The 90’s were an oft-maligned time for superhero comics, and a lot of the opprobrium that books from back then has gotten is undeserved. Oh sure, there was a lot of garbage, and sadly a lot of it sold really well—crap like Youngblood for example—but there was also a lot of damn good superhero comics during that decade. So I figured I would highlight one of my personal favorites: the first year of Thunderbolts.
The Fantastic Four and most of the Avengers had seemingly laid down their lives defeating the villain known as Onslaught. In reality, they were trapped in a pocket dimension where they would be written by Jim Lee and drawn by Rob Liefeld, which I would argue is a fate worse than death. While many heroes such as Spiderman, Daredevil, and the X-Men remain, they’re all either not all that powerful or simply mistrusted. The citizens of the Marvel universe are scared for their lives.
And then the Thunderbolts burst onto the scene. Lead by the Captain America-ish Citizen V, this bright, shiny, photogenic group of heroes seem to be everything the world needed at the time. And then at the end of issue one—in what was quite the shock to most readers at the time—we discover that Citizen V is really long time Captain America/Avengers villain Baron Zemo and his team of heroes are all fellow supervillains in disguise.
Zemo figured that by acting as heroes, his team could both work to eliminate the competition for conquest, other supervillains, while at the same time earning the trust of world governments and other super heroes. His plan is complicated when the team ends up having to take in a new young hero called Jolt when, after teaming up with her, reporters basically asked him if she would join in a way that left him with no way to say no and still look good. Also, Black Widow—one of the few remaining Avengers left—ends up borderline stalking the T-Bolts as she suspects something is amiss about them, though she’s not sure what.
And what’s more, a few T-Bolts begin to genuinely enjoy their role as heroes. In fact, it is ultimately most of the T-bolts who snatch victory from Zemo’s hands in issue 12.
This book not only had a fantastic premise, but an amazing creative team. Writer Kurt Busiek is one of the best writers in the superhero genre, and team books have always been when he really shinned. And I can’t even begin to sing the praises of artist Mark Bagley enough. If you told me to close my eyes and picture Spiderman, a Mark Bagley drawing is probably the first thing that would come to mind.
This book is filled with amazing character development, especially with Songbird and MACH-1. Not only does a romance develop between them, but their attempts at seeking redemption are particularly powerful. Also, Atlas has a rather interesting story arc. When push comes to shove, he is torn between a desire to be a hero and his loyalty to Zemo, to whom he literally owes his life.
If you want to check this out, and you should, issues 1-12 are rather easy to find in back issue bins and not all that expensive, although sometimes #1 goes for $5 or so. Also, while the Thunderbolts had more than a few guest appearances here and there, the only one I would say is all that relevant to their story is from Spiderman Team-Up #7. Or, you could just check out the first two volumes of the Thunderbolts Classics trade paperbacks which reprint them as well as their various guest appearances. These are some of the best superhero comics you’ve likely never read.
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