It was 1965, and two things had the kids of the era in their steely grip; comic books and spy movies. With the Bond films burning up the movie screens and shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ruling television, the folks at Tower Comics thought the best thing to do was to combine the popular trend with comics. Publisher Harry Shorten got comics legend Wally Wood, and he created a stable of characters still fondly remembered nearly 50 years later.
The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents titles only lasted four years, but, proved beloved, they got one revival in the 80s (actually a whole bunch of revivals, more on that later) and after an aborted attempt a few years back, DC will be bringing the team back this fall. Series writer Nick Spencer has chosen to buck common practice with recent revivals, saying that the entire run of the original series is part of continuity. With that in mind, your humble bottomless pit of knowledge has cracked open the longboxes and prepared this brief on The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 premiered in the fall of 1965, only a couple of months after Marvel got the Secret Agent Comic ball rolling with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales. Wally Wood and his team hits the ground running – in one 64 page book he sets up a fully functioning universe, introduces almost a dozen characters and gives them all a chance to shine.
An elite team of UN forces land at the remote mountain lab of Professor Jennings, the world’s foremost scientific minds. The lab is overrun with agents of The Warlord, the leader of a hazily-defined criminal organization in the style of SPECTRE and Thrush. Jennings has been killed, and the Warlord’s men are driven off, but not before they could get their hands on his amazing inventions. Jennings was working on a number of devices, but since he never committed any notes to paper, their purposes are mysterious and their workings are irreproducible. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. discovers a cache of devices in a hidden room, undiscovered by the Warlord’s men, and takes them back to base for analysis. After some time, they’re able to glean enough data from the devices that they choose to select some of their best men to use them as super-agents to fight The Warlord.
Len Brown was only a clerk at T.H.U.N.D.E.R. but his physical stamina made him a prime candidate for the first of Jennings’ inventions, a belt that gives the wearer’s body the strength and durability of steel. Len is assigned the “Thunderbelt” and after a brief indoctrination session, is given his uniform and the codename Dynamo.
The Thunderbelt gives the wearer’s body the consistency of steel. The belt takes an enormous toll on the body of the wearer; wearing it for more than a half-hour at a time runs the risk of killing him. After overexerting himself in one of his first missions, the belt is fitted with a timer to protect Len.
Dr. Anthony Dunn is one of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s premier scientists, but near the end of his life and confined to a wheelchair, he elects to play guinea pig to one of his most dangerous experiments. He places his body in suspended animation and successfully transfers his consciousness into one of a a series of android bodies of his creation. Furthermore, he is able to transfer his mind from one android to another, rendering him functionally immortal, so long as he had access to another body. The organization assigns him an invisibility cloak, another creation of Professor Jennings, and the name NoMan.
NoMan’s android bodies have slightly higher than human strength and durability, but their real asset is the mind of Dr. Dunn. As long as he is within broadcast range of another body, Dunn can switch to a backup almost instantly. The invisibility cloak is far from replaceable, however, and NoMan is often left in the position of having to return to locations of extreme danger to retrieve the precious device from his own “body”.
The third device to be assigned, a mental intensifier helmet, goes to John Janus, who won out against many other volunteers in a battery of tests and physical challenges. He is also a mole, an agent in the employ of The Warlord, and being assigned his powerful invention seems a massive win for the criminal mastermind. That is, until he puts the helmet on, and is amazed to discover that not only is he granted amazing powers of telekinesis, telepathy and more, the helmet prevents him from committing an evil act. When wearing the helmet he is a loyal agent of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. and when it’s off he’s all but unable to remember his actions, let alone explain them to his nefarious employer. As Menthor, he’s one of the agency’s most powerful agents, and potentially their greatest threat, should he throw off the power of the helmet.
Not all of the agents have super powers, however. The THUNDER Squad is a team of crack commandos, their own “Impossible Missions” force. With members like “Weed” Wylie (a fanciful self-portrait of Wally himself) and the superintelligent “Egghead”, the team is sent out on numerous guerrilla missions where a more deft and covert touch is needed.
We also get to meet the series’ ultimate femme fatale, the alluring flame-haired Iron Maiden. From parts unknown, weight unknown, the mail-clad Mata Hari will serve as Dynamo’s prime nemesis, and, mirroring the relationship of Batman and Catwoman, star-crossed paramour.
Bear in mind, this is ALL in the first issue! This issue alone featured art by Wood, Gil Kane, Reed Crandall, Mike Esposito and Mike Sekowsky; quite a murderer’s row of creators.
New characters are introduced in almost every issue – the super-robot Dynavac faces down Dynamo next issue, and in issue #4, Squad member Guy Gilbert is assigned the Speed Inducer Suit and become the speedster agent Lightning. Like the other devices, his power comes at a cost – each time he uses the suit, his metabolism is accelerated to the point that he ages as fast as he runs.
