Welp, Thunderbolts is over.
Last week at Wondercon, Marvel announced that this summer, Thunderbolts, a title that has weathered success in fits and starts for 15 years, would be retitled, recast, and, for all intents and purposes, rebooted as a new Avengers title. Comics and Hollywood have learned a lot of PR vocabulary from each other recently, so allow me to borrow some industry terms that really apply here: Thunderbolts is cancelled. Axed. Shelved. Shit-canned. It will not be picked up for another season.
Most people won’t notice. Developed by Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley, the series initially made a huge splash when, at the end of the first issue, the new team of do-gooders is revealed to be a familiar cast of disguised super villains (led by baddie Baron Zemo) conspiring to get into the nation’s good graces. It sounds almost trite now, but this was 1997. A full decade after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns… and Marvel is chiefly known for pumping profits with frustrating crossover schedules and killing off love interests. So Thunderbolts was fresh. It was innovative. For Marvel, it was over-achieving. And a hit.
But beyond it’s initial twist, lightning was hard to keep in the bottle. Served up under a tagline best sarcastically cackled (“Justice, like lightning…”), Busiek’s stories about villains accidentally discovering their capacity for good were fantastic reads quickly overshadowed by name Marvel books. Even when Warren Ellis shook up the cast in 2006 with Green Goblin, Venom, and Bullseye, it remained a “minor” Marvel title; one you’d seldom see an print ad for. Its logo you couldn’t find on a T-shirt. Its stories never spun into a feature film.
And that’s a shame, because in a post Disney/Robert Downey Jr. world, Marvel’s priorities have shifted. Gone are the days it was making ballsy decisions with its books. They’re making films now, ruthlessly protecting their properties, and making sure their flagship characters have “Mickey Mouse” levels of visibility. All of this hides behind a glut of homogenized titles, a monthly heap that kept Thunderbolts on its fringes for the entirety of the book’s run.
Thunderbolts‘ anonymity was a double edged sword. There’s no denying that reliance on second and third tier characters hurt its popularity, but the fact that the flew under the radar gave it the freedom to be loud and weird. After the team was recently dispatched to Iraq and is attacked by zombies under an Islamic curse, I remember thinking “if this were Avengers, they (and the publishers) would look like complete colonialist douches.” But the Thunderbolts didn’t. The title’s premise and lack of public attention afforded it to be edgy, dark, and grimy – a welcome reprieve from their increasingly polished cousins.
“Rebooting” Thunderbolts isn’t a completely unreasonable idea – editors have been dispelling cancellation rumors since before the series hit its third year. But all past shake-ups have sprouted organically from the book’s premise. Conspiracy became scandal, scandal became hiding, hiding became capture, capture, servitude. Only once has the title been completely overhauled, ditching the cast in favor of tales of an underground fighting circuit (…what?!). That only lasted six issues before Marvel realized what readers were thinking: “Sweet Jesus, this is terrible.”
So, while there is a chance we’ll see the Thunderbolts reunited again, Marvel’s plan remains frustratingly transparent. The replacing title will only retain Luke Cage, Avenger character and johnny-come-lately to the Thunderbolts world. The new reforming villains are recent stars of New Avengers. And, I’m don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s this Hollywood motion picture coming out called… The Avengers. Maybe it’s cynical to assume Marvel is simply trying to capitalize on an 8 billionth product with “Avengers” slapped on it, but the company isn’t exactly being coy. They don’t have to be.
In a bit of irony, the series replacing Thunderbolts, Dark Avengers, is a vague spin-off of a seminal Marvel series from 2009 that was an extension of the Thunderbolts concept. Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato’s Dark Avengers, when not being a surprisingly deft allegory for the Bush Administration (seriously), was about the deception of branding – how putting a criminal in a hero’s costume could still garner trust and celebration; the ease of benefiting from audience pandering by dressing anything up in recognized packaging. In the “Marvel Universe,” this was lofty, rare territory. In the real universe, you’d be stupid not to expect it… even from your local comic stand.
And here we are.
So, so long Songbird, Mach-V, Moonstone, Fixer, and Atlas. Later Bullseye, Venom, Penance, and Swordsman. Peace out Satana, Juggernaut, and Ghost. We’ll miss your scrappiness, your audacity, your gleefully imperfect surveying of that blurry line separating right and wrong.
Here’s hoping your return to the page is swift. Like lightning.