Thunderbolts #110

by

Or – “Is It Still A Revamp When There’s Nothing Of The Old Concept Left?”

reviewbubble.jpgthunder8.jpgThe year was 1997… It was cold in Hays, Kansas, I remember that much. Granted, it’s pretty much always cold in Hays, but nevertheless. My friend Bruce had picked up an issue of The Hulk that featured strange new heroes, led by a star-spangled goof in a pointy mask, and I immediately found them intriguing.

With The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man and The Hulk trapped in a parallel universe (a strange and bizarre place where someone foolishly thought that Rob Liefeld could draw a monthly comic and that it would draw money) new heroes had to step up to the plate. This was my introduction to a new breed of superhuman: Songbird! Atlas! Techno! Mach-1! Metorite! Citizen V! The ever-awesome Thunderbolts! I remember picking up issue #1 and actually being shocked by one of Marvel’s trademark shocking reveals. (Hint: Rhymes with “Casters of Stevil.”) 10 years down the road, there’s a new day dawning, and the Thunderbolts are poised to regain some of their (you should pardon the pun) thunder. How’d the debut issue go?

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Well, there are two enormous hurdles to cover, right off the bat. First, Mike Deodato’s art leaves me cold. I find it to be stiff, awkward, scratchy and blotchy at the same time, and his women are always posed like they just leapt off the pages of Hustler. Second, and probably more imposing, is the fact that our team “leader” is Norman Osborn, one of the biggest jerks in all comics history. The man is so reviled, in fact, that he remained one of Marvel’s #1 villains while being dead as a mackerel for almost thirty years. That’s some serious staying power. Amazingly, he’s such a jerk that he makes me feel sorry for Bullseye, a feral little psychopath with little going for him other than having killed Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend, Elektra. (She got better.) What makes me actually feel bad for a vile little murderer like Mr. Poindexter, you ask? The fact that they’ve implanted a chip in his spine that will keep him in line with a series of shocks…

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You can tell from the horror in Bull’s eyes that he does, and those who remember the halcyon days of Frank Miller on Daredevil will remember why. You have to be a serious brand of scary and f’ed up to put the fear in a man like Bullseye, and our man Norman is that kind of bastard. Now, through the first few pages of the issue, his face remains shadowed, as if they story is meant to keep him a secret. That might have worked, if not for the tsunami of publicity Marvel has thrown out to guarantee this series the top-of-the-chart debut they want. Me, I find it a little manipulative, and the presence of Bullseye and Venom feels a lot like a Beatles reunion with Eddie Vedder as lead singer and Joe Perry on guitar. Sure, they’re marquee names, but what the heck are they doing in THAT group? I mentioned my troubles with Deodato’s art before, and the first real irritation pops up with a dramatic reveal.

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No, you’re not. You’re Tommy Lee Jones with a speedbump haircut. Twenty or so years ago, Marvel got sued by Christian singer Amy Grant for using her likeness on the cover of an issue of Doctor Strange, a book that featured less-than-Christian overtones of the occult and horror. More recently, Marvel strongly urged (read: ordered) their artists to tone down the use of photo-reference. Having an easily recognizable actor does two things: first, it pulls me out of the narrative by reminding me that it’s Mr. Jones, and it also makes an obvious parallel to the faces that AREN’T based on an actor’s likeness, with a noticably different level of detail.

But enough bitching about Deodato, there’s business a-brewin’ in Cleveland, previously only the home of Howard T. Duck. It seems that 17th string hero Jack Flag (best known as Captain America’s pinch hitter in a story that sucked beyond the telling) has taken up residence here, and despite his girlfriend’s strident warnings, he won’t put his suit away. She screeches that he could go to jail, but he still won’t do it, and when a neighbor is attacked in the streets, Jack does what a real hero has to: he gets involved.

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Okay, that’s awesome. Mr. Ellis gave Jack Flag more character in those few panels than he had in his entire previous existence, with all due respect to the late, great Mark Gruenwald. Oh, and what of the actual STARS of the comic, the mighty, mighty ‘Bolts? They’re currently under lock and key in a mountain headquarters, about to go out on a mission. And how does the Marvel Universe treat their newest heroes?

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Roughly the same way the humane society treats wild dogs, though the dogs get more respect. Through a clever bit of story-telling, we see live new footage of Thunderbolts mountain, the launch of their special craft, and breathless CNN pinheads spouting that endless CNN pinhead jabber that fills their airtime. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, we see a commercial… for Thunderbolts toys.

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“Terrorist masked man?” I don’t know if I’m supposed to, but I’m gonna go on the record here as feeling like this type of propaganda seems really familiar. I’d swear that the Red Skull (now a billionaire industrialist) was involved in this somehow. It just smacks of his brand of mind%#!#. Back at headquarters, Norman interviews the last member he feels his team needs, someone who can take his own brand of manipulative bastardry into the field and make the team even more dysfunctional, dangerous, and downright toxic: Doctor Karla Sofen, aka Moonstone. He offers her money, he offers her a Presidential pardon (“That’s meaningless to me,” Karla replies), before he cuts to the chase and lets her know what the real stakes are…

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That expression in panel two is the face of a woman who is never outmaneuvered getting completely outmaneuvered. For all Karla’s expertise, she still has a vestige of a soul left, and has never played mindgames on Green Goblin’s turf. Karla fills her targets with self-doubt, to the point where they kill themselves out of despair. Norman threw the mother of his children off a bridge. Advantage: Goblin. As for the Thunderbolts, it turns out that their mission is relatively simple: find the unlawful vigilante, and take him down by any means necessary. Are Jack Flag’s ears burning? He’ll be lucky if that’s all that burns when The T-Bolts are done. He tries to convince his pregnant girlfriend of his chances, but it feels a lot more like he’s trying to convince himself.

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Leonard Samson may be a hippie psychiatrist, but he’s a hippie psychiatrist who can face down the Hulk, Jacko. You’re nowhere near Samson’s league, and you know it. Lucy isn’t buying it, either, and cries “They’re going to kill you for being a superhero, Jack!” Fade to black…

Well, so much for keeping the secret of who wins the civil war, eh? This issue is not bad at all, one part superheroics, three parts “1984” and a healthy dash of DC’s Suicide Squad combining for a gripping (if not exactly original) take on the villains-gone-straight theme. It’s good to see the cast streamlined, but I really enjoy the use of original ‘Bolts Moonstone and Songbird, since the two can’t stand one another. My only real complaint is with the art, which is painfully uneven. The opening sequence with Osborn and Bullseye is excellent, with beautiful blacks and tones, and great facial expressions, then everything just kind of goes “meh” until Karla and Norman’s conversation. The use of photo-reference (including the Stargate mountain background) is very obvious and mars a perfectly good script. This issue has it’s moments of greatness, but the roller coaster also dips equally low. The cumulative effect is a good, but not awe-inspiring, 2.5 stars.

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