Today, Drew and Shelby are discussing Thunderbolts 21, originally released January 29th, 2014.
Drew: Life is complicated. It’s an axiom that we’re all familiar with, but in a vacuum, our own lives are pretty simple: we have basic needs that must be met, and additional wants that we try to meet. It’s only when people, with their own conflicting needs and desires, start interacting that things get messy. That’s the stuff narratives are made of — a hero encounters some opposition to what he wants or needs — but what if the team itself is a source of opposition? What if your heroes can’t even decide what their wants and needs are? That’s when thing start to really resemble the complexities of life, and is exactly the kind of situation the team finds themselves in in Thunderbolts 21.
The issue finds the majority of the team stuck in hell. They quickly run into Mephisto, sort of confirming Ethan’s research that the pentagram on Red Hulk’s chest represents a pact with him. I say “sort of,” because Mephisto actually isn’t in charge anymore, so actually has no sway over anyone. He can, however, help them get out if they can help him retake the throne. I know what you’re thinking: deals with the devil never end well, but I doubt you’ve ever seen a negotiation of terms quite like this.
This is not the hastily agreed upon deal of so many Twilight Zone episodes — Red Leader is getting specific with the language, and making sure that he’s comfortable with all of the terms before anyone signs anything. It’s such a straightforward concept, you’d wonder why nobody thought of it sooner (especially with so many lawyer jokes dealing with hell), but it makes me so glad that Charles Soule is on this title. I’m ever impressed with Soule’s skills as a polymath, but his law degree comes in especially handy here, giving him both a fresh perspective on a common scene, as well as the specificity of language to make the dialogue really sing.
Once the contract is properly signed and notarized (because of course Deadpool is a notary), Mephisto reveals to the team who they are meant to unseat: Strong Guy. I have to admit, Strong Guy is a bit too obscure for me to recognize, but that doesn’t stop him from giving Red Hulk a moment of pause, and after perusing his Marvel Wiki page, I can’t really blame him. This is for sure going to be an interesting fight.
Meanwhile, Punisher and Elektra are twiddling their thumbs. Frank is perfectly content to clean his gun for the next 48 hours (double entendres fully intended), but Elektra is going a little stir-crazy, so she digs up a local contact to find an assassin gig. She takes Frank along for fun, and while the job seems straightforward enough, they’re interrupted by the arrival of Mercy, who demands to know where Sterns and Ross are. So much for not doing magic, eh Frank?
Soule comes up with some fascinating situations to put these characters in, but the real pleasure for me is just watching them bounce off one another. Soule seems to take special pleasure in pairing up his characters to maximize their chemistry. Fans of this series will already be familiar with some of his favorites — Red Hulk and Red Leader, Elektra and Punisher — but even those get fresh angles that reveal more about their characters. Of course the legalese of these negotiations would be over Ross’ head. Of course Frank would take no pleasure in getting paid for meting out justice. These are telling character moments delivered with an electric crackle, all at a breakneck pace.
Soule also finds time to dig into the other characters, giving Deadpool a stake in the contract, and giving Johnny and Flash — this arc’s straight-men — an opportunity to interact. I think it’s a hilariously well-observed idea that Johnny would resent Daredevil for taking the nickname that should rightly be his.
Anyone who’s lived in a house full of people will recognize how each pairing brings its own mood and subject matter, as each person brings their own wants and needs (and general outlook) to the table. All of these moments together give the team a remarkably lived-in feel, and gives each character a moment to shine.
Man, three months ago, I couldn’t have even told you that there was a series called Thunderbolts on the shelf, but it’s quickly risen in my esteem to one of the smartest, most unpredictable series I am aware of. I thought this issue was an absolute joy, and I can’t wait to see how each of the threads continues from here. Were you as pleased with this issue as I was, Shelby?
Shelby: Oh, of course I was; it’s a ton of fun. It’s amazing how little time it takes for me to fall in love with a character once he’s in Soule’s hands. I’m still giggling over Ghost Rider quitting showbiz because he made two bad movies. Flash Fact: the second Ghost Rider movie is not as bad as the first. The whole scene with Flash and Johnny chatting while Leader works out the kinks in his contract with the devil is a perfect example of the voice Soule has found for this book.
The tone is a couple guys who work together chatting at a company event; they kind of know each other professionally, but that’s about it. Except it’s a man with a flaming skull for a head and another possessed by an alien symbiote. Also, they’re in Hell. It’s that blend of the mundane and ridiculous that makes this title such a treat. Normally it’s Deadpool’s wacky antics that make me giggle (see: mustache fight), but here it’s the way Soule is highlighting that, for these guys, this IS the daily grind. I get on the train, go downtown, sit at a desk; these guys form a 5 pointed star, go to Hell, and negotiate with the devil. Ho hum.
I was most glad to spend some time with Elektra and Punisher, because I cannot figure those two out. Frank Castle has got to be the most single-minded character I have ever encountered. Elektra was looking to clean his guns for him, if you know what I mean (*wink!*), but that wasn’t the task in front of him. He has this mental list of the things he’s going to accomplish, and he seeks out what he needs to accomplish them. Elektra called him to task for not exploring the base a little more to find the garage, but he didn’t need to. He was going to clean his guns, he found what he needed to do so, and that was that. Once he finished with his guns, he probably would have just moved on to the next thing he needed to do if Elektra hadn’t distracted him with a side-mission. Interestingly enough, here Frank shows the more inquisitive side, drilling Elektra on the details of the hit.
It seems less a matter of being very single-minded, and more a simple matter of trust. Frank trusts himself, full stop. That’s it. If he decides it’s time for him to clean his guns, that’s a decision he trusts, but the moment someone else tries to tell him something about a situation, he’s gotta question it. It really begs the question of what these two are doing together in the first place. How can you be in a relationship with someone you don’t trust? How can you be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t trust you? Even if they’re just hooking up, there’s still a certain level of trust that comes with that kind of intimacy, and it’s clearly not here, so what’s the deal? It’s pretty impressive that an issue featuring the epic slaying of an over-sized mustache in Hell can still pull me in with mundane couple stuff, but that Soule for you: he draws you in with sentient mustaches and fancy hats, and before you know it you’re invested in character growth.
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