When Words Collide

Mon, November 15th, 2010 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: November 15th, 2010 at 3:54pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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WHAT THE THUNDER SAID

New "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents"

A few months back, a high-profile writer working in comics asked me, "What do you think about Nick Spencer's work? He's getting a lot of buzz inside the industry." At that time, I hadn't read any of Spencer's output at all. I knew of "Existence 2.0/3.0," and I had seen his name attached to other Image comics that had passed me by and I knew he was starting to get more work at Marvel and DC, but none of it had come out yet.

"I don't know anything about him at all. Should I check him out?" I replied. Indeed, I should have.

Because just looking at his recent arrival on the scene at DC, with the "Jimmy Olsen" serial and the new "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" comic, Nick Spencer is ready for prime time, so it's no surprise that his name has been attached to everything in recent months.

Spencer's approach to superhero comics – and this is based on a few brief samples, strictly from his DC work so far, but it's so clean and fully-formed that I don't feel the need to hesitate about these kinds of pronouncements – isn't radical or deconstructive. It isn't overly ambitious in the mold of a Jonathan Hickman, or balanced yet whimsical like the work of Jeff Parker. It isn't vicious and terse like Jason Aaron's comics, or iconic and declarative like the Geoff Johns stuff. It's not specifically like any of the other comic book writers that I tend to gravitate towards, but it operates in the same gravity field. The one that says, "Let's take this concept seriously, but have some fun with it within those parameters. And let's do it cleanly, briskly, and with some intelligence."

Good comics don't have to be flashy or overly complex, though I wouldn't call Spencer's comics dull or simplistic, but it does help when there's something visually compelling for the artists to draw. And when there's dialogue that establishes a world view and defines character, without being burdensome or overly melodramatic. Spencer walks that tightrope with skill, from the looks of this early DC work, and from, yes, the buzz around "Morning Glories" and his forthcoming work on the new War Machine comic and his torch-taking-turn on "Supergirl" next year, I expect more Nick Spencer goodness coming our way.

But I'm not here to praise Nick Spencer. (Though it certainly looks like it, and he deserves what I've launched his way.) I'm here to talk about The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves. The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

Sure, I'll talk some more about Spencer's specific take on the new DC version of the characters and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent setting. But I'd like to flash back to the original incarnation of the series before getting to the new #1 issue. Because there's something special about this team from the mid-1960s. Something worth exploring.

"T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" Revived

First of all, the short version of how the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents came to be – in all their four-color glory – can be read about in the forewords printed in the six-volume "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archive" books released by DC about six or seven years ago. I believe the Archives are out-of-print at this point, but there are still some copies floating around at cover-price or at the usual online discounts. It's not a book series that most readers have clamored for, though its fans – and lucky wanderers into the world of Dynamo and company – have surely enjoyed the hardcover collections they've picked up.

The abridged version of the history of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents goes like this: a distributor needed some comics to sell and some money was thrown together from various sources to pull together a superhero line at what would be Tower Comics. That kind of story has happened before and it may well happen again, but what makes the story of Tower Comics different is that they brought in Wally Wood as basically the Chief Creative Officer. Wally Wood! The guy who drew the best-looking space comics for EC. The guy who could show the hilarity of Superduperman vs. Captain Marbles in "Mad." The guy who inked Kirby on "Challengers of the Unknown." Who redesigned Daredevil's costume to turn it into the red iconic look we still have (or almost still have) today. The guy who drew that one-page instructional "22 Panels" manual that half the artists I know have taped over their drawing board.

So Wally Wood, and his friends like Chic Stone and Gil Kane and Mike Sekowky and Dan Adkins, set up shop (literally, in Wood's small apartment, by all accounts) and started making superhero comics. "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" started out as basically an anthology series, in the mold of earlier superhero team books from Gardner Fox, with each short story focusing on a single character, while bringing the whole group together for some adventures. But in the JSA of "All-Star Comics" and the "Justice League of America," the entire issues were usually written by a single scripter. In the early days of the "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents," each story was supposedly part of a whole but they certainly read like they were all being made up without any coordination or long-term plan for the characters or series. Because there wasn't any real coordination. There was no long-term plan. These were some of the best artists in the superhero industry just making up cool stories as they went along, sometimes off the scripts of some inexperienced young writers like Len Brown (he of Topps and "Mars Attacks" and "Garbage Pail Kids" fame), sometimes on their own, and sometimes by some young whippersnappers with a few stories under their belts (like Steve Skeates, who ended up writing quite a large percentage of the later stories).

