Written by Jim Zub
Art by Jon Malin and Matt Yackey
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
Perhaps it’s fitting, given that Bucky Barnes spent decades in cryogenic sleep, that the Winter Soldier gets to relive the ‘90s all over again in the newest iteration of Marvel’s Thunderbolts, which sports a distinctly retro style in everything from the lineup to the costumes to the artwork headlined by Rob Liefeld protege Jon Malin. While this comic book time capsule will almost assuredly self-select its readers just based on the artwork alone, the one thing this comic doesn’t bring to the table is any sort of twist, reducing Thunderbolts #1 to a strictly by-the-numbers affair.
That said, many readers likely won’t even get that far, because the artwork in Thunderbolts will almost assuredly make or break this book. If you’re unfamiliar with Jon Malin, you’ll see that he freely wears his influences on his sleeve, as his style is strikingly similar to that of his mentor, Rob Liefeld, from his compositions to his anatomy to the way he renders his characters’ expressions. For some readers, that’s going to be an exciting trip down memory lane, as Malin really does make you feel like you’ve gone back in time to the Liefeldian heyday of X-Force, as we watch Mach-X barrel roll down a corridor or Moonstone crackle with energy as she screams angrily as a nameless security guard.
But critics will also find a case to complain as well, outside of some dated hair and clothing designs, inking inconsistencies (like Bucky’s stubble), or Malin’s ultra-cartoony take on Cosmic Cube-turned-team mascot Kobik. Ultimately, to me as a reader, I don’t have an issue with Rob Liefeld — his style may not be for everyone, but it’s energetic and gritty and whatever its faults, has struck a chord with millions of readers for a reason. What throws me as a reader, however, is that unlike mentor-protege relationships like David Finch and Jason Fabok or Doug Mahnke and Patrick Gleason, Malin’s style doesn’t have its own voice yet — it is such a close mimicking of such a one-of-a-kind style that it’s hard not to see where it doesn’t stack up, like how he doesn’t quite match Liefeld’s dynamic pacing. That’s not to say that Malin can’t keep growing as a creator and find his own voice, but that moment hasn’t happened yet, which hampers Thunderbolts #1 as a debut.
Yet with a nearly three-year absence from the mainstream scene, whether you like his style or not, you can’t deny that Malin’s doing some pretty polished work for himself — which I can’t necessarily say the same for the scripting. To his credit, Jim Zub keeps the pacing brisk and largely action-packed, and doesn’t bog down readers with unnecessary exposition or continuity nonsense, which could make this team book nearly unreadable. But Thunderbolts at its best has been about layered writing, and there’s none of that in this meat-and-potatoes antihero adventuring. Down to the faceless armored S.H.I.E.L.D. goons sporting the old-school green Guardsmen armor, this could be any Marvel team book of the ‘90s, with the Thunderbolts breaking into a nondescript clandestine location to pick up the most insubstantial of “intel.”
That said, if the Thunderbolts as characters had any of the nuance of their predecessors, this wouldn’t be a problem, but outside of Bucky Barnes, there’s not much of a hook for readers to latch onto. Zub's characterization of Kobik gives the book a little bit of an endearing quality, but the rest of the Thunderbolts are paper-thin — Mach-X, who’s bounced back and forth between being a villain and a hero, gets almost no dialogue in this debut issue, while Moonstone’s penchant for psychological manipulation is about as subtle as a hammer to the face. But perhaps most disappointing is that I never really believed why this team came together, let alone the mission they were undertaking against S.H.I.E.L.D. Some of that comes from the Avengers Standoff storyline never really congealing, but there’s little story logic to serve as a solid launchpad here.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to pan Thunderbolts too completely, because it’s not a bad book — but it does come across a bit unambitious compared to many of the other #1 issues that Marvel has been putting out over the past several months. Perhaps inadvertently, Thunderbolts #1 evokes much of the stylings of Marvel’s output of 25 years ago, but without any of the singular qualities that made this secret team of villains stand out from the pack. Here’s hoping that with some course correction, Zub, Malin and Marvel can get lightning to strike twice.