[This review comes from Doug Glassman:]
I've been on a Kurt Busiek kick in recent months. It's not because of Trinity (though it's an excellent series that's making up for the mistakes that Countdown made), but rather because I've been finding more and more of his Marvel trades. In the period during and after Heroes Reborn, Busiek was simultaneously writing Avengers, Iron Man and Thunderbolts, and he also wrote the Avengers Forever maxi-series that was my first review for this site.
I'll be getting to some of those Avengers trades later on (unfortunately, his Iron Man run has no trades that I can find easily). But for now, let's examine a team that became one of my favorites, partly on the sheer brilliance of the concept: the Thunderbolts. Reviewed here is Justice, Like Lightning, which collects the first four issues of their title and a few other very early appearances.
Imagine it's 1997. The Fantastic Four and just about all of the Avengers are dead, and heroes such as Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men and a very out-of-control Hulk are left behind to defend and rebuild. When the most trustworthy hero is the Black Widow, you know that the world has gone to pot. That's where the Thunderbolts come in: old-fashioned heroes who admire the Avengers and want to do some good. It's a neat scenario. Unfortunately, said heroes are also villains pulling the greatest scheme ever. In fact, only the addition of a new, naïve teenage member throws it off. The initial twist was wisely kept out of the solicitations, and only with great difficulty according to Busiek in the introduction. (Peter David even revised the solicit for the issue of Hulk that they first appear in to keep the secret.) While reading the first issue, try to forget for the moment that you most likely know the twist. It still works, even after all these years. Busiek's concept still shines.
It's partly because the Thunderbolts clearly emulate an Avengers team. Citizen V is a Captain America figure, and he even claims to be a legacy hero (when the real Citizen V shows up in a later comic, he's none too pleased either). Mach-1 is an armored hero in the fine Iron Man tradition. Atlas is a growing man, and there have been numerous Giant-Men and Goliaths on the team. Meteorite's energy projection powers and blonde hair are more than a little similar to Ms. Marvel/Warbird, who returns to the team in Busiek's Avengers run. Songbird's red energy blasts call to mind the Scarlet Witch's hex powers, both in color and in what they can do. Jolt and Techno are a bit too modern compared to the others and don't quite have analogues, but there are no outright anti-heroes that would ruin the illusion. Busiek aims for the icons, and his aim is true. (Were the Executioner alive, he would have made a brilliant fake Thor and would have rounded out the team, but that's just my opinion.)
Like any good heist story or villain scheme, much of the action comes from the plan falling apart. Kurt Busiek knows exactly what he's doing by forcing these ex-villains to confront their pasts. This is especially true when the Thunderbolts take on the Masters of Evil … except that they're the real Masters of Evil and the name has been co-opted by another criminal for her flunkies.
Citizen V is actually Baron Zemo, whose father founded the Masters and who led the team that stormed the Avengers Mansion, so you can imagine how he feels when he learns that the name has been appropriated. When the Bolts must either capture or exonerate Spider-Man for a crime he did not commit, Mach-1 has to stop himself from killing him. This is because Mach-1 was Abner Jenkins, the lowlife Beetle, whom Spider-Man has constantly defeated. With the good publicity the team has received, he's more of a hero than Spidey, a concept that has more than one Thunderbolt reconsider ever ending the illusion. Jolt's introduction and addition to the team forces Zemo to come up with a creative back story for how the Thunderbolts assembled. As he lies in narration, the truth comes out, drawn by numerous guest artists such as George Perez, Tom Grummet and the great Gene Colan.
I mentioned Trinity earlier, in part because the artist there is also the artist here. Mark Bagley may now be more widely known for his artwork on Ultimate Spider-Man, but his big break was on this book. He draws in a 1990s house style here, but considering the time period, when all of the companies had to ape Image's style to be profitable, it's acceptable. However, his anatomy and attention to detail are excellent. I'm taken out of the story if the heroes don't look like human beings, but that never happens here. Part of the trouble may also be the washed-out coloring in the first issue, which gets resolved later on.
Bagley gets to redesign villains into heroes, and all turn out well. Compare the Thunderbolts to their old Masters of Evil selves and most of them come out for the better. (This is especially true for Goliath and Screaming Mimi, who are now presentable as Atlas and Songbird.) I always give an artist a few issues to work out the kinks, and this is definitely true for Bagley, as the art style solidifies later on.
Some books have a brilliant premise but don't come close to delivering on it. This is not one of those books. From the reveal at the end of the first issue to Zemo's brilliant bailing-out at the end, Kurt Busiek puts these villains-not-really-turned-heroes through their paces. Aided by Bagley's clear (if slightly dated) penciling, one of Marvel's great teams gets its start. To tell the truth, I'm not reading Ellis' revamp of the team, in part because he discards much of the initial premise. But I'm also not leaving this as my last review of Thunderbolts. You'll soon be seeing reviews of the New Thunderbolts revamp by Fabian Nicieza (another Trinity staff member). Until then, I highly recommend Justice, Like Lightning.
[Contains cover images and introduction by Kurt Busiek. $19.95.]