I didn't grow up in the 1960s, so I don't have a clear sense of what it would have been like to have seen this 25 cent comic on the stands next to the Marvel and DC comics that were half the price (and less than half the length of these bulky "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" floppy tomes). But, thanks to this glorious age of reprints we live in, I've read enough Golden and Silver Age comics to know that "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" is different.

Giant S.P.I.D.E.R.

Unlike the other superhero comics of the time, which, even when they were at their best, were under a stern authorial or editorial hand – even Stan Lee, for all his accomplishments and radically different tone, never quite let Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko loose on the comic book pages. You can see that when you look at their post-Marvel work (or even in Ditko's pre-Marvel work, which was often much more experimental and visually bold). But "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" was a series – eventually an entire line, though short-lived – that had an artistic sensibility at its core. It was about thrills and spectacle first and foremost. It wasn't about overly wordy pages. Captions were kept to a minimum (which, in this glorious age of reprints, is much appreciated, because many of those Golden and Silver Age comics can be tedious if you actually try to read those often-pointless words in the little rectangles at the top of the panel), and the stories featured super-dudes and super-spies. Conspiracies and triple-agents. And at least one sexy femme fatale dressed in full plate mail armor (who later appeared with altered word balloons in a girlie magazine. Seriously.).

It's worth pointing out that a young Larry Hama reportedly hung out at the Wood apartment a little bit back in those "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" days. And if you look at what Hama did with "G.I. Joe," you can see how much of it was surely inspired by what Wood and the crew set up at Tower Comics. Not only were the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents a team of super-operatives working on behalf of the world governmental organizations (though mostly to benefit American interests, let's be honest), but their first few stories feature conflicts with a shadowy Warlord and his uniformed saboteurs and soldiers, some of whom are called "Cobra" in the early issues. Even when the Warlord is revealed to be one of many "Warlords" who rule a subterranean realm, the villainous S.P.I.D.E.R. organization appears to provide more trouble for the world. That would be "Secret People's International Directorate for Extra-legal Revenue," if you're keeping track.

So, yes, you can look at the "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" comic as a direct precursor to G.I. Joe, but with more blatantly costumed heroes.

Wally Wood and the ever-changing crew of artists and writers quickly learned that the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad – the human, gun-toting support team for the costumed heroes – wasn't as interesting as the guys in the tights with super powers. So the Squad soon lost their starring role – after having a few sort-of-solo stories – and became the supporting cast for the superhero spectacle. Though one member, called "Weed" because he always had a cigarette in his mouth, later spotlighted a few solo stories himself, and even donned a ridiculous cape-and-costume as "Super-Weed." With his cigarette hanging from his lips. Yes, that happened, and it wasn't the dumbest thing that happened in the ""T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" run.

Make no mistake, the "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" comics are still a blast to read today, because they feel so improvisational, so high-camp but with so many flashes of artistic or narrative creativity (I'm partial to anything Dan Adkins or Wally Wood were involved with, but I really love the "Raven" solo stories by ex-Eisner shop guy Manny Stallman. Stallman didn't even try to draw in the illustrative style of Wood or the others – he just let the ink flow over the page and his stories featured the recurring villainy of Mayven the Poet, an insurrectionist who would use tiny toy children with dynamite strapped to their backs). But so many of the stories were really, really silly.

