Marvel Comics staple Thunderbolts just started up its latest run under the pen of Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. All together, the series has run for well over 200 issues since debuting in the ’90s amidst the sea of famously bad comics of the time. The series was born out of the unfortunate one-two punch of Onslaught and Heroes Reborn, so the fact that it stood the test of time is nothing less than miraculous.
That’s not all, though. Other than Warren Ellis and Chris Gage’s runs with the Norman Osborn/Venom/Bullseye team, Thunderbolts has rarely had any major influence in the greater Marvel universe and has mostly existed on the sidelines. Meanwhile, it’s a rare Big Two comic series that can’t stand still for too long or it falls apart. While Fantastic Four, Superman, Batman, and just about any major superhero comic are capable of holding onto the same status quo and existing with no problem, Thunderbolts is ultimately driven by character development and has to keep up momentum or it stops working. Fabian Nicieza and Jeff Parker wrote the longest runs of the series and were both fantastic, but towards the end they each felt like they simply ran out of stuff to say and had to move on.
But again, Thunderbolts has persevered because it’s a damn good series with an amazing batting average of writers and runs. Here are thirty of my favorite moments in the series from the days of Busiek and Mark Bagley to the days of Acker, Blacker, and Carlo Barberi.
First, a quick look at the history of the series:
After the Avengers and Fantastic Four disappeared in the battle against Onslaught, a new superhero team called the Thunderbolts hit the scene to fill in the void. Turns out they were really Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil in disguise in a con to take over the world. Several members started to dig the whole hero thing, realized what they were doing was wrong, and opposed Zemo. They became outlaws, with Hawkeye eventually tracking them down and becoming their leader. Zemo ultimately turned over a new leaf and became the leader again, though with the intent of saving and helping the world via world domination.
Suddenly, at Thunderbolts #76, the comic abruptly stopped being about any of this and was changed to a story about an underground fight club ring written by John Arcudi and drawn by Francisco Ruiz Velasco. It was very good on its own, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the previous six years of Thunderbolts comics and got rightfully cancelled. It was basically the Halloween 3 of comics.
ANYWAY! The Avengers opposed the Thunderbolts, Zemo went missing, and MACH-IV took over as leader. Zemo eventually returned and took back his spot. Zemo ended up getting blasted into the past while at the same time, the government took over the Thunderbolts. Norman Osborn was the new leader, using it as a task force of supervillains under the guise of heroism. Once he got ousted, Luke Cage took over for a while, making it a big work release program, much like DC’s Suicide Squad. A lot of time travel and government corruption happened, ultimately ending the program. Around this time, the series was renamed Dark Avengers with the title characters ending up having one more adventure together before cancellation.
Then Thaddeus “Red Hulk” Ross got a bunch of killers together and called themselves the Thunderbolts with no connection to any of the past teams. They’re only called “Thunderbolts” because General Ross’ old nickname was Thunderbolt. They’ve focused on black ops exploits and doing favors for each other, picking names out of a hat to see who gets to chose what the next mission is about.
Now let’s get started. Sadly, a lot of cuts had to be made to make it an even 30, including the time Zemo made fun of Hawkeye for once wearing a skirt with no leggings as a uniform.
30. Punisher Meets the Red Leader
Thunderbolts v2 #3 (2012)Daniel Way and Steve Dillon
Daniel Way’s Thunderbolts is the only Thunderbolts run I’d consider to be outright bad, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments. One of them comes early on when Deadpool found Red Hulk tending to a comatose Samuel Sterns, once known as the Leader until he was depowered. Unfortunately, now Red Hulk needed his intellect and memory, so he started using the same technology that Sterns used to create Red Hulk and Red She-Hulk in order to create the Red Leader. Deadpool seemed rather apathetic about it, but knew Frank Castle would have a ton of objections.
The two led Red Leader around, Sterns too messed in the head to remember who he even was. They introduced the lobotomized villain to Venom and explained the situation, only to be interrupted by a loud gunshot. Deadpool checked himself for bullet wounds then turned to see the Punisher with a smoking gun standing over the bleeding body of Red Leader.
Deadpool pointed at the body and turned to Red Hulk. “HA! TOLD YA!”
29. Mach-2’s New Look
Thunderbolts #37 (2000)Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley
Abner Jenkins was the only member of the original Thunderbolts with a known murder to his name. Hawkeye insisted he turn himself in and serve time, as it was the right thing to do. MACH-1 did so and eventually got scooped into a corrupt government program where he was used as their lap dog under the table. The Thunderbolts freed him from that and had him rejoin the team, but he needed a new look and identity. They couldn’t publicly have an escaped convict in their ranks or it would send the wrong message.
