Review: Fear Itself: Thunderbolts hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

I miss the Thunderbolts.

I have nothing against Daniel Way and Steve Dillon’s recent version featuring Red Hulk, Deadpool, Elektra, and other anti-heroes, and I get that the name “Thunderbolts” worked for that team because it was organized by General Thunderbolt Ross. But for me, Thunderbolts means that at least some of the original members are involved, usually Songbird and Moonstone. The latter stayed with the old Thunderbolts book when it was reconfigured and rebranded as Dark Avengers, but that book didn’t feel like Thunderbolts either. I was hoping that Songbird would join Luke Cage’s Mighty Avengers, but that’s not the direction Marvel wants to go in.

That’s a shame, since Thunderbolts: Fear Itself demonstrates how brilliantly the title worked as an “outsider’s view” of Marvel. At this point in the series, Jeff Parker was ready to shift the story after spending so much time setting up all of the pieces. This began in Violent Rejection with the introduction of the “Underbolts” B-team and the suspension of Juggernaut. Moving Juggernaut off of the team was mandatory due to Fear Itself, but the full transition was quite a surprise when I was reading it at the time. Parker also started setting up for Dark Avengers by putting an extra focus on Raft warden John Walker/USAgent.

Like most big events, Fear Itself ended up being a better launching pad for good stories instead of being a good tale in its own right. There was simply too much going on between the Red Skull’s daughter, seven evil beings with Thor-equivalent power, and the hard-to-reconcile origins of “The Serpent." The Thunderbolts tie-in has the advantage of being directly connected to one of the major characters, so the events have much more weight compared to other tie-ins. I never quite understood how the Hulk and especially the Thing were seduced into evil, but the recruitment of the Juggernaut makes perfect sense. His insecurity and hatred of both himself and others are well-established character traits so it’s simple enough for the Serpent to recruit him telepathically.

On his way to other crossovers, the Juggernaut, now “Kurrth, Breaker of Stone," destroys the Raft, leading to the four stories that make up issue #159. The first follows the Underbolts as they help corral the other inmates while planning their eventual escape. The second (and most enjoyable) is about Moonstone helping a group of female prisoners, regaining their trust after they believe she sold out. The third sees John Walker dealing with a pair of prisoners who would rather die escaping than help anyone out. The final story catches up with Crossbones and how utterly, horribly ruthless he is. It makes his mental break in the pages of Deadpool vs. SHIELD feel like a bit of karma.

Declan Shalvey illustrates the main confrontation between the team and Kurrth. I knew he had a lot of potential back in 2012, but it took teaming up with Jordie Bellaire to really bring out his best. Frank Martin does a good job with the coloring, but since Shalvey was trying to imitate Kev Walker while he drew Thunderbolts, it looks almost entirely different. This arc includes one of the most innovative sequences I’ve ever seen in a comic when the Ghost allows himself, Songbird, Moonstone, and Satana to enter Kurrth’s mind. The four are rendered as hieroglyphs and the entire mindscape is a complex mosaic with a very literal interpretation of the Serpent’s hold over the Juggernaut.

There’s not a lot of direct combat between the Thunderbolts and their former teammate; after he defeats them, he runs off to San Francisco to face off with Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men. That’s another book where the story succeeds despite Greg Land’s artwork as Cyclops tries every single plan possible, from Adam-X boiling Kurrth’s blood to Magneto dropping an aircraft carrier on him. Instead, the 'Bolts spend most of their time fighting the Serpent’s demon invasion. Their approach from the ocean reminds me a lot of the frog monsters from Hellboy and are likely an intentional Lovecraft tribute.

During this pitched battle, yet another incredible moment occurs as the pay-off to having Man-Thing on the team. The poor creature is out of control thanks to all the fear generated by the Worthy and he does his best to absorb the Serpent’s demons. As a result, he grows to a great height, and the four words readers have waited for years to see in a comic are finally said: “Giant-Size Man-Thing." It’s actually one of the images that the book concludes on. Parker was never an advocate of six-issue arcs, so the trade ends rather suddenly. I see this less as a problem and more as an incentive for readers to pick up the next trade, The Great Escape, as soon as possible.

Even without the Thunderbolts in its classic form since Fear Itself, Marvel was able to fill the “quirky villain niche” for a while with Superior Foes of Spider-Man. That book happens to star the Shocker and Boomerang, two members of the Underbolts, making it an extension of sorts to Parker’s book. (Boomerang even wore his Thunderbolts belt buckle throughout the run.) None of the Secret Wars titles seen so far seem to indicate any strong return of the Thunderbolts as either a team of reformed heroes or a bunch of pressganged villains. It would be wonderful if the original incarnation appeared in X-Men ‘92. Until they return, I highly advise going back and checking out the Cagebolts era of Thunderbolts ... even if Cage doesn’t actually appear with the team in this trade.
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