Today, Patrick and Ethan are discussing Thunderbolts 20, originally released January 15th, 2014.
Patrick: With issue 20, Thunderbolts enters All-New Marvel NOW! territory. Functionally, this means that this issue should serve as a good jumping-on point for new readers, and the cover broadcasts that in a variety of ways: note that the issue’s number is technically 20.NOW; there’s a second issue number in the upper right corner, declaring this “No Mercy #1”; the All-New Marvel Now logo is emblazoned along the bottom; and finally, the cover prominently features a character that’s not normally on the team. The contents of the issue follow suit, giving us another start to a delightfully self-contained adventure. With it’s one-job-for-you-one-job-for-me structure, Thunderbolts might be the series most perfectly suited for this periodic refreshing of the Marvel line.
Our team of misfits finds a new home in an abandoned US Army research facility in Northern Michigan. There, they set their sights on their next team mission – do something about Mercy. After that business in New York triggered a massive Mercy freak-out, her desire to experience human suffering has turned her into a card too wild even for the ‘Bolts. Red Leader suggests sending Mercy to the one place that has human suffering to spare – Hell. CUT TO: Johnny Blaze, AKA Ghost Rider, giving an interview to promote his latest motorcycle stunt. Unfortunately for him, the stunt goes about as well as his film career, and he smashes into the side of a mountain. I guess he must have switched over to his skeletal form during the crash to save himself or something — which is effective, but causes his doctors some concern over his health. Can you blame ’em?
Other than the cover, this is the only good look at Ghost Rider we get in this issue. Come to think of it, I don’t think anyone ever calls him “Ghost Rider” – it’s always “Johnny” or “Blaze.” Nothing about the Ghost Rider’s appeal is ever taken for granted – even the character’s trademark leather jacket is contextualized by the set-up that he’s going to jump over Springfield Gorge on his
skateboard bike. Charles Soule knows enough to be a little gun-shy when it comes to a figure like Ghost Rider. He’s not a regular fixture of the Marvel landscape — the last time they had a regularly published Ghost Rider book was 1998, and the last time that Rider was Johnny Blaze was 1983. That’s right, over thirty fucking years ago. In the interim, Ghost Rider has shown up in strange places – he’s in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Nicolas Cage stared as Blaze in two different Ghost Rider movies, which are reportedly awful. Soule addresses this baggage directly, making it baggage the Johnny has in the narrative as well. That’s what his bike-tech is referring to when he says “So you made two crappy movies — who cares?”
He’s characterized as sort of a washed up guy – a Has Been that still has the ultra-specific power of traveling to and from hell. It’s the perfect marriage of why Blaze would a) be helpful to the Thunderbolts; b) be in an emotional state where he’d want to prove he can still use his powers; and c) sorta fuck up using his powers. Oh, I didn’t get that far in the summary!
Back at hideout, Blaze draws some kind of magic pentagram on the floor, hoping to use that magic to expel Mercy to Hell, but ends up sending himself and four of the ‘Bolts to Hell instead. Oh, Johnny Blaze! Will you never win? First of all, I love the tossed off references to magic – Johnny suggests many more capable magicians as alternatives, the star needs to have an odd number of points, Punisher doesn’t “do” magic. Soule glosses over these details with just the right level of confidence, so nothing feels overly-mechanical or overly-dismissive. I don’t want to over-use my use of the word “perfect” when describing Ghost Rider in this issue, but here I go again: this is the perfect level of exploration of his powers. It’s nothing more than a tip of the hat to a larger world we’re not exploring, but it makes GR seem so much richer for it.
Blaze isn’t the only new blood in this issue, we’ve also got a new artist on the team in the form of Carlos Barberi. Barberi’s style skews even more house-standard than Jefte Palo or Gabreil Wata, but he does draw with an Humberto Ramos-esque cartoonishness, letting the characters look as playful as their story. His focus on the bulkiness of the human form is sorta stuck in the 1990s — something Deadpool hints at when he points out that he still has all of his pouches — and some of his overly-sinewy drawings of Red Hulk are mildly upsetting. And then there’s Elektra. I understand that the Elektra’s fundamental identity works against characterizing her particularly well in any context: no matter what, she’s always going to be quiet, and no matter what, she’s always going to be wearing that costume. Soule has yet to dig past the “quiet” barrier to mine what she is beneath world-class martial artist, but Barberi takes some dangerous steps backwards when drawing her. Here’s an action sequence which illustrates my point(s).
