Wednesday, January 2, 2019

I Stand With The Thunderbolts!

While there have been a number of times when comic book "gods" have been bested or otherwise humbled by mortals, it's hard to imagine a scenario more brutal than the one we witnessed in late 1986, when Hercules of Olympus was set upon by the Masters of Evil--a rebranding of the classic super-villain group from the earliest issues of The Avengers, this time led by the son of Baron Zemo and with more members added to their ranks.

Unlike the Sinister Six, Zemo's group has obviously embraced the tactic of attacking their foe(s) en masse--and despite their mob mentality, they've also demonstrated that they're adept at intelligence gathering and willing to follow Zemo's carefully laid-out plan. In this case, one of their members, the Wrecker, has bought a few rounds for Hercules at a local bar and goaded him into anger by exposing his growing rift with the Avengers' chairwoman, the Wasp--which later leads to Hercules abandoning his monitor duties at Avengers Mansion in order to accept an offer from a charming woman to join her on a midnight cruise (said woman secretly being in the employ of Zemo), leaving the mansion deserted, and vulnerable.

All of which leads to Hercules disobeying orders and tackling the Masters on his own following their invasion of Avengers Mansion. Even being (thanks to our young lady) thoroughly inebriated and drugged, Hercules gives a good accounting of himself--but the tide is turned against him when the powerhouse known as Goliath (Erik Josten, the former Power Man) steps in and delivers a thrashing that sets up Hercules for one of the most savage beatings of his immortal life.

The road to recovery was likely a difficult one for Hercules (it wasn't so easy for the Avengers, either!). But when he's back in circulation and learns from a news report that the heroes known as the Thunderbolts have been revealed to be former members of the Masters of Evil, he comes looking for Josten (now the Thunderbolt called Atlas) in the Colorado rockies--and his intentions are clear from the moment of his explosive arrival!

Noting the date of this story, it took just over twelve years (our time) for Hercules to at last be on the cusp of some measure of retribution for the trauma he suffered at the hands of the Masters. But since the Wrecking Crew and Mister Hyde never transitioned to the Thunderbolts, it looks like Hercules has settled on the one member he can still hold accountable for the beatings he took--the mocking and insolent villain who struck from behind and then watched, grinning and laughing, as his compatriots beat Hercules to within an inch of his life (if that). But as for Atlas, the jury may be out as to whether he'll be the one who goes down in this fight!

We also discover in this story that Hawkeye, having infiltrated the Thunderbolts, has sympathized with their efforts to turn their lives around and decided to stay and lend his expertise to them as team leader, in the belief that they can be reformed. So this crisis turns out to be an important hurdle of trust for him--not simply in how he deals with Hercules, a longtime ally, but in demonstrating to the team that he believes in them and is willing to step into the line of fire on their behalf.

Under the circumstances, his first thought--to try to defuse the situation with Hercules--is a sensible approach to take, given that he knows Hercules from their Avengers days and is something of a friend to him. But Hercules is impetuous on the best of days--and in Atlas, he doesn't see the potential for heroism that Hawkeye does. He only sees a villain who has not paid for his crimes--and whose personal debt to himself has not been settled.

With that, and despite Hawkeye's warning that their actions in defending Atlas will only escalate this conflict, the T-bolts leap to Atlas's defense--a time-honored response in the comics world that I have no doubt the Fantastic Four or the Avengers would give under similar circumstances. That's not to say that Hawkeye didn't make the right call--only that Jolt's words were the ones her teammates felt obliged to support.

It's also interesting to note during this struggle that writer Kurt Busiek has a decent line on the character of Moonstone, the only other Thunderbolt present who was part of Zemo's Masters of Evil and whose psychological astuteness is often her weapon of choice in dealing with a foe. Here, her prickling words to Hercules are meant to distract him into hesitation and thus provide Hawkeye with another chance to get him to cease and desist; but it's Hawkeye who turns out to be better qualified in reading how Hercules is likely to react.

But to Josten's credit, he steps up to not only run interference for his team, but to speak the only language that Hercules will listen to in his current state.

Each of these men has a certain foundation on which to defend their actions in this battle. Atlas admits he doesn't have a leg to stand on where his past actions are concerned*, but nevertheless feels obligated to defend his comrades whom Hercules has already announced he'll move on to next--while Hercules sees this situation only in black and white, leaving no room for gray areas such as loyalty or friendship on the Thunderbolts' part--least of all their desire to turn over a new leaf.

*There is no official pardon in the offing for the Thunderbolt members, which relagates them to the status of fugitives--currently leaving them with no option but to let their case play out in the court of public opinion.

But things swing their way significantly, when Hawkeye demonstrates where his loyalties lie and puts himself on the line for those he's been frank with about his desire to help. The moment becomes the foot in the door with the Thunderbolts that he was hoping for--and for his new crew, a sign that he has their best interests at heart.

Except for what he's accomplished with and for the T-bolts, there is no silver lining here for Hawkeye, who has effectively burned his bridges with the Avengers as well as the law (and certainly with Hercules) but, on the other hand, has had his character expanded as a result because of the choice he's made here; while for any new Thunderbolts reader, Busiek has taken advantage of the momentum the book has built with its first 21 issues, not only with the addition of Hawkeye but by having these former hardened criminals make reasonable decisions that take into account their lawless pasts (which in this issue includes Mach-1 turning himself in for the murders he committed when he was the Beetle), rather than simply continuing to deceive the public. It's not an easy wire at all for this kind of book to walk--and Hercules may be the tip of the iceberg as far as complications from the past which these people will have to face.

Thunderbolts #22

Script: Kurt Busiek
Pencils: Mark Bagley
Inks: Scott Hanna
Letterer: Liz Agraphiotis


Big Murr said...

