So, next issue sees this title handed off to the Dark Avengers. For some reason, New, Secret, Academy, Assemble, Avengers Vs. X-Men, just plain old Avengers, Avengers Vs. X-Men: Versus Your Wallet, and the movie weren’t enough of an “A-with-an-arrow” fix for fans, and Marvel of course loves money. Humorously, it’s part of a 15th Anniversary celebration of Thunderbolts, where every issue of this three-parter has current series writer Jeff Parker (Agents of Atlas) interviewing series creators Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley. Obviously, a fitting tribute to a series that has had a long-standing cult appeal ever since its first issue’s now-famous twist ending is to change the title to tie in to a more lucrative one then bring in such enthralling, original characters as “Dark Scarlet Witch,” “Dark Spider-Man,” “Dark Thor” (well, actually, “Crazy Murderous Robot Thor” Ragnarok, but same difference), and Dark Wolver — wait, he got killed off — “Dark Hulk,” a.k.a. Skaar (bonus points since, like Daken, he’s a son of a Marvel Universe mainstay with a grudge against daddy). Anyone else think Marvel missed an opportunity a few years ago by not having Darkhawk tie into the Dark Reign storyline by having Osborn find an evil version of him? Dark Reign: Dark Darkhawk could have been an instant classic! What was I supposed to be talking about again? Oh, right, Thunderbolts #174...
Like Lightning Part 3 (Written by Jeff Parker, Drawn by Declan Shalvey, Published by Marvel)
One of the things that I’ve found so endearing about Thunderbolts has been the idea that it explores heroism, villainy, and redemption. When Busiek and Bagley first gave that dramatic reveal that the new super-team was really the Masters of Evil in disguise, they had unleashed Marvel’s most original comic in decades (even though it consisted entirely of pre-existing characters), and as it has carried on, the series went from being about shocking twists to a more humanist examination of what drives criminals to be criminals and whether they can reform or not. Characters like Songbird and Mach-V managed to find their way to becoming good guys (despite a couple chances to become villains again, most recently for Songbird in #171), while Moonstone and Fixer have remained as self-centered as always. All in all, the characters had come far, and in long-running cape comics, it’s only fitting that eventually the present version of the team (whatever that may be) would travel back in time to meet the originals.
Declan Shalvey is a close enough artist to Mark Bagley to make that sort of meeting work, playing up the past versions as more energetic, while the Thunderbolt veterans present in this story — notably Fixer — have heavyset eyes and are more cynical. That latter element plays a crucial role, considering that the elder Fixer shot and killed his younger self, Techno, out of spite for his own cockiness, and has caused a potentially universe-ending paradox. Naturally, colleagues past and present are not pleased by this.
This three-parter, along with the Songbird tale that preceded it, has made the series more reflexive and introverted as it prepares to be replaced by Dark Avengers, represented here by the world outside the old Thunderbolts Tower disappearing into oblivion as the heroes / villains try to figure out how to reverse the effects. It’s fitting for a series that has changed quite a bit from its original idea of villains posing as heroes, and Fixer (one of the world’s “most reviled criminals,” as the narration suggests about him and his teammates) being the key to undoing the paradox gets at the heart of that change: he’s spent most of the series being one of the villains with an agenda, and now has to find himself doing something selfless to make up for it. Shalvey sells the weight of that change in the final pages. The way Fixer gives a tired, resigned sigh and talks about how “going straight didn’t work out for me,” offset with the more lively smile of his youthful self that closes out the issue, shows the title’s full history in a way that most anniversary issues try and fail to do (Strackzyinski and Romita, Jr. did their own time-hop for Amazing Spider-Man #500, but only to skim the title’s greatest moments, clip-show style).
Did we really need to see this title morphed into yet another Avengers comic? Not really, especially since even the last version of Dark Avengers could barely sustain itself through one crossover. But, if there’s one thing that the comic industry loves to do, it’s revive franchises, and if something as trite as Dark Avengers can get another shot, of course we’ll see the Thunderbolts again. In the meantime, this is a fitting send-off.