The Unlikely Success Story of THUNDERBOLTS

 

Thunderbolts #174, now out in stores, is the last issue of that series — well, kind of.

Starting in June, it's transitioning to Dark Avengers, keeping the same numbering, creative team and much of the main cast, while adding members of the latest Dark Avengers crew from the recently wrapped H.A.M.M.E.R. story in New Avengers.

Once again, Thunderbolts proves to be a survivor. Books that originated in the 1990s and are still around in some form today are few and far between at both Marvel and DC — Birds of Prey is another rare one — and though it's rarely been an easy road for the T-Bolts, they've managed to last 15 years in an ever-evolving marketplace.

With one era in the Thunderbolts legacy ending and a new one beginning, here's a look at the many and varied different phases in the book's history — with, presumably, many more to come in the future.

The Early Days: The Thunderbolts first appeared in Incredible Hulk #449, showing up as a fairly generic team of never-before-seen heroes, with only the vaguest of hints towards their true nature. Though Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley created the concept and character designs, their first appearance was actually by the then-regular Hulk team of Peter David and Mike Deodato.

 

Busiek/Bagley: The book's initial creative team, Busiek and Bagley's run on Thunderbolts lasted for 34 issues. The series was promoted as a new team of superheroes set to fill the void left by the Avengers and Fantastic Four, who were presumed dead at the time but were really transported to a parallel Earth. In one of the most famous twists in comic book history, the Thunderbolts were revealed to actually be various members of the Masters of Evil — led by Baron Zemo, who orchestrated the infamous attack on Avengers Mansion years back — trying to gain the public's trust by posing as heroes. (The team also picked up a new recruit codenamed Jolt, innocent among all the scheming.)

When the heroes inevitably returned, Zemo's scheme was revealed, and much of the team (now fugitives) tried to become respectable in their own right — with the help of Hawkeye, himself a former villain.

Nicieza Takes Over: Writer Fabian Nicieza took over Thunderbolts with issue #34, with Bagley sticking around until issue #50. Nicieza continued to take the team down a quasi-heroic path, pitting them against foes like Count Nefaria and Graviton.

 

"Fightbolts": During the Bill Jemas era of Marvel, the publisher made a lot of bold moves: One was taking Thunderbolts, a fan-favorite book but not a chart-topper, and completely changing the concept, characters and creative team from something completely different than it had been before. It was the same formula that made the Peter Milligan and Mike Allred X-Force a major success, but didn't work so well for Thunderbolts. Written by John Arcudi, the new era started with issue #76, and included a quote of support from Busiek right on the cover, in an apparent effort to soothe upset fans. (The cover also read, somewhat puzzlingly, "Marvel Comics for Real Men.") The new take on T-Bolts — essentially Fight Club for supervillains — only lasted six issues before the book was cancelled.

 

Avengers/Thunderbolts: After months of inactivity, Marvel announced plans to revive the Thunderbolts in a six-issue, 2004 miniseries titled Avengers/Thunderbolts, co-written by Busiek and Nicieza and seemingly a mea culpa to the audience turned off by the "Fightbolts" era. The comic re-established the classic Thunderbolts team, and the unlikely comeback was cemented with the launch of a subsequent new series.

New Thunderbolts: "New" was the operative word — it was a big adjective at Marvel for a while, thanks to the success of New X-Men. Nicieza and artist Tom Grummett collaborated on the book, which added new characters like Radioactive Man, Captain Marvel (the Genis version) and Joystick to the mix. After reaching 18 issues, the book went back to the old Thunderbolts numbering with #100.

 

Warren Ellis Era: 2006 event series Civil War had a dramatic impact on Marvel, and one was a complete overhaul of Thunderbolts, with superstar writer Warren Ellis coming on board. Songbird, a Thunderbolt since the first issue, remained the team's moral compass, as Norman Osborn, Venom, Bullseye and Penance — the former Speedball, traumatized by his role in the events that led to Civil War — were added to the mix, with the team acting as government sanctioned agents looking to clear their records.

"Dark Reign": Ellis departed the book after 12 issues, and following some work by Christos Gage, Losers writer Andy Diggle joined up for an extended run and took the team through the Norman Osborn-prompted "Dark Reign" era, once again shaking up the roster by adding the likes of Ghost, Paladin and the Eric O'Grady Ant-Man.

 

And, The Present: Current series writer Jeff Parker has balanced both the classic Thunderbolts — heavily using Fixer, Moonstone, Songbird and MACH-V — along with newer additions like Ghost. Parker has added plenty of twists himself, most notably installing Luke Cage as the new team leader, plus Juggernaut, Mister Hyde, Troll and many more. This balance of eras extended to the recently wrapped "Thunderbolts vs. Thunderbolts" storyline, where the current team encountered the original in the past. 

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