Thunderbolts: Desperate Measures

by

Or – “The Very Existence Of This Issue Puzzles Me Greatly.”

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The new Thunderbolts title has been hit and miss for me, with the art bordering on obnoxiously photo-referenced, and the story reveling in the personal excesses of some VERY unpleasant psycho-slash-sociopaths. Penance, especially, has been a hard nut to crack in terms of characterization, ranging from whiny to suicidal to strangely upbeat when he tried to convince Rich to join the Initiative. For me, the most successful Thunderbolts moment may not actually be in continuity, coming when Squirrel Girl confronted Penance about his new ‘emo’ identity in the GLI/Deadpool Special. Either way, it seems kind of early to have additional creators chime in with their version of the ‘Bolts, and the use of Americop when they just fought Jack Flag (and, now that I think about it, American Eagle… They only seem to attack people who are openly patriotic. Think they’re trying to tell us something?) makes the issue feel strangely like Deja Vu…

Previously, on Thunderbolts: Norman Osborn, the former Green Goblin has TBolt1.jpg(astonishingly) been appointed by the government to oversee the official superhuman task force that enforces the SHRA. The members that he was able to round up included a Chinese national, a mass murder, the most hated man in America, a manipulative shrew with massive destructive powers, the son of a Nazi whose weapon is wrapped in human skin, a cannibalistic hybrid of psycho-killer and symbiotic alien destroyer, and a former professional wrestler. They cut a swath of random destruction through America, blaming their failures on the superheroes they hunt, overemphasizing their successes, and basically just being hideously and completely wrong. It’s a weird balance of evil and false justification, and I can’t believe that somebody hasn’t noticed what they’re up to. This issue seems to take place BEFORE the second arc of the Thunderbolts title (since Bullseye can, y’know, walk?) with Norman Osborn berating Robbie Baldwin for his poor performance on a recent (unseen) mission… After losing control and compromising the team, Penance replied with extreme force.

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“Can I GO now?” whines Robbie again, and Norman stomps away, ordering his secretary to draft a letter to the director of the C.S.A. asking for Penance to be pulled from the ‘Bolts. “That’s not going to fly, sir…” she answers. “Penance is with us for the foreseeable future, short of him dying in the field–” “Can we kill him?” Normie quickly pipes up, but she explains that the gub’mint considers this rehabilitative therapy, and that since he’s the only team member who volunteered rather than being forced onboard. Norman quickly formulates a plan, running down the list of superhumans they know they can track down before settling on a name. “How’s the weather in Houston this time of year?”

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He’s an Americop! For those not in the know, he’s sort of a Punisher version of Captain America (We finally have our Eradicap for “Reign of the Captain Americas!”) who Cap ever so briefly considered as his replacement back when Cap was dying from super-soldier serum. Americop quickly kills the drug lord, and makes some terrible jokes while doing it. I kinda WANT the T-bolts to kill him, if I’m being honest. Meanwhile, Norman puts his ever-so-subtle “Get Penance Killed” plan into action with a quick visit to Bullseye. “How are you getting on with your teammates?” Norman inquires, and Bullseye replies with “I hate them so much I don’t even want to KILL them.” That’s… that’s cold. Norman agrees, but he’s been a crazy mofo in tights who killed his favorite hero’s girlfriend, too, so he’s not at all intimidated.

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Radioactive Man and Norman’s secretary are horrified to hear the sounds of Bullseye’s echoing laughter. Soon after, the Thunderbolts enter the field, but rather than the usual leadership of Moonstone, They’re under the leadership of Benjamin Poindexeter, the man called Bullseye. Moonstone barges into Norman’s office, blustering “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t KILL you!” I… I got nothing, ‘Stone, just take him out! Norman tells her not to get her silver tights in a bunch, and she replies that he’s sent a maniac and an UNPROVEN maniac into the field to get killed, not realizing that this is almost certainly his plan…

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Who knew Bullseye was a fan of Herbie? Penance crashes into Americop at full speed, but the cop quickly leaps away from the ensuing explosion. Bullseye ignores all advice to pull back, instead confronting Americop frontally, and getting wrapped up in an electrified net for his trouble. Bullseye orders Penance to run in (in THAT getup?) and attack, and he does. I can’t really believe that Penance is so pliable that he’d ignore the obvious fact that Bullseye is trying to get him killed here, but he isn’t up to fighting Americop anyway…

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Norman is enjoying every moment of this, as Americop kicks the snot out of the former Speedball and throws him down the alley. Bullseye manages to get Penance undercover, but takes a bullet in his thigh to do it. The man who isn’t Marshal Law (really, he isn’t!) but acts and looks remarkably like him kicks in the WALL and follows them. “Come out with your hands raises! My name is Americop. Be advised, You are no under cardiac arrest!” That’s a really awful line… Norman’s evil plan continues apace, as Americop closes in on the lost Thunderbolts, and Bullseye puts his own strategy to the test.

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I really hate this Americop dialogue, even if it’s meant to be parody (which I think it is.) The injury sets of Robbie’s new powers, blowing the warehouse to Kingdom Come, and leaving Americop in a bleeding heap. Luckily for Bullseye, the blast was apparently directional, and he’s unharmed. Sadly for Penance, an unharmed Bullseye is a scary and dangerous Bullseye, and the man in black has never been known for his impulse control.

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Okay, that bothers me. This is the first shock we’ve seen Bullseye take. In the last issue of Thunderbolts, we saw Bullseye take a shock that (combined with an attack by The American Eagle) left him paralyzed. To have this come AFTER that, and to have Norman casually turn up the voltage by 70% kind of undermines the drama of Bullseye’s situation in that issue. After returning home, Penance once again is in a meeting with Norman, who explains that it was, indeed, a setup. “It was necessary, and you wouldn’t have volunteered,” explains the former Goblin. “I needed you to use all of your accumulated power.” Penance replies that Norman is wrong… Osborn is surprised, and asks, “would you have willingly subjected yourself to that ordeal?” Penance replies that he’s wrong about exhausting his power, and blows up a large chunk of Norm’s office…

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I’m unclear. Did he break HIS finger, or Norman’s finger? From the response, it seems like Norman’s finger, but I’m unsure how Osborn’s hand would have gotten in the way. Norman’s secretary rushes in, only find the boss laughing. “Take a memo, Miss Thompson…. Re: Baldwin, Robert. ‘Beginning to show pontential.’ ” The joke doesn’t quite get the response that I think they were going for…

Paul Jenkins is an enjoyable writer, but this issue falls a bit flat for me. The characterization is a tiny bit off for me (Moonstone acts concerned for the field agents, which doesn’t seem like her at all; Penance is written as whiny rather than tortured) and the plot seems very familiar, especially with the use of a wannabee Captain America as target. The ending isn’t bad, but I didn’t really want to see the one Thunderbolt who wasn’t a brutal thug find his inner strength to become one. Steve Lieber’s art is interesting, with nice use of blacks, but parts of it came off as very sketchy. Combining all the slight strangenesses, I find that this issue doesn’t quite live up to itself. Maybe it’s just the sense of Deja Vu, or maybe it’s just more timeline issues bugging me, but I can’t bring myself to go more than 2 out of 5 stars. It’s a puzzling issue, on a number of levels, and never quite gets past the “Wait, what?” factor.

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