Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Kev Walker
YOUR EYES DO NOT DECEIVE YOU! The Thunderbolts have pulled off THE GREATEST ESCAPE IN HISTORY — and joining the powerful ex-cons are CAPTAIN AMERICA and NAMOR the SUB-MARINER! This new era takes the kings of supercrime to a whole new level- at light speed!!
A BOLD NEW ERA OF THIS REVIEW, AFTER THE JUMP, GUEST STARRING ME AND MY THOUGHTS ON THINGS.
The cover of Thunderbolts #163 proclaims “1ST ISSUE” loudly, then “of a new era” in a trailing wheeze. On the one hand, it’s a dig at DC, sure. (If you don’t understand the dig, might I redirect your attention to nearly every other review going up on Multiversity Comics this month?) On the other hand, though, it’s true. In his around-thirty-issues-and-counting run on Thunderbolts, Jeff Parker has mostly worked with an inherited premise. When Warren Ellis rebuilt the team at the behest of Marvel editorial, he helped transform it from what had become a fairly generic group of heroes (“But they took in so many villains!” you say, but I reply, “Not as many as the X-Men by half”) into a government-run hit-squad of shattered, ugly souls. Andy Diggle continued the trend, recasting it slightly as a bit of a black-ops spy thriller.
Parker came in, spent a few months playing with Ellis and Diggle’s ideas, before hitting the “Nuke Everything” button. No more were the Thunderbolts vile beasts chained to the darkest Jack Bauer impulses of government policy — now, they’re a kind of Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Cage, a tough-love grenades-in-your-blood approach to reforming villains into useful, perhaps even heroic individuals. With this issue, thanks to one of the “good” ones, the villains of the team have escaped.
I’ve reviewed Thunderbolts a couple times for this site, and I think each of those times I expressed concern that Jeff Parker wasn’t spreading around the characterization love as much as he could have. There were characters who seemed to just disappear into the background, kept around because “they’re Thunderbolts characters,” like how the X-books trot out Prodigy and Surge for two lines of dialogue each per year, specifically in order to give New X-Men fans false hope before crushing their souls. (Specifically.) This issue, I feel a bit stupid. At least one of those seemingly sidelined characters was intentionally left out — and now, we deal with the consequences of a reformed villain not having much to do.
As twists go, it’s both in-character and surprising — and a little refreshing. I can’t think of a time since the book’s early years that a genuine sense of moral ambiguity (or, more accurately, ambivalence) has been at play; even as the Marvel Dirty Dozen, their malice and sociopathy was carved into stark relief. Under Parker’s pen, it transformed into clearly divided sides of “good, and possibly good” versus “evil.” Now, the game is a lot more interesting.
Another triumphant return this issue comes in the form of Kev Walker. He’d mostly vanished during the Fear Itself stuff over the summer, but roars back into the spotlight here. I’ve commented before that Walker reminds me of Kirby in a lot of ways — mostly the physical solidity of his characters, the unrestrained (at times histrionic) emotion in their expressions, things like that. The real trick, though, is his skill with action scenes. When the Thunderbolts take on a certain military presence of note, there’s swiftness and brutality in the carnage. I’ve noticed that Parker tends to save the most line-toeing moments for Walker issues — or maybe Walker just toes the line himself. Either way, with him on board we get scenes like the glimpse of Mr. Hyde’s fantasy, which do a lot to help give the book a gasoline-huffing post-crossover jumpstart.
The tone of things in general is far less solemn than it was during Fear Itself, though no less serious. I’m about to spoil the crux of the new set-up, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, only read to the end of this sentence, and know that this issue was very good indeed and worthy of your purchase. Anyway, now that all of the spoiler-haters are gone, we can get into it: this is a time travel story. Moreover, it’s a freewheeling, devil-may-care time travel story. In recent years, “time travel” has taken on connotations in fiction that have become manacles. Everyone is concerned with making sure that their time travel stories “make sense,” although I suspect that when people profess that they want to write a time travel story that “makes sense,” what they mean is that they want to write a time travel story that “makes them look really, really, really, really, really clever.” They can try to satisfy the discerning eyes and minds of nitpicking time travel nerds, but those people will never be happy, so sometimes the best course of action is just to go “fuck it” and start wailing on some Nazis, confident that the imaginary universe will only be irreparably damaged by time travel if it is willed into being. For this, Thunderbolts, I salute you.Continued below
What issue one hundred and sixty-three brings to Thunderbolts is another abrupt left turn for the book. This is less jarring than it would be on more steadfastly-built franchises; indeed, the only consistent aspect of the T-Bolts’ entire run is their willingness to make those turns, sometimes into oncoming traffic. Jeff Parker started his run with the book on one track, then jumped it to another, and now jumps it again, and the result is one of the few mainstream superhero comics where it seems like anything could happen without having to rewrite the universe.
Final Verdict: 9.099999 / All the “9”s make it look like it’s higher than the “9.5”s people are throwing around this week — true story