I’ve often seen it said that part of the magic of the superhero genre of comics is that they can incorporate elements of any other genre. As such, horror has been a part of superhero comics for decades, whether it came in the form of vampires, witches, ghosts, or demons. Sometimes the results are amazing – a compelling story or interesting character. Other times, it can seem out of place or in conflict with the main character or concepts.
Thunderbolts by Jeff Parker, Kev Walker, Declan Shalvey, Frank Martin, et al., from issue 144-174, is one of those times the results are amazing. At first read, it feels like a normal superhero comic and you might not realize how many horror elements you’re seeing, but the creative team managed to infuse them throughout the book in the form of characters, plots, and even just small nods.
The original lineup of Thunderbolts members in this run is very much a “Suicide Squad” of Marvel villains being sent on missions as a prison work-release program, with heroic handlers. The villains on the team are Juggernaut, Crossbones, Moonstone, and Ghost, while Luke Cage and classic Thunderbolts members Songbird, Mach-V, and Fixer, serve as the heroic handlers.
But the cast slowly begins to expand, or at least our knowledge of them does, and the team slowly transitions from “Skwad” to “Legion of Monsters.”
The target of the team’s first mission, Troll fills the role of the “Wolf-man” in our Legion of Monsters analogy. Born of an Asgardian mother and a troll father, she was raised by trolls to hunt and eat and act like them. The team finds her and her fellow trolls running around Oklahoma, hunting and eating Oklahomans. She is a literal flesh-eating monster who looks like a teenage girl, with an axe that can cut through anything.
After capturing her, the Thunderbolts hold her at the Raft prison they work out of in hopes of helping her become less feral, and eventually bring her onto the team, just in time for everything to go wrong.
Created by David Michelinie and Bob Layton, Ghost was originally an Iron Man villain who would pop up every now and then and fill the role of corporate saboteur and industrial terrorist. Given a role on the Thunderbolts during Norman Osborn’s “Dark Reign,” he would be the only member of that team to become a Thunderbolts mainstay, but very little was known about him, outside of him being a conspiracy-theorist and anti-corporatist who hates Tony Stark.
But, in Thunderbolts #151, Parker and Walker give us Ghost’s origin story, still without revealing his real name, and basically turn him into the serial killer of a slasher film – “The Invisible Man” of our Legion of Monsters.
Formerly a computer genius, he was used and manipulated by the heads of the corporation he worked for, to the extent that they had paid a female employee to be in a relationship with him and then killed her when she demanded more. By the time he discovers this, he is experimenting on his own body with the “ghost” tech he had developed, and an attempt to murder him in an explosion leads to his abilities to turn intangible.
So he uses these newfound abilities to track down and murder his former bosses, one-by-one, and launches his crusade to come for all of the people like them, truly a Ghost, haunting the rich.
The Swamp Walker. The Vogornus Koth. Guardian of the Nexus of Realities.
Anything I can say pales in comparison to these 4 pages from Thunderbolts #154.
Created by Steve Gerber, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Gray Morrow, Man-Thing is one of the classic Marvel ‘70s supernatural and horror influenced characters, alongside Ghost Rider, Blade, and Werewolf by Night.
In this run of Thunderbolts he serves as the team’s transportation, teleporting them around the world, but also fights alongside them, becoming especially protective of Moonstone. At one point they literally make him grow into a “Giant-Size Man-Thing” and, later on, he evolves, gaining the ability to speak, and talks street to Boomerang. It is quite possibly one of the greatest runs for his character. Part of that is helped along by…
The devil’s daughter – a witch, a demon, a succubus – Satana is brought on to the team by Luke Cage with the help of Dr. Strange because they need to improve their magical defenses and because they have grounds to arrest her for working with The Hood in other recent appearances. She tries to stop them with all arrays of monsters and seductive demon-women, but once she discovers Man-Thing is part of the team she concedes she would have come along willingly had she known.
Another 1970s Marvel horror character, she was created by Roy Thomas and John Romita Sr. In her origin story she leads a man who intends to attack her down a dark alley and steals his soul. “There won’t be a next time for you, little man.”
As a member of the team, she is constantly suspected of betrayal by Moonstone due to her demonic origins, acts impulsively, flirts with everyone, arranges a sexual rendezvous with Namor in the middle of a battle, and is obsessed with studying Man-Thing as he evolves into his new form. With her magics, she is also one of their scariest and most adept fighters, one of the best moments being when she turns into a demonic form to scare Nazis.
Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in an issue of Journey Into Mystery, Marvel’s Mr. Hyde is a scientist named Calvin Zabo who was just really into Robert Louis Stevenson’s book and so created a formula to unleash the inner-beast within himself, which, in true Marvel fashion, also turns him into a hulking monster – a transformation depicted amazingly well by Walker and Martin.
The team quickly loses control over him and he gets stuck in his monstrous form. Even though he never really loses his edge and is always depicted as the most murdery member of the team, he still forms a bond with Troll and never turns on the rest of the team, although at one point they think he has.
The Mad Scientists
Some of them may be more “mad” than others, but Thunderbolts doesn’t shy away from the mad scientist type character, including the aforementioned Calvin Zabo/Mister Hyde.
Hank Pym experiments on a swamp monster so he can enslave it as a teleporter.
Baron Zemo creates an army of sea creatures.
Centurius solves many of the team’s problems in the field, cold and calculating as a good mad scientist should be. Sometimes this involves ripping the head off a zombie to inspect its spinal column. He doesn’t seem to mind.
Kuurth, Breaker of Stone
Last, but not least in our horror character list comes the serpent that eats Cain Marko’s soul – Kuurth, the Breaker of Stone. Tying into Marvel’s Fear Itself event, Juggernaut gets a magic Asgardian hammer, but it possesses him with the spirit of a long-deceased Asgardian demon warrior or something, which, again, is at one point depicting as eating his soul.
Under the control of Kuurth, Juggernaut destroys the Raft prison that the Thunderbolts are based at and goes on a rampage across the country, forcibly betraying and fighting against his team until another attack pulls them away and he disappears into the pages of Uncanny X-Men. I dare say that these issues are better, or at least better-explained, than the actual Fear Itself event, and a good reminder of how scary “Nothing can stop the Juggernaut” should be.
Alongside all of these horror-based characters we also have characters like Luke Cage, Mach-V, Songbird, John Walker, and Fixer playing the straight men, trying to keep the monsters under control, while Moonstone, Boomerang, and, to a lesser extent, Shocker, play enablers who help them along.
So, now that we’ve established this run on Thunderbolts is resplendent with horror-inspired characters, let’s take a look at the plots!
Reading the issues through this time, I noticed something that had never stood out to me before – there isn’t a single story arc in which the protagonists fight a traditional super-villain, or a group of superheroes, or foil a plot to take over the world.
Gone are the days of “Thunderbolts vs. Zemo” or “Thunderbolts vs. The Masters of Evil” or “Thunderbolts hunt down unregistered superheroes.” Instead, we get plots full of horror.
It starts, as I said earlier, with an attempt to capture flesh-eating trolls. That goes well enough, and the team gets sent off to rescue a lost team of SHIELD agents next. The agents were investigating a cave that appears to have a tainted, radioactive supply of terrigen mist in it, which has the effect of transforming anything that breathes it in into a horrible, red-eyed, alien-like monster. The story has a great Alien vibe to it, especially apparent as one of the monsters drools on Luke from above, or as they all surround Mach-V.
The team gets sent into Shadowland next, in a minor tie-in, where they once again go into some caves, but this time to fight demon-worshipping ninjas. Throughout all of these stories is the horror of having to work with a Nazi, as Crossbones was an initial member of the team, meant to drive the other members to bond more with Luke because his views are so repulsive. These issues came out in 2010, when Nazis at least seemed like they weren’t as loud and everywhere as they are now, so I wonder if Parker would have approached this idea differently over the last four years.
Once Crossbones is off the team, we get the aforementioned Ghost origin story issue, and then a 2-parter that combines a classic horror concept with a more modern one – kaijus and an evil Superman – as King Hyperion joins the team under false pretenses and tries to murder them all with his Superman-like powers while they are supposed to be fighting giant, Godzilla-like monsters.
Next we take a trip to the Nexus of All Realities with Man-Thing to fend off an extra-dimensional invasion of lizard people. And then Luke Cage enters the witch’s domain with Dr. Strange to recruit Satana. Once she’s on the team, they get sent to storm the haunted castle of Baron Gothenwald in one of the series’ best horror plots. Dirae, zombies, werewolfs, and the Incarsicus are waiting there to bring the Thunderbolts’ nightmares to life, while backup is busy recruiting the B-team at their prison headquarters.
Kev Walker’s designs and his art with Frank Martin’s colors is what holds it all together. Everything looks properly scary, and even though the layouts and pages aren’t designed to scare the reader, you can understand how these things would be horrifying to the characters. Especially as the Incarsicus gets inside Luke’s head, and makes him think the worst. (The other T-bolts are affected too, but I think Luke’s nightmare is the scariest, most personal one, with Ghost being haunted by his own victims in second place.)
