Quick, tell me what the Justice League is about. What’s that you’re mumbling, something about saving people or fighting evil? Sure, but beyond that, most team comics don’t have a very strong overall theme. That’s not true of the Thunderbolts, Marvel’s pre-eminent team of supervillains pretending to be superheroes

The Thunderbolts first appeared in 1997, during the brief period when most of the Marvel Universe’s biggest heroes were presumed killed while battling Onslaught (though they were really in another dimension). In the first issue, the team is introduced—a whole squad of brand new, never-seen-before heroes and their leader, the mysterious Citizen V. But on the final page came the big reveal—Citizen V was really Baron Zemo, and the Thunderbolts were really the supervillain group known as the Masters of Evil. It was all a plot to earn the world’s trust by acting as heroes, then conquer the world once they’d been given the keys to the castle. In the annals of supervillain schemes, it’s pretty goddamn great.

The Big Secret

That first issue reveal was a big deal partly because Marvel somehow got away with it. Even in 1997 they had a tough time keeping the details of the new team out of the solicitations and off the Internet, and a harder time convincing the marketing folks how to market a book whose strongest selling point couldn’t be mentioned. But once the issue came out and a few readers tried it, word of mouth provided all the marketing the Thunderbolts needed.

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fter the reveal, the villains’ secret was also great because the readers were in on it. The first year of the book is filled with incredible tension as the former villains work to keep their cover and not blow the gig, even when Black Widow starts nosing around and hinting that she knows the truth.

Redemption

As I mentioned above, most superhero team comics are really only about the action. But the Thunderbolts comic book was about something more—redemption. Every issue is about how you can be a total screw-up and still make things right, if you’re willing to pay a high enough price. Each member of the original team had his or her own motivations, and in the end none of them had any particular interest in ruling the world, especially once they’d had a taste of adulation and approval. So at the end of the 12th issue, they turn on Zemo and then set out to try and become the thing they were pretending to be, a real hero team.

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Part of what makes that theme so resonant and brilliant from a storytelling perspective is the way it makes the inevitable betrayals sting so much more. The Thunderbolts work hard to earn that redemption, so when Zemo or Techno or Moonstone sells the team out, it’s a real knife in the back.

Hawkeye

Just when the book started to flounder a little, Hawkeye showed up, having decided that he would lead them on the path to true heroism. The experienced hero who’d been a criminal himself at one point providing leadership to the aimless, struggling ex-villains supercharged the plot and became the driving force of the book for years. I don’t even like Hawkeye. That’s how great the Thunderbolts were—they made me like a character I don’t actually like. (Much later, Luke Cage served a similar role, but the Thunderbolts were a lot different by that point.)

Busiek and Bagley

The creative team of Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley stayed together on T-Bolts for almost three years, and Bagley stayed on for more than four years. That was an impressive run even then, and it seems like an impossibility these days. Busiek’s vision for the Thunderbolts was clear, his writing reminiscent of the ‘80s—corny at times, without a hint of postmodernism, but soulful and crisp. His plots were easy to follow without feeling dumbed down or overly obvious. I’m a huge Busiek fan (ask me about how great Astro City is sometime), and Thunderbolts is a big reason why. His run on Avengers vol. 3 was epic, true. Doesn’t mean they’re better than the ‘Bolts (Ookay, those Ultron and Kang storylines are pretty great, so maybe this one’s a tie).

However, Bagley’s contribution to the Thunderbolts can’t be overlooked. He drew them with strong, bold lines and decisive action sequences that could appear deceptively simple while doing a lot of the heavy lifting of visual storytelling. His work improved issue by issue, and by the end of his run Bagley was nailing every panel.

Songbird, Jolt, and Moonstone

The three women on the original Thunderbolts roster were really the core of the team. Jolt is admittedly not the most well-rounded character, and is maybe a little too similar to Jubilee, but sticking an idealistic teenager on the team made a perfect foil for Zemo (who is just a total asshole) and lightened the angst everyone else was dealing with. Songbird and Moonstone had their own heroic journeys, and Songbird’s years-long development from aimless waif to powerful, confident leader is one of the best arcs in all of comics. Moonstone maintained the tension, since you never knew when she might turn villain again, and her constant psychoanalyzing provided a window into the team’s psychology.

The Romance

Yes, Thunderbolts is a kissing book. Moonstone and Hawkeye were such a hilariously unlikely pair, and the Songbird/Mach-1 relationship is the Luke and Laura of the Marvel Universe. Moonstone’s amorality and ability to instantly remove her costume left Clint flustered, and was always good for a laugh. And then there was the time Techno reconstructed Mach-1’s face so he could adopt a new identity and accidentally made him a black guy. I’m honestly not sure if that was an unflinching look at race relations in late 20th century America or a poorly handled sight gag, but it sure as hell was memorable. Anyway, my point is comic books are soap operas in spandex, and Thunderbolts was at its best when it was soapiest.

The Dark Years

After Busiek left, Fabian Nicieza took over the writing duties. I really like Nicieza’s years on the book, but he did tend to make things very convoluted, with lots of clones and alternate Earths. But what really changed the book was 9/11. After that, the team became government pawns, and the storylines grew much darker. Instead of repentant former criminals, the Thunderbolts roster began to include psychotic murderers whose impulses could barely be controlled. The comics themselves literally grew darker—look at a gallery of Thunderbolts covers and watch all the colors fade away over the years. Then there was the time Joe Quesada decided Thunderbolts should be about some kind of fighting competition that had nothing to do with the Thunderbolts, and the time they restarted the numbering, but then reverted to the original numbering. The T-Bolts came back and flourished again under Jeff Parker, who brought together a great team that included Man-Thing and Satanna, but was constantly hamstrung by sprawling Marvel events like Civil War that diverted and interrupted the Thunderbolts’ plots.

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Eventually, the T-Bolts hit 175 issues, which is where the Avengers where at in 1978—an interesting comparison in terms of the Thunderbolts’ longevity. The book continued for a while under the title Dark Avengers (which is the dumbest title), and when that book was cancelled, I cancelled my pull list and stopped regularly buying new comics.

That’s how much I loved the Thunderbolts.