The team’s tech guy Ogre (secretly Fixer/Techno, who is still a bad guy at this point) tried using the same technology the Fixer used to give the original Thunderbolts different faces, but “wasn’t as well-versed” in the brilliant Fixer’s brilliant technology and darkened Abe’s skin more than intended. That led to the reveal of Abe being black, which was worth it for the group’s reactions.
It deserves mention, but it doesn’t rank all too high based on how nothing was really done with it. He dealt with a racist shop owner once and then later the shop owner was all, “Hey, sorry about being a jerk that time. Want a job?” They played with the idea of Songbird possibly being secretly racist, which was a really interesting premise, but nothing came of that and the whole race-bending thing was ultimately forgotten about. Techno made him white again a couple years later, but coloring errors tend to pop up every now and then.
28. Cage and Cain Clear the Air
Dark Avengers #183 (2012) Jeff Parker and Neil Edwards
Luke Cage and Juggernaut are two of my favorite Marvel characters, so I was pleased as punch to find out they were going to be on the same team. Cage didn’t want Juggernaut on the Thunderbolts and the two had definite tension, but it didn’t come to a head until the two were part of a mission where some evil spirits shoved them into their worst nightmares. Juggernaut’s was about everybody refusing to trust him and deciding to shove him into confinement for the rest of his life. When he woke up, he hadn’t fully snapped out of it, so he gave Cage a whole lot of lip.
Cage wasn’t in the best mood either, so he set off the nanites in Juggernaut’s system and knocked him out. Later, Juggernaut found out that he was being benched for his actions, which led towards his role in the big Marvel event Fear Itself, where he was transformed into a possessed, destructive beast.
Juggernaut was eventually depowered and put back in confinement while everything involving the Thunderbolts went to Hell. Cage blamed himself for everything, from Juggernaut’s spiral back into villainy, to the Fixer defecting, to the team vanishing from time itself. In the final adventure, Juggernaut was briefly repowered to help defeat the villain Sultan Magus. Once his powers wore off, Cage confronted him.
Cage surprised Juggernaut by apologizing for his actions and verbally beating himself up for causing all of this to happen. Juggernaut stood there with a silent, thoughtful expression. A few minutes later, the Thunderbolts escaped from captivity, but not before Cain turned to Cage and tell him that he was wrong to question himself.
“You were one hell of a leader… and the biggest man I know.”
27. Satana Joins the Team
Thunderbolts #156 (2011) Jeff Parker and Kev Walker
Luke Cage and Dr. Strange went on a mission to bring in Satana, but she weirded Cage out by offering to go on her own volition due to the fact that Cage had Man-Thing on the roster. At times, Satana would come off as overly cheerful mixed with overly sexual, which was fully in effect the moment she met some of her teammates. Moonstone is always about having a good hold on everyone around her for the sake of control, so seeing her rendered confused and speechless by Satana and her actions is pretty amusing.
Also amusing is how Parker proceeded to use this page to his advantage. Satana groping Moonstone was covered up with word bubbles, so in order to get more people to read his web comic Bucko (drawn by Erika Moen), he offered to post the Kev Walker art without dialogue if he got a certain amount of traffic. Naturally, Marvel had him take it down pretty quickly.
26. The Thunderbolts Choose Sides
Thunderbolts #136 (2009) Andy Diggle, Pop Mhan, and Carlos Rodriguez
This comes from the final issue of Andy Diggle’s run, which never realized its full potential, but at least introduced Ghost into the series. Rather than the push that Ellis’ Thunderbolts got via adding A-list characters, Diggle was given a bunch of C-listers, including the mysterious Scourge. At the end of a crossover with Secret Warriors, the Thunderbolts were charged with executing Black Widow and Songbird on the spot. Scourge was about fulfilling orders and Mr. X was a sadist, so they were all for it. The others thought it was well over the line.
Mr. X, with his ability to see the immediate future via mind-reading, smirked at what was about to happen. Headsman used his axe on Scourge instead of Songbird, saving her and also revealing that Scourge was a cyborg. Ant-Man snuck off, too afraid and amoral to make a stand, while Paladin and Headsman took on Scourge and Mr. X.
It was a long time coming, as Mr. X and Headsman wanted to kill each other for a while. With the help of Ghost, the good Thunderbolts won out. Ghost, Paladin, and Headsman were able to scramble the short-term memories of their enemies and figured that they could remain on the team, but try to destroy it from the inside. Finally, they had something worth fighting for.
One of the better parts of this was how Scourge, missing an arm and passing out from being riddled with bullets, revealed his identity as Daredevil villain Nuke to the reader with his last words, “Red… Need… Need a red…”
25. Hyde’s Moment of Decency
Dark Avengers #181 (2012) Jeff Parker and Neil Edwards
Mr. Hyde is an unrepentant piece of human garbage, much like the character from the novel he’s based on. That said, he seemed to have a bit of kinship with fellow Thunderbolt Troll, a savage teenage girl with an enchanted axe. She usually hung around him as a little sister and at times he laughingly put up with her company.
