I read From The Marvel Vault: Thunderbolts last week, a neat little one-shot presenting a lost tale of Nomad written by Fabian Nicieza from the time he was the regular writer on Thunderbolts and pulled recently from Tom Brevoort’s drawer to see publication for the first time. The main story was good, but it was a quick missive from Thunderbolts co-creator and original writer Kurt Busiek on the letters page thanking the fans for their years of support that grabbed my attention.
Like the proud parent he deserves to be recognized as, Busiek pointed out that Thunderbolts has been going strong nearly 15 years now over the course of 150+ issues and with only one brief break in regular publication of an ongoing series. Considering the book began in 1997, hardly fertile breeding ground for long-running comic book success stories, that’s quite an achievement. Thunderbolts is among the most enduring mainstream creations of the 90’s—I’d rank it above Superboy, at least on par with Kyle Rayner, maybe a notch below Deadpool—a fact even more impressive given the unique niche it has staked out.
For those who don’t know, the original premise of Thunderbolts was that the Avengers and Fantastic Four had seemingly been killed during the Onslaught event, so a new team of heroes rose up, only to be revealed—to the reader at least—in one of the most shocking last pages of a first issue ever—as the Masters of Evil in disguise, pretending to be good guys with the promise by Baron Zemo of some future scheme in mind.
I’ve said it before, but books starring bad guys are generally a hard sell, and they were even in the 90’s. Quick character-building villain-centric minis are great, but sustaining an ongoing with a protagonist who’s a nasty person the audience can’t sympathize with, no matter how cool they think he/she/they are in the abstract, is usually a recipe for early cancellation or unfortunate watering down of the character core (Venom and Deathstroke in the 90’s being the prime example of the latter).
Thunderbolts has managed to last as long as it has in no small part because though it started out as a book about lying villains, it grew organically into the story of people who had made mistakes trying to do better, as the bulk of the team turned on Zemo, having gotten a taste of being heroes and wanting to go for the real deal. It wasn’t another case of psychotic Eddie Brock or mercenary Slade Wilson suddenly getting a conscience for sales’ sake, it was genuine and not always surefire attempts at redemption from well-chosen small time villains off the B-list or lower who were never mass murderers to begin with and were believably cast in their role. Everybody loves an underdog story, and in many that’s what Thunderbolts has been for the past 15 years.
Obviously when you’re thinking about “villain books” that have done well, another that immediately springs to mind is the fondly remembered Suicide Squad, a series I’ve made clear is one of my all-time personal favorites. In the grand scheme of things, the prime Suicide Squad ongoing lasted a little over five years and shy of 70 issues, but if you look back at the mark it left on fans and creators and how influential it has been in the intervening period, you can see that its success was measured by something beyond longevity.
Suicide Squad did not take the Thunderbolts approach in conquering the issue of a cast you didn’t necessarily want to cheer or sympathize with, as Deadshot and Captain Boomerang certainly never really seemed to be seeking any sort of legitimate redemption and even though Amanda Waller was ostensibly the Professor X of the Squad, no question she was—and remains—a total “rhymes with witch” (as well as one of the most unique and awesome characters around). Instead, the circumvention route of Suicide Squad was to make no apologies for how reprehensible much of the featured players were and also give you a rotating handful of identification figures who would inevitably get driven out by how awful these people were (Nightshade, Nemesis, Vixen), go over the edge from being surrounded by madness (Rick Flag) or do their best to grin and bear it while recognizing they couldn’t do much to change things (the stalwart Bronze Tiger). Of course you also had the gimmick that any character could go at any time—hence the name—and the reliably strong writing of John Ostrander, who oversaw things from beginning to bitter end.
Given that Thunderbolts and Suicide Squad are perhaps the two most prominent villain/pseudo-villain-centric series in comics history in terms of length and esteem, it’s not a shocker that they will draw the occasional comparisons. If Marvel and DC did another Amalgam event tomorrow, it’s a safe bet we’d see the Thunder Squad or Suicide Bolts led by Baron Waller. It makes sense, yet despite the fact that there are surface similarities—two teams of super criminals fighting on the side of good under some duress with a lot of interpersonal drama—really once you scratch that, the two concepts couldn’t be more different, and as a fan of both, I’m certainly happy for that because both work well.
At its core, Suicide Squad is a cynical book. It’s brilliant, but in the same way shows like The Sopranos or The Wire are (or so I am told, having never regularly watched either—don’t hit me!). It has many messages, but a pretty central one is that playing by the rules doesn’t always get the job done and sometimes criminals and killers can succeed where heroes would fail because they’re willing to go dark places.
By contrast, despite the fact it originally starred a group flat out called the Masters of Evil and has traveled to some pretty dire instances itself over the past decade and a half, Thunderbolts always has been and likely always be optimistic underneath it all. Its message is that even though not everybody can change for the better, enough can—and want to—that redemption is a concept worth believing in.
Even when it appeared Thunderbolts was becoming outwardly more like Suicide Squad, there was something about that redemptive theme buried at the core that I swear pulled the book back. Warren Ellis had a great run that indeed centered on more dangerous figures like Norman Osborn and Bullseye being put to work by the government and doing some truly heinous stuff, but look even there how many times unlikely heroism took center stage, be it Jack Flag overcoming the odds, American Eagle standing his ground, or Songbird fighting the system from within. I swear Busiek wove something into the DNA of Thunderbolts that even when you set out to tell the most deranged stories possible, a trickle of that inspirational underdog tale is going to sneak in and work its magic.
It’s really tough to make a villain book work in comics, but both Thunderbolts and Suicide Squad found their own path, and given how much I dig them both, I can’t wait until somebody shows me a third way.