Vol 3. This was the first serious comic book I ever really read, and it still holds a really special place in my heart. I read the trades at my local library, and it informs a lot of my taste in comic books to this day. The art by Perez is definitive classic super hero style, and Busiek is to date my favorite comic book writer. His work for Marvel in the 90s is a little clunky, less refined than his work on Astro City, but his characters have an incredible solidity and strength to the characterization. Busiek defines how I understand Hawkeye, Wonder Man, Hank Pym, and Ultron. He's also probably the reason that I've never really liked Carol Danvers. Busieks's original characters, like Triathlon and Silverclaw haven't exactly stood the test of time, but they do add some interesting dynamics to the team. Stories like Ultron Unlimited, Nefaria Protocols, and Kang War are absolute classics. Full disclosure, I haven't actually read the post-Busiek issues of this volume; as I understand it they are not very good. However, I didn't know they existed until years after i finished the Busiek run, and I'm not really going to factor them in, any more than I'd consider Fightbolts part of T-Bolts vol 1. This comic has great sentimental value to me, and its solid storytelling all around, but at the end of the day, the thing I remember most about it is that it introduced me to Thunderbolts, Busiek's other, far stronger late-90s offering, and my favorite book period.
I don't really feel the need to explain or justify the inclusion of Immortal Hulk. It is compelling on a deep emotional level, and it achieves a truly monumental length for a new 20's book. It made me cry more than once. The Roxxon arc went on for longer than I would have preferred, and was a lull on the book's momentum, but was still far better than most books out at the same time. And sticking the landing as well as Ewing did, for a 50-issue series especially, is a remarkable achievement. And, despite the bad blood between Ewing and Mr. Bennet, his art is incredibly touching, emotive, and disturbing, and a high point for the modern age of comics. This is probably the "best" book on this list from a semi-objective artistic standpoint, but this is a personal list, and it just doesn't rank that high for me on a personal and emotional level.
I know for a lot of people, this book was the hidden gem of the Hickman-Era of X-Books. It certainly was for me. Go figure, I like the book that's basically X-Men Thunderbolts. This book made me take Nanny and Orphan-Maker seriously, which is itself an impressive feat. Sinister is employed very well, and this book is probably the high-point for the "fabulous" version of Sinister we currently have. Wells gives credit to Hill's Fallen Angels for Psylocke's character, which I think is impossibly modest, because no one cared about Fallen Angels. Any real fans of "new" Psylocke as a character come from this book and Wells's excellent portrayal of her pain and empathy. The real star of this book for me is Greycrow, who carries the team's emotional core and the central narrative of self-betterment. His relationship with Kwannon is very compelling, and his arc ends on a triumphant high note. This is also one of those rare books that consistently gets better instead of growing stale, with its second year going less needlessly edgy and balancing its drama and comedy more effectively. It's one of those series that you wish could last forever, but it knows that it shouldn't. Instead it gives its characters a proper send-off, summing up their emotional journeys with a real bittersweet climax. I'm glad it ended on its own terms, but I hope Wells gets to continue writing great books. I really do hope that Greycrow and Psylocke get a continuation of their story, preferably by Wells, but I'll take anything over comic book limbo.
Vol 3. This book makes me mourn for squandered potential. I mean, all else being equal this comic book truly shows the creator's affection for the 'Bolts as a concept. It reunites the classic T-Bolts cast to great effect, and quickly show's that Zub has a deft talent for establishing character voice. The dialogue is occasionally clumsy, but the personalities are always right on display. Bucky and Kobik, the two newcomers to the series quickly establish a strong relationship that s central to th team dynamic, but they both also have good chemistry with the classic characters as well. I thought I'd dislike Abe being played largely for comedy, but he does get appropriately serious and badass moments and his brotherly relationship with Erik is great. Fixer and Moonstone have great dialogue; Moonstone lacks the subtlety she had in the Niceiza era, but isn't rampantly psychotic like she was under Ellis. Fixer is a real delight, going just a touch meaner than Parker's interpretation. His egotism is once again rampant and wonderful, and his swings from self-satisfaction to annoyance at a moment's notice. Once Songbird joins at the tail end of the run she does a lot to enhance the dynamic, taking the piss out of Karla and bringing out Abe's emotionally mature side that Erik just doesn't. Her addition rounded out the crew's chemistry and created that perfect storm of clashing personalities, screwed-up group love, and conflicting interests that make Thunderbolts great. I think that the final Zub line-up of the team had some of the best character dynamics in team history.
