Writer Nick Spencer has already made a big splash in DC Comics with his Jimmy Olsen backup feature in Action Comics, his upcoming takeover of Supergirl, and now a critically acclaimed first two issues of an entire set of characters in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.The central concept of the book in its original run in Tower Comics in the sixties, is that T.H.U.N.D.E.R., The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves, fights the terrorist organization SPIDER, with the help of highly trained commando teams and a limited number of volunteers who are assigned highly powerful devices that render them nearly superhuman, but at a terrible price. Most of them will be dead in a year. How does a person cope with that information, and what brings them to the choice to sign up?
“None of them are handling it particularly well,” explains Spencer. “As we go through the first few issues you’ll get to know these characters and as we do you’ll start to see what pushed them towards this decision and what calls them to say ‘yes’ to it. None of them are really coming from the best place. This is very much a book about what the regrets in people’s lives calls them to do. I don’t know if any of them are going to enjoy what they’re doing per se, but they will all respond in different ways. They will all feel differently about what they’re being asked to do here. That’s part of what’s interesting about the story; a lot of it is character study about how people would respond to a choice like this.”
One of the first people we meet in the first issue is Colleen, a redhead who serves as a ranking member of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. “She and Toby, who you meet later in the issue,” explains Spencer, “they’re really our eyes and ears as we explore this world. They’re the characters who take our hands and show us through it. What her role is, where she’ll ultimately end up and how she’ll get there is stuff that’s going to play out over time. She is actually a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad member. She doesn’t do a great amount of field work anymore, for reasons that we’ll learn about, but that’s her background.”
We meet a number of new characters in just the few pages of the book, including a new Dynamo and Lightning, but based on what we know, it’s likely not a surprise that not all of those characters survive that first issue. T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s mindset has always been that the equipment is more important than the people. Spencer elaborates: “You saw very early in the first issue, that has definitely not changed for T.H.U.N.D.E.R. They very much view these things as assets; they really don’t have much use for the people that happen to be wearing them. That’s definitely an integral part of the story – they have an over-reliance on technology, taking the humanity out of the equation too often. That’s something that hasn’t changed too much in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Protocol. And you’re also going to see some new technologies being introduced, and the roles that they play. That’s still T.H.U.N.D.E.R.; they really believe in that stuff.”“In fact, they have NEW toys to play with, and if anything they’ve gotten worse about that. You saw one very big one in the first issue. We’re going to be exploring both that original wave of inventions, and how they’ve been changed and modified. Ways that they differ, and the different things they’ve tried.
Spencer boils the mindset of the men running T.H.U.N.D.E.R. with a line from the original series. “One of the pivotal lines from the original run is when Len (Brown, the original Dynamo)’s superiors say to him, ‘YOU didn’t do anything; the Belt did’ When I was reading the original stories, that was something that stuck out for me.”
DC has brought a number of other companies’ stables on board, including the Quality Comics line that became Freedom Fighters, and the Charlton heroes including Blue Beetle and Captain Atom. They’ve chosen varied ways to explain those other companies’ adventures in the past: Spencer and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. creative team (including artist CAFU and Editor Wil Moss) have chosen to take a rather simple yet bold way to bring all the stories from the sixties-era comic into a modern story.
“They’re all gonna be here,” Spencer explains. “The mythology that was set up in the Tower is all a part of the story”
So about how long ago did these adventures take place? “Comic book time is a tricky thing, but I’d say (the original stories) took place decades ago. It’s been a while. They’re very much meant to be ‘Silver-Age’ adventures. The same time as the Challengers of the Unknown, that’s a good place to put them, that sort of ‘gap era’.”
That places the original Agents in about their fifties, and the organization and its mission in existence for most of the careers of the modern-day superheroes. But even though the current Agents’ days are numbered, Spencer promises it’s not all forgotten for older readers. “If you’re a fan of these characters, you’re going to see them all over the course of the first arc. That was something we were really excited to do, to bring those great characters back in, and introduce them to a new audience.”One of the other Agents, Raven, is saved by a member of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad right out from his captors’ noses. But when asked if that was one of the replacement Agents or the original Raven, Spencer was rather…reticent. “Ummm…that’ll be revealed over time. That’s certainly a question that we’re gonna answer.”
One character that is definitely an original agent is Dr. Anthony Dunn, aged scientist who, in the last moments of life, transferred his mind into a series of androids and became the Agent NoMan. He’s been with the organization since its inception. “(Dr. Dunn) is in a very isolated place. He’s staying alive, but the question is, what kind of a life is it? This is something that I really loved about the original stories; the hints that they would drop about his disconnect. The ways he would have difficulty connecting emotionally as he kept switching through these bodies; the fears and doubts that would occur to him as he would continue to move his consciousness. If you consider that those stories happened within a relatively compressed timeframe, you can only imagine what, extrapolating that over the course of decades, that would do. When we meet him, and really spend some time with him, which will be around issue three…I think it’s an intriguing portrait of someone who’s trading humanity for existence.”
The first challenge when bringing characters into the modern day is to made their look more modern. The team worked together to come up with a new look for the series. “We had a fair bit of input with CAFU but from the start we had the template of the (Wally) Wood designs and for the most part we looked at those and said ‘How can we update these? How can we take the original inspiration from these and grow it out from there?’ CAFU really excels at that; he did a terrific job of capturing the spirit of the designs from the original and still making them feel new and fresh again“
CAFU is not the only artist working on the book. From the covers for the first issue by Frank Quitely and Darwyn Cooke, to the guest sequences in upcoming issues by Howard Chaykin, and more to be named later, the book has amassed quite a murderer’s row of talent. Spencer places the credit for this firmly in the hands of editor Wil Moss, who he describes as “a force of nature” in his dedication on the title.
The rest of the DCU will be seen very little in the first few issues, as the goal is to introduce the team to the readers. “Over time we’ll be exploring T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s role in the DCU, and how they differ from Checkmate and other organizations, and what makes them special. And I think that the answer is going to add a new layer to the DCU, that I hope other writers and other creators will have fun with as well.”
“Again, that original Tower run is in continuity. When you think about that, there are a lot of immediate questions that arise. How have all these things happened without anyone else in the DCU having knowledge of them?”
We see the evil organization SPIDER in the first issue, but as time passes, Spencer promises we’ll be seeing more of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s rogues gallery, including Andor, the human turned into a brainwashed enemy of humanity by The Warlord. “Although I don’t know if ‘rogue’ is the right word for him,” counters Spencer, “He’s a very interesting character.”T.H.U.N.D.E.R. fans are looking forward to these characters, but possibly none more so than Dynamo’s nemesis, one of Wally Wood’s most enduring and alluring creations, The Iron Maiden. While he wouldn’t reveal exact dates and details, Spencer is looking just as forward to her return. “When ‘Rusty’ comes back, however that happens, it might just be a big enough event to affect the entire DCU. She’s that awesome a character, that powerful a force.”
Spencer has done his research to make sure the original adventures and characters are well-handled. “I read through the entire Tower run…it’s been a couple times now. We never really entertained the notion of not using that stuff. It’s too brilliant.”
While he’s obviously hoping the book will succeed, he wants that success to be shared. “My hope is that if people pick up this first book and like it, that they might go and pick up those archive editions. That would be the best thing I could hear, because those stories deserve a broader audience. It would be nice to see some renewed appreciation for them.”Are you digging the new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. take?