Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thunderbolts #124 Review

Writer: Christos Gage
Penciller: Fernando Blanco

I have to admit, when Norman Osborn was made the head of the Thunderbolts, I was dubious. For one thing, Norman Osborn should be dead, as he was from Amazing Spider-Man #121 until issue #418, which is a long time to be dead, especially by comic book standards. Moreover, he was brought back during the dreadful clone saga, and, let's face it, that is a story best forgotten. For another thing, he doesn't really fit in the Thunderbolts milieu. For the most part, they are Avengers characters, and a Spider-Man villain doesn't really fit, especially as the head of the group. So, when I saw he'd taken over, it struck me as a terrible idea, bringing back an outdated villain into a context in which he didn't belong.

This issue proves that I was wrong in my judgement. As the Thunderbolts have spiralled deeper and deeper into madness, having Norman Osborn at the head of the group has proved almost prescient. This issue has given us a great sense of how someone like Osborn is the perfect head of a group of supervillains composed of psychopaths and madmen. For one thing, he fits right in. The scene at the beginning in which he slaughters a group of Skrulls posing as Spider-Man is one of the funniest moments I can remember in the Thunderbolts. After the massacre, with green-blood splattering and Osborn cackling in massive type, he regains his composure and clears his throat: "--Hurm. Well. That was surprisingly therapeutic". He seems perfectly happy to be a little insane. If he were too sane, the book would become very mean, very quickly, as a sane character manipulated and used less stable characters. Because he himself is a little mad, his manipulations seem almost...fair.

The rest of the issue is spent with Osborn masterfully handling a series of personel crises as he must reign in the insecurities and murderous tendencies of one Thunderbolt after another. Penance has to face a group of Skrulls posing as victims of the Stamford explosion, and Osborn helps him realise what is going on because Penance is so obsessed with the disaster. Since Penance has memorised the faces of every single Stamford victim and the Skrulls apparently haven't, he is able to figure it out. Venom prepares to eat civilians, and after being appropriately threatened, and Venom puts them down, pretending it was all an act in an especially unconvincing lie. Bullseye kills Andrea Struker, who it turns out wasn't a Skrull as everyone assumed, and Osborn manages to use her death to turn her brother, Swordsman, into an even more dangerous weapon. One of the funny aspects of Osborn's management skills is that he says almost everything with the same level of calm. When it looks like Radioactive Man is going to explode, he evenly says, "Dr. Chen, can you keep from exploding for a few more minutes?", and when Songbird is getting completely pummeled, he says, "...Songbird looks like she could use assistance". Wactching Osborn calmly handle his out-of-control team in the middle of pure chaos is fantastic farce.

My only real criticism of this issue is that it lacks a lot of the sense of fun of the last issue. No one seems quite as gleeful as they did in the previous issue, which had the same sense of manic freedom as the escape scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". In this issue, by contrast, the insanity of the characters has reached a fever pitch that prevents the reader from really identifying with them. They've reached the point at which they don't really seem human anymore, and aside from how Osborn is handled, none of the characters are really sympathetic in any way. Most of all, the character of Bullseye is beginning to both me, though he did before during Ellis's run. While the other characters simply largely imbalanced, a genuinely psychopathic killer doesn't really fit in and isn't very funny. Everyone else seems like they are contantly battling their inner monsters, whereas Bullseye just is a monster. In a farce, one doesn't want a character that is simply so unpleasant to read.

On the whole, then, this is a very strong book. It doesn't quite reach the heights of the last issue, but develops Osborn's leadership skills in a way that is very entertaining. At the end of this issue, it sounds like Osborn plans to take over America. That makes sense, and fits with the very first premise of the book. I really think it will be fun to see him try.

B+

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