During the last stretch of their endless time travel, the Thunderbolts were in a ridiculous alternate future based on Judge Dredd where the grim, badass law enforcer was Boss Cage, clone of Luke’s grandson. The Thunderbolts teamed up with some mutants and started up a big battle against civilization as a means to an end of getting back to the present. During the big fight, Troll tearfully found herself reluctantly swinging her axe at another Boss. Not wanting to see Troll stain her soul with murder, Hyde grabbed her and threw her into the distance. If anyone was going to be killing people, it would be him.
Similarly, he refused to let her follow him when the Thunderbolts escaped captivity, simply because he knew she could do better than live a life of crime.
24. Bullseye vs. American Eagle
Thunderbolts #115 (2007) Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato
Bullseye is the kind of dirtbag that deserves everything bad that happens to him and then some and few incidents are as savory as the time he ran afoul of American Eagle. The Thunderbolts were sent to Phoenix to apprehend unregistered superhero Steel Spider. Fellow unregistered heroes American Eagle and Sepulchre got into the mix and it became an all-out brawl. With all this going on, Bullseye was waiting in the wings. He was a great asset for the team, but too vile to be pushed as a hero to the public. The only thing keeping him in check was knowledge that he had nanites in his blood that would turn him into a vegetable if he acted out.
Songbird didn’t like having him on the team, so she made him think that the nanites were shut off. He gleefully murdered his handlers and decided to go after American Eagle anyway. He didn’t fare so well in the beginning, but picked up a knife with intent to turn it around. Moonstone, the field leader, wasn’t pleased by the news of Bullseye’s recent murders and had the nanites activated.
Bullseye could only look on in fear as his body was paralyzed and American Eagle continued to beat him into a bloody pulp, knocking him into a coma. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
23. US Agent vs. Nuke
Thunderbolts #142 (2010) Jeff Parker and Wellington Alves
During the Siege tie-in, the Mighty Avengers fought the Thunderbolts and we got US Agent vs. Nuke out of the deal. An inspired pairing, since they’re both radical, out-of-control attempts to recreate Captain America. The difference is that John Walker is a good man who’s just a bit too conservative while Frank Simpson is an utter psychopath. US Agent was inspired to kick Nuke’s ass out of disgust for his behavior and seeing that he had the American flag tattooed on his face, like that made everything he did all right.
My favorite comic fight scene is from an old What If issue where Captain America beat the holy hell out of his “Commie Smasher” doppelganger while ranting and raving about how he represented everything that was wrong with America. This fight feels like a more modernized take on it.
Nuke later blindsided US Agent and cut off his arm and leg with an Asgardian weapon, before being taken out by Paladin. US Agent was stuck in a wheelchair after that and refused to ever use cybernetics, as he feared it would make him more like what Nuke had become.
22. Mach-1 Lets Spider-Man Go
Spider-Man Team-Up #7 (1997) Kurt Busiek, Sal Buscema, and Dick Giordano
Crazy that such a major character moment would happen in someone else’s book so early on, but here we are. Spider-Man was framed for theft and the Thunderbolts were tasked with going after him. MACH-1 was the most excited as he used to be the Beetle, one of Spider-Man’s archenemies. He couldn’t wait to bring him in or even possibly kill him. Spider-Man and the Thunderbolts found out that the whole thing was a plot by a bunch of mad scientists with a robot that could copy Spider-Man’s powers. Mostly through the teaming up of Spider-Man and MACH-1, they ended up winning the day.
MACH-1 gave Spider-Man evidence to show the world that he was innocent. He could have had him arrested, but he chose to do the right thing. He explained it all to Zemo as a strategic move – if they arrested Spider-Man, he’d know they weren’t on the up-and-up. Later, he admitted the truth to Moonstone. Maybe Beetle could have stabbed Spider-Man in the back, but MACH-1 couldn’t.
This was the first moment where any of the Thunderbolts questioned Zemo’s plan and showed streaks of actual heroism.
21. The Death of Andrea von Strucker
Citizen V and the V-Battalion #3 (2001) Fabian Nicieza and Michael Ryan
Ah, the V-Battalion. These guys were like the drum solo of the first six years of Thunderbolts. John Watkins III was the third man to take up the guise of Citizen V in the pages of the book after Baron Zemo and Dallas Riordan. He woke up from a lengthy coma around the time that Riordan lost the mantle due to injury, coincidentally right around when Baron Zemo was killed by Scourge (not Nuke but another Scourge. It’s a popular mystery killer plot device at Marvel). As Citizen V, Watkins got his own miniseries where he did a lot of suave swashbuckling for the greater good and put the moves on Andrea Von Strucker while he was at it. All the while, people would bring up how different he seemed compared to the Watkins of old.
