In the early 1990s, John Byrne took over the Avengers. The franchise has never recovered. The run’s negative effects were even more pronounced immediately afterwards, as the franchise couldn’t string 10 good issues together for years. This all culminated in “Onslaught,” a story that served to take the Avengers away from the Marvel Universe and toss them into the much-rather-forgotten Heroes Reborn universe. For a lot of reasons, this entire era of Avengers feels like the franchise is circling the drain, until finally, mercifully, they’re put to rest. I don’t think anyone could have expected what ended up happening next.
After “Onslaught,” pretty much all the premiere heroes of the Marvel Universe were gone. The X-Men and Spider-Man were still around, obviously, but in-story they were far from being beloved like the Avengers or Fantastic Four. Obviously, in this clear vacuum of superheroism, some new blood will get the chance to shine. And that’s what happened with the New Warriors – with the Avengers and Fantastic Four gone, the New Warriors became a premiere team in their own right in-universe. But the more interesting group of newcomers, the one that really felt new, were the Thunderbolts. All-new heroes, banding together to fill the void left by the Avengers, saving people in the face of threats greater than any one hero can fight – it’s almost too good to be true!
That’s because it is.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Thunderbolts as a property, especially early Thunderbolts, without spoiling the twist, so I’m going to issue a big official warning here – if you don’t know the big revelation that happens fairly early on in Thunderbolts, and if you would rather remain unspoiled, stop reading here. We’re about to get into it.
Are they gone? Okay.
The massive reveal at the end of Thunderbolts #1 that the Thunderbolts are actually a team of super villains led by Baron Zemo, who are trying to earn the trust of the public and the US Government in order to get all the classified Avengers files, is fantastic. It’s an immediate hook for the series that feels completely unlike anything that’s come before and gives an edge to all the characters that immediately separates them from a team like the Suicide Squad. What really makes this work, though, is the hindsight of knowing they have a time limit – in 12 issues, a year’s worth of comics, the Avengers will be back and the Thunderbolts’ plans will be worthless. It’s a promise of compression, a certainty that this will pay off in relatively little time, and a guarantee that the conflict will come to a head.
But what makes this book so good, what makes it more than just a plot book with a set up conflict, is the characters. Because, you see, in these 12 issues – some of the Thunderbolts will discover that they might actually enjoy being heroes. These feelings are further exacerbated by the introduction of Jolt – a teenager who the Thunderbolts rescue and ends up joining the team without realizing who they are – her genuine desire to be a hero is infectious. This is where the concept of the book joins Kurt Busiek’s writing and Mark Bagley’s art to take what could have just been a decent, if interesting series and make it an all-timer.
This setup allows for some genuinely really fun structural concepts throughout the book – the big example is Thunderbolts Annual, which outlines the origins of the Thunderbolts as a team. What makes this issue special is that it’s framed around Jolt asking Citizen V (secretly Baron Zemo) about how the team formed, and Zemo doing his best to be truthful without revealing too much. The narration throughout the issue is accurate to what occurred in the past, but vague enough for Jolt to believe in the presence of heroism. Meanwhile the artwork and actual meat of the issue displays what really happened. It’s a really fun single issue that serves as a way to better understand each individual team member and their dynamics with each other as well as the core conflict driving this book, and the run is full of these kinds of issues.
The thing is, this is just the first act of the run, and it doesn’t last a very long time. Busiek ensures that the book keeps moving forward, no arc outstays its welcome. By the tenth issue of the series, the Thunderbolts’ identities have been revealed to the world, and they’re forced to go on the run from everyone. Zemo reveals his knowledge of the members’ desires to remain heroes, claiming that he outed their identities to keep the whole team under his thumb. For an entire arc, the Thunderbolts are at war both with the world at large and within themselves, as everyone tries to fight back against Zemo under Jolt’s leadership. It’s a really satisfying climax and conclusion to this era of the Thunderbolts, and it could easily have been the end of the team. Thank God that it wasn’t.
Where so many books would have stopped, Thunderbolts continued. The book couldn’t continue as it was, everyone knew that. So they reinvented the book. Later collected as “Hawkeye and the Thunderbolts,” this era of the book is all about former villains genuinely trying to reform. And all led by the ultimate reformed villain, the quintessential Avenger (no matter what the movies try to tell you) – Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye!
