Shelby: Kids love “…and they lived happily ever after.” It’s an uncomplicated and rewarding end to a story; the good guys are rewarded, the bad guys punished, the boy gets the girl, and the plucky sidekicks probably got some action as well. It’s not until you get older that the everything-worked-in-the-end approach grows stale. It’s too neat and clean; we want our stories to reflect the complexities of every day life, not tie everything up in a nicely resolved bow. Personally, I find a too-happy ending where everything works out to be insincere and frankly a little boring. It might be surprising, then, that I love Charles Soule’s latest issue of Thunderbolts. Leave it to Soule to deliver an end to the recent Thunderbolts arc that gives the “good” guys exactly what they want and leaves the bad (by comparison) guy with a mess to deal with, without once appearing insincere.
In order to fulfill the terms of their contract with Mephisto, our boys in Hell have to fight their way through a court of demons so either Red Hulk or Ghost Rider can take Strong Guy down. It’s no where near as easy as it sounds.
Ghost Rider gets a little impatient, so he crafts a motorcycle out demon parts and speeds Ross up to the throne, where he convinces Strong Guy it would be a good idea to abdicate. Mephisto, holding up his end of the bargain, crafts Deadpool a portal to somewhere and summons Mercy to Hell. She gets predictably excited, and starts sucking up souls left and right. Before Mephisto can deal with that, Deadpool reappears with a heavenly host hot on his trail; he wanted to get a new feather for his hat, and figured an angel feather would do. Before things can go even more hilariously wrong, Mephisto sends everyone back to the base, where they find an extremely broken Frank. Y’see, Mercy was throttling Elektra and Punisher several stories up in the air when she was summoned, so they had a pretty long fall. Before anyone can do anything, something weird happens: something weird even for the Thunderbolts.
So now everybody is fine and happy, and Ghost Rider decides to stick around and join the team because a) the Spirit of Vengeance is happiest when he’s fighting baddies and b) they’re a man short since Mercy is gone. What a twisted little fairy tale Soule has given us here. I mentioned in the intro that I often find neat-and-tidy endings to be insincere, but Soule makes this work by virtue of the whole cast of characters being extremely sincere to begin with. Deadpool is obvious, with his bizarrely childlike sincerity, but every member of the team is extremely sincere in what they do. Even Red Leader, possibly constantly plotting against his teammates, is so genuine in his machinations that even he comes off as sincere and almost charming.
I think one of the biggest reasons this title works as well as it does is how self-aware it is. These characters do not exist in a Thunderbolts vacuum; they have their own books, movies, and years and years of existing history behind them. Instead of ignoring all that baggage (especially the terrible stuff) Soule has the characters themselves acknowledge it. Last month it was Ghost Rider talking about quitting showbiz because his two movies were terrible. And this month it’s the weird healing power of the angel feather. I did some digging, and I’m pretty sure that’s a reference to the Punisher: Purgatory mini published in the 90s. Frank had recently killed himself, and was reincarnated as an angel of vengeance for the heavenly host. I haven’t read it, but from what I could find it was panned as one if the worst Punisher stories, so that certainly explains why Frank doesn’t want to talk about it. I love the way Soule acknowledges the ridiculous and occasionally terrible history of these characters; it gives him license to embrace that ridiculousness and just run with it.
Artist Carlo Barberi seems to embrace that weirdness as well, with mixed results. The men in the book (especially Deadpool) are outrageously over-muscled. Like, Image books in the mid-90s muscled. At the same time, the style doesn’t feel dated. It comes off as a visual nod to the ridiculous past. That approach kind of falls apart when it comes to the ladies of the issue, specifically Elektra. Mercy looks super bad-ass in an evil, ethereal sort of way, but what the hell is going on here?
We’ve somehow got both T and A in the panel; I guess I should be happy we didn’t get the full brokeback trifecta with her face as well. The problem with hearkening back to old, ridiculous visual tropes in comics is that, when it comes to the ladies a lot of those old tropes are alive and well. The over-muscled look for men has definitely fallen out of fashion (with good reason), but women are still drawn like this all the time.
That one point aside, this issue was as fun as ever. I’m excited to have Ghost Rider on the team, if for no other reason than to see more straight-laced interactions between him and Flash. Spencer, what did you think? We’re you as charmed with the “fairy-tale ending” as I was? Do you suddenly want to see Deadpool in one of those conical princess hats with the long veil? Because I sure do.
Spencer: I don’t know if I suddenly want to see Deadpool in one of those hats as much as I’ve always wanted to see Deadpool in one of those hats and just didn’t realize it until this very moment, but yeah, Marvel, let’s make this happen!
Anyway, I definitely enjoyed this ending as well. The fight with Strong Guy, the idea of banishing Mercy, they weren’t what this arc was really about; this was a story about the Thunderbolts outsmarting the devil, and that’s cool as hell (pun intended). That said, not all of the specifics of this resolution worked for me. Mephisto’s downfall largely appeared to come down to cluelessness; he didn’t seem to have much idea of what their contract actually entailed nor of how he was going to fulfill it, which seems strange considering that making contracts for people’s souls (or marriages) is pretty much all Mephisto does.
Take Deadpool’s feather. I’m assuming all Deadpool actually asked for was a new feather for his hat — since he appeared rather surprised about the source of the feather when he returned through the portal, I don’t think he specified “Angel Feather” on the contract — meaning Mephisto could’ve just conjured up any old feather and Deadpool would have been happy with it. Instead, Mephisto opens a portal to heaven somehow; even if we ignore him having the power to just do that, the fact that he’s as surprised as Deadpool when the angels come chasing him through makes it seem like Mephisto didn’t actually know where he opened a portal to. That’s…that’s pretty incompetent there, ‘phisty. Likewise, Red Leader has to continually explain the terms of their contract to Mephisto despite them spending hours hammering out the details last month. It appears that in order for the Thunderbolts to come out on top, Mephisto had to be dumbed down a bit, which takes some of the fun out of the victory.
Fortunately, the payoff largely smooths over these shortcomings, at least for me. I knew whatever Deadpool wanted out of this contract would be hilarious, but using his wish to continue with the brilliant running gag about that hat was just about the perfect resolution. Likewise, Red Leader’s scathing talking-down-to Mephisto is the high point of the issue, absolutely selling his ability to outsmart the devil even if the actual events of the issue don’t always follow suit.
I’m cool with Ghost Rider joining the team as well. He’s already proven that he works well with the team’s dynamics, and his powerset will help fill the supernatural hole Mercy’s departure left within the team. If nothing else, he’s certainly more of a team player than Mercy:
Seriously though, I’m happy to have Mercy seemingly gone. She’s always come across to me like baggage from the previous writer that never really belonged amongst Soule’s team, but if Soule felt similarly than he’s certainly never let it come across in the writing, instead using the presence of such a bizarre character to create tension among the team and creating a story that allowed him to write her out in an organic and respectful way. He even gives Mercy a happy ending — well, happy for her, anyway.
My only real qualm with Mercy’s departure and Ghost Rider’s joining the team is that it leaves Elektra as the lone female member of the team. I like Elektra well enough, but she’s been such a passive presence that sometimes it’s easy to forget she’s there at all, and the art rarely does her any favors. I’d love to see another girl join the team; any ideas, readers?
Anyway, I’ve got no idea where this book is going to go next, and that’s a wonderful feeling. With Mercy gone and his confidence seemingly restored by besting Mephisto, will Red Leader make his move against the team? Whose mission will we go on next — and subsequently, what genre will the next arc decide to play with? No matter how he answers these questions, I trust Soule to make it entertaining.
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?