Charles Soule just took over Thunderbolts in June, but he’s already putting them through their paces – and then some. In this week’s Thunderbolts #14, Soule and artist Jefte Palo put the Punisher on point to take this team of reformed (and not so reformed) villains into the heart of the New York City underworld to take down a mob family Frank couldn’t handle on his own. Frank’s got a Hulk and a whole team of killers, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem – that is until Thanos’ Infinity army shows up.
Soule took over Thunderbolts earlier this summer from outgoing writer Daniel Way, and he’s getting his hands dirty talking about the conflicting motivations of this all-killers squad Thunderbolt Ross (aka Red Hulk) has assembled. The Swamp Thing scribe talks about the promise Red Hulk made to get theis group on the same page in the first place to some potential new recruits, and how strange circumstances make for some strange bedfellows in the case of Elektra and the Punisher. He brought along some brand-new art by Jefte Palo from #15 to debut, as well.
Newsarama: This month’s Thunderbolts puts this black ops team in the middle of the Infinity event series while still putting them square in New York City. Can you tell us about this arc, and how it works within the Infinity event?
Charles Soule: Sure - first of all, this is my first chance to tell a story featuring the full Thunderbolts team, which was really fun. My first two issues, Thunderbolts #12 and #13, focused on the Punisher and Mercy, respectively, with some cameos from everyone else on the team except Deadpool and Red Leader. But finally, with Thunderbolts #14, we get to see the whole group together. They're bickering, being badasses and doing all the other stuff I wanted to write ever since I took over the title.
In Thunderbolts #14, we see them embark upon a new mission, whose direction is steered by the Punisher. He, somewhat unsurprisingly, wants to use the team to destroy a NYC-based mob family, and they're off to the races. Completing that mission becomes massively more difficult when the events of Infinity come into play. However, Frank Castle is not the sort of guy who gives up when the going gets tough. It's a really fun arc with great moments for everyone in the cast, and it lays out some neat ideas for stories going forward. Five issues, 14-18, and I am very happy with how it's turned out.
Nrama: This mob family the team is going after is called the Paguros, and is a group that have been a thorn in Frank’s side for some time. What makes them such a threat that Punisher would need a team of super-heroes – and a Hulk – to take them down?
Soule: This is something I lay out in the issue - basically, the Paguros were once a powerful mob family in New York, but in the wake of RICO, the Punisher's crusade and various other elements that have made it significantly less profitable (and healthy) to operate on the front lines of criminal activity, the family has gone behind-the-scenes. They've become a one-stop-shopping criminal support organization - they help fledgling enterprises get running, and they're the reason new gangs pop up as soon as Frank takes them down. Castle didn't even realize they existed for a while - he just knew that new scum was taking the place of the old scum a little faster than it should. There's more to the Paguros, but you'll find out in the story. Basically, I wanted to come up with a good, old-fashioned mob family nemesis (with a twist) for Frank, and I think I did that with the Paguros. They're pretty fun.
Nrama: The solicitations for September’s Thunderbolts #15 give away some spoilers that Thanos’ army is going to come up right in the middle of this street-level mission for the team. What can you say about that?
Soule: Well, New York City has always been a center of superhero activity in the Marvel U. So, from Thanos' perspective, if you're going to send troops to subdue Earth, NYC is probably where you want to start. I'm treating the alien/cosmic aspects of the story almost like the weather. You can't plan for a freak rainstorm - sometimes they just happen. Frank Castle finds it extremely frustrating that his one shot at getting the Paguros - targets he's been after for years - might get thrown off track by an alien invasion, but as I mentioned, he's a roll with the punches sort of guy. He might even figure out a way to turn the situation to his advantage.
Nrama: This takes place in New York – the Punisher’s a New Yorker, as are you. How are you going about making this a NYC story and not just a nameless metropolis they’re operating in?
Soule: In a million ways big and small. As you mention, I've lived in NYC for a long time, and so I worked closely with Jefte Paolo, the artist on the arc, to make sure the locations all look like actual New York places. Lots of photo reference and so on. There are some NYC in-jokes I layered in here and there (there's a Dr. Zizmor reference in Issue 15 I particularly enjoyed, although I can't imagine too many non-New Yorkers will get it), and the particular geography and infrastructure of NYC plays a big part as well. I'll set a story in New York any time I get a chance. It's a fantastic playground, as thousands upon thousands of writers before me have already demonstrated.