All of this horror and we’re not even halfway through!
After the haunted castle, the team gets sent to, and I quote Centurius here, “…the largest graveyard in the world,” to fight a swarm of zombies. Of course, because Luke Cage is mad at him, Juggernaut gets left behind, leaving him in the perfect position to get possessed by Kuurth for the Fear Itself tie-ins. They have no time to cope with their absolute failure to stop or save him, as the bad guys behind Fear Itself also launch a missile that unleashes an army of sea creatures on a city. To combat this, they have to create the literal giant-size Man-Thing I mentioned earlier, so that he can burn all the monsters simultaneously. Except for the ones Troll and Mister Hyde already took a bite out of.
Unfortunately, several of the new T-bolts members had only joined looking for an opportunity to escape, and Fixer felt he had betrayed the team by still being in contact with Baron Zemo, and so it is at this point that this group of criminals goes on the run, taking the teleporting Thunderbolts tower with them and trying to flee to the furthest point of the globe, only to be pulled back in time repeatedly by the pod of a soon-to-be-reborn Man-Thing in the basement.
Satana and Centurius agree they need to keep the swamp fed, as it powers their teleportation and represents their only way back to the present. The best way to feed it? Clearly the bodies of any people they accidentally kill as they travel through time. Any pretense that this is a hero team is rapidly disappearing.
Of course, they’re still good at faking it, or trying. First they end up in World War II, fighting alongside Captain America and The Invaders against flaming clone Nazi soldiers. Satana particularly enjoys this adventure, both because she gets to go full demon on the Nazis, and because she gets to help Prince Namor “heal” with some close physical contact.
In the present, Luke, Songbird, and Ghost are trying to track down where their escaped prisoners/teammates went. Knowing Satana’s magic may have been involved, they decide to investigate some of her purported lairs. After wrestling with a “Fomorian giant with an evil eye” (and another one on the back of his head), they end up in something that at least resembles the River Styx.
This unfortunately numbered (seriously, Marvel, it was a dumb idea) Thunderbolts 163.1 is one of my favorite issues of the whole series, as Songbird – the only character who has been a member of every incarnation of the Thunderbolts up to this point – slips into a trance when her hand falls into the river’s water and flashes back through the history of the team in a great series of beautifully illustrated pages by Declan Shalvey and Frank Martin.
The transition at the bottom of this page, from reality to dream, is so good, and then all of the big splash pages and pin-ups are amazing, and in the end Luke and the team figure out the other team has gone back in time, and figure out a way to possibly track them (which soon leads to Ghost travelling back in time and uniting with the lost Thunderbolts).
Declan Shalvey comes back a few issues after that one-off to depict the next, and possibly best, horror story of the run, as the time-lost T-bolts end up in Victorian England. Most of the team is on the hunt for Mister Hyde and Satana, who have both disappeared into the city. Scotland Yard is looking to bring in the notorious Jack The Ripper, and the ‘bolts think that Mister Hyde may be the real man behind the gruesome killings. And they are correct in thinking that.
The rest of the Thunderbolts disguise themselves and team up with Scotland Yard to track down Hyde and Satana, having been unable to find them on their own because of Satana’s magic. They catch Hyde in the act, and I can only imagine that, in a movie or TV show, the moment that follows would be a terrific jump scare, as the police call out to him to step into the light, and he responds by throwing the decapitated head of a prostitute at them. And it’s still alive and laughing.
How is it still alive and laughing? Because Hyde and Satana haven’t actually turned bad and started running around in the past killing people. There’s a witch’s curse on Whitechapel which was awoken when Satana arrived, because the spirits of the long-dead witches were waiting for a powerful woman to lead them, and so they try to possess Satana in one of the creepiest depictions of body horror I’ve ever seen in a Marvel comic.
Once Hyde is able to use Troll and her axe to kill the Curse-Keeper, the spell is broken and Satana is able to break free and devour the evil souls, destroying them in the process. All that remains is making sure they haven’t disturbed the timeline, by using Centurius’s records to identify which remains of the demon-possessed women are historical victims of Jack The Ripper, and then brainwashing the Scotland Yard officers to mutilate the remains, plant, and then later find the bodies. It’s a horrifying thought to gloss over, and another great example of how well this comic dabbles in horror.
