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4 Reasons Why ‘Thunderbolts’ Is the Best Marvel Comic on the Stands

Thunderbolts may well be Marvel’s best ongoing series right now. Since the summer of 2010, this team of villains-turned-heroes (or pretending to be heroes) has been incredibly consistent thanks to its creative team, with no drop in quality despite a couple major event tie-ins, a crossover, and a milestone issue. The combination of Jeff Parker’s scripts, Kev Walker and Declan Shalvey’s art, and Frank Martin’s colors makes for a comic that doesn’t look like your traditional cape comic but reads like the best of them.
Writer Jeff Parker

One reason why Thunderbolts works so well is because Jeff Parker understands teams. Team comic are a bit trickier than solo series; a book like Amazing Spider-Man really just has one focus: Spider-Man. The other characters exist in relation to him, and are seen through the lens of him, rather than being focal characters in and of themselves. As long as Spider-Man is fully realized, you have a Spider-Man comic.

A team book is more difficult. You have the primary characters, the ones who feature in the most stories and are generally the prime movers of the series. There are secondary characters, who provide support for the primaries and flesh out the team with brief blasts of personality. After that comes the background staff: flunkies, soldiers, and characters who appear for cameos or background flavor. On top of all of that, you have to make time for creating compelling villains and conflicts. That’s a lot to juggle, and it’s easy to accidentally let a character slip through the cracks.

Parker, in a move I thought was very clever, took the idea of letting a character slip through the cracks and turned it into a plot point. A major member of the team was continually left behind on missions, looked over, and forgotten. He was treated as part of the scenery, essentially, and when given a chance to jump ship and try to blaze his own trail, rather than waiting for Luke Cage to realize that he exists and has feelings and goals, he took it. In a way, you can’t blame him. When you’re feeling needed, but unwanted, it’s easy to believe that it may be better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.

What’s remarkable is how Parker took a common failing of team books and directly addressed it, and in doing so, turned the failing into a strength. Managing a team means taking care of all of the members, and the characters address the fact that they messed up and ignored this man. Parker laid the groundwork for all of this without telegraphing the character’s change of allegiance, and kept it from becoming a simple matter of “Bwa-ha-ha I’m evil now.” The character’s betrayal is positioned more as a “this is an untenable situation for me and I need out” rather than an opportunity to go off and pull heists. It’s subtle, but the execution is killer.

That’s why Parker’s scripts work so well. Even when he’s showering attention on the primary cast members, he’s got something bubbling in the background to make you remember that you care about the rest of the cast, too. The surprises feel earned, rather than being out of left field, and the moments when the team bonds or splinters under pressure are a beautiful thing. Parker’s even managed to give Man-Thing some forward momentum for the first time since… probably since the last time Steve Gerber wrote the character, to be honest.

Artist Kev Walker

I wasn’t familiar with Kev Walker prior to his work on Thunderbolts. He’s done a lot of work for 2000 AD, but his work on Thunderbolts made me sit up and start paying attention. I liked his overall style, particularly his revised version of Songbird with the punk/butch haircut. His super-strong characters are pleasingly broad and believably weighty. They’re all hard edges, crusty features, and mean mugs. You’ll believe that no one can stop the Juggernaut when he’s got a face that looks like it’s been rubbed with broken glass, and Luke Cage really looks like a Power Man when he’s got the build of a football player. But what really grabbed my attention was a sequence from the jailbreak in Thunderbolts: Cage.

There’s a lot to like here, obviously. Walker manages to imbue his characters with a lot of personality, even in the absence of dialogue. Luke Cage slowly sliding the prison door shut and quiet stare speak volumes, as does Songbird’s seething anger at Moonstone. Warden Walker’s methodical takedown of his enemies contrasts neatly against Cage’s savage brawling. They’re two completely different in characters, in terms of temperament and style, so it makes perfect sense that they would fight differently.

They’re both in similar situations, but the way they go about intimidating and emasculating their targets is different. Warden Walker has an off-balance style, sort of a bizarro aikido, that uses his lack of balance to his advantage. Luke Cage, though, is bulletproof. He can afford to wade into a group of people and deliver a thorough drubbing. Songbird, meanwhile, is trying to both keep herself safe and not kill any of the rioting inmates. Her situation is more difficult, but that doesn’t stop her, and Gunna, from getting down to brass tacks.

The way Walker portrays violence is endlessly entertaining to me. It’s not as clean and sterile as a lot of the fights you’ll see in cape comics, which tend toward cool poses and only the barest minimum of blood. In Thunderbolts, you feel it when Luke Cage beats the bone marrow out of someone, and you believe in the action on the page. It’s dirty and mean in a way that I don’t see often enough and is always welcome. I want to see fight scenes that are just as nasty as the stories require, and Walker more than delivers on that front.

