I love the Thunderbolts. This is no secret.
Back when I was about ten or eleven years old, I realized I didn’t have to rely on hand-me-down back issues from my older cousin anymore. I could in fact actually go to a comic store and buy NEW comics right off the rack. For a time, I mostly stuck with Transformers, Spider-Man and the occasional X-Men stuff.
Thunderbolts was probably the first step off that narrow path for me. During a regular trip to my local comic store back in 1997, the owner shoved a copy of Thunderbolts # 1 at me and said “This is awesome, kid. Read it.”
Not wanting to appear uncool in a comic shop of all places, I meekly nodded and added it to the pile of stuff I had plonked down on the counter. I got home with my dozen or so comics and set to reading. Once I finished all my Spider-Man and X-Men stuff, I hesitantly picked up T-Bolts # 1 and began reading.
I was familiar with the Avengers, I had a small stack of back issues from my cousin, but they had never really grabbed me as a team the way the X-Men did. So this new team of superheroes kinda seemed a bit like something I wasn’t going to like as much.
But then, it happened.
I got to the end of Thunderbolts # 1, and I don’t think many people would begrudge me labeling it one of the best “Shock!” endings in comic book history. Most especially in a time when the Internet wasn’t so firmly entrenched in American society and surprises like that were spoiled long before the actual issue was released, often times by the company releasing them!
Luckily, the small stack of Avengers back issues I owned included a couple parts of the “Under Siege” storyline, where the Masters of Evil stormed and took over Avengers mansion. So I was quite familiar with Zemo, Moonstone, Fixer, Goliath, and Screaming Mimi. And of course, being the Spider-Man fan I was, how could I not know the Beetle? The Thunderbolts were wolves in sheep’s clothing, and it blew my pre-teen mind.
I was hooked. I had to know more. I went back to the comic shop a few days later and asked if there were any more issues of T-Bolts. Turns out they were about to issue # 6 at that point, and the store didn’t have all of the released issues. I walked out with only # 3 and # 5. But I vowed to follow it month to month from that point on.
And I did. Until about issue # 30 or so. That was about when comic books started to be not so important to me anymore, and other things, like baseball, video games, and girls started to occupy my time.
I didn’t get back into comics for several years after that. But when I finally did, Thunderbolts was near the top of my list for jumping back into. By that time, it had been “re-launched” as New Thunderbolts, and I had missed quite a lot of storyline. I believe it was the summer of 2005, that I went on a slightly-mad quest to acquire every last single Thunderbolts story that I had missed since issue # 30. I raided every comic book store I knew for back issues, and ordered the rest online. And I did it. I jumped onto New Thunderbolts at issue # 7, and managed to catch up on EVERY-freakin’-thing by issue # 12.
So there we are. And here are my top FIVE favorite T-Bolts tales!
(And one honorable mention, of course!)
(This would probably take the number 6 spot on my list.)
Thunderbolts # 116-121 (“Caged Angels”)
Written by Warren Ellis
Drawn by Mike Deodato
Warren Ellis’ second story arc on T-Bolts. Having already proven to have a good handle on the characters in the previous arc (and dispelling some fears that EVERYTHING would be irrevocably altered), Ellis delivered this gem of a story.
A quartet of psychics imprisoned in the bowels of T-Bolts Mountain start affecting everyone’s mind in different ways. Mac Gargan completely gives into the Venom symbiote’s cannibalistic influence, eating his way through the mountain. The Swordsman, Andreas Von Strucker, suddenly adopts his Nazi father’s ideology again and stages an attempted coup. Radioactive Man decides to give everyone cancer with his powers because, quote- “Cancer can be fun, you get drugs”.
(Thankfully, R-Man is rendered unconscious before he can go any further with that.)
But the true awesomeness of this arc lies in one Norman Osborn, and a scene that is probably in the top three epic moments for the character. We had all been waiting for him to finally snap, suit up, and become the Green Goblin again since he became director of the ‘Bolts.
