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So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Can we talk about Marvel NOW’s Thunderbolts a sec?

Marvel NOW‘s most fascinating new premise isn’t exactly what fans were hoping for. Any chance of turning this monstrous, sun-burned ship around?

Thunderbolts NOW cover

PREVIOUSLY… ON COMIC BOOKS: Hot off the heels of DC’s New 52, Marvel spun its 2012 annual event, AVX, into a half-expected, universe-wide reboot called Marvel NOW! The most notable shake ups were evident in their flagship titles and new blood was injected into creative teams. Some of the X-Men joined the Avengers. Doctor Octopus became Spider-Man (wait– what?). And once again, a new team of Thunderbolts hit the scene.

Nope, not those ”Thunderbolts.” In the interest of somehow further cluttering 60 years of tangled continuity, Marvel debuted a new team of well-known characters under the same moniker as an unrelated 15-year series just as a nod to a nickname of an alter ego character who first appeared in 1962. Get it yet? No? Too late. Boom: Introducing Marvel NOW’s Thunderbolts, written by Daniel Way and drawn by Steve Dillon.

The premise isn’t without charm: Red Hulk (Hulk nemesis General “Thunderbolt” Ross), leaves the Avengers to assemble his very own black-ops team of Marvel “lone wolves”: Deadpool, Elektra, the new Venom (Flash Thompson), Punisher, and obscure Hulk baddie, Mercy. Could be cool, right? …Right? (bro-five?)

No. No bro-five. Three issues in and Thunderbolts is already Marvel NOW’s most unpopular title. Words like “disappointing,” “lifeless,” and “yawn” have been used to describe the series. IGN even likened it to fan fiction, which would be a rather uncalled-for barb if anyone who’s actually read it couldn’t help but sheepishly agree. Steve! Daniel! Marvel threw you the keys to some of its most popular cult characters. How’d we get here?

First Issue-itis

Thunderbolts Elektra KissLet’s assume these two share at least one panel together before this happens.

Remember a decade or so ago when popular comics adopted a multi-issue story format and writers didn’t have to scramble to spin a whole yarn in a single issue? It’s called “comic depcompression,” and the freedom it’s allowed has enabled writers and artists to be more nuanced, subtle, and cinematic. It has matured comics; and also suckered us chumps into buying more issues to see storylines through. Hooray.

Thunderbolts isn’t guilty of cramming entire storylines into a single issue, but it did, unfortunately, try to sell its entire concept in its debut outing. This is a pretty common practice – the last #1 I read like this was Image’s Haunt, which worked – but Marvel made an error in its first issue by presenting a bunch of established, misanthropic, go-it-alone characters with the opportunity to team up, and with little to no resistance… they just do.

What Way and Marvel should have realized is that the union of these characters isn’t the beginning of its maiden story – it should have been the end. Because reviewers and fans are right: why would Punisher, Deadpool, and Elektra fly in the face of decades of character development and suddenly become all kumbaya? Isn’t the selling of this team more satisfying if these characters have to actually *discover* that they work well together? Hell, let’s get real – just a single scene of these people all in the same room would get some gears moving in the right direction.

It isn’t too late for Way’s brisk treatment to bear fruit – one can hope that all of the assumptions and off-screen developments are ample opportunity to pull the wool over our eyes. But with a title already spotlighting a bunch of fan favorites, the debut issue feels like missed opportunity to unveil the series as simply the promise that these characters will join forces… instead of the unmotivated group high five it feels like.

Artist/Concept mismatch

thunderbolts faces-Bedroom eyes-

There have been black-op teams of Thunderbolts before. When things got super gnarly just before and after the 2008 Secret Invasion event, a crop of artists rendered the series with grim ferocity. Deodato. de la Torre. Sepulveda. These are guys whose phone numbers you want if you’re creating a “superhero” team that’s actually a gaggle of psychotic criminals.

Steve Dillon is a talented artist and a Punisher and Deadpool vet who’s been working in-and-out of Marvel for quite some time. He’s particularly skilled at selling facial expressions, even with masked characters, which is nothing to sneeze at. But for all the well-placed eyebrows, Dillon’s big, clean, almost Pixar-esque style doesn’t quite fit the bill for Way’s scripts. The layouts are devoid of kinetics, and there’s little shadow, dread, or menace to be had for such a bloodthirsty cast of characters. For all the mayhem Way pens, every on-page kill looks less like grissly violence and more like something you want to dip your fries into.

But the word on the street is that Dillon’s moving on and Marvel’s already announced that Phil Noto will be taking over art duties starting issue #7. Hopefully Noto’s pencil will start to edge Thunderbolts towards tonal harmony, but at the very least, Phil – if you’re listening – can you please settle something that’s bothering everyone? General Ross, he has a mustache, correct? But when he turns into the Red Hulk, the Red Hulk, he– he’s got no mustache, Phil. Please, we’re begging you, WTF IS GOING ON?

Where is the rest of Marvel?

Thunderbolts Red HulkWHEEEEERRRRREEE!!!???

Say what you will about Marvel, but for half a century they’ve staged a world of ridiculously dressed characters and ludicrous concepts and somehow woven it all into a single, fantastic tapestry. The “Marvel Universe” feels infinitely pregnant with believable possibilites. Could the Howlin’ Comandos have liberated a young Magneto’s concentration camp? Could S.H.I.E.L.D. forcibly reassemble a wetworks Weapon X squad? Could there be a federal petition that, until a time of crisis, Cap should be once again be put on ice? The world these books paint is endlessly fun… and completely absent from the new Thunderbolts series.

Thunderbolts #3 scores a point or two for featuring Hulk villains Leader and Madman, but it still amounts to a lot of edge-nibbling. Why assemble a team of high profile characters just to partition them into some Rambo-style jungle mission they had to dig to find out about anyway? Where’s the splash? A series debut is not the time to halfheartedly split jingoistic hairs. It’s tedious, empty, and starving for emotional and narrative context. Is Bullseye, Eddie Brock, or Galactus or someone going to be vacationing at this tropical country anytime soon? Because if not, this T-Bolt team needs to seriously pack their bags for NYC.

It is possible that this segregation is Marvel’s call (see: Jeff Parker’s Dark Avengers, another low priority Marvel team that has been inexplicably time traveling and surfing alternate dimensions for nearly two goddamn years), but this quarantine from the rest of the Marvel Universe is a tourniquet on vital, fantasy world lifeblood. The latest Marvel press release notes that upcoming Thunderbolts shenanigans may grab the attention of the Avengers come Spring…

And for the first time, I’m glad to hear that such a bunch of squares might crash the party.

Marvel’s Thunderbolts #4, written by Daniel Way and drawn by Steve Dillon, is on sale this week.
Our giant, red fingers are crossed.

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