Dynamo Debuts

Like everything involving Menthor, the guy who had a costume that looked almost exactly like DC's Atom, Ray Palmer. Menthor was a double agent who planned to use the training and special mind-enhancing helmet the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. organization was giving him and then he'd turn on the good guys. That was the plan, but the helmet actually reconfigured his brain, and turned him good. But that was all well and good, except he kept losing his helmet in nearly every adventure, and though he was still a good guy, he was ineffective and dim-witted, contrary to what his powers would imply. He once took a break while on a mission to protect an ambassador, and not only decided to check out a carnival, but he allowed himself to be hypnotized into attempting to kill the very man he was protecting. He died in the very next story, gunned down tragically, but mostly gunned down because he was a terrible character who Wally Wood and his pals had no idea what to do with.

It was for the best.

Then there were all the scenes with the mighty Dynamo, who was given some kind of Clark Kentish attempt at an awkward personal life, hitting on his co-workers. But, reading it today, it's like Clark Kent played by Andy Bernard played by Ed Helms. So desperate, and so clueless, but he keeps trying.

If it sounds like I am mocking these Silver Age "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" comics, it's only out of fondness. These comics are spectacular entertainments, even when the stories don't make any sense and the characters make ridiculous choices. It's all, ultimately a farce, even if its played totally straight. Yet the creation of these comics was a bunch of guys, young and old, in a room cranking out the pages. Not out of a love for superhero comics, and not really for the money (because it couldn't have been all that much), but because they wanted to make the best, most entertaining stories they could, with twists and turns and absurd situations you couldn't have predicted. Because they didn't know where it was all headed either.

Within a couple of years Tower Comics' ""T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" was dead, boosted in sales thanks to the "Bat-mania" of 1966 (a year after the Tower line debuted), and then killed when that series lost its fad appeal.

Many have tried to revive it over the decades, the best example being the so-called "Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" from Deluxe Comics in the mid-1980s. That series was an accurate reflection of the 1960s incarnation in that it seemed like a bunch of random stories without much sense for how everything fit together, but it looked amazing, with then-hot artists like George Perez and Keith Giffen and Jerry Ordway doing their thing, with what looked like some freedom.

Now DC has stepped up with Nick Spencer's take, and as much praise as I had for Spencer's work in the opening of this column, I wouldn't call his version a faithful take on the spirit of the "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents." There are too many guys and gals in suits and ties, and the superheroes are ancillary in the first issue. But it certainly works a whole lot better as a story. Artists Cafu and Bit will never be mistaken for Wally Wood or his contemporaries, but they do a fine job on the art for this new first issue just the same. It's clean-looking, a good match for the clean, efficient dialogue and plot action.

Sometimes a Bad Guy Takes your Powers

The premise seems to be that this is a modern-day story about the continuing adventures of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agency. As if the original series was what really happened to the group in the 1960s, and this DC series shows what's going on between the good guys and the bad guys in 2010. S.P.I.D.E.R. is still around, but things aren't what they seem, if this version of Raven is to be believed. And Spencer plays off the old double-and-triple agent ridiculousness of the original series when one of the bad guys in this #1 issue disguises himself as a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent to go undercover as a SPIDER agent, only the SPIDER agent he ended up posing as was actually himself. He pretended to be a guy pretending to be him.

Spencer allows the characters in the story to point out the absurdity of the situation, and, yes, in this version, SPIDER isn't punctuated anymore. Because it's the future, and we don't have time for such frivolity, I'm sure.

But Spencer also plays off the fatality of the original series. He takes the death of Menthor, which, really, was just a way to get rid of a character who was useless, and turns it into the premise for this series. This is a group of replaceable heroes. They always were – since their powers come from gadgets and science – but the 1960s series treated them like superheroes, ultimately, even if they were supposed to be operatives. These costumed guys are field agents now, and they are expendable, as Spencer makes clear in the opener.

Matt Fraction's "The Order" was supposed to feature a similar premise, but it turned into something else in its brief run. I hope Spencer is able to stick with his, and I hope he gets a chance to tell it as long as he wants.

Because this Spencer kid has a lot of buzz around him, and his comics need to stick around for a while, even the ones based on a dorky-but-also-brilliant superspy superhero comic from 1965. Especially those. Because those are some of the best kind.

In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, thunder agents, nick spencer, wally wood, cafu

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