Warren Ellis does not disappoint in this absolutely hilarious (and creepy) “transformation” as Norman gets into character again.
It all leads up to a fairly kickass battle between former and present T-Bolts leaders, Songbird and Norman. Ellis treats both fairly and doesn’t discount Songbird just because Norman’s the “star” of the book now. And Norman shows why he’s so dangerous and can stand up to someone with more varied abilities. An earlier fight in the arc between Swordsman and Venom is also handled with similar grace. There’s also a subplot with Doc Samson counseling Robbie “Penance/Speedball” Baldwin that is both surprisingly compelling and amusing.
The arc is excellently rendered by Mike Deodato, who draws an absolutely awesome and creepy Green Goblin.
In the end, lots of people had doubts when Civil War reordered the Thunderbolts portion of the Marvel Universe, but I for one thought Warren Ellis exceeded expectations with this arc. Which is exactly why it is on this list and why I’ll always remember it fondly.
5. Thunderbolts # 45-50 (Conclusion of the “nano-probe” saga)
Written by Fabien Nicieza
Drawn by Mark Bagley and Patrick Zircher
This is the end of the first major “outlaw” era of T-Bolts, for the most part. After this arc, most all of them were “lawfully” pardoned for their crimes, although their personal quests for redemption would continue.
This arc has a number of major events and is the culmination of several plot points built up since Fabien Nicieza took the title over from Kurt Busiek, and even some of Busiek’s threads.
We’ve got…Techno and Atlas “dying”, Jolt and Fixer being resurrected, the mystery of Moonstone’s gem solved, ties to Avengers Forever with Genis-Vel guest-starring, Scourge’s identity being revealed, Hawkeye’s deception of the team being revealed, Scourge’s identity being revealed AGAIN, the mastermind of the nano-probe conspiracy being revealed, then unrevealed, then revealed again…aggggggh, the list goes on.
We’ve also got the introduction of a new government-sponsored Thunderbolts-styled team called the “Redeemers”, who are staffed with several characters that possess ties to the original Thunderbolts, led by the real Citizen V (although later revealed, not really).
It’s a lot to take in, but fortunately, Fabien Nicieza handles it all quite well. Both Atlas and Techno’s “deaths” (and I have to use the term loosely) are handled with appropriate weight and drama, as are the resurrections. The action and the fight scenes are awesome as always, either when drawn by T-Bolts stalwart Mark Bagley or newcomer Patrick Zircher.
The only nag I’d have to address is that the “real” power behind the nano-probe conspiracy doesn’t even properly appear in the story. His threat is fully-met in the first Citizen V mini-series that was released the month after T-Bolts # 50, which while still “Bolts-related”, is still kinda weak. This story as a whole isn’t really meant for Thunderbolts virgins in any case.
But, for those who have been following along, this is a fine conclusion to this particular “era” of Thunderbolts, and a great setup for the following era.
4. Thunderbolts # 39 (“Black Hearts”)
Written by Fabien Nicieza
Drawn by Mark Bagley
Quite probably the best “fight!” issue of Thunderbolts. Nearly the entire issue is spent with a one-on-one duel between Baron Helmut Zemo and Scourge, the mysterious killer who has been targeting the T-Bolts.
As our (surprisingly-charismatic to a point) protagonist, Zemo is the one trying to outwit death, trying to stave off an opponent who will not stop until he is finished. I mean, the dude’s a Nazi, yet you initially can’t help but hope he outmaneuvers his versatile and relentless opponent.
Until of course, they reach a certain room in Zemo’s castle. Then you really want Scourge to nail the creep.
Heh, kinda funny how this scene plays now in light of current day continuity, huh?
This is a great issue, an excellent fight scene, drawn in all its hot-blooded glory by Mark Bagley.
3. Thunderbolts # 1 (“Justice…Like Lightning”)
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Mark Bagley
Not much to say here, except what I had said above. Obviously one of the greatest twist endings in comic history, but also a great inaugural issue in general.