Story-wise the book is a bit more by the numbers. The script itself is good, but most of the individual conflicts are a bit banal. They spend two issues fighting the Inhumans and Squadron Supreme. I'm not a fan of hero vs hero stories, even in Thunderbolts where they're considerably more justified, but the main issue here is that neither the Inhumans nor the Squadron bring out anything new in the team. They pose no real moral or philosophical challenge, and don't have enough history to make the fights weighty. Seeing the Thunderbolts give an "up-yours" to Maria Hill is tremendously satisfying, but fighting Shield doesn't offer particularly interesting opportunities. And although the team are ostensibly "alien hunters" via Bucky's "Man on the Wall" schtick, this never really informs the team identity. The final fight shows a major weakness to Zub's approach; the Thunderbolts are defined by being former/sort-of still supervillains, so they work best when they clash with classical supervillains like the Wrecking Crew and Zemo's Masters. The animosity in the final fight scene shows why simply fighting aliens and superheroes doesn't work well for T-Bolts, and the lack of any recurring enemies and villains is a real detriment to the story.
The fight scenes in this book make up a sizable chunk of the page count. This book is mostly a fight book, with drama and introspection being kept to the side, and luckily the fights mostly deliver. The characters use their abilities interestingly, and for all of the flaws in the art, it does demonstrate dynamism very well.
Malin's art for the series is a subject of much debate, but ultimately I think it does work. The character designs are already quite 90s, and for a action-thriller spy book it works pretty well. I really like how he draws Fixer and Abe in action. Unfortunately something about his line work make any long hair (on Bucky, Karla, Mel, etc.) look bizarre. The art has been criticized as "liefeldian" and I can't entirely disagree, but unlike Liefeld himself, Malin does have distinctively different designs for his characters, proportions remain consistent, and expressions are legible, so the roughness and exaggeration don't really bother me, and work quite well for at least the fight scenes. If you were hell-bent on recreating the Liefeld style for the modern era, Malin's just about the best version of that I can imagine.
The loss of this book is something I will never forgive Secret Empire before. At the end of the day I can forgive Hydra Cap as inconsequential and occasionally interesting, but I really miss this book. Zub has expressed a desire to continue this book, and please somebody let him. Seeing his solid character work and good dynamics play out more meaningful long-term stories would be fantastic. The quiet character moments in the book demonstrated a real fidelity to the characters and an interest in what makes them tick. This book understood what makes Thunderbolts great, and did its best to live up to the history and weight that those characters have for fans like myself. I do really hope that future T-Bolts books and writers are more like this and less like a bland Suicide Squad knock-off.
Vol 1 Cont. This isn't really one run. There are six different writers and four distinct eras of Thunderbolts in this one volume. There are individual issues of this volume that I truly love, but inconsistency knocks it down a few slots.
This volume sees Nicieza finish his incredible tenure as T-Bolts scribe, and since he's saying goodbye to characters he actually works well with, Zemo and Moonstone, the finish is pretty strong, if not up to his earlier work on the book.
The Ellis era of this book is incredibly strong, and Deodato's art, particularly his Tommy Lee Jones as Osborn is fantastic. Ellis's R-Man and Songbird also have a great dynamic. Venom and Bullseye have a remarkable depravity that comes off as genuinely frightening rather than edgy. I do think that Ellis fundamentally misunderstands Moonstone, but it's a forgivable offense in such a good series.