By this point, both Dynamo and NoMan got solo titles, albeit in name only – both featured stories from all members of the team. Steve Ditko drew the first appearance of Andor, a human child kidnapped by the Subterraneans and subjected to cruel training and experiments, rendering him super-strong and conditioned to hate the surface world. In classic style, he turns against his creators and escapes. He reappears throughout the run of the series, trying to return to a human life but ever coming under the thrall of a splinter cell of Subterraneans who pull him back into the side of evil.
As time passes, we learn that the Warlord is actually a member of the Subterraneans, a race of beings from beneath the Earth, with an army of horror at his command. Menthor, finally choosing to fight against the Warlord of his own free will, meets his end in issue 7 of the series, and in the very next issue, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. takes the battle to the Warlord’s door and defeats him. But evil abhors a vacuum and almost immediately a new organization, S.P.I.D.E.R. rises to take his place, with many of the Warlord’s minions and soldiers taking up arms for them, including The Iron Maiden, who’s always available to the highest bidder.
When the Subterranean technology of anti-gravity makes an appearance, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. realizes they must have an agent who can take to the air with ease. Mercenary and expert acrobat Craig Lawson is recruited for training with the newly created flight belt, and joins the ranks of super-agents as The Raven. Raven’s stories were primarily written and drawn by Manny Stallman in a very avant-garde style that suited the more “superhero-noir” styles of the stories. In these stories he worked against S.P.I.D.E.R. alone, and his appearances in the big team-up stories had a very different feel, mainly due to the different writers.
Published at the same time was a title inspired more by Sea Hunt than the spy shows of the main titles. Undersea Agent featured the adventures of Lt. Davey Jones (I know, I know) who receives a special high-pressure scuba suit from noted scientist Professor Weston, a suit that not only allows him to travel to incredible depths, but required no oxygen tanks as the suit was so this, it allowed oxygen in the water to pass through by osmosis. As an agent for U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A., a nautical-based division of T.H.U.N.D.E.R., his primary enemy was the nefarious Dr. Fang, as well as any number of aquatic monsters that happened to come along. Though he only appeared in one issue of the main book, he is usually considered a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent as well, and hopefully we’ll see someone using his equipment in the new series.
The original series only lasted 20 issues (the last issue entirely reprints), the other related series far fewer. But in the ‘80s, a lot of people decided the time was right to bring the characters back. Alas, only one of them had the rights to do so.
To make a long and ugly story short and beautiful, John Carbonaro bought the rights for the characters from Tower Comics, and started publishing new stories with the characters as well as a reprint series. Only four issues of new material ever appeared, but John had time to introduce a new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent, Vulcan. He had the ability to fly and fire powerful sonic blasts. But like all the Agents, the power was a double-edged sword - the sonic blasts he generated were slowly making him deaf.
Shortly afterwards, David Singer produced his own series with the characters, attracting top-name talent like George Perez, Keith Giffen and Jerry Ordway. Steve Perry, who just passed away recently under sad circumstances, wrote a couple NoMan stories (drawn by Steve Ditko, the only artist to have worked on every one of the three major incarnations of the series to date) and a spectacular story featuring the new Menthor. In it, we learn that the mind and personality of John Janus was absorbed into the helmet, and can assist the new wearer with its powers. In comparison, the Singer issues were far superior to John C’s books.
But shortly after the first issue appeared, John Carbonaro and Singer began battling in the courts over the rights. The details are still hazy, even today, but the best interpretation is that David initially wanted to license the characters from Carbonaro, but later declared they were in the public domain. After a side-hearing got a minor legal point thrown out, Singer took out trade ads declaring he had won the case, and that the characters were in the public domain. That opened the floodgates, and a number of books came out featuring the characters in wildly different forms. Popular funny animal book Boris the Bear dedicated an issue to the phenomenon, where he put on the Thunderbelt and pummeled all the pseudo-Agents into submission. It took John Carbonaro years to re-exert control over the characters, but to this day there are those who still believe Singer’s claim that the characters are in the Public Domain.
There have been a couple more attempts to bring the characters back in recent years. Rob Liefeld claimed he had the rights to the characters in the early ‘90s, but after offering Dave Cockrum carte blanche on writing and drawing the series, Dave demurred and nothing ever came of it. Penthouse Comics got the rights for a while, resulting in a couple of pin-ups and one short story drawn by Paul Gulacy and Terry Austin. DC co-publisher Dan Didio is responsible for TWO attempts to bring the series back, once as an animated cartoon for ABC’s Saturday Morning lineup, and one earlier this decade as a series for DC. Neither came to fruition, but it appears the third time will be the charm for this one.
For those interested in learning even more about the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the entire run of the original series are available in 6 DC Archives editions. Also, the folks at TwoMorrows Publishing offer an exhaustive reference work, The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Companion, which features detailed examinations of the characters, heavily researched reports on both the 80’s revivals and the DC attempt from earlier this decade. Like all their work, it delivers amazing detail in an interesting format.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. fans are a small but fervent breed, and if this recap has served to pique your interest in the new series, I’ll consider my mission accomplished.
Bringing the T.H.U.N.D.E.R.!