The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents weren’t the first super heroes, but they were one of the first who were average Joes saving lives and fighting evil as a job. And this vaunted independent superhero team is back in a new series by writer Phil Hester and artist Andrea Di Vito.
Launched last month at IDW, the all-new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series brings the organization and its agents back to square one in a modern but timeless approach that sees the team draft in a former NHL leg-breaker as its newest Dynamo in their darkest hour. Donning the über-powerful Thunderbelt, this new Dynamo must team with the veteran NoMan to stop the machinations of a returning Iron Maiden.
With the first issue on stands and a second due out later this month, Newsarama spoke with longtime T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fan (and, you know, new writer) Phil Hester about following in Wally Wood’s footsteps, bringing the team into the 21st century, and making this United Nations team everything the Avengers aren’t. He brought some fresh Andrea DiVito art from the second issue to show off too.
Newsarama: The first issue is on stands, reigniting the flame of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for old fans and new ones alike. Phil, what’s it like to be on point to revitalize this title?
Phil Hester: I won't lie; it's pretty thrilling. I've been a fan of the book since I was aware of its existence, so getting chance to guide these beloved characters is both exciting and daunting. I can only hope my enthusiasm translates to a good reading experience for the buyer.
Nrama: In the various T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series over the years, the concept has been expanded – and sometimes become foggy. How would you describe the boiled down high concept of this?
Hester: The original series is very much about the cold war, so we had to find a new portfolio for the heroes, but thankfully there's no shortage of global crises to deal with these days. I want to get across the concept that a truly responsible super hero would probably not just run rooftops and listen in on police scanners to see who needed help, but actually enlist with a organization that could direct him or her where their gifts are needed most. I always thought it was a sin for
Superman to spend even a second as Clark Kent when his powers could make him the greatest micro-surgeon in the world, even if he only did it three hours a week. I mean, wouldn't Spider-Man be a greater hero using his powers to whip the assess of bloodthirsty marauders in the Sudan than foiling freaking bank robberies in the richest city on Earth?
The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents are global super heroes devoted to resolving global crises. Their powers are not cosmic, so they way they go about solving those problems provides plenty of drama, humor and pathos.
I guess I'd call it What If The Avengers Had Their Act Together?
Nrama:In the first issue you opened with the villainess Iron Maiden carrying around NoMan’s severed head as a trophy. Can you tell us about going with something so shocking to open up the series?
Hester:I was looking for that left hook out of nowhere that would both surprise long-time T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fans and also jolt anyone coming into the book expecting a cookie-cutter super hero comic. I also wanted to establish Iron Maiden as a credible threat right away, and put T.H.U.N.D.E.R. in such a dire position that they would actually turn to an untrained rookie to bail them out. It's a shortcut version of an old Michael Crichton trick. He would spend time establishing a character as a certified badass, so when that character went down early in the story you know things were out of control. If Iron Maiden made mincemeat of both NoMan and Lightning, what chance does a newbie like Dynamo have?
Nrama:Like you said, Dynamo is a rookie here. Real name Len Brown, he was a washed-up leg breaker in hockey before being drafted into T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Can you tell us what makes him Agent material in the organization’s eyes?
Hester: As explained in the book, they have an unstoppable super weapon in the Thunderbelt, but it requires a very specific physical and mental profile to operate. They've been trying out their standard recruits with the thing for months to no avail, but now that a rescue mission is imperative, they cut some corners and look for someone who fits the profile first with the hope of training him up on the fly.
Len was infamous as one of the toughest, meanest goons in the NHL. An executive agent at T.H.U.N.D.E.R. decides to look him up and finds Len collecting debts for a small time hood in Pittsburgh, but sees his potential for greatness. That's where we pick up the tale.
Nrama: And for those that haven’t read previous T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stories, what kind of powers does the Thunderbelt give its wearer, in this case Len?
Hester: It makes you a super hero! Specifically, the belt makes you nearly invulnerable and increases your strength to an unknown degree. It also hurts like hell, so it only makes you super as long as you can take it. Len is tough enough to take the belt to limits no one has seen before. I guess it makes him a Pain-Hulk. The stronger Len gets, the worse it hurts, and the upper limit may be fatal.
Nrama: With all his faults and open-eyed wonder, Len Brown as the new Dynamo is a great everyman to get to know the concept. With Brown having such a storied history with the franchise in earlier versions, why’d you describe to bring him back to his early days?
Hester: He's a natural entry point to the organization, which is pretty sprawling. We needed a relatable point of view for the reader so they wouldn't be overwhelmed by the back story of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. He's new, you're new. Also, everyone at T.H.U.N.D.E.R. is sort of hyper-competent, from Director Kat Kane down to the lowliest recruit, so contrasting their capability with Len's clumsiness makes both T.H.U.N.D.E.R. look more majestic and Len more human.