Unfortunately, the Gage and Diggle runs that follow try pretty damn hard to emulate Ellis without ever making it work well. Gage's work just feels flat to me, and that's just about all I can say about it. Diggle first brings the Ellis/Gage lineup to a lackluster sendoff that doesn't really give a meaningful conclusion to the team, and mostly serves to let Bendis run Dark Avengers. His own team is at least more interesting, particularly Ghost. Widowmaker is at least a solid T-Bolts story, with the conflict between classic 'Bolts and Diggle's team giving it an interesting dynamic. It is however, the only Diggle arc where the team dynamic goes anywhere interesting. Parker's brief tenure writing Diggle's lineup is fine, but lacks any real interest, with the Siege tie-in mostly recreating the Widowmaker conflict in a way that feels stale. The final issue, where O'Grady gives Headsmen a decent send-off is a solid conclusion, but this era does feel like dead air just waiting for the Heroic Age.
Once the heroic age hits, we are treated to the final classic T-Bolts run (For the purposes of this review, I'm counting the first arc of Dark Avengers Vol 2 as part of this volume). Parker writes Cage, Boomerang, and Fixer incredibly well, and Songbird and Mach are well-utilized as secondary characters. To Parker's credit he doesn't try to give the reformed characters arcs where there isn't room, but lets them be a solid presence for actual good in the otherwise grey-ish comic. Shalvey and Walker each have a solid and distinctive style; you'd never mistake one for the other, but they compliment each other and the tone of the book overall. Fixer's characterization as de facto lead of the "Underbolts" is great, as is the Troll/Hyde duo. Juggernaut and Crossbones are fine, but the Underbolts are the highlight of this series, with the time travel arc being remarkably fun, and Fixer's death a great tribute to the characters and to classic 'Bolts in general. The Dark Avengers issues that finish the run have pretty poor art, and do feel a bit rushed, but Man-Thing gives the Underbolts a great goodbye, and Cage gets a good finale to his tenure as team leader.
Like I said, it's hard to judge this volume as a coherent entity, but most of it is worth at least a read, and it contains what I would consider the definitive Zemo and Fixer stories. I love these characters, and even inconsistently written I love seeing them in action.
As far as I'm concerned, this should have been the end of Nicieza's tenure as Thunderbolts scribe. That isn't to say it's his best Thunderbolts arc (it isn't) or that he never wrote any good T-Bolts after this (he did). There's simply something about this that feels final.
This book sees the return of Kurt Busiek as a co-writer, but it certainly feels like a summation of Nicieza's story. The key players are Zemo and Moonstone, the two characters that Nicieza is most invested in. Notably Busiek's run had very little interest in humanizing Zemo, or indeed in using him as anything more than a plot device. The characters that Busiek really fleshed out, MACH, Songbird, and Atlas, are fairly unimportant to the book's trajectory.
It need be said that this is in no way an Avengers book. It is at best, Thunderbolts/Captain America, since he's the only Avenger with any bearing on the character dynamics besides Hawkeye, and Hawkeye already counts as a Thunderbolt. Iron Man has relevance to the plot, certainly, but he's flat as can be. The rest of the Avengers are non-entities.
In fact, a lot of the characters in the book are non-entities. Cast bloat is a big problem in the structure of the book. This is billed as a team vs team book, so there are a lot of characters, but most only serve as set-pieces for the action scenes. Fundamentally, the book is about the relationships; Moonstone and Hawkeye, Cap and Zemo. The rest of the Thunderbolts are well-written, but inessential beyond the plot mechanics. Abe, who is in prison the entirety of the book, has a few nice character scenes, which unfortunately prime him for his vague and unimpressive derailing in New Thunderbolts. Jolt gets a solid moment which summarizes the role she has played for the series. But, again, this isn't their story. Which is fine.
This book has a relatively restrained scope. It has hypothetically high stakes, but it's short, sweet, and doesn't spill over into crossover bullshit. I've said only a few characters matter, but the upside to this is that those characters are given really good arcs and writing. As an "event" this is not a good Avengers/Thunderbolts book, but it's an excellent character book.
If the title is to be rationalized, this is at least a book about opposing philosophies. The Avengers aren't much of a presence, but their philosophy shapes the conflict. Hawkeye having to choose a side drives a good deal of the story, represented by choosing where he comes down on his ex Moonstone. This book feels like a finale for Moonstone and Zemo, but it isn't, since Nicieza takes another crack at that down the road. This book is a great finale to Hawkeye's tenure as a Thunderbolt, finishing his relationships and the growth he's gone through as their leader.
