Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Thunderbolts 16, originally released October 2nd, 2013. This issue is part of the Infinity crossover event. Click here for complete Infinity coverage.
Jerry: We found a dead possum in the pool. Got any garbage bags?
Kirk: Ah, just throw it over the fence – let Arby’s worry about it.
The Simpsons, A Milhouse Divided.
Patrick: The most compelling part of the Thunderbolts conceit is the idea that none of these team-members ever give up their own agendas,
even especially when they’re working together. These are creatures of habit, lone wolves and mavericks. That’s really the only trait, the only value that they share. Writer Charles Soule brilliantly sets the first team mission in the midst of Infinity – an event which fits into none of his characters’ MOs, They all take turns engaging in the conflict or ignoring it however they best see fit. If that means blowing off the alien invasion altogether, so be it – let Arby’s worry about it.
As aliens invade, the Nobili crime family seek refuge at the Paguro bunker. It turns out that that’s where all the organized crime families are waiting out the alien attack. To gain admittance to the sanctuary, the Nobili warn that Punisher is on his way, and he’s working with some kind of monster-Spider-Man and an even-scarier woman. Even though they are theoretically safe in the bunker, the crime families arm themselves to the teeth. Good thing too, because the Thunderbolts have a Red Hulk on the roster, and he should have no problem REDHULKSMASHING his way in. But General Ross isn’t with the core team – he’s back at the sub fighting aliens. At this point, it might not really be fair to call any group the “core” team. Deadpool’s back in the park, slicing up some aliens because they were stealing pennies from a fountain. Yes, really.
This is an awesome moment, and one that had me laughing out loud – “LOLing” in the common tongue. FACT: Deadpool is always funniest when he’s being cute. More than delivering some adorable chuckles, though, this scene demonstrates the central thesis of this series so clearly. While it wouldn’t make sense for any of the rest of the characters to have this sort of encounter, that doesn’t prohibit Deadpool from having it in this book. It’s more than the character’s themselves having distinct personalities, it’s the world around them adapting the tone the character represents.
The book also shifts in tone when we focus on Red Leader, Red Hulk and Mercy. Instead of being the invigorating beat-em-up of the Venom-Elektra-Punisher portions, or a whimsical hack-n-slash (as in Deadpool’s pages), their adventure is much more mysterious and ominous. Supergiant — one of Thanos’ generals — is attracted to Red Leader’s giant, rectangular brain. Then Mercy appears, ostensibly from nowhere, and effortlessly sends Supergiant packing before heading out to the city to “hasten [death’s] arrival.” Whatever that means.
It’s a very isolationist approach to team storytelling, and I love that we even get to see that echoed by the bad guys. Right before Venom slaps a web-gag on one of them, the Paguro goons are happy to articulate this point super clearly.
Yeah, the crime families could do something about the aliens destroying New York City, but “never has nothin’ to do with us.” He’s right. Repelling an alien invasion has no part in a crime drama. I didn’t include the panels, but they continue to debate who’s “supposed” to deal with this sort of thing. They rightly deduce that Cap definitely helps fight the aliens, while Daredevil is more of a street-level crime fighter.
That same kind of street-level conflict is at the heart of this issue, and it’s hilarious how persistently Punisher, Venom and Elektra ignore anything that doesn’t fit into that narrative. They even take a few minutes to torture (and eventually murder) these goons while the spaceships are firing lasers at them. LASERS! I love the moment that the sci-fi battle collides with Punisher’s mission as Venom hurls the too-quickly-detonating bomb into the sky. They’re not even trying to combat the alien ships, but they do succeed in taking one of them down – naturally, the only reason they care is because it crashes through the very door they were trying to blast through. Convenient.
I continue to be enamored with Jefte Palo’s art on this series. He seems to get exactly what’s funny or absurd about the scenarios Soule writes. Like, for no reason, the lock on the Paguro gun safe is just enormous – like a 12×12″ padlock. But beyond having a handle on what’s funny, Palo draws quick, second-to-second action incredibly well, delivering sequences that are as exciting as they are clear. He demonstrates this skill when Frank realizes his mistake in setting the bomb to detonate in 10 seconds as opposed to 10 minutes, and he demonstrates it while Elektra interrogates Paguro’s goons.
Hot damn, that’s exciting!
