Roundtable Review: Nick Spencer’s ‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents’ #1
ComicsAlliance writers Chris Sims, David Brothers and David Uzumeri sit down for a roundtable discussion about the newly released T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 by Nick Spencer and CAFU, followed by a 9-page preview of the comic. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.
David U: If you've been keeping track of comics news for the past few months, chances are you've seen the name Nick Spencer. With his new gigs on Supergirl and Iron Man 2.0, as well as his well-received Jimmy Olsen backup strip in Action Comics and the continually-selling-out Image megahit Morning Glories, he's a veritable wunderkind in 2010 with promising projects at three of the five Diamond Premier publishers. This week saw the debut of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at DC Comics, a resurrection of a recently-purchased fallow property created by Wally Wood, and now scripted by Spencer with art by CAFU.David U:The basic elevator pitch: You join the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, you get kickass superpowers for 365 days, and then you die.
Chris S: This is actually the second time DC has tried to relaunch T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. A few years ago, they solicited a series that was going to be written by Marc Andreyko (if memory serves, this was even before Manhunter), but it never materialized.
David U: I'm legitimately curious as to why DC is so eager to get these guys going, since I've honestly never met a single person with any emotional attachment to the property and concept.
David B: You could say the same thing about the Red Circle heroes.
Chris S: Uzi, I guarantee you there's someone out there who loves the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and has been wanting them to come back for years. In fact, I'm going to go ahead and also say that if they hadn't taken down GeoCities last year, I could probably find you their homepage.
David U: I can at least get the First Wave thing, with the Jess Nevins-led push to sort of recapture the pulp books, but this is like DC publishing a revamp of Youngblood in 2021 from my vantage point. Hell, 2041.
Chris S: I actually think that's a pretty good comparison. Like it or not, Youngblood does have a pedigree of sorts and was created by an artist a lot of people have affection for. Same for T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. And they also dealt with super-heroes in an interesting new way. Youngblood treated them as celebrities, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents treated them as a day job. It really was the Youngblood of its day. And yes: That is the only time I will ever compare Rob Liefeld to Wally Wood.
David B: That's... an astonishingly accurate bit of insight.
Chris S: I'm not sure how to take your shock at the fact that I sometimes know what I'm talking about, Brothers.
David B: No, not that. Just that I'd never quite made that connection in my head. I never really got why people liked T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents beyond "Wally Wood rules."
David U: This was my first exposure to the concept, and honestly, it was insanely muddled. I've been fully onboard with the Nick Spencer Love Train since it left Jimmy Olsen Station, but this is clearly written before and by someone with less command of their craft.
Chris S: I've been wanting to read it for a while, but DC has only ever reprinted the series in the expensive Archive format. They were clearly going for the Wally Wood collector market, but maybe if the new series takes off, we'll get softcovers.
David B: I agree, Uzumeri. I found this first issue pretty underwhelming. I can't say whether or not it was written before Olsen, but it comes off as a large infodump that doesn't really tell you anything.
Chris S: I really think that has a lot to do with it, Brothers. Also, the fact that they've got really neat designs (which ties in with Wood being one of the greats) and really awesome names. Who DOESN'T want to read about DYNAMO and NO-MAN? NO-MAN! That name is the best.
David B: I can appreciate hopping aboard a moving train as a way to get people excited, but the hook of the series only came, what, 20 pages in? The flashback format is cute, but I don't know how effective it is, exactly. It seems like something that works in a movie to build tension and suspense, but it just comes off tired here. "There's a lady, she knows stuff, and she'll dole out information as she feels like it."
David U: This seems like -- a few days ago, Brevoort went on an (as usual very intelligent) tear on Twitter about new writers shooting for the moon when they could write a better comic shooting for, I dunno, the stratosphere. When I think of books with incredibly clever construction that really work, I think of legitimate classics by people with tons of experience on top of their game -- Seven Soldiers #1. Black Panther: The Client. Watchmen. Black Panther is probably the most direct comparison, since it switched around in time just as much as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 did, but to far greater dramatic AND comedic effect.
