With Thunderbolts and Ultimate Comics: Avengers being released in the same week, I’m amazed I hadn’t made the connection before, but UC Avengers is quickly just becoming Thunderbolts, and now that Thunderbolts appears to be back on track, I’m not sure if Millar’s story can hold up. So I am attempting to do something I haven’t had to do in a little while: a compare and contrast essay, pitting this weeks’ issues of Thunderbolts and UC Avengers against each other and seeing how they hold up when against direct competition. Thunderbolts, while looking up, has had spotty quality since Ellis' departure a few years ago while Ultimates dropped severely in quality a few years ago, with Millar's return to save the series in a different title has been disappointing at best. So an exercise in how these series are fairing against themselves and each other is probably a pretty productive exercise.
One of my major complaints with UC Avengers is the slow build up of the team, with entire issues being dedicated to the recruitment of single characters, time I feel could be better spent creating a character-driven, politically charged book like Millar’s original Ultimates run. Thunderbolts has similarly gone through a roster change, both creatively and in terms of team members, and the series took a single issue introducing characters who were already recruited because of their imprisonment. This latest Thunderbolts issue helped give some insight into the new and old members’ motivations and sent them onto their first mission, all by the end of the second issue. UC Avengers, by contrast, is there in four issues, having systematically introduced and repeated the motivations of the new characters while throwing them against an Ultimate Ghost Rider. So bang for my buck, Thunderbolts is winning on the recession front, simply out of efficiency. However, the time Millar has spent on his characters has paid off slightly, with the characters being a little more complex than the Thunderbolts, but this is spread fairly thinly throughout the larger cast of UC Avengers.
The way in which the Thunderbolts members had their motivations and loyalties exposed was, quite simply, overly contrived and terrible, however, with a fake Baron Zemo used to test the team. UC Avengers has never felt this contrived, just more or less lazy in many ways. A writer like Millar who, love him or hate him, has written a considerable amount of superhero comics, shouldn’t feel this unmotivated or lacking in interest. Jeff Parker, similarly, should probably not have fallen onto such terrible cliches and poorly planned cliffhangers, but at least he’s interested! Both teams also rely on nanites of sorts, little machines to control the deviant team members, something which are used extensively in both series. Thunderbolts in particular spends a great deal of time focusing on the little technicalities of the nanites for each individual manner in sterotypical fan-boy technicality manner, as if each member needs special, overly-convoluted reasons for special nanites. This type of nit-picking is something I personally cannot stand and, while I know some people love knowing such useless information and complaining when it is not always explicitly stated exactly, this seems much too minor to justify multiple pages for explanation. Millar’s Avengers, by contrast, are held in place by a more elaborate combination of nanites, bribery, blackmail, and manipulation than the convoluted pseudo-science of the Thunderbolts, which does make the characters more interesting.
And on the subject of characters, I am amazed at the similarities of characters in both titles. Moonstone and Nick Fury’s wife, Monica Chang, seem to overlap, especially in terms of coldness and ability to control people. However, Monica Chang seems to have some classic issues concerning her ex-husband which create a character which is considerably problematic, something I will be watching closely as the series inches forward. The Hannibal Lector Spider-Man of UC Avengers is another character I am having problems with, helping to make up for wasted time by being an all-knowing psychic who just simply likes to create problems for people in their own minds. This strange Spider character reminds me of Ghost, the motivationally conflicted intangible from Thunderbolts, in some ways, if only to occupy a creepy character part. But the reveals at the end of the issue, including a brief origin for Ghost Rider, are unsatisfying and contrived. Thunderbolts is also having cast issues, mostly with Man-Thing, who’s true purpose seems to be to teleport more smoothly than existing technology. But for a team who spends most of their time in jail cells and are repeatedly reminded of how much no one cares about them, their nice teleportation device still seems fairly useless. And with all the nature being destroyed in the issue, I am surprised Man-Thing didn’t do anything, but I have a feeling this will be addressed in the next issue. Finally, Nick Fury and Luke Cage, both the leaders, both reluctantly taking orders, and both hating their recruits, are overlapping as well, with Nick Fury winning because, well, he’s Nick Fury.
Lastly, the art. if both books have their problems in the writing, UC Avengers and Thunderbolts recover because of the talent of Leinil Francis Yu and Kev Walker, respectively. Both artists have designed some very cool looking characters, if their styles vary completely. Walker takes a more exaggerated approach without becoming ridiculous, like a calmer Skottie Young. His Juggernaut is massive without becoming comical, for example. I also enjoy seeing Ghost out of costume, something former Thunderbolts artists avoided at all costs. Songbird’s short hair is simply cool looking, and Man-Thing’s ability to be just snuck into shots in the background, like a continual creepy presence, was a source of enjoyment for me. Yu, whose style is more gritty, is great as well. The grotesque Spider character, with his mask halfway up constantly, is gross without being over the top. His devil character is amazing as well, creepy and supernatural without looking out of place walking down the street, a trait not easily executed in a genre which is constantly attempting to be over the top. Both artists fair better than their co-creators by far.
Overall, I have to say this is probably a tie for mediocrity, with Thunderbolts perhaps winning overall because of the genuine interest Parker has in the book while Millar’s feels like a b-sides album of a once great series. Millar’s ending however, teases at becoming much better, but I have a feeling I will be disappointed in the end more by Millar than by Parker, but we’ll just have to see.