The first thing you'll likely notice about the new Thunderbolts #1 from writer Daniel Way and artist Steve Dillon is that it is a violent comic. It's also not necessarily the comic you were expecting. It's fair to say that this version of the team, which now includes Venom, Deadpool, Elektra, the Red Hulk and the Punisher, is an attempt to New Avengers-ize the Thunderbolts title, replacing the cast of former B-and-C-list bad guys with top-tier Marvel characters, all of whom have carried their own titles at one time or another (or in Deadpool's case, like a dozen at once). Yet it reads more like a character study, particularly of Frank Castle and Thunderbolt Ross, than some instant cash-in showcase of Marvel's premiere anti-heroes. At least, that's the case so far.

Before I talk about the character dynamic stuff too much, let's go back to the violence for a second. I don't mean this is a violent comic in a mainstream Marvel Universe sense. I mean it's as violent as Punisher MAX was when Garth Ennis was writing it and when Dillon was drawing Jason Aaron's take on the series. In particular, the one Elektra scene is near-shocking in regards to the level of gore that made it into a mainline Marvel title. It's only near-shocking because Uncanny X-Force already exists. Also, I remember the time The Blob graphically ate The Wasp in the major Ultimate Universe event of that year. Nothing here is quite that in-your-face. But I definitely remember how, only a little more than a decade ago, Ennis and Dillon couldn't show blood coming out of an exit wound in their sub-MAX Marvel Knights Punisher series. It's been a fast track to what we get here. It's like the HBO-ification of Marvel.

That said, when you're talking about a comic filled with characters known for killing and drawn by the artist who helped create the lion's share of the most definitively gruesome Punisher issues of all time, it's hard to assert that you aren't getting what you pay for. It's a pretty big deviation from the hidden-identity twists of the original Thunderbolts or the madcap insanity of Jeff Parker's T-bolts team, but it's everything fans of these characters would hope to see.

This issue reminds me of a MAX title (or for that matter, a pay-cable drama) in another, less obvious way, though. Daniel Way pretty straightforwardly tells the story of Ross assembling his new team, but it's all framed by a conversation between Ross and the Punisher, two men who have seen more than their share of killing in their lives and who understand how different they are from everyone else. This Punisher, by the way, is almost certainly not the young version from Greg Rucka's recent run on his title. Dillon draws Frank Castle as the aging Vietnam vet he was in the Ennis and Aaron's MAX runs.

There are glimpses of Ross's emotional scars and regrets. His ambivalence about being the Red Hulk comes through pretty clearly. A flashback which includes this comic's only non-A-list character, Hulk villain Mercy, shows that Way is as invested in exploring Ross as a character as he is showing dozens of bullets going through people's faces.

The Punisher lacks that remorse, but Ross shoves his face in the consequences of his actions, too, quite literally arranging for everyone Frank Castle has ever wronged to converge on their meeting spot. The barganing tactic is a plot point Way perhaps plays up too much; what he intends to be suspenseful ends up being a tad repetitive. But it does pay off the the end when the Punisher turns the tables a bit.

What this issue ends up being is a statement of sorts. Readers get the "Parental Advisory" violence they expect, but there's something deeper underneath. This is a comic about manipulators. And while they may mess with the minds of the people they ultimately kill, this team is going to do a lot of manipulating each other, too.

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Thunderbolts #1 is on sale now in comics shops and ComiXology.

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