Comic Review: Thunderbolts #3

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There were exactly two reasons the Marvel Now! Thunderbolts relaunch piqued my interest.

First is that I really dig Steve Dillon’s art, so that’s a big selling point.  Second was that the Punisher was part of the proceedings: writer Greg Rucka’s recent and all-too-short solo run with Frank Castle reminded me how much I like the character, when he’s done right and given some sense of dark nobility, not just made a gun-toting, grim stereotype.

As for the rest of the team, I can take them or leave them.   I do like the Flash Thompson iteration of Venom, which is some really inspired casting, given the history of the character, but Red Hulk and Deadpool are two characters that I have yet to form any sort of real attachment to, and I’m still not convinced Elektra should be up and out of the grave her creator put her into years ago.

So for me, Thunderbolts is solely about the Punisher’s involvement.

And interestingly enough, in the very first issue, writer Daniel Way sold me on why Castle, an avowed loner, would throw in with such a motley crew of misfits: according to General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, the Punisher’s long-standing vigilantism was actually the inspiration for the team.

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Imagine a Team Punisher, operating on a global scale, dealing with threats that the Avengers couldn’t, because of their direct connections with the United States government and the potential for political fallout if they crossed certain lines.  I read an interview with Way that pitched the Thunderbolts as heroes who wouldn’t be afraid to get their hands dirty, to give hope to the innocents in parts of the world that been ignored by the superheroes that had been tied up with alien invasions and cosmic threats — and even if they hadn’t, they might think twice about direct intervention and the backlash that might occur.

In a climate where Wolverine is now essentially stepping into the role of Professor X and his hairy, hard-drinking, cigar chomping loose cannon style has to be kept in check, this says something (as well as explains his absence on a team where he might be a logical fit).

Okay, that works for me, and given the personalities involved, there was bound to be some interesting internal conflicts, which popped up almost immediately: the highly disciplined Venom showed exasperation with Deadpool’s brand of crazy on the team’s first outing in issue #2.

Ross, as the Red Hulk, is no Captain America when it comes to leadership.  Keeping this group reigned in and on track is going to involve less in the way of respect and a calm, cool, rational head than simply the potential of the ‘Rulk’ turning around and irritated, backhanding the troublemaker into the next country over.

At any given moment, this team could become a complete disaster, with everyone drawing guns, swords, sais and gamma-irridated muscles on one another, essentially ignoring the bad guys to have a go at each other.  That’s an intriguing set-up.

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The initial storyline served as a proof of concept of why this group should exist.  The small Southeast Asian nation of Kata Jaya, led by the tyrannical dictator General Awa, detonated a gamma bomb within his nation’s own borders to deal with political unrest.

The Avengers, en masse, could swoop in, depose and disarm Awa in a matter of hours — Thor and Iron Man could probably do it alone and be back in New York in time for lunch — but this means American superheroes essentially declaring war on a sovereign nation, and if they’re okay with Doctor Doom remaining on his Latverian throne all this time, this situation regrettably isn’t going to prompt them to act.

Enter the Thunderbolts, who immediately begin a multi-pronged campaign to shut Awa down.  Ross dispatches Deadpool and Elektra to assassinate General Awa, a mission which ends in failure, with Elektra captured and Wilson shot in the head.  Venom and the Punisher are assigned to arm and train native Kata Jayan freedom fighters to be able to help take back their own country, and that’s where we end up with this scene in Thunderbolts #3:

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Frank Castle, in some sort of bizarre drill sargent mode, like Heartbreak Ridge‘s Gunny Tom Highway on crystal meth, wants to see how the rookie rebels deal with the unsavory prospect of taking a life, a very different situation than shooting at paper targets which don’t shoot back.

Fine, I get that that concept in theory.

Then Castle frees the captive orangutan, who immediately goes feral and rushes the cowering rebels, going for their throats.  One of the freedom fighters, a woman, steps up and puts the animal down, and Castle barks that she has been awarded the title of squad leader.

(And there’s no question lethal force wasn’t used against the beast– this wasn’t some sort of stun gun they were using, or not-lethal rubber bullets.  The final panel of the scene clearly shows the animal lying in a semi-fetal position, in a pool of blood.  I’m not going to reproduce that panel here.)

I’m appalled by this scene, and this is the end of my association with both the Thunderbolts comic, as well as writer Daniel Way, whose work I will avoid in the future.

Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m going to throw this comic in the trash when I’m done writing this review.  I’ve been reading comics for thirty years and this is the first time I’ve been moved to do this.

I’m not a card-carrying member of PETA, and yes, I realize this is a comic about a bunch of dark anti-heroes.  This particular issue, which has several panels of gruesome human deaths, ends with the Punisher putting a bullet directly between the eyes of the captive supervillain the Leader, who General Ross secretly brought along as some sort of partially lobotomized WMD, without telling the rest of the group.

(No spoiler warning — couldn’t care less.  If you’re still interested in reading this trash, frankly, I’ve not got a whole lot of respect for you at this point.)

