REVIEW: T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 (of 6)

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Or – “Inversion – Noun:  A Reversal Of The Usual Or Of The Natural Order.”

Any given comic book series has a status quo.  A talented writer can play with that status quo and make it interesting, and even a hack can convince us that ‘everything we know is WRONG!’  But once in a while, a REALLY good writer comes along and crafts that expectation into a compelling story.  This issue tweaks one key element of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents history, one established in the very first panel of the very first issue, decades ago and changes everything we know about the franchise…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4
Writer: Nick Spencer
Artist(s): Wes Craig/Sam Kieth
Colorist(s): Hi-Fi/Jeromy Cox
Cover Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Wil Moss
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $2.99

Previously, in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents:  The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves are a group of counter-intelligence agents, the nation’s black ops team against unseen enemies for decades.  Their regular spycraft ranks are bolstered by a number of special agents, each which mechanically derived super-powers:  Dynamo, with the power of superhuman strenth.  NoMan, with the power of invisibility.  Raven, with the power of flight.  (That do anything for ya?  That’s LEVITATION, homes!) Lightning, with the power of superhuman speed.  Menthor, with the power to kill a yak from 200 yards away telekinesis, telepathy, and…  other things that start with tele.  Their war with an alien race called the Subterraneans has seemingly been over for decades, but a new wave of Subterranean incursions has begun, led by the madman known as Demo.  Dynamo has fallen, and the remaining agents have come face to face with the lethal limitations of their powers, while NoMan discovers the most shocking Subterranean of all:  his old colleague Emil Jenkins, designer of the devices that empower the super-agents.

A FACE FROM OUT OF TIME…

The issue starts with a flashback to moments before the first issue of 1965’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1, as Professor Emil Jennings views his own dad body, and declares the experience “a bit strange.”  It seems that, rather than dying by treachery, his work unfinished, Jennings voluntarily went underground.  Literally.  Going native, Dr. J joins up with the Subterraneans who had been attacking the Higher United Nations, and begins working on ways to improve their lives.  It’s a pretty shocking moment for me, as someone who has read the original stories a number of times, to find that this basic truth of the Agents is actually untrue.  Worse still, Jennings and Demo are heard to remark that the lethal consequences of the Thunderbelt, the Lightning Suit and the Menthor helmet are intentionally built-in, to keep T.H.U.N.D.E.R. from using them.  Nick Spencer knows how to punch you in the gut, and the flashback sequences (by Sam Kieth, best remembered as the man behind The MAXX) are phenomenal work, reminding me of Richard Corben’s Heavy Metal work from the 1970’s.  The issue even pushes an emotional button by having the reunion of Jennings and his partner Dr. Dunn (aka NoMan) move the blue-skinned agent to his first human act in the history of the series, hugging his old friend and telling him how good it is to see him.

A (SECOND) HEROIC SACRIFICE…

Wes Craig’s art on the contemporary portions of the story are likewise excellent, especially the full-page spread where a tortured Lightning realizes that it’s time to push himself beyond any speed he’s been able to achieve, to save his friends.  Moral ambiguity is the order of the day here, as NoMan tries to turn his friend back to the side of “right,” while Jennings reminds NoMan that T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s answer to the Subterranean rebellion was a NUCLEAR EXPLOSION, emphasizing the fact that no one has the upper hand when it comes to covert operations.  Colleen (daughter of the Iron Maiden), Menthor, Lightning and Raven are pinned down by enemy forces, and one agent dies to save the others.  Of course, since this sacrifice is immediately followed by what looks remarkably like a betrayal of the team by ANOTHER agent, things look grim for the agents of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.  Of course, in this book, nothing is every quite what it seems, be it Menthor’s status as S.P.I.D.E.R. agent or Jennings’ pacifism.  I honestly have NO idea what happens next.

THE VERDICT: UH-OH…

I’ve wondered for a while now if this book is set in the DCU, and given the Flashpoint initiatives, it’s pretty clear now that it isn’t.  Knowing that this is a limited series, it seems that the writing is on the wall for T.H.U.N.D.E.R.  With two agents down already, this is probably the big swan song for our heroes.  It could be worse, though, as the other two lines of characters that DC launched at roughly the same time as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (the Archie/Red Circle and Milestone heroes) have pretty much been abandoned, or in Static’s case, cancelled.  This issue is a successful thriller, and the revelations about what we didn’t know work to strengthen the story, rather than weakening the tales already told.  It’s visually awesome, even with two separate art teams, and I rather like the cover as well.  T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #4 is probably the beginning of the end, but it’s at least an ending worthy of the pedigree of the characters involved, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★☆