After defeating Andrea’s father Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker, Citizen V got Andrea to safety and they were ready to go their separate ways. Then Andrea let it slip that she knew Citizen V was really Zemo’s mind in Watkin’s body. It was like the time Speed Racer called out Racer X for being Rex Racer, only instead of a punch to the stomach, Citizen V gutted Andrea with a sword. He apologized as he left, swearing that it was necessary to keep his identity a secret.
Andrea would return down the line, though in a far more grotesque form.
20. Doc Samson and Penance
Thunderbolts #117-120 (2008) Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato
Penance was one of the most head-shaking things about Civil War and it seems like nearly every writer to use Robbie Baldwin after his identity change realized that. Ellis is a very cynical writer and his is a very cynical run on the title. That made it all that much more of a breath of fresh air when he almost immediately decided to fix Robbie by having Leonard Samson talk some sense into him.
With everybody else looking down at him and/or being completely afraid and creeped out to speak their minds, Samson treated Robbie with respect and even showed that he had nothing to fear from his Penance powers due to being a Hulk. He did so by goading him into powering up and then laughing off his blasts. Then they simply talked things through while everything went to hell around them.
As of the current New Warriors series, “Penance” is still very much a part of who Robbie Baldwin is, even if he’s back to calling himself Speedball, but at least he’s better off than he was before Ellis got his mitts on him.
19. Techno’s Sacrifice
Thunderbolts #46 (2000) Fabian Niceiza and Mark Bagley
At one point, Techno (or Fixer, depending on what he’s calling himself that week) was killed in action and had his mind imprinted into a machine. He kidnapped the Thunderbolts’ newest tech guy Ogre and took his form. It was a question of when he was planning to strike against the team in the name of Zemo. Around this time, the assassin Scourge killed Jolt, the team’s upbeat teenage conscience. Techno kept the body and secretly experimented on it while at the same time gradually healing her life-ending wound.
Scourge struck against Techno and critically wounded him. With Scourge distracted, Techno figured that he could tap into the headquarters’ power to build himself a new body. That would mean shutting down the stasis tubes keeping Jolt and Ogre alive. With Ogre, he didn’t care, but the idea of taking out Jolt bothered him and he couldn’t understand why. He laid there, questioning why he even hid amongst the Thunderbolts anyway. Revenge? Scientific research? Human interaction? Acceptance?
In the end, he decided to allow himself to die because jerk or not, he knew that Jolt’s innocence meant something to him. Knowing his last decision was the right one, he smiled as the lights in his eyes went dim. Nearby, Jolt smashed out of her tube and went after Scourge.
18. The Doctor Doom Retcon
Dark Avengers #176 (2012) Jeff Parker and Kev Walker
The Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch run of Fantastic Four had a silly ending with the kind of “probably sounded like a good idea when he came up with it, but…” storytelling you’d expect from Millar. Dr. Doom fought his never-before-mentioned super powerful master the Marquis of Death and was sent back to the dawn of time, destined to be devoured by megalodons. Then he showed up a few minutes later and whupped the Marquis, explaining that he somehow survived for millions of years, becoming immortal and even more powerful, biding his time for this very moment to get his revenge. Not only was it an incredibly questionable plan of revenge with a million holes in it, but it kind of ruined Dr. Doom for other writers.
The Thunderbolts’ time exploits led them to the same point where and when Doom showed up. Moonstone saved him from the megalodons and we got the real truth about Millar’s Doom: he was lying his shiny, metal ass off. Rather than admit that he had help of any kind, Doom hijacked the Thunderbolts’ time machine, returned to the present with his own made-up story about what a badass he was, and tried to kill off the Thunderbolts in order to tie up loose ends.
17. Mephisto’s Deal
Thunderbolts v2 #21-22 (2014) Charles Soule and Carlo Barberi
An accidental trip to Hell caused the Red Hulk incarnation of the Thunderbolts to run into Mephisto. Mephisto had seen better days and was no longer in control of his domain. Red Leader figured there was opportunity and, against Ghost Rider’s advice, suggested a deal. They would make him King of Hell once again and in return, Mephisto would send them back to Earth and bring down their enemy, the mad goddess Mercy. Mephisto wanted to shake on it, but Red Leader was too smart for that. He demanded an official contract, fully notarized. The whole nine yards.
Charles Soule is a lawyer, so writing this bit came natural as the two went over legalese terms that I can’t begin to understand. Deadpool asked to be part of it, adding a part where he’d get an angel feather (to go with his beloved pimp hat) in return for his services. Because he’s Deadpool. The contract was signed and off they went to dethrone Strong Guy, the residing ruler.