I'm with Hercules on this one. Erik "Power Man/(no name)/Goliath" Josten's career was too dark and nasty for an "Oopsy. Sorry" to cut any mustard.

Give him "the Gift", Herc!!

Maybe if I had ever followed the Thunderbolts beyond snippets and occasional issues, I'd be more on-board with their road to redemption theme. But, I never did and so all I see are hardcore villains getting a free pass. If they were truly repentant, they would follow Mach 1 and let an actual court settle matters, not the "court of public opinion". Maybe I'm cheating with my "crystal ball", but only months ago in Defenders, Fixer and Moonstone were full-on goons for hire, off to take down the aforementioned Defenders. So much for the path to heroism.

(PS I have to confess I did collect the Thunderbolts when Luke Cage was their keeper and the team had nanites controlling them on these heroic work furloughs. Because, I guess, having them on a leash made more sense. And the time travel story arc was great because though they were villains, they weren't psychopaths and knew they had to do the "right thing" to preserve themselves and reality/history.)

(PPS and after the solid storytelling art of John Buscema, the efforts of Bagley et al looks painfully florid)

Comicsfan said...

I tend to agree with you, Murray, about hardcore villains such as Power Man, the Sandman, et al. being able to wipe the slate clean as far as their past actions are concerned, particularly when they don't strike one as being the type to turn over a new leaf; then again, wiping the slate clean is part of the point of doing prison time. But lengthy prison stays have always been a slippery slope in Marvel stories, since prison sentences by necessity must be completed in record time so that even the most dangerous villains committing the harshest crimes can be back on the street and menacing our heroes a.s.a.p.

When the Thunderbolts were formed, the Masters (including Goliath) were listed "at large," even though you'd think that most of them would have been captured following their battle with the Avengers. But let's say for the sake of argument that during the time inbetween, Goliath indeed was tried, convicted, and sent to the Big House to do his time. If he indeed served his sentence, Hercules would have no legal grounds for going after him (though he doubtless derived satisfaction from it). I don't think I'd have any problem with Goliath deciding to turn over a new leaf, if that's the case--but those weren't the circumstances under which the Thunderbolts were formed by Zemo Jr.

Warren JB said...

Conversely, I think I'd come down on the side of the Thunderbolts here. Part of it is that I've always been a sucker for a redemption arc, though after reading the article and comments here, I think part of the issue is that there really only is 'the court of public opinion' in these fictional universes - the opinion of the writers and editors in how to use the characters, and the opinion of readers in how they react.
That, and the fact that while there might be a certain satisfaction in showing that the system works and criminals pay their dues to society, watching supervillains stew in their cells wouldn't make for an exciting story; not all the time, anyway. As CF says, they need to be periodically broken out of prison (or the spooky gothic asylum) to menace our heroes. How much more interesting is it if they're broken out and decide for themselves to alleviate past misdeeds - to go straight? We've already got arachnofolk with guilt complexes, thunder gods learning humility, canadian killing machines fighting their past, a giant green rage monster who's shrugged off more pardons and second (third, fourth, fifth?) chances than I can remember... room for any others?

That last thought brings me to Fixer and Moonstone in Big Murr's comment. How far back did that happen? Hearing about it makes me tired. It's an example of what might generously be called the 'cyclical' nature of comics narratives; or the futility of continuity when fly-by-night writers struggle to make their ephemeral mark with characters from their comics-reading youth - no matter how or where those characters were when last seen. It's one of the big problems with those redemption arcs I like so much: sooner or later you know some hack bozo is going to rewind them right back to cackling red-eyed villain.

Just ask Flint Marko.

Big Murr said...

The redemption tale is a grand one, no question. But, I guess I just find myself balking at some characters. The examples Warren cites are essentially decent folk that required some effort to buff out the rough spots. Hawkeye being another "grey character" that stepped across to the light. Then there are characters where buffing away their rough spots would leave nothing but a a pile of shavings and sawdust.

And again, you're both correct in that seeing the villain doing time would be boring. And I'm not a real fan of such incarceration in reality, either. Maybe that's why I was intrigued at the Thunderbolts period I referenced where the cons volunteered for "Hero Detail" in order to help spiff up their records. Few, if any, of them were anticipating joining the Avengers upon parole, but the working off their debt with this extraordinary community service appealed to me. I guess I was one of the few who liked it, since those Thunderbolts were shelved and then the title returned with some sort of greasy "black ops" Suicide Squad of nefarious scofflaws.

Warren: Fixer and Moonstone (and Titania) appeared a few months ago in the 12-issue mini-series, The Defenders (Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil and Jessica Jones).

Sales always rip the coherency out of stories. Depending on which title is selling best dictates if Thor beats the Hulk or vice versa. Why didn't the Avengers arrest the Thunderbolts? I guess the Thunderbolts comic was making decent coin at the time. Fixer and Moonstone were no longer protected by being in the book, so they were fair game to use as goons and take a shellacking.

Jared said...

The first twelve issues of this book when the Avengers were thought dead were great. The end of the first issue when they are revealed to be the MoE is one of the few great Marvel moments of the 90s.

Unfortunately, the redemption angle never worked after the Avengers and FF came back. The characters were not interesting enough to care about as heroes (and much more interesting characters like Deadpool and Venom had redemption themes going at this point).

I never felt this way but I have a friend who complained that it was really hard to follow Busiek's Thunderbolts if you weren't familiar with (at the time) 30+ years of Marvel history.

DamonO said...

For the record, Atlas/Goliath was not the only member of the Masters of Evil that Hercules got another shot at. He fought the Wrecking Crew again after that beating, but had to overcome some serious PTS before getting his groove back and whipping butt (See Thor #418, 1st series).