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New Thunderbolts #13

The original Thunderbolts, a team of reforming villains who were members of the Masters of Evil, were both the Avengers' biggest enemies and most tenuous allies. The series was tied quite heavily to Busiek's Avengers run, and since both books were relaunched a year ago, Thunderbolts fans have been looking for the two teams to clash. Marvel's finally getting to it - the question is, can the creative team do it justice?

The answer is, naturally, not so simple as a yes or no. The spectre of Brian Bendis is hanging over this story whether anyone likes it or not. His New Avengers team is a big hit for a reason - him. He's a writer with highly individual and widely-enjoyed style. Nicieza, while not necessarily any less talented, is certainly less popular than he was. Inarguably past his commercial prime, he did, however, write X-Men when it was at the height of its popularity. Back then it routinely outsold New Avengers' current numbers by something like 5 to 1, so it's not like he hasn't got the credentials to play with Bendis' new toys.


It's clear almost immediately that right now, the two writers are barely in the same league. Bendis' dialogue, while drawing some heat from traditionalists, is part of what makes his characters and stories so readable. In contrast, Nicieza's dialogue is certainly one of the weakers aspects of New Thunderbolts. There's truly no excuse for any character, even an ill-conceived Scarlet Spider villain like Joystick, to be using the word "bodacious" as if it ever meant anything. The 90s aren't just over, they are long over. These days when someone says "radical" they're more than likely going to follow it up with a story about someone getting arrested in an airport. Some dialogue is timeless. Other dialogue, not so much.

The sheer amount of information packed into each issue is both a strength and a failing of New Thunderbolts - each issue is self-contained, the arcs read as a whole, but weeks may pass between individual issues. Each time there's a gap like that, the reader needs to be updated, and it can result in infodumping, clunky exposition, and under-exploration of ideas. In this issue alone, Photon debuts a new costume, we discover 2 members are off the team, former Thunderbolts Dallas Riordan and the Fixer return, a new version of Dr. Spectrum is introduced, the unexpected mastermind behind the clash with the Avengers is revealed, and I think that somewhere in there was an explanation for how Atlas regained his powers, which had previously been an ongoing mystery. It's good material, but it's too much to digest, especially when the structure dictates that in an issue or two readers will be looking at an equal amount of new plot developments to chew on.

Grummett's art is one of the book's highlights.
Grummett's art is one of the book's highlights.

For New Avengers fans, the difference will be jarring. Bendis just spent 3 issues doing what amounted to little more than talking a character off a ledge and onto the team. Undoubtedly, the Avengers fans are the ones who Nicieza is (or should be) trying to hook with this issue. The New Avengers logo gets practically equal billing on the cover. It's just that anyone coming here looking for New Avengers material is going to find themselves underwhelmed by their role as punchbags, and drowning in a sea of exposition that everyone, bar hardcore Thunderbolts fans, is going to find difficult.

It's not all bad, though. The plot is aiming (with success) at being more than the standard hero-versus-hero misunderstanding. The Thunderbolts are tasked by the government to take down the Avengers - a team now operating autonomously, and without the state sanctions they previously held. It's a good way to use the new status quo of both teams to bring them together for a natural conflict. Nicieza's plots twist and swerve at breakneck speed, and if you can cling on until the end then it can be a rewarding experience.

The character material is well-considered and appropriate. Luke Cage and Atlas, both formerly named "Power Man" manage to sneak in a reference to the time they fought over the name, and a confused Captain America fights Songbird while reminding her that not so long ago they asked her to be in the Avengers. There's the near-omniscient Photon versus the near-omnipotent Sentry. If token fight scenes aren't your bag, however, in true Thunderbolts style there's a last page shocker to try and tempt you back for more.

No review of Thunderbolts would be complete without mentioning the Grummett/Erskine/Brown art team as one of the highlights. The clean linework and vivid palette make it a clear and pleasing read. Grummett deals well with the amount of characters being packed into the story. A book with such a low profile could do far worse than any of these artists.

Marvel has comitted 24 issues to Thunderbolts. Halfway through that, it's hard to predict exactly whether the sales will warrant a continuation - unfortunately, issues like this are unlikely to draw in the right market. Bendis fans will surely be unhappy with the pacing and dialogue; Avengers fans will be unhappy with the limited role of the team. If you're more into old school Marvel superheroics (with an original slant - the underlying Thunderbolts concept is practically unique in the market) then it's worth your time. In fact, if you're an Avengers fan upset with Bendis' direction then you should certainly be picking up Thunderbolts, because it's the closest thing Marvel has right now to what the Avengers were, with close ties to the same continuity.

It's not the best comic Marvel's publishing today, but it's showing long-term promise. With its heavy use of older characters and concepts, it might be prove the antidote for people who miss continuity-laden, history-rich Marvel comics. The start of the second year is as good a jumping on point as any. C+.

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