After succeeding, Mephisto fulfilled his part of the contract and brought in Mercy… who proceeded to absorb the tortured souls around her. Meanwhile, Deadpool’s feather caper caused a series of angels to chase him into Hell. The whole place was a mess and Mephisto wanted to make them suffer. Unfortunately, that was against the binding contract, as Red Leader explained. With Mephisto huffing and puffing, Leader looked him in the eye and let him know, “You might – MIGHT – be more evil, but I’m definitely smarter. I’m the Leader. Pay me a visit any time. This has all been rather fun.”
On a team filled with all sorts of killers, it’s the big brain who came out as the badass in this story.
16. Zemo vs. Scourge
Thunderbolts #39 (2000) Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley
This fantastic fight scene took place over the course of the entire issue, having Baron Zemo take on the mysterious Scourge of the Underworld in the middle of Zemo’s headquarters. There have been many people to take the role of Scourge and every time it was a mystery of who was behind the mask. This time was no different as he went after Zemo. This would normally be a no-brainer of who to root for, except by this point Scourge already sniped Jolt, who totally didn’t deserve it.
Zemo tried to go with a straight-up sword fight, but Scourge started pulling out all sorts of crazy weaponry. Zemo took to the defensive, trying to understand how Scourge had all these bells and whistles while his armor was in no way bulky. While trying to outrun Scourge, Zemo reflected on how being Citizen V made him better in terms of fighting and strategy, with hopes that the experience could carry him through the day. He made an attempt to escape, but Scourge dragged him back into the building.
The fight ended up in a trophy room where Zemo kept the tattered remains of the late Bucky Barnes’ uniform, a holdover from his father’s greatest victory. This got an emotional reaction out of Scourge and caused him to fight even harder. Zemo figured Scourge to be Captain America at first, but upon removing the mask, he made it seem like Scourge was really Bucky, back from the dead. Scourge decapitated Zemo and announced that justice was served.
It was later revealed that Scourge was Jack Monroe, otherwise known as Nomad, who looked exactly like Bucky. Though obvious to readers, it was a great way to hint his identity.
15. Moonstone vs. Zemo and Techno
Thunderbolts #12 (1998) Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley
Once Zemo went public with who the Thunderbolts really were and moved forward on his plan for world domination, the team split into two sides. Only Techno remained loyal to Zemo while all the others chose to do the right thing and stop him. Moonstone’s actions to oppose Zemo were not out of morality, but because she simply found it to be a dumb move that ruined her fun. As the other Thunderbolts and a bunch of actual superheroes fought against Techno, Moonstone was able to confront Zemo on her own. Without anyone else around, there was nobody to hold her back as she thrashed her former leader with super strength, mangling him up real good.
That wasn’t exactly impressive considering Zemo’s lack of powers, but Moonstone made it work by dressing him down for ruining a great gig they had for the sake of his own ego. She would have killed him, had Techno not intervened. Techno was more of a powerhouse, but Moonstone simply used her psychiatric skills against him, making him question himself by pointing out that he could never feel a woman’s touch with his robot body and how nobody respected him for being a flunky and a failure. This enragement distracted Techno enough that the Thunderbolts were able to take him down.
14. Norman Osborn and the Spider-Skrulls
Thunderbolts #123-124 (2008) Christos Gage and Fernando Blanco
One thing that bugs me about Secret Invasion is how many comic fans always say that Norman Osborn became head of national security purely because he got the kill shot on the Skrull queen. As if Iron Fist would have become the head of SHIELD had he done it instead. It’s not like the comic that starred Norman Osborn showed him leading the charge in rescuing Washington DC from aliens with his own technology in light of Tony Stark’s tech going bust.
The battle against the Skrulls had some neat moments… along with some unfortunate, blatant cheesecake from Moonstone getting most of her costume blasted off and flying around for several issues with it holding on by a couple loose threads (note: Moonstone has the power to alter her clothing, so I guess it was just a really humid day and she decided not to fix it). The highlight was Osborn being cornered by a handful of Skrulls disguised as various incarnations of Spider-Man.
What was meant as a threat turned into a dream come true. Osborn lost his mind laughing and murdered the whole lot of them, immediately calming down and admitting that this experience was extremely therapeutic.
13. Man-Thing Speaks!
Dark Avengers #176 (2012) Jeff Parker and Kev Walker
Man-Thing was brought in as the transport for the Luke Cage era of Thunderbolts because of his teleporting powers. It was convenient, but still iffy due to the creature’s cryptic nature. He was a mysterious mute and the only one capable of understanding him in any way was Satana. That was until the constant time travel awoke something in Man-Thing and gave him enough awareness to speak to his comrades.
Man-Thing’s speech was done the best possible way: he spoke the language of X’zelzi’ohr, the universal language. Everyone heard him in a way they were accustomed to, meaning he spoke “normal” to the likes of Satana and Moonstone, but was concise and to the point for Ghost, a lewd Englishman to Mr. Hyde, and a total thug to Boomerang.
