turns out Citizen V is actually Baron Zemo; Techno is actually Fixer; Mach-1 is actually Beetle; Songbird is actually Screaming Mimi; Atlas is actually Goliath; and Meteorite is actually Moonstone! And they were all former members of the Masters of Evil!
Now, someone might ask, “Well how is that any different than Suicide Squad over at DC?” Easy. This kicks it up a notch. The folks in Suicide Squad typically do what they do, because they’re forced to – and none of them are using another alias to hide who they are. With Thunderbolts – it’s all about the deception of being heroes by posing as new people. We learn that Zemo’s plan is to pose as new heroes to essentially gain the same level access that the Avengers, Fantastic Four, etc., all had – being the only big team of (new) heroes replacing the Fantastic Four, Avengers, etc. Other teams still exist (such as the New Warriors), but they’re not on the level of the Thunderbolts who are tackling folks like The Wrecking Crew.
Things begin to get a little twisted when a new team of the Masters of Evil suddenly surfaces, being led by the Crimson Cowl. This new version of the Masters of Evil consists of Crimson Cowl (a woman, by the shape of her body), a mutated Tigershark, Cyclone (Pierre Fresson), Man-Killer, Klaw, and Flying Tiger. Baron Zemo is immediately furious that another team has begun calling themselves The Masters of Evil (although, technically this is beneficial, because it would throw off the scent that the Thunderbolts are former members of the Masters of Evil).
By the 4th issue, we’re introduced to Jolt, who was orphaned during the events of Onslaught, captured by the organization who was grabbing kids, and experimented on which resulted in her having powers. She is a literal dictionary/fanatic of all things heroes and villains, and has a great amount of knowledge of all the heroes and villains around the world. She joins the Thunderbolts, when the media asks if she will be joining, and Meteorite convinced Citizen V that having her on the team would be a good idea, despite how much he disagrees with the notion.
When Issue #11 rolls around, the event Heroes Return happens, where essentially all the heroes that “blinked away” to the Second Earth, suddenly return back to Earth (because I think the Heroes Reborn idea was a stinker, and Marvel realized it, and needed to return the heroes back to the regular world). This is where this issue felt like it was a drastic change in pace; because Citizen V/Zemo finally got the file access he has wanted for the past ten issues, and he forgoes it all to reveal they’re the Masters of Evil – though he explains his actions as that he was tired of the charade and that too many members on his team were beginning to enjoy being heroes too much (essentially Atlas, Mach-1, and Songbird), and he was tired of Meteorite (Moonstone) trying to manipulate him.
I asked Kurt that if the whole Heroes Return skewed any plans he had for Thunderbolts and that’s why Zemo did what he did and Kurt replied:
Not so much change them — we didn’t have concrete plans either way, and were ready to roll with whatever came.
— Kurt Busiek Resists (@KurtBusiek) April 18, 2018
It seems crazy to me that they didn’t have concrete plans, because the series clearly has many layers that are being put down. For example, the romance between Atlas and Dallas bloomed; but Atlas couldn’t tell her who he really is, because that would reveal who he truly was (Goliath), and when Zemo revealed they were the Masters of Evil, she feels absolutely betrayed… then there was the question of who is Crimson Cowl… there was the question of who is fixing things in the new base – more on that in a second. Back to Thunderbolts… One of the greatest moments is when Graviton is released back into the world. I’ve mentioned it before, how Avengers #159 was one of my first comics (along with Uncanny X-Men #121). Well, Avengers #159 featured none other than Graviton as the villain; so I have always been very partial to him. He was my first “big, seemingly unbeatable” villain I had read in comics (since in Uncanny X-Men #121, Alpha Flight were considered good guys, that the X-Men were fighting). Even in Avengers #159, Graviton, for all of his intense and insane power, had an extremely fragile ego. So, when the Thunderbolts seem like they can’t beat them, it’s Meteorite who uses her days as a shrink, to get inside of Graviton’s head and rattle his ego, so that he leaves to go find a purpose. (And that will also come back to haunt the Thunderbolts in the very near future).
Now what’s something every kid who reads comic want? To design a super hero or a super villain that would be featured in Marvel Comics, right? Well, the folks of Wizard Magazine held a contest to do just that. And so Charcoal, the Burning Man was created. Imagine, designing a character, winning, and getting it in (at the time) one of Marvel’s most popular magazines? And not just a one off, but the character becomes a part of the team? You would think that would make anyone excited enough to know that a character they designed had become a part of the Marvel Universe, and a part of a popular team. I’m going to dip here and talk about what happened next with the character briefly. Kurt also answered this previously on his FormSpring page on June 10th 2013: “The issue with Charcoal is that the creators [Wallace & Kroja Frost] of the character entered him in a contest which they knew meant that if he won he’d be property of Marvel, then after the fact tried to threaten a lawsuit in order to get Marvel to pay them lots of money. That seems pretty crass to me — if you don’t want Marvel to own the character if you win, don’t enter the contest.