Nrama: I really enjoy the dynamic you’ve set up between NoMan and Dynamo – a kind of buddy cop approach. Are they the heart of the book?
Hester: For sure. They were my favorites as a kid, so you're all stuck with them. They're clearly the most interesting characters, both visually, and in terms of back story. I mean, NoMan is the mind of an old man in a body-- or bodies-- capable of nearly anything. Dynamo is a stereotypical super hero from the outside, but a guy filled with doubt and regret, yet still capable of a kind of sunny goodwill. It's going to be fun.
Nrama: T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #2 comes out on the 18th, and features Dynamo’s first real day on the job. What can he—and we as readers – expect?
Hester: Fighting. Look, this is a superhero comic book, and I think some cool fights are not only necessary, but what you pay to read. So, we'll see Dynamo test his powers and his pain threshold while breaching Iron Maiden's lair, then take on not only her goons, but the metallic lady
herself. We also get an idea of just what they're fighting for in the mountains of Kashmir. It's a secret that could take down not only T.H.U.N.D.E.R., but all of human civilization. How's that for some Stan Lee-speak?
Nrama: ‘Nuff said, Phil.
An overlooked part of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents concept is that these are real working man’s heroes – literally. They do it for the glory, but they also do it for a paycheck in service of someone else. Will that aspect be explored here?
Hester: It's a bit like being in the military. People who enlist in the armed forces often do it out of a sense of duty or patriotism, but they also expect a check every month. The same goes for T.H.U.N.D.E.R. It is an arm of the U.N., hence they fall under the auspices of that organization. So it's more of an office situation than say, The Avengers. I mean, Hawkeye doesn't get performance reviews and the Vision never has to meet with H.R. So, come for the super hero action, stay for the bureaucracy!
Nrama: Although this is an all-new continuity, I really feel you and Andrea are making a book for long-time T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fans here with the style and the story. Can you talk about that?
Hester: When you love something like the original concept as much as I do, you want to expose new readers to that magic. Of course, we want to make something that's accessible to new readers, but we also feel like guides to this great city that we've visited and we can't wait to show
you the best places to eat. Of course, nostalgia is poison, so we've fought to look at this with new eyes and convey what's special about it without wallowing in the past. That said, if you wanted to show someone how great the Rolling Stones are, you want to play something off Sticky Fingers, not the bonus track off their 48th greatest hits album. We're like that DJ mining for the golden hit that will make you a lifelong fan of the band. Once you see/hear this, you'll look for more on your own.
Nrama: In that massive library of previous stories, you have some great characters outside the typical team like Weed, Undersea Agent and the villainous Dr. Sparta. Any appearances for those or other lesser-known characters in the near future?
Hester: Most definitely. Who can resist using a dude who controls robot dinosaurs? Not me. There are easter eggs throughout the book for long time readers. For instance, I worked the classic villain Demo into the first issue, but in an altered role, leaving the door open for him to
ascend to former greatness in future stories. Look for treats like that over the course of the book.
Nrama: I’ve read that when you pitched this to IDW, in terms of tone you compared it to Batman: The Animated Series in terms of its timeless but modern style. Can you talk about that for this book, and that comparison?
Hester: When you're adapting something with such a long history for a modern audience there are a lot of pitfalls. The source material is so beautiful you could be tempted to say, "This is perfect. We're changing nothing. Let's make it a period piece," and lose a slew of potential readers who happen to be unfamiliar with the original series. Conversely, you could reboot completely and alienate the core audience of folks who love T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. What we're trying for, which is what Batman: The Animated Series achieved, is an approach that places everything in a kind of timeless "now" where all the stunning visual elements of Wally Wood's masterpiece can stay intact, but it's still clear to the reader that it is a contemporary story. Andrea's dynamic style goes a long way to getting that across.
Nrama: I can tell you’re a huge fan of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its creator, Wally Wood. With that legacy of stories at a half dozen publishers and Wood’s own stamp, how do you fit it in without being weighed down by it all?
Hester: Any super hero book at Marvel or DC faces similar challenges. You have to be a kind of unmerciful arbiter and throw out what doesn't work, and shine up what does, all the while looking for new territory to explore with those characters. Wally Wood's legacy isn't daunting as much as it is thrilling. Too many long running hero books have so much flaccid continuity ruining their aerodynamics, but T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stayed in Wally's hands for the majority of its existence. There's very little chaff. If we're weighed down by it, that's out fault. I look at it like a magic armor that Wally polished up and has left waiting in a treasure chest for 40+ years. It can be heavy, but it let's us work magic.