Thunderbolts by Warren Ellis Vol. 1: Faith in Monsters

I wonder if Marvel was thinking of Warren Ellis’s Stormwatch when they chose him to write this particular incarnation of Thunderbolts? The set-up of a group of somewhat unhinged loners trying to cohere together as a team reminds me of Ellis’s work on that title for Wildstorm, back when it was still part of Image Comics. Of course, the idiosyncratic members of Stormwatch were mostly well-intentioned, while the new Thunderbolts, formed in the wake of the Civil War, are mostly serial killers and lunatics. One of the prime movers that contributed to my Fan-Fiction Age of Superhero Comics Theory was the revival of Norman Osborn; he was brought back, believe it or not, as a fix to Spider-Man continuity and as an end to the Spider-Man Clone Saga, a story that threatened to consume the entirety of the 1990s. You see, I saw Norman Osborn die, and to me he’ll always be dead, like Uncle Ben and Batman’s parents are dead — but I have to admit that Ellis’s Osborn, given a second chance by America’s alcoholic war-criminal President (perfect!) and drawn by Mike Deodato to look exactly like Tommy Lee Jones, is something of a guilty pleasure, and probably the most entertaining thing overall about this volume.

The least entertaining is the amount of previous continuity you need to fully understand what’s happening. If you haven’t read any previous Thunderbolts series, or Civil War, you may feel a little lost. Ellis wastes not a lot of time with the whys and wherefores, but rather just drops us right into Osborn putting his team together and sending them out to wreak havoc. A lot.

The nihilism inherent in characters like Venom, Bullseye and Penance (formerly Speedball) is offset to a degree by the humanity Ellis infuses in the unregistered, rogue superheroes the Thunderbolts are assigned to hunt down. Third-rate also-rans like Jack Flag, The Steel Spider and American Eagle are given enough time and and space to lend a real sense of the injustice, inhumanity and obscenity that is Norman Osborn’s Thunderbolts unleashed. I don’t know if any or all of the superheroes Ellis and Deodato call up to fight off the Thunderbolts ever even appeared in print before; they have the same patina of believability you’d find in the iconic characters created by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson in Astro City, and that’s vital in making these stories more than just an excuse for Venom and Bullseye to murder and maul people.

Actual Thunderbolts like Songbird, who was on the team pre-Osborn (and pre-Ellis), try to temper the damage wrought by her new and horrific teammates, and the effort comes off as noble, but the issues reprinted in this collection (#110-115, plus a bunch of crap at the end that you can skip, which Marvel acknowledges by shoving it all in the back of the book even though it takes place before and during the events of #110-115) represent only the first part of Ellis and Deodato’s run on the series, so no one will be surprised to learn that by the end of the book (the good part of the book, that is to say — the stuff from #110-115) much remains up in the air and Songbird’s efforts remain, so far, mostly ineffectual.

I was entertained enough by Faith in Monsters (again, excepting the naff filler after Ellis and Deodato’s stories, which the book would be far stronger without) that I will read the rest of Ellis and Deodato’s run as it’s released in collected form; since Ellis’s last issue is #121, I assume that means Vol. 2, to be released later this year, will wrap up the run, collecting #116-121.

Thunderbolts is far from Ellis’s very best work, but he clearly takes joy in letting his version of Norman Osborn out to play, the result being something like if Stormwatch‘s Henry Bendix had always obviously been off his rocker, and it is fun to read.

Deodato brings little to the proceedings other than a workmanlike professionalism, a photo-realistic style that evokes what you might get from a disinterested Alex Ross working in ink instead of paint. He tells the story and doesn’t get in the way at all, but there’s little of interest for readers who like some art with personality and spark in their superhero comic books. Towards the end of the issues reprinted here, Deodato seems to introduce a bit of an impressionistic Gene Colan approach, which adds some energy, but the real appeal of this volume is watching Warren Ellis play with a group of, as noted above, mostly serial killers and lunatics, with the oppressed humanity of the hunted heroes adding nuance and interest. One of them even gets the book’s best line, almost certainly Ellis’s reflection on the real-life condition of Los Estados Unidos circa 2008 CE: “Just get me out of this country. There’s nothing here I want.”

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