Comfort Food Comics Potluck: Thunderbolts by Kyle Ross

Comfort Food Comics Potluck is a regular column where I ask some of my favorite people to write about their special Comfort Food Comics.

Today’s column comes from Kyle Ross. Kyle has become a very close friend to me after really bonding over comics on Twitter. He is a peer to me in every sense of the word. We grew up in the same comic period, we share so many of the same opinions, hunt down the same collectibles, do the same deep dive comic Twitter threads. He is also as far as Im concerned THE world’s foremost Thunderbolts aficionado and thats why I was so pleased he decided to choose that as his subject when I asked him for this article. Let’s let him take it from here:

My name is Kyle Ross, and I am a retail employee, husband, and father of two from Ontario, Canada. I help to organize local toy and comic shows as an excuse to buy things for myself and occasionally meet cool comic creators. I love to read, talk about, and write about comics. Dave is the only person who has offered to pay me for this so far, but I’m open to other offers (hint hint)

Thunderbolts was not my first comic. I remember issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with sumo wrestlers and aliens. I remember issues of Spider-Man and X-Men and Batman. I remember my father throwing one of my comics out while I slept because it had a bad word in it (I think it was a Batman comic, but I was only 6 or 7, so I could be misremembering). But Thunderbolts is the comic that turned me from a kid who read comics into an avid comic book collector.

By 1997, I was buying comics whenever I could. My parents would give me $2 a week for my allowance, every Saturday at youth bowling (I wasn’t great at it, but it wasn’t super expensive and it got me out of the house on Saturday mornings so I couldn’t “waste time” watching cartoons and eating sugary cereals. I probably still have some of my bowling trophies, like “best attendance” and “good spirit.”). Every other week I would use my allowance money from that week, and the week before (comics costing $2.75 Canadian at the time), to buy a new comic. If I had some extra money, I might even buy a Wizard Magazine. My venue of choice (the closest, easiest place to get comics) was the news and magazine rack at my local Canex store, across the street from the bowling alley. (Canex is a Canadian retail chain specifically located on military bases and in military communities)

My first exposure to Thunderbolts came from this random comic-buying habit. House ads, previews, Bullpen Bulletins, and a feature in Wizard Magazine #66 all introduced me to the team before I ever had the first issue in my hands. My friends at the time did not buy their own comics, but were happy to look at and read mine, so I excitedly showed them pictures of the Thunderbolts, guessing at their names, powers, and stories before I knew them. I knew Spider-Man and the X-Men and Batman and Superman from TV and movies, but the Thunderbolts were new heroes I had never seen or heard of before, and that excited me more than anything I had read in a comic up to that point.

The first issue of Thunderbolts came out 1 week before my 11th birthday, but because I was a newsstand buyer, I likely didn’t find it until a month or two later. But the difference between Thunderbolts and other comics is that I was actively looking for it. I wanted to find it. And once I had it, it did not disappoint.

A news broadcast about the terrifying state of the world – heroes I had heard of in other comics, like The Avengers and Fantastic Four, dead at the hands of a monster named Onslaught. Other threats looming over the public’s heads, like the Masters of Evil. Kids getting abducted in the streets. A thrilling heroic debut against a paramilitary group of scavengers. A run down pizza parlor headquarters. A big fight against super-powered bullies. A dramatic finish. And a big twist ending.

I could break down every page and explain why it’s great. God knows I’ve done it before, but the big twist ending is what really turned me onto being an avid comics fan.

Spoiler alert: On the final pages of Thunderbolts #1, we learn that these new heroes are secretly the very same Masters of Evil that we were warned about earlier in the issue – a “virtual battalion of super-criminals.” And to longtime comic readers, this probably meant something. Baron Zemo had led several of these other villains into nearly destroying the Avengers. Moonstone had gone toe-to-toe with the Hulk. Beetle was a frequent thorn in Spider-Man’s side. But to me, I had no idea what it meant. Were these villains trying to be good now? If not, why were they pretending to be heroes? I had to know, which means I needed the next issue.

So, again, I saved my money, and checked the newsstand at the Canex every week, until I found issue 2. And then I tried to do the same for issue 3, but it never appeared. I would later find issue 4 at another store, but I knew I needed issue 3. I was hooked.

(Aside – I would go to that other store with a friend because it was about two blocks from his house, and they had a Punisher arcade game in the store. He always had money to go there and play when we would hang out, but it turned out he was stealing the money from his parents’ bedroom. After finding out, I spent a lot less time hanging out with him. Looking back, there is something very “Thunderbolts” about deciding to no longer be an accessory to someone else’s mistakes.)

By this point, my parents took notice of how much time I spent indulging myself in comics. And so, knowing I wasn’t finding what I was looking for on the magazine racks, they found me a local comic book store.

The store is called J&B Books, and back then it was largely a used book store, with comic book racks and back issue long boxes and sports cards and trading cards in the back corner. The co-owner, Bob, was a kind man who ran the store with his partner, Jan. I found Thunderbolts #3 there, and then #5, and #6. The flashback issue and the 1997 annual. Eventually we learned that new comic books came out on Wednesdays, and so we changed the date of my weekly trips, and I was fortunate enough to get a raise in my allowance to $5 per week – enough to afford a new comic every week.

As childhood memories go, this one is special to me, as it is one of the only times I remember my parents actively seeking out something for me without me asking for it. I would get the toys and games and such I wanted for Christmas and birthday gifts, but outside of that most of our time was occupied with things they wanted to do or wanted me to do (like bowling). Comics were something that was just mine – my parents and sister got nothing out of finding that store or taking me there, except my happiness.

Weekly trips to the comic store turned into a pull list. Thunderbolts, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, and, a year later, Mutant X. If none of those books were in, I’d pick something else off the rack.

Two years later, we had to move. Our new home didn’t have a comic book store anywhere nearby, and newsstands were becoming a thing of the past. Bob was gracious enough to keep my pull list open, and my parents would stop every time we would drive through the area on our way somewhere else. But it was still 3 hours away from our new home, the trips became less frequent, and the cost of picking up 6 months’ worth of comics in one stop quickly became untenable. And so I had to cancel everything on my pull list… except Thunderbolts.

Five years after that, I moved back, by myself this time, for college. J&B’s was still open. Still is today, actually – greatly expanded to a large comic and gaming store with a small used bookstore in the back, in stark contrast to its original setup. (In an amusing coincidence, one of my college professors would be Bob’s son – Dave – who has since taken over the store.) Thunderbolts had ended a year before, but New Thunderbolts was just starting, so I re-opened my pull list.

(Aside – I also hated the bare white walls of my dorm room, so I used painters tape on the back of the bags and boards to completely plaster every inch of the walls with my Thunderbolts (and other) comics. Sadly, I have no pictures of this. Occasionally they would fall off and hit my girlfriend in the head.)

Five years after that, I bought a house with my girlfriend, and began making plans to get married. Other comics had come and gone from my pull list, but Thunderbolts had remained. I sold my comic collection to try and get a little money for the wedding. The only thing I kept was Thunderbolts.

At this point, I own at least 2 copies of every issue, CGC and CBCS graded copies of issues, signed copies of issues and trades, pages of original art, commissions of the characters, and still more memorabilia and merchandise beyond that. Cards and patches. Action figures. The novel. A poster hung in my bedroom because my wife is a patient saint.

Thunderbolts is my comfort food comic not just because it’s a great comic, but also because it has always been there for me. It represents happy memories from my childhood, from my college years, from buying a house and getting married, and hopefully new happy memories in the years to come.