The art starts out strong and unfortunately ends by ushering in the long tenure of Tom Grummet as the T-Bolts artist. Grummet has, at various points in his career, done excellent work, but I find his work on early-to-mid 2000s T-Bolts pretty bad. His faces just read wrong. Everything else is fine, but the faces are not good. I don't know if its the inks, or just something he was trying out, but it doesn't work for me.
I dunno. I like this, really I do. I don't think it delivers on its premise, in the sense that the teams don't matter. But the strength of the core characters, their dynamics, and their conflicts are more than enough to drive a compelling narrative.
So this guy, right? Nick Spencer. Nick Spencer is a creative wrecking ball. He decides what he wants to do, and does it, with little regard for what already exists in canon. Sometimes he does this with important things like Captain America, and we end up with the mess of hurt feelings and questionable choices that is Secret Empire. Sometimes, however, he sticks to the small corners of the Marvel Universe and makes something great out of something largely irrelevant. Superior Foes is the second thing.
Sure, Nick Spencer has destroyed earlier versions of Boomerang. On the other hard, its Boomerang, so who cares? We got this, and that's worth it.
It's a madcap, non-stop, no-holds-barred parade of wonderful stupid. The characters are just evil enough to have an edge, and their underdog status makes them just worth rooting for. Speed Demon upholds his status as the absolute worst, but not in a bad way. Shocker continues to be a born loser. Beetle's general ambivalence and Overdrive geeking out about Luke Cage are great bits. But mostly its Boomerang's unique unreliable narration, reoccurring gags and great energy carry you to a surprisingly meaningful ending.
The book's visuals are a big part of its comedic presentation, from numerous sight gags, to the newspaper recaps and the non-verbal word bubbles. Spencer's AMS is a book of questionable and inconsistent quality, but I was always happy to see him pull out Beetle and Boomerang, and this book creates the groundwork for what is, in my opinion, the most effective emotional gut-punch in that series (no spoilers)
It's like Shakespeare, but with lots more punching. Need I say more?
Oh, fine, I'll say more.
This book is aggressively stupid, intentionally so. Like Ewing's New Avengers, this book is great because it is incredibly true to its nature as a comic book. Nextwave is the most Comic Book a comic book has ever been. It lacks character development. It lacks depth. It lacks emotional stakes of any kind. All of this is to say that this book succeeds upon every level it wants to. The comedy and action are perfectly integrated, never before has wanton absurdist violence been done so well. Everyone has a trench coat, and everyone is an asshole.
Ellis indulges in self-parody to the point of insanity, based upon the premise that sometimes you don't want to care, and for me at least, it works. This book is so memorable that it forced its way into canon when it was never intended to be anything more than an amusing diversion. It completely bulldozed X-51 and Boom-Boom's previous personalities, for better or worse, and replaced them with an attempt to imitate the inane bombast of Nextwave. This book is held back on this list, at least a little, by its own design. I do, on some level, want to be invested in my characters, and Nextwave just does not want you to. Other books have balanced this kind of comedy with actual characters and stakes, and thus been better overall creative ventures (See also: Superior Foes), but Nextwave isn't interested in balance. It wants, nay, needs, to go all the way, and for that it at least deserves your respect.
Also, this book has a theme song. Look it up on YouTube, and thank me later. Or don't. Jerk.
It's little more than a footnote to the colossal achievement that is Immortal Hulk, but I'm really glad the Ewing decided to tie off all his loose ends. This isn't an ambitious series , though given the scope of Ewing's other comics that's entirely excusable; this is a fun series, with just enough of the shock visual horror to keep you hooked into the Immortal Hulk vibe.
The Gamma Flight cast were great in the main series, this is one of the most badass versions of Puck out there, and I love the Creel/Titania dynamic. I'm glad that Rick Jones gets some peace. It does feel odd that a character as central to the Hulk mythos as Emil Blonsky only appears in this spin-off, but it's good to have a classic baddie like him show up. I have to admit that Sampson is pretty dull in this series, and I was hoping it would resolve his body-hopping crisis, but his relationship with Dr. McGowen was just developed enough to feel useful. This is in no way a must-read comic, but it speaks to Ewing's dedication to his characters that they get this kind of send-off, and they're even better here because they have some room to breathe.
