52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
In the midst of the major Marvel event, Civil War, the superhero community was torn asunder by rivaling factions of superheroes. Warren Ellis would show what the villains were up to during this time period, working with Mike Deodato to reinvent the villainous team, The Thunderbolts, as a corporate funded team who hunted down unregistered superheroes. The series would prove to be a rather pivotal piece of the ever-changing comic landscape at Marvel, giving readers a glimpse of what was soon to come.
Thunderbolts Ultimate Collection
Under the guidance of Norman Osborn, an all new team of Thunderbolts is assembled in the wake of a superhero Civil War. The Civil War has left the superhero community equally divided, with the government calling for all superheroes to register their true identities so that the world can feel safer. Norman Osborn and his Thunderbolts are tasked with going out into the field and capturing any unregistered superheroes so they can be tried by the government for their “crimes”. With a Thunderbolts team full of reformed or current villains, Osborne takes this abstract and emotionally fragile cast of characters to unexpected places, being placed in charge of a group of individuals more so than a team.
Warren Ellis hits all the right notes during his Thunderbolts run, capturing the classic essence of the team while also adding his own wrinkles in with his amazing cast of characters. Simply put, Ellis’ Thunderbolts run is an unexpected instant classic, providing a much stronger story than you’d ever expect from this ragtag group of rogues. Ellis and his Thunderbolts actually serve as a prelude to some much larger things that would occur just a few short months later in the Marvel Universe, seemingly setting the table for a time period called “Dark Reign”, wherein Norman Osborn takes over S.H.I.E.L.D. and founds “The Dark Avengers”, a team of Avengers who are actually just villains in superhero disguises. Although some of the work during that era was excellent, Warren Ellis sets it all up here and it might actually be better than the amazing Bendis run of Dark Avengers.
Let’s touch on the plot of this Thunderbolts collection first: in Civil War, a battle between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers over the registration of heroes and their secret identities is in full swing. The Thunderbolts, backed by Norman Osborn, are responsible for capturing any unregistered heroes still out on the streets, with these heroes being considered criminals. With that basic premise in mind, it seems like it would be incredibly simple for any writer to halfheartedly phone it in with some slack scripts and lazy plotting, just moving along until the next major Marvel event shook the status quo up. Ellis doesn’t phone it in whatsoever here, scripting out amazing action sequences (that wouldn’t work as well without the amazing artistic talent of Mike Deodato), interesting character beats and tons of insane moments that you just wouldn’t expect. From the word go Ellis seemingly skips the frying pan and throws the Thunderbolts directly into the fire. The team never actually face heroes who you’d consider part of the “Big Leagues”, instead tackling heroes like Jack Flag or Steel Spider, with the true challenge for this team falling in the range of actually trying to be a team. These psychotic and depraved Thunderbolts all have their own agendas that they try to take on when out in the field, with everyone’s personal interest always contrasting with someone else on the team. The plot frequently explores the lack of communication between the characters but is careful to not retread that territory too much, approaching the topic in different ways all the way to the end.
Warren Ellis creates a compelling and interesting team of Thunderbolts because of who he casts into different roles on the team. Bringing together Moonstone, Songbird, Bullseye, Radioactive Man, Venom, Penance, and Swordsman, you get such a bizarre collection of characters all falling on peculiar spots within the emotional and psychological spectrum. Ellis gives us immediate conflict between Moonstone and Songbird, having the two character vie for leadership of the team, with each woman feeling as though they can bring different elements to the role. Then you’ve got characters like Radioactive Man, Penance and The Swordsman who all have highly emotional stakes in this operation. Every member is promised a pardon and a large sum of money to complete one year of work as a Thunderbolt but with characters like The Swordsman there are more personal elements to his contract, being promised a cloned version of his dead sister. Radioactive Man has to come to terms with how the media portrays him, knowing that his appearance isn’t as lethal as the media suggests. Penance is looking for…well…penance, being directly responsible for the death of over 600 people during the event that actually kicked off Civil War and the cry for registered superheroes.
I’d classify a second part of the cast as your big time crazy characters like Bullseye and Venom, who anchor out some truly exciting moments in the story. Mac Gargan, the former Spider-Man villain The Scorpion, is the latest host for Venom and throughout Thunderbolts you watch his fight with the symbiote’s violent nature and influence. With Bullseye, Ellis crafts a character who is essentially the last line of defense. Bullseye is the man who gets the job done with general ease when no one else on the team can and seems to have way too much fun doing it. Although Ellis’ handling of these psychotic characters is truly sublime, it’s his use of the mentally unstable Norman Osborn that seemingly always steals the show. In having Norman Osborn, otherwise known as The Green Goblin, back this team, you get this sense of inevitability. You know that the Green Goblin is always lurking in the back of Osborn’s psyche, waiting to crawl out when it gets the first chance and this is something Ellis teases out beautifully throughout the entire volume. It starts out in rather minor detail but the further you go with the story, the more you see Norman’s mental state dissolve closer to becoming that of the Green Goblin’s. It’s so rich and simple, doing things like having Norman mistakenly hear the name Spider-Man or mix it up when talking about similar heroes, to suggest that the Goblin is always there. By the end of this volume, you get the sense that Ellis’ entire run was meant to build towards having the Green Goblin come through.
For Ellis, his truly brilliant moments all fall on his handling of his characters and the things he puts them through. As I pointed out in the previous paragraph, Norman Osborn’s battle to keep the Green Goblin at bay is just one of the many examples of what I’m talking about. Ellis does some particularly excellent work with characters like Penance, Venom, Songbird and Bullseye, giving every one of these characters some truly interesting and emotional moments. Penance struggles with all the death he caused, being regarded as a villain instead of a hero. Venom’s struggle of man vs. symbiote and how it affects him in the field. Songbird’s investment in her former role as leader. Bullseye’s mental state as a result of his health woes and battles with Daredevil. All these themes are explored brilliantly and provide you with more than enough exciting moments to keep you hooked all the way through.
Collects: Thunderbolts #110-121
Best Character(s): Bullseye and Norman Osborn
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “You know I always wondered why super heroes wear bright colours and bold designs along with their masks. If the point is that they don’t want to be recognized, why isn’t everyone in black ski masks and padded tactical gear?” – Doc Samson
Best Scene/Moment: Norman Osborn takes matters into his own hands – Issue 120
Best Issue: Issue 111. I picked this issue because it’s so hard to choose the best issue from this run by Ellis. Not every issue is a home run but there are more than enough issues in this collection that could easily make the claim for being the best. Issue 111 gets the nod as it’s the first time you get to see the team in action and Bullseye steals the show late in the game with a scene that is familiar but still incredibly disturbing.
Why You Should Read It: We’ve seen teams of bad guys doing the work of good guys so many times in comics. That’s why teams like the Suicide Squad, Thunderbolts, or even the Dark Avengers exist. But Ellis’ time with the Thunderbolts examines some complex moral issues in ways that are both exciting and satisfying. It’s a great cast of good and bad guys who will all put up great arguments to be your favourite character. Ellis and Deodato redefine how to write a villain based team book with their work on Thunderbolts, placing the team together during a very interesting time period in the Marvel Universe.