“Y’all the snitches that got me my riches.”
12. The Punisher vs. “Doctor Strange”
Thunderbolts v2 Annual #1 (2013) Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, and Matteo Lolli
There was an imposter of Dr. Strange spreading joy through New York City, but in a bad way. It was not only mind control, but he was also prepping the public up to devour their joy-filled souls. I don’t know, it’s a magic thing.
The Red Hulk Thunderbolts were pre-Ghost Rider, so they didn’t have any magic users on the team. The group scoured various worlds for all the magic weapons they could get and stormed the fake Strange’s home. He showed no worry and instead let out a large aura of happiness. Red Leader, Red Hulk, and Venom fell to the crippling bliss first. The more mentally damaged trio of Frank Castle, Elektra, and Deadpool kept pressing on, but Elektra and Deadpool fell prey soon enough.
That left Frank to walk up the stairs at the fake Strange, enduring all sorts of spells based on overwhelming others with positive feelings. Frank kept storming through it until letting him know, “This is what makes me happy,” and unloading a Hellfire shotgun. Watching the imposter die before him, Frank almost smirked for a brief moment. It wasn’t quite a smile, but for one brief second he didn’t frown.
And that’s why I was completely on-board when I heard Acker and Blacker were taking over the main series.
11. Meet the New Boss, Not at all Like the Old Boss
Thunderbolts #20 (1998) Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley
After defying Baron Zemo, the team was in dire straits. The authorities wanted them in custody and the criminal underworld wanted them dead. Not only that, but they needed a new leader. Moonstone was chosen, but her short-sightedness and selfishness made MACH-1 think she wasn’t the right choice. Around the same time, the team fought the Masters of Evil and were rescued by obscure villain Dreadknight, who brought them to safety. It seemed they had a new member.
As the team argued over who was the best choice to lead, Dreadknight stepped up with his helmet removed. It was Hawkeye of the Avengers. He had a soft spot for the idea of criminals trying to redeem themselves via superheroics and tracked them down for the sake of helping lead them to the right path. It’s a moment that changed the series forever and for my money, Hawkeye was easily the best team leader. Sorry, Cage.
10. Quicksilver vs. Mr. X
Thunderbolts #143 (2010) Jeff Parker and Miguel Sepulveda
Being a comic about villains, Thunderbolts has had plenty of despicable characters on the roster. You have Bullseye, Crossbones, Mac Gargan Venom, that annoying French guy with the tornado powers, etc. For the ones who don’t do anything heroic, you at least want to see them pay and few deserve it more than Mr. X. At least Bullseye and Crossbones are genuinely badass. Mr. X tries too hard with his shirtless tattooness and wearing sunglasses at night, while constantly talking about how his mind-reading/short-term-future-seeing powers make him the greatest fighter in the world.
Mr. X is the goddamn worst is what I’m trying to say. Being a quasi-protagonist, Diggle and Parker had to come up with new ways to have Mr. X lose fights and no loss was more cathartic than the Thunderbolts vs. Mighty Avengers throwdown where Mr. X took on Quicksilver.
Yes, Mr. X is an amazing martial artist. Yes, he can read your mind and tell what you’re about to do next. Too bad that is worthless against a mutant who is faster than what Mr. X is capable of countering. Yes, he knows that Quicksilver is about to shatter his wrist. Good luck preventing it. By the time Quicksilver was done, Evil Johnny Cage was left a broken mess on the ground and deemed, “The least dangerous man on the planet.”
9. Moonstone Emasculates Graviton
Thunderbolts #29 (1999) Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley
Graviton is a villain who should never be defeated in a straight-on fight with the Thunderbolts and Moonstone – being an actual smart person – knew that the first time they fought him. She bought some time by dropping some harsh truths on him: he was one of the most powerful beings in the world, but he didn’t know what he even wanted. He was fighting superheroes because he was a supervillain. What was he out for? World domination? Respect? Worship? At least Magneto and Doom had goals and dreams.
It worked and Graviton left the battlefield to go think about things. Sometime later, he lifted a big pile of land off the ground and made his own civilization made of followers who were granted flight for their loyalty. The Thunderbolts intervened and of course couldn’t even touch him. They became his prisoners, set for execution. He sent for an audience with Moonstone and started bragging about finding his niche as a supervillain. He had his own domain, a harem, worshippers, the fanciest of food, and so on.
And Moonstone laughed at him. In probably the most badass moment in the series, she laughed in his face. He didn’t really want any of this. He was just trying to impress her. He has complete control over gravity and she made fun of him for being a petty nothing and somehow lived to tell the tale. That rules.