I’m okay with Castle murdering the Leader — it makes sense.  That’s what the Punisher does, executes those who deserve it, and while you can agree or disagree with his eye-for-an-eye philosophy, he has standards.  The guilty are punished.   Deadpool even called that shot earlier in the issue, told Ross that was what was going to happen when Castle found out.

The Leader, an insane supervillain, is one thing.  How exactly how did an innocent animal deserve to die in that fashion?

That goes directly counter to the character of Castle.  Yes, I’m sure Frank has slain animals at some point, if there was no other recourse.  He may have used animals as a weapon before, as well, resulting in their deaths.  He’s a killer, and fairly cold-blooded, but this sort of intentional psychopathic sadism . . . no, sorry, Daniel Way, I don’t know who you think you’re writing, but this isn’t Frank Castle.  Maybe too many issues of anything-goes-as-long-as-it’s-funny Deadpool has cramped your sensibilities.

Thanks for portraying the Punisher as the exact sort of spandex-wearing Charlie Bronson-on-crack buffoon that has caused him to go from a star, A-list character to being relegated to a supporting character in a C-list team book.  As a character, it’s increasingly clear the Punisher is damaged goods because of sloppy, lazy writers and editors who just feel that because the character is willing to use lethal force, that absolutely anything goes in his quest for justice and revenge as long as it makes for a ‘cool’ scene.

It doesn’t.  What makes the Punisher work as a concept and character is that he has a sense of nobility, albeit tarnished at times.  May I suggest Mr. Way read the exchange Greg Rucka wrote between Thor and Frank in the recent Punisher War Zone #3, and while you’re at it, try to soak up what good Punisher writing is supposed to be like — it’s not easy to walk that tightrope, granted, far less challenging to just go for lowest-common-denominator, one-dimensional caricature.

Stupid #$@ like this is why when *good* Punisher comics come along, no one cares.

Stupid #$@ like this is why when *good* Punisher comics come along, no one cares, so they just let douchebag hacks make horrible ones in hopes *someone* will buy them.

This scene, while just a throwaway bit (and I think that’s what irritates me the most, is that this was just supposed to be a ‘bit’, a way to visualize that the Punisher is badass) is a little sick, to be quite honest, and I think it reflects badly on both the writer who came up with it, the editors who approved it, as well as Marvel as a whole for publishing it.

There’s a dozen other ways the Punisher could’ve gotten his point across to the neophyte freedom fighters that wouldn’t leave such a foul taste in the mouth.

Aside from being unsavory, there’s the ineptitude of the writing here and the logic behind the scene.  The Punisher has the orangutan tethered to a wooden stake via a chain, which he snaps with a well-placed boot, and all of a sudden, with no other explanation, the docile animal goes berzerk and attacks the gathered, onlooking rebels.

Really?  If the animal was going to attack anyone, wouldn’t it make sense that it would turn directly around and go after Castle himself, presumably the one who captured and subdued it in the first place — and, if nothing else, is physically standing closest to it?

Oh, wait, I guess the Punisher had the time, off-panel, to train the orangutan to subconsciously fear his skull symbol.  Or mix up a batch of orangutan-repellant cologne.  Or maybe he’s secretly got some heretofore unseen mutant powers that allow him to telepathically control primates.

Or maybe it’s just lousy writing and lazy editorial oversight, as well as lack of across-the-board good taste.

I don’t have a problem with dark or graphically violent comics, but some people, like Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, and Mark Millar, can do them with panache, and some really just need to not go that path, otherwise it ends up like Beavis and Butthead collaborating on an issue of Preacher.

Pretty much what I'm thinking the intended demographic for Thunderbolts is at this point.

Pretty much the ideal Thunderbolts readers, I’m thinking.

If this is an indication of where this book is headed, I’ll pass.  It offends my sensibilities as a Punisher fan and, when it comes to pointless portrayals of animal abuse in a mainstream Marvel comic in a sad and pathetic attempt to be cool or edgy, as a human being.

And I’m quite honestly starting to rethink that this whole black ops superhero strikeforce whatever-it-takes subgenre that Marvel has been pushing with titles like Secret Avengers and  X-Force is not really a good thing, period.  There’s room for certain characters to operate beyond blurred lines, but they should be the rare exception rather than the rule, and when we’ve got enough of them to form multiple teams, that’s a little disturbing to take a step back and look at the big picture that forms.  Let SHIELD handle the dirty, if sometimes necessary, wetwork, and let’s let the heroes be heroes.

I think I’ve wasted enough time on this puerile mess. Thunderbolts is no replacement for a great solo Castle series — or, probably, the version of the Thunderbolts series that preceded it, which at least had the merit of reforming supervillains as a core concept — and my apologies for dragging you into it by proxy.

— mal

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Indestructible Hulk #1    Avengers Arena #1 & 2  Punisher War Zone #1   Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (film)

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5 Comments

  1. I’m not a fan of the artwork, and the story is lacking. The characters are what drew me in but not sure I’m staying.

    • I love Steve Dillon’s art — I’m used to seeing him on things like Preacher and Hellblazer, so to see him doing superheroes is kind of a kick in and of itself.

      I almost retracted this review, because I kind of feel I gave into nerdrage a little too much, but I’m going to let it stand, warts and all.

