Today, Patrick and Shelby are discussing Thunderbolts 19, originally released December 11th, 2013.
So, that’s what life would be like if I invented the Finglonger. A man can dream through… a man can dream…
Dr. Hubert Farnsworth – Futurama, Anthology of Interest
Patrick: What’s the point of a what-if story? We only ever see those kinds of stories once we really know a set of characters. The conceit — such as I understand it — is that our connection to the characters is so strong that it trumps our connection the rest of their reality. We love Bruce Wayne enough that we can see him as a Green Lantern, we love Bart and Lisa enough that we can see them run for their life from cannibalistic lunch ladies. It’s a chance to look at those characters few a different lens. So what does it mean when a character within the story is generating his own ‘what-if’ scenarios?
[This article will contain SPOILERS – even beyond that which I teased in the intro.]
As the Thunderbolts speed away from
Infinity New York City, Red Leader starts to ruminate on… a great many things. Actually, the majority of the issue takes place in his brain, alternating between fantasy and flashback, filling out the motivations and abilities of the series’ most enigmatic character. First, the flashback — and thusly, the motivation: Red Leader rigged the drawing so that the Thunderbolt’s first mission would be one of Punisher’s. Why? Because he knew that any plan of Frank Castles was going to cause an awful lot of death, and that this would trigger Mercy’s freak-out. The alien invasion, and subsequent Inhumaning of the planet, came as a surprise, but whatever (that keeps with the hilariously dismissive theme of the entire last story arc).
It’s unclear to me exactly what Red Leader wants to do with Mercy once she’s been awoken. I referred to Sterns as the most mysterious character in the title, but that’s only if you don’t count Mercy as a character. Which I think is fair: she’s more of a force of nature that will occasionally listen to an appeal to logic. Occasionally. She’s not easily controlled or defeated, and the only thing that seems to get her going is people dying. Not exactly the most pleasant person to be around. Even though we spend the whole issue inside Red Leader’s head, he’s never so careless as to let on to us why he’d want access to a flipped-out Mercy. We just sorta have to take his word that he knows what he’s doing.
And that’s where the ‘fantasy’ part of the issue comes into play. Leader fantasizes a neat, speedy take-down of all of his teammates, ingeniously exploiting their weaknesses one at a time until they’re all dead. Soule and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta present the fantasy as reality – the flashback sequences are denoted by a glowing pink border, but the fantasy is played straight. I don’t know how long the spell lasted for other people, but I was a few pages into it before I realized that this couldn’t possibly be happening. In fact, it was that cynical “they’re not going to kill Venom” voice in my head that finally spoke up and suggested that I was reading Red Leader’s own what-if-I-killed-everyone scenario.
Ingeniously, the very next page pulls us back into flashback, and Leader’s story-telling authority is re-established as he reveals the details of his plans in New York. As a reader, you’re meant to see a knife through Flash Thompson’s back and say “wait a minute, that can’t be happening, right?” So Soule employs a little misdirection – dangling something readers always say they want right in front of them: answers. Were you a little confused about why Sterns was acting the way he was during the last five issues you read? Well! Don’t pay attention to the curious thing that just happened, I’ve got answers to your mysteries IN THIS HAND OVER HERE! It’s a magic trick: plain and simple.
When it all wraps up, we have a much better idea of what the team is up against. Shelby, every time I read the end of this issue, I can’t tell if Red Leader is being cautious or overly cautious in his decision not to attack the van. He’s a smart guy, so I think we’re meant to believe that he’s making the right call in holding out for a better option, but his fantasy sure looked successful to me. My question is: is he moved to inaction because he’s too smart? Does Red Leader’s ability to think 10-steps ahead of his opponents effectively freeze him in place, unable to make an actionable decision?
Also, follow-up question: How’d you like the Walta’s art? I was over-the-moon for Jefte Palo’s art on the three previous issues, and was immediately crestfallen to see something different when I opened this one. But Walta seems to have internalized some of Palo’s more charming affectations. Sure, the characters look more human, and less cartoony, but they still retain some of that jagged, right-angle charm. Plus, it might help that Walta humanizes Sterns a little bit by bringing that head into proportion.
It’s still a huge head, don’t get me wrong. But it does look more like a human head, no? Also, that quietly self-satisfied smile… It may not be the thing I fell in love with, but it is damn good.
Shelby: I wonder if maybe he’s frozen in place because he’s not quite smart enough. He is having a problem with his brain leaking out of his damn face; maybe he just isn’t recovered enough to think himself out of this particular scenario. But actually, and this idea I like even more, he is still smart enough, but he’s too panicky to really think straight. He says so himself, he is the brains of the group; that is all he has. If his intelligence is his only asset, and he can’t rely on it, that’s more than reason enough to second guess and overthink. Even the worry that he can’t trust his brain is enough for him to not trust it.
I really enjoyed this issue, I totally fell for it. Soule’s slight-of-hand worked wonders, I only had the tiniest sliver of doubt that Red Leader was killing the rest of the team. I actually just assumed he was, in fact, trying to kill them, and that they would find they’re way out somehow because that’s how comic books worked.
You know, I don’t think Sterns wants access to Mercy at her finest. I think he just wants her distracted enough that she can’t see what he’s really up to. He just wants to be quit of the Thunderbolts so he can do his own thing (which probably involves taking over the world). If playing the dutiful teammate is what he needs to do to find an opportunity to escape, that’s what he’ll do. He can fool the others, but he can’t fool her, so if she’s off on a death bender he might just be able to get away.
I was also pretty pleased with Walta’s work. Like you Patrick, I loved what Palo did with the last few issues, but I think Walta’s definitely got a charm all his own. It’s a softer charm, but it’s still there. It makes for such a great contrast with the composition of the team. We’ve got a gritty, deadly team not afraid to use lethal force to get the job done, but the tone of the book is so fucking charming I almost can’t stand it. Soule is developing something really unique here, something I look forward to every month. I can’t wait to see what Ghost Rider will bring to the table in issue 20. And, once again, Deadpool is my favorite part of this title. Even with a bullet in his head, he manages to be hilarious; the page of him catching fire made me laugh out loud. It’s probably the most charming immolation I’ve seen 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?