On the subject of Graviton…
8. The Fall of the Redeemers
Thunderbolts #56-58 (2001) Fabian Nicieza and Patrick Zircher
At one point, the Thunderbolts were given full pardons in return for Hawkeye surrendering himself to police custody. Songbird and MACH stayed together and tried to live a normal life, Moonstone ended up becoming a therapist of sorts for Graviton to finally give him vision, and for the first time the government turned the Thunderbolts concept into their own thing. They put together their own team called the Redeemers with some new faces mixed with old, including a resurrected Fixer and Citizen V (back when it was John Watkins secretly possessed by Zemo).
Graviton planned to remake the world in his image and his first step meant killing the Thunderbolts. The Redeemers were in their place, so he fought them instead. What followed was a complete bloodbath to the point that you’d think James Robinson wrote the issue. Characters were given backstories with heart, only to be brutally killed one by one as if they were nothing. Citizen V and Fixer each made a run for it.
After the dust settled, Songbird pled with MACH that they needed to help. If they didn’t stop Graviton, then who would? Meanwhile, Citizen V crawled out of some rubble, looking determined to strike against Graviton (which was especially great, considering this is the first time Zemo did anything vaguely heroic). Atlas resurrected himself into a being of pure ionic energy. Moonstone and Fixer decided that backing Graviton was a fool’s errand. The original Thunderbolts reunited and were able to kill their greatest foe.
7. Juggernaut vs. Hyperion
Thunderbolts #153 (2011) Jeff Parker and Kev Walker
Hyperion is Marvel’s main Superman stand-in and there’s like a million of him thanks to alternate realities. A villainous one, known as King Hyperion from back when he fought the Exiles, ended up in the 616 Marvel Earth and got lumped into the Thunderbolts. In his first mission, the team had to face some giant monsters storming a beach. Hyperion subtly took out his handlers, stole the device that sets off the nanites, and tried to figure out how to stop them from using it on him (he had his own version of kryptonite stored in his spine in case he went rogue or something).
Juggernaut confronted him over being a gigantic dick and lots of punching happened, as well as Hyperion torturing Juggernaut with the nanite controls. Ghost saved Moonstone via some gross mouth-to-mouth and said that Juggernaut needed their help. It was a very rare moment of Ghost and post-Dark Reign Moonstone showing any sense of humanity as Ghost brought up that Juggernaut was one of them and Moonstone grew silent.
Juggernaut put up a hell of a fight, but much like in the days of Marvel vs. DC in the 90’s, he wasn’t good enough to beat Superman. Moonstone aided him and helped fight Hyperion to a stand-still. Then Ghost stepped in, revealing that he stole the nanite controller. With a press of a button, Hyperion fell screaming and begging before being curbstomped by his former teammates. To finish him off, Man-Thing sensed his fear, walked over, and burned him alive.
I thought there was an interesting dynamic between Juggernaut and Ghost during the Parker run. It’s too bad Fear Itself took Juggernaut off the table, since I would have liked to see more interactions between the two.
6. Deadpool’s Pizza Quest
Thunderbolts v2 #15-18 (2013) Charles Soule and Jefte Palo
Frank Castle got to take point on a mission and wanted the team to help him take out the Paguro Family, a group of criminals who were nearly impossible to track down and take out. Too much manpower, for one. The team got stuck in traffic and Deadpool, tired and hungry, left to go get some pizza. Frank didn’t mind, since he hates Wade’s guts. He, Elektra, and Venom went on to infiltrate the bad guy hideout and murder twenty tons of gangsters, but the Paguros got away.
Meanwhile, Deadpool wandered through New York City, briefly getting involved in the alien invasion that was going on during all of this. After killing a few aliens, he found the pizza place and was surprised when the guys working there recognized him and ran off in horror. He sat down, ate some pizza, and wondered why he was even there to begin with. The pizza wasn’t that great.
The Paguro’s ran in there to hide out and Deadpool suddenly recalled how their pictures were up against the wall. He opened fire on the three and continued eating his pizza. Castle and the others came in shortly after, completely confused and frustrated over what just happened.
5. Zemo vs. Zemo
Zemo: Born Better #4 (2007) Fabian Nicieza and Tom Grummett
Born Better was Fabian Nicieza’s last hurrah with Thunderbolts and also the last time we got to see Zemo as something resembling a good guy before Marvel rubberbanded him into being a straight-up villain. This is why we can’t have nice things, Quesada! Helmut Zemo had been falling forward through time and was meeting all the other Baron Zemos through history. Some were good people and great leaders. Others were horrible monsters. All were Zemo.
In the final issue, he ended up in World War II, where he got to see his own father, Heinrich Zemo. Posing as a guard, Helmut listened to his father rant about Aryan supremacy, ruling the weak, and all that jazz. Helmut grew furious and unmasked, revealing his mutilated face. According to his father, someone with a face such as his could never be considered great. Heinrich slapped him with a glove and demanded to know who he thought he was to raise his voice at a Baron.