The art is nice, though Bennet's absence is keenly felt. The narration is also excellent, giving each issue a strong thru-line and adding more interest to the fairly basic plot.
I think we all know that Ewing is pretty damn good. This series has great characterization; Sunspot, Hulking, Wiccan, Hawkeye, and Songbird are all great in this. It's delightfully funny, and comic-book-y in a way that few things are. It's a bit like Nextwave with actual feelings, which is great. This series does have a serious momentum problem. Standoff totally derails it, and it than transitions into the (still good, but much less fun and more serious) U.S.Avengers. This series does feel a little A.I.Mless (see what I did there?) in retrospect, but it is a joy to read to the very end.
A really fun heartfelt series. The recurring gags like the fake-cursing work nicely. The main characters have pretty solid dialogue and characterization, but the biggest strength of the series is the antagonists and supporting cast.
Disco Devil, Senor Magico, Cockroach Hamilton, Mr. Fish, Black Mariah, Cottonmouth, and Gamecock are memorable, funny, and add a lot to the feeling of community and warmth in the book. Gamecock in particular had one of the best subplots in the series. This book also has one of the best Civil War II tie-ins in that it wholeheartedly accepts that superheroes fighting among themselves is terrible and needs to stop being a thing. Also love the inclusion of Songbird and Centurius. This book also ends with grace and good finality, with a closing scene that reinforces the themes of redemption and community.
This is my least favorite era of classic 'Bolts. The premise is solid, it starts out strong, and than it just runs out of steam. It promises to be the New Thunderbolts, and than reverts to the original numbering with a whimper, not a bang. The newcomers, Blizzard, Joystick, R-Man and Speed Demon have compelling and interesting presences, but the returning characters are flat and poorly characterized. It feels as though another writer took over, but these are the same characters that Nicieza had been writing for years at this point. Abe for example, decides to lie to his team and is shown to be an ineffectual leader, despite Nicieza writing him as the natural leader and team player before the relaunch. Songbird is cold and mean in a way that she'd already moved past by the end of the first run. Atlas is fairly consistent, but seems limp and boring. New Thunderbolts promised something bigger than it could offer. The truth is that Nicieza is best at writing Moonstone and Zemo, and their absence here is sorely felt. It genuinely feels like Niceiza lost interest in his own premise at a certain point. "Abe and Melissa lead the Thunderbolts" should appeal to me a great deal, but I always feel the inclination to skip this era when I re-read classic bolts. The increased importance of Zemo helps to bring the end of this era, and the final Niceiza run from #100 onwards to a much stronger finish than this diversion. Writing this has made me realize that I don't like this run as much as I thought I did, but there are nonetheless some high points. Speed Demon and Joystick are consistently delightful in the bastardry. The new Swordsman is great, and Radioactive Man taking vengeance on Atlantis is a haunting high point for the series. At the end of the day, I'm including this on this list as a part of the overall classic Thunderbolts experience, and its an essential part, but not always a great one. As an additional, but still relevant point, I truly hate the way that Tom Grummet draws chins. That is all.
This series is definitely less than the sum of its parts, but damn do I like the parts. The initial cast is good, and I really like the designs everyone is sporting for this series. The exaggerated, cartoony art seems a little off for the darker moments in the series, but they still mostly work. Black Ant, Thunderball, Hood, and Titania are really fun villain protagonists, and the other characters are fine. The standoff tie-in is a favorite as well, it one of the better explanations of the horror of the situation. I'm also a sucker for any Creel/Titania stuff (see also: Gamma Flight). The series never really got its legs, and was cut off before it could accomplish anything substantial, but I do like the lighthearted approach to supervillainy and the characters all around. If this run had been longer, or tighter, or had more of a point, it would almost certainly been higher than it is, but as it stands, its something I like, and I appreciate, but it's undeniably a failed experiment.