#5 – THUNDERBOLTS (DARK AVENGERS) #175-183
By Jeff Parker & Declan Shalvey, Kev Walker and Neil Edwards
Jeff Parker’s fantastic run on THUNDERBOLTS came to a close in pretty much the only way it could have – by asking the question ‘what separates good from evil?’ In a climactic story that had the time traveling team of the Thunderbolts stuck in a dystopian future where the superheroes of 616 have endlessly cloned themselves, generation after generation, to keep a fascist control of peace (not to mention an exclusion of mutants), where a government sanctioned organization called FACT willingly sent known super villians on a mission of possible-world-destruction importance so they’d have someone to blame if it all went wrong, where Luke Cage doubted himself a hero, that showed what Doctor Doom was using that time machine for before he decided he needed to send the FF to get pirate treasure, where Songbird was reunited with Troll, where Toxie Doxie obsessively genetically alters her super powers the same way many of us do our appearance, and a hell of a lot more…basically, this was the way to end a run, the way to finish years’ worth of comics, which constantly questioned the true motives of a bunch of villainous superheroes hoping to get a parole break. It features the beginning of the universe, the end of the universe, a team disbanding, a team forming, a rogue nation that exists as an impassible force wall, twins who pass massive amounts of energy between each other, and Luke Cage ending his life as a superhero in two universes. It was the ultimate team book, with dozens of sub-plots, unique characters, colossal concepts and ideas at every turn. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re going to go out big, this is how you go out big.
The story begins with the Thunderbolts, after an attempt to escape from the Raft, hurtling back in time towards the beginning of the universe. If they go any further, they’ll be in a point before time, before anything existed. It turns out the ‘bolts were being pulled to witness the first birth of all creation…the Man-Thing. In a scene that Kev Walker just draws the hell out of, Ghost asks Vogornus Koth to bring them back to their present time. Man-Thing reveals he no longer has his fantastic temporal powers – now that he has gained human consciousness (as well as a universal language that lends everyone hearing him speak in the way they want to hear) he can no longer use the skills he once had. “When I couldn’t think, I could feel how to do it. Now that I am aware…I can’t understand how I did it.” Anybody with creative hobbies or careers can relate to this idea, and the melancholic pressure that comes with it. Before meeting with Man-Thing, the Tbolts had also brought along a mysterious, weary character that’d just gotten into fisticuffs with a couple of hungry sharks. This time-traveling stranger is revealed to be none other than Doctor Doom, testing out the time machine he ended up using on the FF in one of Lee/Kirby’s earliest adventures, best remembered as the story that revealed The Thing is actually Blackbeard. Doom’s ego and the Thunderbolts weariness don’t mix especially well, and pretty soon we’re in the middle of a Doombot/Thunderbolt war. Satana ends up sending Doom into hell to face his Mother once again, and the crew use a back to form Man-Thing to travel to what they think is the present, but ends up being a very different future. And here’s where things really get interesting.
Luke Cage is on the Raft, ready to send in his resignation as leader of the Thunderbolts. Cage had come to a realization in THE NEW AVENGERS, mainly that maybe being a hero isn’t about how many things you can punch, and maybe it’s about raising a family and loving your partner and trying to make the world a better place. Before he gets the chance to go, he’s confronted by FACT, who introduces him to the new members of the Thunderbolts, namely, the Dark Avengers. Luke has a bit of a problem with that, seeing as how this crew recently tried to kill him. FACT explains they need Cage to lead the crew to Sharzad, a small nation between Egypt and Libya fueled by the power of alien tech and ruled by Sultan Magus, who is currently holding superhuman Erik Wender at ransom against the US government. Magus’ power is centralized in his country, and FACT fears he is planning to use Wender’s massive energy transferring abilities to attack the United States. This whole ‘world in danger’ thing is enough to get Cage to team with his former enemies, bringing along Skaar, son of Hulk, for good measure.