At the time they were making their fuss, Charcoal had been temporarily killed — Fabian had done a story where he was seemingly dead, but would be coming back. But Tom Brevoort didn’t like the way the creators were acting, so even though Marvel resolved the issue, Tom asked Fabian to simply leave Charcoal dead. If they were going to be a pain in the ass about it, don’t reward them by having the character appear regularly.
In the end, it was a fun way to involve fans in the book, but one that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, so it’s probably best that Charcoal wound up not sticking around.”
So you know that Charcoal is about to end up dead – but that doesn’t happen in Kurt’s run, so we won’t talk about that yet. I am going to side with Kurt – as I said, I would have been happy just to have a character I designed be in a Marvel Comic, let alone on a team, let alone on a popular book at the time. The fact that it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth at Marvel, sealed the deal that they would never do a contest like that, so that there’s no legal issues to deal with. It was so bad, that even though, it sounds like Marvel ended up sorting out the rights, they just figured it was better off to leave the character dead, and leave it at that.
One of the craziest moments of Thunderbolts, is when Hawkeye reveals he’s not Dread Knight (who he posed as to “join” the Thunderbolts), that he will only lead the team if Mach-1 turns himself in; because he can accept criminals but not murderers, which Mach-1 committed during his time as Beetle. Beetle eventually agrees to turn himself in, and in prison does some redeeming things that show, he truly does want to be a hero.
Anyway, one of the coolest issues was Issue #25 of the Thunderbolts, because this is when the Thunderbolts clash with the Crimson Cowl’s version of the Masters of Evil – and this version has 25 members! By this time, after Baron Zemo revealed who they were; only Techno stuck by his side; and the rest defected, and would come under the leadership of Hawkeye, who, as an experienced Avenger (and a former criminal himself, to some degree) knew all about redemption. Her massive team consisted of (are you ready?) – Crimson Cowl (leader), Aqueduct, Bison, Blackwing, Boomerang, Cardinal, Constrictor, Cyclone (Pierre Fresson), Dragonfly, Eel (Edward Lavell), Flying Tiger, Icemaster, Joystick, Klaw, Lodestone, Man-Ape, Man-Killer, Quicksand, Scorcher, Shatterfist, Shockwave, Slyde, Sunstroke, Supercharger, and Tiger Shark! (Now a lot of those you might be saying, “Who?” – but that’s why I love Kurt’s stuff – he’s got such a vast knowledge of the obscure that he can pull them out for this kind of thing!) The Thunderbolts take over the former Masters of Evil fortress, which is enormous and that’s when odd things begin to happen – things like their uniforms randomly get fixed, one of their jets is redesigned, atomic steeds (mostly used by Black Knight) are made for everyone – but no one knows whose doing all of this!
With the defeat of the Masters of Evil, it’s revealed that it’s none other than Dallas Riordan who is actually the Crimson Cowl who has been leading the Masters of Evil. As if that were not bad enough, Graviton comes back – this time with a purpose, hoisting a huge portion of the ground in the air (similar to what he had done in Avengers #159), claiming he was a king of a sovereign land and that he imbues people who swear loyalty to him with the ability to fly. Jolt being the hero fanatic that she is, knows that X-51 is in the area and enlists his help, who gives her “Anti Gravity Bands” which is how he flies. Meteorite (now accepting that she is just going to be called Moonstone), takes the bands and throws them at Graviton who suddenly folds within himself, similar to a black hole, and he’s defeated again. (Oh, but he’ll be back in Fabian’s run – but I will get to that later!)
Moonstone soon finds, despite all her efforts to manipulate things her way, she has begun caring about both Jolt and Hawkeye, who were originally just tools for her to use. The relationship with Hawkeye gets really intimate during a training session the two are having, and she removes her clothing and the two embrace and kiss. That kiss and moment is broken up shortly after, when Songbird walks in on them to tell them something.
A short while later, Hawkeye decides it’s time to find out who has been fixing everything around the base, and the team separates to find out who it is. They find the figure in the shadows, and Atlas talks him out of the shadows and we discover it’s another obscure character – none other than Ogre. Ogre is happy to be accepted as main technician of the team, and as he heads back is ambushed by Techno, who puts Ogre in suspended animation and assumes his form!
And that roughly sums up Kurt Busiek’s run on Thunderbolts. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the greatness that’s in the first 33 issues of his run. I can not recommend it enough to go out there, find it (in trade or individual issues) and give this thing a read!