We’re introduced to our protagonists, plot threads are seeded, and a couple of awesome fight scenes takes place with the Rat Pack and the Wrecking Crew. The Wrecking Crew have largely been made into chumps over the past few years (goddamn Bandis!), but they’re handled as a serious physical threat here (they almost take out the Statue of Liberty!) and they’re defeated in a clever manner.
So the day is saved and everyone’s happy! These guys are real heroes! Then comes the last two pages, and BAM!
Now, I know that experienced and well-read comic readers of the time probably saw the clues and figured out the game (or some of it) beforehand. The T-Bolts had shown up in an issue of Hulk some time prior, and dropped enough hints that a hardcore Avengers fan could probably make some educated guesses.
But me? I was a naive pre-teen, with less than a dozen Avengers comics to my name, and still largely-unschooled in the art of reading between the lines. I took most of the things I read at face value. Even the stuff that made no sense. Which, in the thick of the 90s Spider-Man and X-Men stories, was a lot of stuff. It was a more innocent time.
Thunderbolts ruined me. Now I had to analyze every comic I read! Now I had to feverishly piece together and predict what was going to happen in comics that were months away from release! There was a significant phrase, a sinister motive in every word bubble!
I would not be fooled again! And I have Thunderbolts # 1 to thank/blame for it.
2. Thunderbolts # 56-58 (Return of the Thunderbolts)
Written by Fabien Nicieza
Drawn by Patrick Zircher
After T-Bolts # 50, the original team disbanded, most of them having received official government pardons for their criminal activities. From issues #51-56, the book starred the Redeemers (introduced in the aforementioned issue # 50), with Jolt and Charcoal added to the team. Captain America led them for a handful of issues before Citizen V reclaimed leadership of the squad.
The original T-Bolts remained cast members of the book, obviously. Moonstone, in particular, took on a new “job” as the personal psychiatrist of noted Avengers (and Thunderbolts by this point) villain Graviton.
Of course, things get out of hand and Graviton, being an egotistical madman, decides to seek revenge on the Thunderbolts (who were responsible for his last defeat) before enacting his latest plan to…TAKE OVER THE WORLD! (Cue dramatic flourish)
When he zips over to find them, however, he instead finds the Redeemers, who were operating out of the T-Bolts old HQ. Deciding that he may as well get his bloodlust on, Graviton utterly slaughters the Redeemers, killing Charcoal, Jolt, Scream, Meteorite, Smuggler, and Beetle. Citizen V manages to escape, and Moonstone convinces the Fixer to join up with Team Graviton.
Some of those characters “got better”, some didn’t. Charcoal, in particular, can apparently never be resurrected as he was, thanks to some legal snafus involving his creation (he was the product of a fan-created character contest). Frankly, most of the Redeemers weren’t around long enough to really get super-attached to them, but one certainly feels bad when you see how horribly most of them got killed. (Especially Beetle, youch.)
So anyhow, Graviton goes about enacting his plan. All super-powered opposition to him is gravimetrically-restrained and kept floating a mile above the earth. The Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil…all of them. (Funny how everyone continued their exploits unabated in their own books though. That’s Marvel continuity for ya!) Graviton levitates his preferred cities above the earth and goes about reshaping the globe into some kinda crazy “Planet Graviton” shaped like his face. Seriously, the guy has ego issues.
Who is left to save the day? Well, that’d be our pardoned Thunderbolts, now mostly trying to live civilian lives. Citizen V meets up with Abe Jenkins (Mach-II) and Melissa Gold (Songbird) and thanks to his V-Battalion connections (Think SHIELD, but obscurer and secret-er), supplies them with new gear. Atlas, fresh off his resurrection and ionically-inhabiting the body of his paralyzed girlfriend (and former T-Bolts liaison) Dallas Riordan arrives to the party too. And all of a sudden it’s Old Home Week as the original, accept-no-substitutes Thunderbolts return to take on Graviton.