Artist Declan Shalvey

Declan Shalvey is the alternate artist on Thunderbolts. Generally, if Walker isn’t drawing an issue, Shalvey is on art chores, and it’s easy to see why Marvel picked him. His style is complementary to Walker’s, with a similar approach to character design and violence. He understands how grit works in comics, and more than that, he brings a nice sense of realism to Thunderbolts.

I don’t mean realism in the sense of Bryan Hitch’s hyper-detailed panoramas or Frank Quitely’s lumpy figures. Shalvey draws people that are real in the gritty Michael Lark or Sean Phillips sense. His characters range from handsome to schlubby, and the more normal-sized and proportioned characters like Songbird and Moonstone stand in stark contrast to his Hyde or Ghost. In a way, his stabs toward realism are almost more like feints, as they make the more superheroic aspects of Thunderbolts seem even more fantastic. While X-Men or Avengers is completely mired in the superheroic aesthetic, where everything is fantastic and nothing is normal, Shalvey’s Thunderbolts leaves a big dose of normal in the recipe, and the series is better for it.

When Shalvey does go big with his art, though, he’s killer. I always enjoy it when he draws a big fight scenel there’s something about how he lays out the pages that really gets across the idea of insurmountable, or at least difficult, odds. It’s all about being able to see the threat to the heroes. It’s not as simple as drawing a bunch of ninjas standing around with their swords out. There needs to be a sense of menace and danger, and Shalvey has a knack for finding that perfect angle or approach.

As you can see in this segment from Shadowland: Thunderbolts, Shalvey makes sure that the ninjas dominate the page. The camera is pitched low and deep inside the ninja hordes, as if we were part of the gang, and your eyes naturally sweep from the top, where there are just a few ninjas, down to the bottom of the page and then around to the right and the number of ninjas multiply. While Moonstone and Ghost draw your focus first, in part because of their white costumes, the page is actually ruled by the ninjas.

That’s doubly true of the next page. Things go about the way you’d expect when ninjas ambush someone in the sewers, and they’re covering the page like roaches.

I’m pretty sure that you’ll have a tough time finding better realized fight scenes in cape comics than what Walker and Shalvey do in Thunderbolts.

Colorist Frank Martin Jr.

Frank Martin Jr. is the primary colorist on Thunderbolts, with Fabio D’Auria pinch-hitting on occasion. Martin’s contribution to the series is a little harder to write about, but no less essential than Parker’s script or Walker and Shalvey’s pencils. If Walker and Shalvey give Thunderbolts a very non-cape comics look, with gritty, nasty violence and an almost complete lack of majesty, Frank Martin hammers the point home with his colors.

Martin’s palette for Thunderbolts is an interesting one. It’s a dark book, tonally, but the cast is a pretty stunning mix of colors. Luke Cage wears a deep yellow shirt and silver bangles, Ghost is a disgusting mix of grey and white (think like bird poop), Moonstone is a bright white and gold, Man-Thing is a deep green, Juggernaut is a reddish brown, and Mach-V is blue and silver. On top of all of this is Songbird, who is blue, white, gold, and (wait for it) varying shades of bright pink.

What’s great is how Martin manages to make all of these color schemes mesh with each other and still maintain what feels like a genuinely appropriate dark palette in the book. You would think that Songbird’s pink power signature would kill anything hard-boiled or dark about the series, but that ends up being untrue. The pink is merged with a kind of purple, and that splash of a darker color brings the color in line. It stands out, but it doesn’t clash. It feels like a highlight.

On a certain level, coloring might as well be magic to me. I’m not entirely clear on how it works, but I know what I like and I can sorta-kinda see the craft behind a colorist’s choices. All cape comics are colorful, often with colors that clash, but Martin does an admirable job of both emphasizing and reining in the fantastic colors of cape comics and maintaining a unique look and mood for Thunderbolts. Basically, though, Frank Martin is a magician, and a highly underrated one, as far as I’m concerned.

The greens, blacks, pinks, and oranges that dominate the palette of Thunderbolts turn it into a comic that you won’t confuse with anything else coming out of the House of Ideas. For a book about supervillains who may or may not stick to the straight and narrow to have a palette that’s best described as “neon-noir” is pretty fitting, I think.

Want to read Thunderbolts? You can pick up issues at your local comic shop, read Thunderbolts online at Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited if you subscribe to the service, or buy the Thunderbolts: Cage trade collection in print.

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