As a break between the main stories, the creators put together fill-in issues, and the next one deals with Luke Cage still trying to re-capture any of the other super-villains who escaped from the Raft, and running into the Daredevil villain Mr. Fear, who uses his fear-gas to prey on Luke’s fears that he could have been one of the prisoners himself if things had gone differently, and also his fear that his poor leadership got all of the time-lost Thunderbolts killed.
“Fear isn’t about the way the world really is,” Mr. Fear tells Luke. “Fear is about what you can’t control.”
The next story is medieval fantasy more than horror, as the time-lost Thunderbolts end up in Camelot during the days of King Arthur. We’re treated to a tiny bit of prophecy-horror, as Satana sees what looks like the impending demise of Fixer in Merlin’s crystal ball, and the fantastic art and design work of Kev Walker on all manner of monsters from Camelot’s dungeons.
With issue 171, we’re treated to a more personal form of horror. Songbird finally gets to take a vacation, sunning herself on a beach in Tahiti. The issue is titled “How Songbird Got Her Groove Back.”
How does Songbird get her “groove” back?
By getting lured, catfished, abducted, drugged, experimented on, and physically assaulted by a fetishist.
It’s all presented in a typical superhero comic way, with the focus being on how Songbird’s powers grow and she is able to use them to break free before anything “really bad” can happen. But it shows once again how the creators incorporate and dance around these horror ideas, while staying away from the truly terrifying aspects of those ideas. But the aesthetics are still there, and if you look at the way Kev Walker and Frank Martin depict Songbird’s face in any of these pages, you can see the fear in her eyes.
Finally, in the last story before the series’ title changed to Dark Avengers, Jeff Parker and Declan Shalvey treat us to a bit of Back to the Future time travel sci-fi horror that confronts the idea they’ve been toying with throughout the entire lost in time arc – are the actions the Thunderbolts taking in the past going to create a paradox that changes their future?
So far, everything has seemed fine, or they have managed to mitigate any possible damage they are doing, but as they arrive back in their own past – New York City, right after the creation of the original Thunderbolts team, when the Thunderbolts are still villains posing as heroes with a plan to take over the world – the risk that they’ll affect their own timeline becomes greater.
The true horror of this arc comes when Fixer’s past-self hacks into files and catches up on the last several years of his life.
Imagine, if you will, meeting your younger self, from 10 or 15 years ago, and having them being absolutely disgusted with your life. It’s sad. It’s miserable. They want to know where you went wrong, so they can fix it and not have to live the same life you lived and make the same mistakes you made, even if you are proud of the person you’ve become. How would you feel? How would you react?
Fixer… does not react well.
Killing his younger self triggers a universal collapse, forcing the Thunderbolts to solve the paradox by creating another horrifying situation – older Fixer is artificially madeover into his younger self and has his memories wiped, so that he can live out the rest of his life again, doomed to make the same mistakes and end up in the same sad and miserable situation that his younger self found so objectionable in the first place, before once again killing himself, taking his place, and starting over again. A horrible, years-long Groundhog Day.
And that’s it for Thunderbolts. The series becomes Dark Avengers with issue 175, although the Thunderbolts do remain central characters. A few horror ideas pop up within the Dark Avengers issues, including the authoritarian horror of a Judge Dredd inspired alternate future, but the series moves back towards more traditional superhero plots before ending at issue 190.
Outside of the stuff I was able to share while talking about the horror-inspired characters and plots, there are also a few other great moments or nods that evoke fear or remind the reader of specific horror movies or concepts, so I just want to use the end of this column to call a few of those out.
The “It’s right behind you.”
The “It’s escaped!”
The aforementioned Alien reference with the drool
Reminiscent of the shower scene from Psycho and other shower scenes from assorted slasher pics
That scene at the beginning of a murder mystery with the body floating face down in the pool while the narrator says “Well, I bet you’re wondering how I ended up here.” These panels totally remind me of that.
The drowning-in-quicksand/being-buried-alive fear
I just really like this panel of Satana by Declan Shalvey and wanted to share it
This one’s from Dark Avengers #176 and it’s pretty clearly a 2001 A Space Odyssey reference
And that’s it.
As I said at the onset, part of the magic of superhero comics is that they can pull from other genres, and Jeff Parker’s run on Thunderbolts with Kev Walker and Declan Shalvey is a great example of how well that can work, pulling tons of ideas from different horror concepts and genres, and a little bit of sci-fi too, to craft a compelling narrative that was like nothing else on the stands at the time, and stands apart from other runs on the Thunderbolts series as well.
The issues covered here run from issue 144-174, and I cannot recommend them enough.
Thank you for reading, and as Boomerang says–