I’m leaving a LOT of stuff out, like a Hawkeye jailbreak subplot and a minor alien invasion, but this story rules mostly for reuniting ALL of the original Thunderbolts and reestablishing them in their own book. Issue # 57 probably has one of my favorite comic book cliffhangers of all time.
1. Thunderbolts # 10-12 (The Reveal)
Written by Kurt Busiek
Drawn by Mark Bagley
This is almost as big a moment as the revelation of the T-Bolts’ identities to the reader. All that was left was the reveal of them to the Marvel Universe at large. And that happens in issue # 10. The Thunderbolts are publicly revealed to be the Masters of Evil at a press conference and all hell breaks loose as Baron Zemo begins his ultimate plan.
This was the first “milestone” since the first issue and the first one I read as it “happened”. Ironically, I hadn’t read all of the T-Bolts adventures as “heroes in disguise” by that point, but the impact of issue # 10 was not lost on me. The “real” Heroes had Returned, the game was up, the T-Bolts’ masks were off. So what happens now?
Well, of course, the T-Bolts fractured, with those who had decided they liked being heroes standing against Zemo. There’s a fight, and those T-Bolts opposing Zemo are put on the ropes.
Just when all hope seems lost, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four show up. Unfortunately, they’re all under Zemo’s mind control. See, Zemo’s plan was to use a “bio-modem” (acquired on the sly in a previous adventure) to enslave the minds of the entire human race from his satellite HQ. And when the Avengers and F4 tried to approach, they all were hit with the bio-modem’s signal and ensnared.
So the remaining five Thunderbolts (Moonstone, Mach-1, Songbird, Atlas, and Jolt) and Iron Man (whose armor is shielded against mind control…this time) have to work together to foil Zemo’s plot.
It’s a solid adventure tale, culminating in a sweet one year anniversary issue in # 12 where the T-Bolts have to battle the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Lots of great moments, including the reveal of “who blew the whistle” on the T-Bolts scam, the destruction of the Baxter Building/Four Freedoms Plaza (again), the T-Bolt on T-Bolt battle, Iron Man mistakenly and alternately labeling them the “Thunderbirds” and the “Thundercats”, Zemo’s “conversation” with the mind-controlled Captain America, the massive battle with the Avengers and F4, Moonstone beating the ever-loving snot out of Zemo, and the cliffhanger which promises that the saga of the Thunderbolts is just beginning.
The art by Mark Bagley is excellent as always, the man goes from solid, traditional superhero action to darker and grittier stuff effortlessly.
This was the first big “event” that I was “there for”, so to speak and thus it occupies a fond place in my memories. I’ve always liked Iron Man, so having him be the only Avenger who was able to break Zemo’s control was kinda cool too. He kinda got to be “Justice League cartoon Batman” there, if you know what I mean.
This is my favorite among favorite T-Bolt stories. Basically the first time the T-Bolts truly prove they can be heroes without having to be under pretense.
So there you have it, my top five favorite T-Bolts stories. I was originally planning on ten, but the second five I came up with weren’t so firmly entrenched in my mind. Not that they are bad by any means, but I felt like these top five stood out quite a bit farther than the rest. Maybe I’ll do a second five eventually…
Thunderbolts has endured for a long time for something that may have seemed like a “stunt”. Jeff Parker’s current run on T-Bolts is pretty solid, with a lot of standout stuff (issue # 150 was excellent, in particular, and would have made the top ten). The current day team of T-Bolts is about to time-travel back to meet the original, Zemo-led T-Bolts. It’s a good time to be a fan of Justice, like Lightning. And even if Marvel decides to cancel them again in the future, you just know they’ll return. After all…
“Justice, like lightning, ever should appear, to few men's ruin, but to all men's fear.” -Some guy.
“Somehow, no matter how much the world changes, Thunderbolts persists. A powerful enough idea transcends time. It never dies.” -Songbird, issue # 163.1