Nrama: The Thunderbolts name comes with a lot of history, and although this new era of the team is 12+ issues in, some people are still having a time determining how this squad is different. How would you describe their modus operandi, and how and why they’re working together?
Soule: Thunderbolts #14 gets into this directly; we learn how Thunderbolt Ross managed to pull together this group of killers who (to put it mildly) do not play well with others. It's always been the biggest puzzle of the team - why are they working together? The answer is that Ross offered them a very simple deal: if they would do work for him cleaning up gamma-related messes from his past, then each member would get to use the team to do some sort of mission they couldn't accomplish on their own - one mission each, no questions asked. They take turns, essentially (sometimes literally) picking a name out of a hat to see who goes next.
It's an uncomplicated mechanism that will give rise to some great stories. Punisher's mission is first, but don't you want to see what Elektra's mission will be? Deadpool's? I know I can't wait to write them.
Nrama: In classic superhero team books you have some archetypes, like the leader, the strongman, the anti-hero, etc… but in this, they all seem like the anti-hero. How would you describe the team dynamic here?
Soule: This is a team of... let's call them 'indifferently moral' individuals who are primarily concerned with their own crusades, wallets, vendettas and the like. That's what makes them interesting to write - but also challenging, because they're not always sympathetic. Still, I think antiheroes work because they are interesting - you never know how far they're going to go. They don't let themselves be bound by the same rules as a straight up hero. Do they like each other? Not particularly. Can they work together? Sometimes. Are they each out for themselves? Absolutely. Will some of those things change? Yup - but the hows and whys of that will play out in the book.
Nrama: That being said, I think the big X-factor in the team – for me at least – is the Red Leader. The Punisher killed him the first time he saw him, so I don’t see him winning any popularity contests in the group. How do they view him?
Soule: It ranges from suspicion to outright hostility. Red Leader can be an asset, but I'm not sure that the other members of the team, even Ross, are completely certain about where he stands or how he should be used. My thinking is that Ross had to pull together the best team he could, while laboring under severely reduced circumstances. He couldn't get Captain America, so he got the Punisher. He couldn't get, say, Spider-Man, so he got Deadpool. And so on. Red Leader was supposed to be his strategic superweapon. Ross, being a lifelong military man, assumed he'd be able to keep this ragtag bunch under control (especially in light of the fact that three of his recruits - Punisher, Venom and Deadpool - were past soldiers themselves). He was, to put it mildly, wrong. Red Leader might be red now, but he's still the Leader, and there are some very cool things coming up with him. The first issue after the Infinity arc ends will be another of the single character-focused issues, where we really delve into Red Leader's psyche. And it's all set on a road trip. I can't wait for that one.
Nrama: Speaking of team dynamics, Thunderbolts has introduced one of the most surprising and striking power couples in comics – the Punisher and Elektra. How’s that work?
Soule: This comes up a LOT when I talk to fans about the series. To make it clear, I don't see Punisher and Elektra as a romantic couple. I see them as a pairing of convenience. They aren't declaring eternal love to each other. However, Elektra is stunningly gorgeous, Frank probably has a sort of scarred, grizzled appeal, and why shouldn't they grab a little quality time when it makes sense? As we saw back in Thunderbolts #12, Frank's a bit conflicted about some of the things Elektra's done, even going so far as to declare her worthy of Punisher-style punishment. That's not going to go away - but neither is the "relationship" (I hesitate to even call it that.) Men and women get together for all sorts of reasons, and they stay together for all sorts of reasons, even when it's not perfect. Things will evolve with these two, and I think readers will dig how it plays out.
Nrama: You took over this series back in issue #12, and already you’re making strides to make it your own. Is there any other potential recruits to the team you’d love to have the opportunity to add at some point?
Soule: You know it. There will be a membership shuffle in Issues 20-23 (that's the current plan, at any rate). We'll get at least one new member for the team, and at least one will leave - but that's all I'll say about it. I've already written an issue featuring a new face, and let's just say that they fit in perfectly. I can't wait to see the red and black design for this one. (Yes, I'm being incredibly pronoun non-specific there - all you really know is that the character has a face. And no, before you start thinking it's M.O.D.O.K. (because he's basically all face), it's not M.O.D.O.K. Although, hmm...)
I'm really looking forward to people seeing what I'm going to do with the team - if you liked my first two issues (or even if you missed them), jump on with 14. Everything you need to know is laid out right there.