David B: And it even used the flashback method, that's a very good catch. For those not in the know, Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira's Black Panther #1 featured a man named Everett Ross as the POV character. He was narrating the story to his immediate superior, and doing it in a very jumbled way. Kind of Tarantino time warp storytelling. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents seemed much more straightforward than Panther, but less clear, which is curious.
David U: To a degree, I kind of admire Spencer for his ambition here -- this is his first Big Two comic and he's very consciously trying not to write a Generic Team Comic -- but it's also not as polished as the recent stuff I've read from the guy.
Chris S: I am completely split on the narrative structure of this issue. On the one hand, I agree with everything you're saying, but on the other, I feel like the hectic, time-jumbled nature of the script really underlined the elements of the story, like the completely insane triple-cross kidnapping and the fact that the characters themselves don't really know what's going on. Now, is this the best way to kick off a series with what is, for all intents and purposes, a whole new property? Probably not, and I would've been happier with some sort of introduction to the premise before the action, but at the same time, I've been too critical of comics that do too much hand-holding for the audience to be that mad when Spencer takes a different route.
David U: Well, look at the first few pages. It goes from an unclear bathroom location to Sri Lanka, 11 months later, and then jumps BACK to twelve months PREVIOUS. So the bulk of the issue takes place a month before the opening scene. So is it NOW, 11 months later, 12 months previous? Or is it really one month later, 12 months later, NOW? I almost feel like that simple change to the narrative boxes would have greatly helped clarity.
David B: I thought the bizarre kidnapping plot was great, despite my overall issues with the story. That shows a kind of plotting that I'm definitely okay with.
Chris S: The triple-cross kidnap was great, and I love the reaction to it. And the fact that the one guy -- who reminded me a lot of Spencer's Jimmy Olsen -- thinks it's hilarious himself.
David U: Here's the thing: I'll take "a bit too clever for its own good" over "dumber than it has the potential to be" any damn day of the damn week.
David B :That's a very good point. This is far from your standard cape comic. Spencer is trying something is worthy of respect in and of itself.
Chris S: Yeah, but the fact that you, David Uzumeri, the guy who writes annotations of Grant Morrison comics, are having trouble figuring out the timeline? I'd say that's a definite problem. But yeah, 100% agreed on that.
David U: This is a comic book with a mass cluster computer made out of clone geniuses or something that scans social records for altruists with death wishes.
Chris S: As jumbled as it might've been, I came away from this book thinking that #2 was going to be awesome. So whether or not it was a great introduction (and whether or not the information we get next month should've been offered up front), it did its job as a first issue.
David U: Oh, I'm totally onboard for future installments, especially with the solicited guest artists. #2's got ChrisCross, #3's got Howard Chaykin -- and not guest artists as in doing the whole issue, but specific scripted bits.
David B: Chaykin?!
David U: Yep.
David B: That's pretty sweet.
Chris S: I look forward to seeing the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents in their '40s style paisley suits.
David B: What'd you think about the art this time around? I liked CAFU's work on Vixen: Return of the Lion, but it seems different here. Subdued.
David U: The art was fine. It didn't wow me or anything -- no particularly effective panels or layouts -- but it was perfectly solid storytelling.
David B: Yeah, it seemed serviceable, which I'm not sure I'm okay with on a big relaunch like this. There's a certain pedigree you have to live up to, and I'm not sure if CAFU made it there.
David U: CAFU can also actually draw different ethnicities recognizably and distinctively without them all being racial caricatures, which is incredibly and depressingly rare in 2010. And for a specifically international cast like this, you can't pull a Black Sonny Sumo or White Mister Miracle. Well, you couldn't then, either, but it'd look specifically dumb here.
David B: Hang on, I have a three thousand word essay on that ready to go...
