I recently checked out the first trade paperback of the Marvel Comics series Thunderbolts from the library. In this series, which launched in 1997, the titular Thunderbolts were heroes who stepped into the breach left by the disappearance of most of the Avengers, Captain America and the Fantastic Four.

   Except- the final page of the first issue revealed a surprise that managed to stay a surprise until the issue hit the stands. A challenge, to say the least.

     The Thunderbolts were really villains- the Masters of Evil- playing the part of heroes to advance their own agenda.

     Complicating this plan is the fact that some of these ersatz heroes started to enjoy their roles. And the public adoration.

     Who were these role-playing villains? Well, except for long-time Captain America adversary Baron Zemo, playing “Citizen V”, the leader of the Thunderbolts, I’d never heard of any of them. Granted there are a lot of characters in superhero comics I’ve never read about, but at least I know something about them. Just as I know the names of characters on some TV shows I’ve never watched.

     But Fixer, Beetle, Screaming Mimi, Goliath and Moonstone? Drawing a blank. The only Goliath I’d heard of was a hero (Henry Pym, AKA Giant-Man, Yellowjacket and Ant-Man).
     Either Baron Zemo scraped the bottom of the super villain barrel in finding teammates, or I’d really lost touch with the Marvel Universe long ago.

     The series, initially written by Kurt Busiek, is still being published. I don’t know anything about the current incarnation of the book, but I liked what I read of its beginnings.
     Speaking of Busiek, he writes the only superhero book I currently read, Astro City, published by Wildstorm/DC Comics. Actually, Astro City isn’t a traditional superhero book. In some storylines, superheroes remain in the background. A recent issue of Astro City Dark Age Book Three saw the creation of a new incarnation of Cleopatra. But it only got a few panels. That incident wasn’t germane to the main story of brothers Charles and Royal Williams- a cop and criminal respectively- who want revenge against the man who murdered their parents.

     Astro City is one of the few books I buy issue by issue, rather than wait for the trade paperback collections. One reason: it still publishes letter columns. Most comics don’t anymore. And that’s really short-sighted. Letter columns not only provide some insight into what had happened in previous issues, but, in my case at least, sometimes prompted me to track down back issues.

     Those who say we don’t need letter columns now that we have message boards and blogs miss a key point: Anyone who picks up an issue of Astro City (or Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Eight, which also has a letter column) can read the letters in that issue, whether they bought it when it came out, or 10 years later from a back issue bin. But a message board or blog thread dedicated to a particular issue of a comic will be pretty damned hard to find 10 years from now- assuming you know where to look (and assuming the website or blog still exists).


     I also recently read the Captain America Omnibus, which collects the first 25 issues of writer Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, plus some ancillary material. Storylines included the return of Cap’s World War II partner Bucky Barnes (one of the few characters in superhero comics to stay dead. Until now.), and the assassination of Captain America (Steve Rogers). Which got a lot of press back in 2007.

     These are well-written, well-drawn (by Steve Epting), tightly-plotted stories, and I especially liked how Brubaker handled Bucky’s return. It wasn’t a cheap stunt. Instead, we find that just as Cap did, Bucky survived their final wartime mission. But he didn’t become frozen in suspended animation like Cap. He was picked up by a nearby Soviet submarine, brought to Russia, and reprogrammed as an assassin called the Winter Solider. When not sent out on missions, he was kept in stasis.

     Eventually, with Cap’s help, Bucky breaks free of the programming, and regains his true identity; but as you might imagine, he’s got a lot of issues. Not least of which are feelings of guilt.

     Oh, and I’ve since learned that Steve Rogers didn’t die. Seems the gun used to fire the apparently fatal bullets caused him to become unstuck in time. And in a 2009 storyline, Steve Rogers somehow returned.

     Even though two years went by, it still seems as much of a stunt as the 1992 death of Superman (Supes returned eight months later). If you’re going to kill a character, and show that he or she is dead, then keep that character dead. Otherwise, don’t bother.
     I can accept Bucky’s return, because we just assumed he was killed in an explosion of a drone plane. We didn’t see a body. And I’m fine with the adage “if there’s no body, he’s not dead.”
     Of course some superhero returns from beyond really stretch credulity. I understand Elektra was killed and autopsied. Didn’t stop her from coming back.
     By the way, the death of Captain America storyline intersected with a company-wide mini series called Civil War, which concerned whether superheroes should register with the government, in the wake of a tragic event in a small town. A few years ago, one suburban paper ran an article about comics which made the facile comment that Civil War was about superheroes fighting each other.

     I’m still a bit peeved at myself for not writing a letter to the editor setting them straight. It wasn’t about superheroes fighting each other. It was about whether they should be made to publicly reveal their true identities, or whether they had a right to privacy.

     Finally, I took my nephew to see Percy Jackson, and we both enjoyed it. He especially liked the capture the flag sequences at the camp, and the battle for the lightning bolt.
Copyright 2010 Patrick Keating.



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