Look at Elektra’s poor body! Not only is she twisted around so bizarrely in the air, but what’s up with that boob flopping down from her armpit? If it doesn’t make sense for me to see a boob, you know what? I’m okay not seeing a boob.
Ethan, I barely touched on why these guys are fighting a small army of robots in that moment to begin with. I found the opening of this issue to be totally charming and right at the speed of the opening issue of the previous arc. Which is to say, I liked it very much indeed. It’s good to know that whether they’re in a submarine or a secret robot diner, the dynamics between the characters will be enough to compel me through the issue. I’ll assume the same is true of Hell? On that topic, what do you make of Punisher and Elektra staying behind on this Infernal Mission? They just had a conversation about participating in missions they aren’t particularly invested in, right?
Ethan: Like you said – I do find it incredibly odd that the two characters who just had a very specific conversation about being team players are the two members of the team who are sitting this one out. I guess Elektra’s got a bit of a case for avoiding evil magic – she had so much exposure to the stuff back in her days with the Hand that she might have a weird reaction to a big dose of Hell. Maybe it would turn her into a big, evil ninja demon a la Darkchilde or something, who knows? A little weak as excuses go, but on the other hand, trying to contain a mindless, crazy Elektra while in Hell might sidetrack the mission. Better safe than sorry. The Punisher, though? I do not understand his excuse. How can you be opposed to messing around with magic when you’re embedded in a team of people who are all so bizarrely modified by science that they might as well be magic? I mean, in the very beginning of this issue, Red Hulk pulled the insta-morph trick when he hulked out; I’m not sure how you can say that instantaneously turning an old man in a military uniform into a giant, grotesquely muscled thing wearing spandex biking shorts isn’t JUST as weird as magic is.
Speaking of the beginning of the issue, I did like the fact that the DOD bunker that Ross chose for their new base is hidden under a diner that’s staffed by weaponized androids.
Notice that the one who was “reading” the newspaper at the bar tears the paper in half at the moment of activation – nice touch.
Aside from the downsides you already mentioned, Patrick, Barberi’s art style worked wonderfully for this team. Even Red Hulk’s out-of-control tendons felt like part of the playful, tongue-in-cheekiness of the bunch. One of my favorite moments of this is when Deadpool is browsing the songs in the jukebox.
Usually Wade is drawn as a pretty fit guy, but Barberi cranks that dial to 11. This serves to exaggerate his goofieness even further, as he stoops down to consider the song selection, index finger daintily pressed to his lips in thought, while his biceps, pecs, and triceps all look like they’re trying to explode out of his body. Giving him the appearance of someone who could tear a phone book in half while he goes about the business of being completely inane and quirky just helps drive home his inherent comedy.
And because he’s my favorite character in this book, I have to include the Hat Scene.
First, we get his signature childlike goofiness via his excitement about drawing names out of a hat. He’s easily amused, and he enjoys the little rituals like this one in the same way that young children love snack time and nap time. In fact, I imagine that Wade STILL religiously observes both snack time and nap time, if off-screen. Second, I’m glad to see that Barberi falls into the camp of artists that choose to show Wade’s giant smiles and frowns through his mask – some of that cartoony vibe you mentioned, Patrick. Yes, it makes him look a bit like a Ninja Turtle, but it definitely adds to his charm. And finally, there’s the fact that he actually dove down into a sinking submarine while no one was looking, just to save the hat. ‘Nuff said.
I’m looking forward to seeing what remarks Deadpool has to say about Hell, and more generally, how the four team members plus Ghost Rider will deal with the predicament. There was one thing on that last page that weirded me out though: what’s with the giant, glowing pentagram on Red Hulk’s chest?
None of the other characters are sporting any weird markings (insofar as it’s totally normal for Johnny’s head to be on fire), so what’s the deal? Is Big Red’s irradiated self resonating with Hell? Has he been flagged as an especially dangerous threat by some kind of infernal early-warning system?
I did some quick research, and it turns out that it’s actually a sign that the bearer has a pact with Mephisto. It’s still weird that Venom’s mark is absent, though, since Flash is in the same boat. We’ll have to wait and see.
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?