Chris S: I'm not familiar with CAFU, but you mention his layouts. Does he normally do standard-style stuff (rectangular panels and grids), or do you think it was a conscious decision to do "traditional" layouts to contrast Spencer's nontraditional storytelling?
David B: I feel like Vixen was pretty formal in terms of layout, but my memory may be a little off. He can do big action pretty well, though.
David U: He was a BIT more experimental on Vixen, but not much. Captain Atom basically looked the same as this. He absolutely SLAUGHTERED on the Captain Atom backup, though, all angry mages and huge trolls and all kinds of fantasy crap that he rendered amazingly. He'd be better suited for, like, a Warlord book. Epic vistas over compressed storytelling. He's a widescreen guy.
Chris S: I'm not really sure ANYONE is suited for a Warlord book.
David U: Just wait until the 2015 Grant Morrison/Sean Murphy reboot, a--hole!
Chris S: Oh man, did Joe the Barbarian's dead father turn out to be heroic Air Force pilot Travis Morgan?!
David U: Find out in Joe the Warlord #1 from VerDiCo comics!
David B: I feel like I've been overly down on this book, when really, it was pretty okay. It didn't knock my socks off, but it was an okay read. I think I'd wait for feedback from friends before picking up the second issue. Chris, what made you so excited towards the end?
Chris S: I was initially really thrown by the "Eleven Months Later" / "Twelve Months Ago" stuff, but what really hooked me was the idea of an evil organization so huge that it has no idea what it's doing and pulls off stuff like the insane triple-cross kidnap plot. I'm not gonna lie, it reminded me a lot of COBRA, and you guys know how much I love COBRA.
David U: This is basically G.I.Joe in the DC Universe, but with a Benjamin Button twist or something.
Chris S: But once it hit that point, everything started falling into place. The idea of hiring someone whose job it is to basically talk suicidal people into a more altruistic form of suicide, as enabled by a machine made of naked telepaths was nifty, and while the closing line is about as much of a narrative trick as you can possibly write, it's impossible to NOT be at least a little interested.
David U: It's a cool twist. I enjoyed it, I'm on for #2, any bumps in the storytelling of this issue I'm willing to forgive under the New Writer Clause. It's the first DC #1 in a while to excite me this much, that's for sure. I just hope it lasts long enough to realize its potential. I mean, let's be fair here; the Sword of Damocles is already over this thing's head.
David B: What was in the last wave of new #1s from DC?
David U: Man, I dunno... the Red Circle books (The Shield and The Web), the new #1s for Batbooks (Morrison books don't count in my claim!), the Brightest Day stuff (Birds of Prey, Flash, Emerald Warriors).
David B: I thought Flash #1 was pretty swift (ha ha), but you're right, this is the best new number one in a while. I bet that sounds like damning with faint praise, doesn't it? I'm a dick today, apparently.
David U: I'm enjoying Johns's Flash a bunch, but this is the first #1 from DC to excite me this much since Batman and Robin, no question. Like, I don't see myself jumping off this train. Not anytime soon. Hopefully this'll get a nice, self-contained run like Blue Beetle instead of getting ended prematurely like The Shield, but we'll see.
Chris S: Flash was a completely different beast from T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, though.
David U: Yeah, it was really a continuation rather than an actual launch. Same goes with Batman & Robin. So, yeah: I'll just say this is the first promising REAL #1 from DC I've read since... Blue Beetle.
Chris S: Launching a new title with a member of the Justice League and a 55 year-history behind it and comics' top writer is one thing, a relative newcomer being tapped to relaunch an obscure property with a dozen failed takes over the past 30 years is a whole different thing.
David U: In any case, I'd have to go with two cautiously optimistic thumbs sort of up. It didn't knock me off my ass right out the barn door, but it has all the elements it needs to do so a lap or two down the line.
David B: That seems fair to me. I'm a little skeptical, but curious to see how it goes.
Chris Sims: I'm pretty solidly behind it.
David U: And, hey: kickass covers. Between Quitely and Cooke, you can't go wrong on that end.