Spencer, you and I just spent a little time complaining about non-essential Infinity tie-ins. This issue (and this series for that matter) is about as non-essential as it gets, but damn it all, it’s just fun. What do you think Mercy is up to? Also, there’s no way that took Supergiant out of the equation for good, right? That’d be an ending appropriately dismissive for this series, but the rest of Infinity might have a problem with it. That’s the beautiful thing about Thunderbolts – it doesn’t seem to care what’s expected of it – so it’ll just be itself instead.
Spencer: Oh, I’ve got no problem with this book being non-essential to Infinity; I’m just glad it offers something unique to the concept instead of retreading the same points over and over. There’s much more room to play around with Thanos’ invasion of Earth than there is with the Avengers’ space battle against the Builders, and I appreciate Soule putting his own irreverent spin on the concept.
In fact, ignoring the storyline of Infinity no matter how insistently it tries to force itself into the story is pretty much perfect. It not only fits the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone of this book and the lone-wolf nature of its characters, it also reminds me of what happens in real life when something comes intruding on your plans. Have you ever been working on something when suddenly you get an important e-mail or phone call? How many of you drop everything to take care of it right that moment? Personally, I hate being interrupted in the middle of a task, and will almost always stubbornly ignore any interruptions until I’m finished what I was doing. With that habit in mind, seeing the Thunderbolts do the same thing brought a smile to my face. Sure, the problem they’re ignoring is on a phenomenally grander scale than any e-mail I’ve ever put off answering, but what are comics if not grand exaggerations of situations we face in everyday life?
Putting the Thunderbolts in this situation also reveals more of their character. Punisher is too single-mindedly obsessed with the task at hand to even flinch at an alien invasion. Red Hulk and his crew eventually become involved, but only when they’re attacked first (and later when Mercy runs off). Deadpool is the middle ground, a man who intervenes when he sees something that pisses him off, but immediately returns to his asinine task instead of helping any further.
Yeah, we know that all of these characters are self-involved, but there are various degrees of self-involvement, and it’s nice to see those degrees explored a little.
Still, I think my favorite thing about this issue is the shifts in mood—the isolationist storytelling, as you called it, Patrick. Ideally, part of the appeal of a team book is the chance to throw characters from differing books and genres together to see how they bounce off each other, and this opens up a variety of storytelling opportunities. Marv Wolfman has mentioned that when he began writing The New Teen Titans, the three characters he created for the series were specifically designed to open up new story possibilities: Starfire led to space-based stories, Raven begat more supernatural tales, and Cyborg’s stories tended to be rooted in more urban, street level crimes. It’s easy to see the same potential in the Thunderbolts, with Deadpool offering humor stories, Mercy supernatural, Red Hulk military, Punisher street-crime, Elektra martial-arts, and Venom more traditional super-heroic avenues to explore. In a way, it’s almost a little disappointing that these various genres don’t cross over more; each group in this issue is composed of characters that naturally fit into the tone of the scene, instead of, say, throwing Punisher into Deadpool’s world or Mercy into Punisher’s and seeing what happens. Still, there’s plenty of potential for this in the future, and allowing these various moods to all exist within one issue means that there’s a little bit of something for everyone when they pick up Thunderbolts 16.
Patrick, you asked me what I think Mercy is up to, and to that I’ve got to say: I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA. If Soule’s run on this book has had a weakness so far, it’s definitely been Mercy and Red Leader. The rest of the cast is either already recognizable to most readers (Deadpool, Punisher, Elektra) or has had their deal explained fairly well on page (Red Hulk, Venom), but these two characters feel like ideas that the previous writer never quite finished with, and now Soule is forced to wrap up himself. Let’s give figuring her out a shot though:
So what does this tell me about Mercy? Well for starters, I don’t think her “Angel of Death” moniker is just a fancy nickname won over a game of pool; the girl one-shotted one of Thanos’ Elite Guards and flew off to “hasten” the arrival of death, so she’s most definitely the real deal, at least in some sense. Also: she’s definitely as much of a danger to the good guys as the bad. So yeah, I’ve got no idea what she’ll do next, but neither does anybody else, and that might just be what’s most dangerous about Mercy.
When I first checked out Thunderbolts at the beginning of Soule’s run, I was a little worried; “villain” books can be tough to get through, especially when they’re obsessed with darkness or being extreme just for the sake of being extreme, but Soule quickly struck just the right tone, allowing us to laugh at even our protagonists’ most vile actions (such as Elektra’s way of making those thugs “comfortable”).
Likewise, Soule has managed to find just the right way to tie-into Infinity without sacrificing the spirit that makes both this team and this book tick. He may just redeem the term “Red-Sky Crossover” yet.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?