Thunderbolts #1 was released in 1997, 23 years ago as of this writing. Over two decades later, it is still held up as the gold standard for shocking twists and powerful debuts in superhero comics. Given the metamorphosis superhero comics have gone through in the 21st century and the renewed focus on Big Moments, that’s a…frankly absurd feat. But after reading Thunderbolts #1 for the first time (I was 6 when it came out, leave me alone), it is clear that the issue has lingered in people’s minds for so long, not just because of the Big Twist, but because it is a top-to-bottom perfect first issue.
Let’s just get this out of the way now. Spoiler warning for a comic that is old enough to drink, if you’ve somehow missed learning the SHOCKING SECRET of the Thunderbolts. Everyone properly braced? Great. The Thunderbolts are actually The Masters of Evil. I know, I know, it’s almost too disturbing to consider. But it’s true, Marvel’s shiniest new heroes of 1997 are, in fact, the Avengers’ greatest enemies with new, flashy identities and a secret plan.
At the start of Thunderbolts, however, we readers have no dang idea. In a post-Onslaught world, the Marvel Universe is devoid of its greatest heroes who don’t have X or -Man in their names. It is a legitimately exciting status quo, taking all the big players off the board and letting the junior varsity teams step up, but one that mostly went underutilized. Besides the short-lived Heroes for Hire ongoing launched alongside T-Bolts, Busiek and Bagley’s team of misfits was the only real successful crack at making the most of a newly empty Marvel Universe.
That brings us to the issue’s first real strength: its sense of place. Opening on a news report about the state of the world and the potential terrors that await, it immediately puts the readers in the shoes of someone in the Marvel Universe. Throughout the issue, Busiek and Bagley throw interviews, press conferences, and reactions from regular folks in Marvel’s NYC. Even when the other surviving heroes, such as Spider-Man and the New Warriors, chime in, it is through a reporter’s lens asking for their opinions. By grounding both the new status quo and Thunderbolts’ debut firmly in human reactions, it helps to stave off the unnatural “forced down our throats” feeling that many high profile debuts can cause gives it a timeless, effective point of view for readers.
Following the exposition, we meet the Thunderbolts’ first threat: The Rat Pack. An incredibly Busiek creation that would be as home in Astro City as they are here. The team of scavengers, looting through the ruins of crossover event-wrecked NYC, are a perfect addition to the villainous ecosystem of Marvel and make for a fun, relatively low-stakes first encounter for our swiftly arriving heroes: The Thunderbolts.
Led by Citizen V (actually Baron Zemo), the team’s first line-up includes the towering powerhouse Atlas (Goliath), the hard-sound wielding Songbird (Screaming Mimi), technopathic genius Techno (Fixer), armor-clad flying arsenal Mach-1 (Beetle), and the cosmic powerhouse Meteorite (Moonstone). Creating 6 new character designs to launch a book with is no small task, and Mark Bagley might have done the best work of his career here. Equal parts legitimately cool and artificial; they walk the line between iconic (such as Songbird) and intentionally toyetic (Mach-1). Instantly memorable and serving double duty as both legitimate hero designs and subtext for the eventual reveal, it is breathtaking work.
Then, of course, they fight, which is where the issue’s second strength comes in. The characters are Good, but not Perfect. Even up against powerless goons with a handful of super-tech, the Thunderbolts’ first outing isn’t exactly seamless. Between Songbird’s hesitancy to using her powers and Techno’s showboating leaving his teammates vulnerable, well, the Avengers they ain’t. But that’s a good thing. Giving them defined personalities, even in a fight, and showing their mistakes and missteps prevents a Poochie-situation right out of the gate. No one wants a perfect hero who never does anything wrong, and the Thunderbolts are far from perfect.
The next handful of scenes, the team back at their run-down headquarters and giving their first public press conference, are just textbook superhero team book dynamics. Every panel serves to either establish their living situation, their relationships with each other, or their outlook on the world. Every character gets a moment in the spotlight, and their interpersonal dynamics are made crystal clear in the span of 6 pages. Just, unbelievable economy of storytelling, especially given the dawn of Decompressed Comics lurks only a few years ahead.
Throughout the issue, and in the upcoming battle with the best jobbers in comics, The Wrecking Crew, eagle-eyed readers might notice a few hints being dropped. Or, you know the famous twist, and they’re obvious in hindsight. Who could say? Moments like Citizen V’s overly-noble facade cracking when alone with his team or Techno being hesitant to fight the Wrecking Crew poke tiny holes in the heroes’ sterling debut and make for delightful little moments upon a re-read. Most crucially, however, they prevent the reveal from coming out of nowhere. Rather than a shock for shock’s sake, with no clear build or hints, Thunderbolts #1 gives you all the clues upfront. Even if you don’t realize they were there until after the fact.
The brawl with the Wrecking Crew is just as bombastic and punchy as you would hope, with Bagley’s skill at relying on simple figures and dynamic poses paying all sorts of dividends. Unlike their outing with the Rat Pack, the team works as a far more cohesive unit and proves they are a force to be reckoned with. On top of everything else, when their battle damages the Statue of Liberty, they stay and fix the ol’ girl up. In front of dozens of TV Helicopters, of course.
With their popularity soaring and getting endorsements from both the NYC Mayoral office and former Avengers like Black Widow, Marvel’s newest super team is here to stay, and has officially taken the world by storm.
And that’s when Busiek and Bagley pull the rug out from under you.
The very last page of the issue reveals the cackling mask of Baron Zemo and all the Thunderbolts’ true identities. The raw energy on the page is just as effective now as it was two decades ago, maybe the finest page in Bagley’s entire career. Zemo’s clenched fist and manic eyes, the team’s expressions ranging from unsure to sneering, it’s just perfect. Special shoutout to Comicrafts’s “Dave’n’Oscar” (god, 90s credits were a mess), as the lettering is every bit as impactful and evocative as the art and provides the glue that holds the reveal together. And at the bottom of the page, a tease of the next issue, just in case this reveal somehow wasn’t enough.
Thunderbolts #1 is one of the most quietly influential comics in history. Not just because of its attention-getting end reveal, something that would become a mainstay of superhero books to this day. But for its team dynamics and how well it runs with its new post-disaster status quo. Before the annual event cycle truly took form, Thunderbolts made the blueprint of an excellent spin-off series. In a world where launching a series full of characters that no one knows or cares about is daunting, Thunderbolts proved that quality storytelling and craftsmanship could hook readers no matter what. 23 years from now, if we still have a world to read comics in, I’m sure it will still be remembered as one of the all-time great debuts because some things just never get old.