When the Avengers came back from Heroes Reborn, they had to deal with a lot of stuff off in Busiek and Perez’s Avengers. One of the main conflicts was Hawkeye and Captain America butting heads over leadership of the Avengers. Obviously, Captain America appears to be the shoe-in for the role, but Hawkeye’s been an active Avenger for longer than him and led the West Coast Avengers for quite some time. This power struggle came to a head when Hawkeye stumbled into the runaway Thunderbolts and learned that they wanted nothing more than to be heroes themselves.
See, Hawkeye understands this. Hawkeye’s first brush with heroism was on the other side of the law, fighting against Iron Man. But he quickly reformed, demonstrating his skill to the Avengers before being brought into their ranks as a part of Cap’s Kooky Quartet. If ever there was an Avenger who would understand the Thunderbolts’ plight, it’d be Hawkeye. And, of course, he does. Hawkeye’s decision to lead the Thunderbolts and serve as the front man to maintain a level of public trust in the team brings a brand new energy to the book that’s honestly even better than its first act.
This entire second act of the book deals with the Thunderbolts struggling to earn both their redemption and the public’s trust in them, and Busiek uses this new setup to engage in riveting character work for all of the members of the team. Most interesting is Moonstone – she began the book as a master manipulator, trying to subtly put all the Thunderbolts under her control, and slowly finds herself starting to truly care for them and their heroism. This culminates in the big finale of the second act, where Moonstone is given a choice between the victory she thought she wanted and the heroic deed she always scorned. It’s really powerful and does an excellent job making Moonstone a fully realized character with vast potential.
In this era, the Thunderbolts are about redemption, and this is exemplified most clearly in the introduction of Charcoal, another young character like Jolt. While Jolt served as the figurehead for the fake heroism of the first act of the story (ironically by buying into it), Charcoal is the figurehead for their redemption. He’s a villain who fought against the Thunderbolts when they were pretending to be heroes, and wants nothing more than to get the same redemption they are seeking. The Thunderbolts’ relationship with Charcoal is directly correlated to the public’s relationship with the Thunderbolts – in order to be forgiven, they need to understand how to forgive.
But just like the first act, this status quo was not tenable in the long term. The Thunderbolts’ presence and trust from the public couldn’t be fraught forever – the book would end up getting stale. So yet again, Busiek and Bagley shake things up. Between Hawkeye making the Thunderbolts accountable for their crimes and leading the team to defeat the new Masters of Evil, the Thunderbolts finally reached a point where they were no longer actively hounded by the authorities. They could finally be heroes.
Unfortunately, this final segment is where the book falls to Busiek’s worst impulses. He’s always been a writer who loves to deal with continuity, and it’s very evident here – there’s a glee you can feel when a random tidbit is brought to the forefront, like the Champscraft. This begins to feel frustrating and overbearing in the last act of the book, as it feels like every other issue has a moment where a classic forgotten continuity wrinkle is brought up. I’m all for incorporating history and reusing older ideas, but this would ideally come with a revitalization of said ideas. It would feel additive. Instead, the constant focus on callbacks ends up making everything feel like hand-me-downs, in the worst way.
It doesn’t help that the team’s interpersonal drama stops being enjoyable the moment they have any respite. Songbird and Jolt both become really moody and grumpy and unlikable, Moonstone starts hooking up with Hawkeye and turns really catty, and the entire team just stops being enjoyable to read. There’s still good moments here and there – Hawkeye’s desire to accept repentant criminals comes back to bite him in a battle, for instance. But the book generally feels like it loses its sense of identity when the focal characters aren’t at odds with the general public, either secretly or openly.
This rather weak final act doesn’t prevent the rest of Busiek’s Thunderbolts run from being enjoyable, but it brings a damper to the experience. The very last page of his run is an announcement that he’s leaving, and that Fabian Nicieza will be taking the book over – and while this omnibus doesn’t collect anything beyond that, I still felt relief that something new would begin.
Despite all this, Thunderbolts has a very unique and interesting place in Marvel’s history. Its significance was both in-text and metatextual – when the Avengers were gone, when they no longer had a book, the Thunderbolts kept everyone interested. They kept everyone believing that there were heroes. And for a time, they were greater than those they set out to replace.