The THUNDER Agents, updated for the gritty, cynical new century.
The THUNDER Agents were a short-lived, but much-beloved line of comics in the 1960s that combined superheroes with James Bond-like adventures. It had a nice mix of both heavy melodrama popularised by Marvel Comics and straightforward action stories like those of DC Comics of the 1960s. What made THUNDER stand out is that many of the super-powered agents had to rely on sci-fi devices with limitations: Dynamo's power belt gave him super-strength for only 30 minutes, Lightning's suit gave him super-speed but also aged him prematurely, etc.
Various attempts have been made to revive the THUNDER Agents over the years but they met with little success as the comic-reading public seems to have largely forgotten them. This collection showcases DC Comics' latest attempt to bring the characters into the 21st century.
This was a very bold departure from the original stories. For one, they ditched many of the original agents, putting new characters in the costumes. They also changed the tone entirely, making the whole structure of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves (THUNDER) rather sinister and ruthless, closer to the typical, shadey intelligence agency that predominates in modern fiction. The limitations of the super-devices has been expanded: now, they actually kill the user, so most of the THUNDER Agents are basically committing suicide by taking on the job.
When this title first came out in monthly format, I was quite disappointed with it, especially the decompressed story-telling and the unlikeable characters that the creative team used. The fact that the new writer made little effort to tell new readers about the history of the THUNDER Agents was also irritating and probably didn't help in attracting new readers.
The comic is told in a very cinematic fashion-- which is not necessarily a good thing. Whole pages are devoted to characters checking into their hotel rooms or preparing a meal. Such scenes may help set the mood but in movies, they take maybe 50 seconds. In comics, they take up two pages in a 20-page monthly storey. That is kind of wasteful writing is something that is becoming too common in modern comics.
The villains in the first part of the collection are also a disappointment. The motives of the terrorist organisation "Spider" and even the enigmatic bible verse they quote, turn out to be just yuppie navel-gazing. Why THUNDER needs to spend so much time and effort on these clowns is never really explained. The super-computer at the heart of the team is also never fully explained and is apparently being left for a sequel.
But oddly, both the decompressed story-telling and the unlikeable characters come off better in this collection and they do use flashbacks, written and drawn in retro-style, to tell us about the past of this series. Perhaps now that you can read the whole thing in one sitting and not wait months between issues, you can really enjoy all the intricacies of the story instead of being bothered by how little happens in each monthly issue.
Where the book really excels is in the dramatic reversals that take place where the heroes and villains suddenly go from defeat to victory to confusion, all in a matter of seconds. This creates a real feeling of suspense where we truly do not know what will happen next. There are deeper mysteries behind all of these characters and even within THUNDER itself that add layers to the story.
The story does lavish too much time and panel space on certain characters but it does make the characters come alive. None are perfect, all are certainly troubled but they do become quite interesting since almost none of them seems to be a truly "good" person and could snap or change sides quite easily. Even the last of the original characters-- NoMan has become something right out of "the Watchmen" with his growing alienation from humanity.
The art is rather inconsistent-- in fact, there are dozens of artists working on the book, some just drawing two or three pages per issue. Sometimes, it is because they are trying to evoke a past era by using talents like Mike Grell or Howard Chaykin to draw a certain sequence. But the main artist of the title, CAFU, fails to maintain a level of quality. He is abruptly dropped for the last chapters and replaced by someone with a completely different style, indicating that there was some kind of trouble going on behind the scenes as well.
The new THUNDER Agents is certainly complex and engrossing. But to truly enjoy it, one needs a deep knowledge of the earlier series and frankly, there aren't that many people like that. Few readers will know what effect the Menthor helmet has on its wearers so the big "twist" in one story will seem to come out of nowhere. In fact, the writer leaves so much unexplained, he clearly thought he would have a longer run on the title. Unfortunately, the book got cancelled. He is getting a THUNDER Agents miniseries but after that, who knows?
Perhaps it would have been easier if they just started off with simpler, more direct adventure stories much like the ones carried in the original THUNDER Agents comic books years ago. At least they could have built up more of an audience before throwing them into the deep end of the pool.