Helmut Zemo punched him to the ground. “I AM BETTER THAN YOU, THAT IS WHAT I AM!!” He considered beating his father half to death, but guards were on their way and it was a better plan to just run.
4. Green Goblin vs. Swordsman
Thunderbolts #120 (2008) Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato
Ellis built up Norman Osborn’s budding insanity a bit at a time. The more stressed he got, the more the Goblin part of him started to creep into his head. It didn’t help that a group of telepathic prisoners were using their powers to play the Thunderbolts against each other. Nearly everyone was going off their rocker and thanks to the telepaths, nobody even gave a single thought to using the nanites to keep anyone in line. Venom went on a rampage, stopped and nearly killed by an insane Swordsman.
The telepaths were forcing Osborn to let loose and so he did. Rambling to himself, he dusted off his old Green Goblin uniform and put it on. He tracked down Swordsman and put the fear of god in him while easily taking him apart.
“You didn’t have a mother! A pig coughed and you fell out!”
If anything, this deserves to be high on the list just for Deodato’s depiction of the Goblin. Nobody comes close to making Green Goblin look so awesome and terrifying.
3. The Raft Breakout
Thunderbolts #147 (2010) Jeff Parker and Kev Walker
This is an awesome scene that both looks impressive and has a handful of sweet character moments. The kids from Avengers Academy visited the Raft to get some scared straight words of wisdom from the Thunderbolts. A blackout oh-so-conveniently happened and the place scrambled to keep everything under control. Songbird, Luke Cage, and Warden Walker each had to deal with would-be escapees.
Songbird put forth effort to hold the female prisoners and would have failed had Troll not come to her rescue… while Moonstone decided to just hang back and see how it played out. Luke Cage took on an army of Purple Man’s mind-controlled pawns and followed up by revealing Purple Man’s powers no longer worked on him via a face-crushing headbutt.
Then there was Warden John Walker, otherwise known as US Agent, stuck in a wheelchair due to having his arm and leg cut off. Dude took out convicts left and right with only one arm and leg, not taking a single hit. Covered in the blood of others and standing on one leg, he asked if anyone else wanted a piece. A prisoner meekly wheeled his chair over and calmly returned to his cell. That is the slickest shit ever.
There’s so much energy in this sequence that I get a huge smile on my face every time I read it.
2. The Masters Revealed
Thunderbolts #1 (1997) Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley
Thunderbolts #1 is such a masterstroke of storytelling, more impressive considering the very first page has an image of Thor wearing his ’90s head-sock outfit. The team debuted in Incredible Hulk #449 where they were simply known as the new superhero team that everybody loved. They were generic, if mysterious, but there were a couple clues thrown in there. The debut issue was an entire double-sized story that continued to play it like a straightforward superhero story until the final two pages.
Having won the adoration of the public, the team sat around their headquarters, sharing satisfied smiles. Then Citizen V stepped in with his mask off, revealing a gnarled, melted face. Oh, cool, Citizen V is Deadpool. That’s pretty—scratch that! It’s Zemo!
They’re all villains! Sweet Jesus! It’s all one big ruse! The rusiest ruse! And this is only the first issue!
It springboarded the series in the best way possible and there’s no way I could neglect it from such a high ranking and be able to sleep at night.
1. The Kiss That Concludes the Journey
Thunderbolts #100 (2006) Fabian Nicieza and Tom Grummett
On the surface, Thunderbolts #100 wasn’t the most extravagant hundredth issue. It was a big brawl between two Thunderbolts factions that led to the death of former Captain Marvel Genis-Vell. The final scene showed Zemo and Songbird together at Genis’ grave as they discussed Songbird’s strengths as a leader and Zemo’s guilt over being responsible for Genis’ death. They would redeem themselves and they would save the world as a team. They kissed and walked off together.
Now, the Zemo/Songbird relationship didn’t last very long at all and Zemo was gone from the book within a few months. So why do I think this is the best Thunderbolts moment? It’s a subtle thing that’s never actually brought up in the comic ever, but I noticed it and found it perfect. In the beginning, the more likeable members of the Thunderbolts – MACH-1, Songbird, and Atlas – became heroes. Eventually, at least for a time, Fixer and Moonstone did the same. Then it was Zemo who showed a heroic streak and a desire for altruism.
Zemo was different from the rest. He wasn’t just a supervillain. He was a Nazi, one of the most irredeemable of supervillain types. He spent much of his life believing in the words of his Nazi mastermind father and carrying himself with the belief that he was better than everyone due to his own genetic makeup. And here he was, embracing Songbird. Melissa Gold. A Jewish woman. Not just showing romantic interest, but outright admitting to seeing her as his equal.
Through that gesture of pure hope, the Thunderbolts won.
Are there any other bits you feel I should have included? Sound off in the comments, kiddos!