Meanwhile, the Thunderbolts are trapped in a dystopian future, camping out with a team of renegade mutants on the run from an evil team of “Bosses”. We soon learn that, in the future, the Dark Avengers failed their first mission as the new Tbolts, and Sharzhad spawned a global cataclysm. An energy transfer irradiated the entire world, which led to a world of countries run by martial laws, humans unable to reproduce, and the mutant population skyrocketing. It’s a dark twist on the mutant dream (and even most mutant fears, dystopias such as DAYS OF FUTURE PAST) with mutants set to take over as the population of Earth. Eventually the humans find a way to clone themselves to continue their existence. Soon, superheroes have donated their genetic material so they can be cloned for generations to be protectors of the world. Unfortunately, Sultan Magus’ force-wall technology is used to create ‘human only’ cities, with mutants being excluded to the desert areas surrounding the major cities. This leads to the Boss system, superhero offspring who patrol and punish all wayward mutants.
Parker brings vigilantism to a logical extension; fascism. In this future, The Avengers are turned into pathetic control freaks, obsessed with authority and deathly terrified of their mortality. The sly, ironic notes to previous Marvel stories can’t be avoided. I mean, one doesn’t remember the Avengers dropping everything they were doing after the mutants went near-extinct in 616. Yet here we see a refusal for these characters to believe their time has come, who break every belief they ever had to keep their existence (and species) alive. It’s hard to avoid some possible meta-commentary here, as this is a dystopian future where these decades long Marvel properties refuse to face their adventure has come to an end, and clone (reboot) themselves in an endless cycle.
As it turns out, a clone of Luke Cage is the current Boss of Mondo City, the outskirts of which the Thunderbolts are currently camping out. After a battle including mutant outlaws with stolen Doc Ock tech and a host of cloned Bosses, the Thunderbolts find a message Hank Pym left in 616-present that Man-Thing can use to pinpoint and transport the team back to their time. Boss Cage appears to stop them, when Centurius takes a gamble and reveals to Cage that if he lets them go, this time will never exist. It’s a great scene that reaffirms that these superheroes have, yes, acted horribly and become tyrannical monsters, but they still are, literally, deep down the heroes we know and love. Boss Cage looks at the destruction and manipulation of free will around him, and begs the Tbolts to leave and ensure his time never comes to pass.
As the Cage of one universe dies, the Cage of 616 has almost wrapped up his last caper. After the Tbolts appear to save the day (with all of the credit going to the Avengers, natch) Cage reveals his days a super hero are pretty well done. “I got a lot to answer for. I wasn’t a good leader.” The gang teleports away with Man-Thing, choosing to go back to their super villain ways, while FACT confirms that the entire mission wasn’t much more than a cover up. They weren’t entirely convinced themselves that the Dark Avengers were going to succeed, but they figured if things went wrong, they’d have someone perfect to blame. The shady grey of morality rears its head again; if the heroes of the future are fascist rulers, and the people who control the heroes of the present are manipulative, non-feeling backroom dealers, what separates the Avengers from the Thunderbolts? I mentioned in the first paragraph that this final arc is about ‘what separates good from evil?’, and what’s so special about the entire Thunderbolts concept is that there isn’t a clear answer. The ‘bolts may be only ‘acting’ good, doing super heroic deeds to get a break on prison sentences, but is that any different than many of us acting good only for societal reasons?
And that’s only the briefest, most on-the-surface look at this title I could give. That’s ignoring all the amazing character moments I could ramble on about for paragraphs, from the evolution of Troll to the perseverance of Songbird to the intellectual dualism of Centurius’ moral choices. From Ragnarok’s illusion of God status, from Sultan Magus’ representation of Arab prejudice in the US, to the return of Cain Marko as the Juggernaut, to Man-Thing’s thug talk to Boomerang…this is a special title. This is the team book to end all team books, with intensely varied characters with unique motivations and complex characterizations. This was the end of the world, the beginning of the world, the rise of mutants, the fall of superheroes, the end of Luke Cage, the return to villainy. This is a continuing chapter in Parker’s increasingly complex story about the superhero concept being tied into the idea of control, and the dangers that come with this. This book is deep, complex, funny and challenging, and it’s the smartest book I’ve ever seen to have AVENGERS plastered on the cover.