      It really has opened my eyes a little as to what I’ve been reading . . . ironically I was actually wading through a couple of Preacher trades at the same time I was reading this comic, and in terms of gore and inappropriateness, that material makes this look like a Girl Scout Jamboree in comparison. I am okay with violent stuff, but in the right context and by the right talent — Thunderbolts seems like a waste of a really interesting concept and cast, as well as the talent of an artist who deserves to be on a better project, and it’s another nail in the Punisher’s coffin as being portrayed yet again as a one-dimensional psychopath because a writer can’t be bothered to put the work into a more nuanced effort, which probably bothers me most of all.

  2. “Imagine a Team Punisher, operating on a global scale, dealing with threats that the Avengers couldn’t, because of their direct connections with the United States government and the potential for political fallout if they crossed certain lines.”

    Well the Punisher has said many times that he doesn’t want others acting like him. He would destroy such a team.

    Daniel Way is a terrible writer (he somehow thought Wolverine needed a son… Daken), Dillon’s style only fits normal looking characters like Preacher and the Punisher… not superhero characters like the Red Hulk, Elektra, Venom, and Deadpool (they look like there from King of the Hill) and most people agreed and thankfully… he’s leaving. But a new artist can’t makeup for the boring shitty writing that’s going on in Thunderbolts.

    Greg Rucka is not a very good example to use… his whole Punisher/Daredevil/Spider-Man team-up was crap. It was predictable, fighting Ninjas is old and over used (the first sign of no talent in writing whatsoever), the team-up of Spider-Man and Deardevil just to get “The Odd Couple” moments and arguments from them was just idiotic. These characters have nothing left to say or to argue about so they’ll just keep repeating that. Garth Ennis’s Punisher from “Welcome Back, Frank” said it best, “I know these speeches of yours by heart.”

    The redhead OC woman was nothing but a sorry ass excuse of a female Punisher (pointing there guns at each other was a Max Payne/Mona Sax rip-off). Making the Punisher look like a poor rip-off of Solid or Naked Snake (spiky hair, an eye missing, trying to make his bandage look like a bandana and a beard) and having a redhead female partner (Meryl Silverburgh) who’s wedding ending in a massacre (Kill Bill) just to get new readers is sad… and we already had this whole redhead partner (the one was from S.H.E.I.L.D.) back in the late 90’s… in other words… been there, done that. But this is Marvel of the 2010’s, they have no more ideas left and they know it. So they’ll just keep reusing them, even if the ideas came from storylines that were completely terribly.

    As for Punisher Nightmare… Oh god… the Punisher in white gloves… I thought that crap ended in the 80’s or at least in the 90’s. Once again, since the Punisher kills people (bad guys of course), the black sheep of Marvel, he has to be talked down to like a little child and of course be given so-called words of wisdom from Captain America, the blonde blue eye father knows best figure of Marvel who has to tell everybody that there wrong, he’s right, do this and do that because I said so… he has to teach him about symbols… where’s Garth Ennis when you need him. Why have a flashback to Civil War???? The whole Civil War thing is what lead too the whole Captain Punisher for god sakes. But let me guess… around here… that was a good idea…

    They still think that the Punisher and Captain America are able to relate to each other just because they’ve been in war??? Sorry, but the clean cut straight arrow WWII vet from the 1940’s can’t relate to a ruthless vigilante Vietnam vet from the 1970’s… this storyline has been written for the easily entertained, so I’m not shocked that this is liked. Come on Thomas Jane, do another Dirty Laundry, all this crap with Thunderbolts, Nightmare and Punisher War Zone… we need you again… badly!!!

    • That’s quite a comment! I don’t quite agree with some of your points — I thought Rucka’s work with the character was amazing — but I certainly appreciate you taking the time to express them at length.

      The War Zone / Avengers mini is very interesting, and worked far better than I thought it would — not all the Avengers are backing Cap and his disapproval of Frank’s methods (even Thor ends up relating to Castle in the idea of a warrior consumed by his quest).

      I agree that something along the lines of a comic version of Dirty Laundry would be great, but the problem is . . . the majority of the Marvel audience doesn’t seem to respond to things that fall outside of certain boundaries, so that’s why there ends up being so many variations on a theme.

      Rucka’s Punisher was a great attempt at trying to tie the character more directly into the ongoing larger continuity, which is probably what they felt the readership would respond to.

      I’m kind of the opinion now that the Punisher should be used in smaller doses. I think putting him in a series of mini-series that are based around interesting plots is better than trying to trot him out once a month — it makes sense to have a Punisher that is a complete nomad, living out of a van, staying one step ahead of the law, striking and then fading into the night. Even having him go on a global scale would be interesting, to expose people to the sort of criminals and crime you might not see much in urban America, and avoid the mobster-of-the-month syndrome.

      The simplicity of the character is what works — you can pretty much explain him in a couple sentences — so I think seeing him take on a wider variety of crime would be a far better use than just being a shark prowling the streets of New York taking out random goombahs. You don’t need to tie him down with a lot of baggage, he doesn’t need to be placed in moral dilemmas because he’s not going to change or grow as a character, so you really just need to find interesting situations to put him in.


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