Nick Spencer is more than aware of what most fans think of when they think of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, but the the writer of DC Comics relaunch of the cult classic superhero team is hoping he might build on the artistic legacy that has been the calling card for the characters since their 1965 debut.
"Whenever you would talk to old school 'T.H.U.N.D.E.R." Agents' fans, really what they'd be talking to you about were all the amazing artists, starting with Wally Wood and obviously [Steve] Ditko and [Gil] Kane and all these guys that were some of the seminal comics artists of all time," Spencer told CBR News shortly after his debut issue of the revitalized title hit stands. "That is really what you would hear, but at the same time, what gets forgotten is that Wally Wood along with Len Brown really came up with what I thought was a very compelling story. I wanted to get back in touch with that and make people remember the story, which basically hinged on the idea that all of these new heroes' powers would come with a catch. These new abilities and opportunities that they had always came with some sort of trap."
And the writer, who teams with the art pairing of Cafu and Bit on the book, sees that edge-of-death conceit across the lives of the original Agents. "It was most crystallized with Lightning and the way his suit shortens his lifespan, but also with Dynamo and some of the effects the belt would have on him. Even Noman had his attempts to stay alive forever, but every time he got into a new body, he'd become a little bit less of a human being. And Menthor who had the power to control other people's minds but couldn't control his own and was doing things against his will. I was really struck by that and thought there was a lot of amazing potential in that story. That's what I wanted to focus on and get it back to that core storytelling point."
Beyond the high-concept hook of heroes whose powers kill them, the writer told CBR he's marching forward with the books technical concept well in hand. The "T.H.U.N.D.E.R." in the team's name stands for "The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves" – meaning that the heroes in question answer to the U.N. for missions of international espionage with a sci-fi twist. "One of the things to keep in mind is that the original books had that as a flavor," Spencer explained. "Super spy stories and things like 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' were all the rage when this thing was created, and they had a big influence on the book. I wanted to get back in touch with that sensibility but still have some fun with it. I think when you look at the whole triple agent scenario in the first issue, it's about getting back in touch with the book's zany espionage roots and having fun with that. I've always looked books like that and like 'Checkmate.' I wanted to see more of that out there, and this gave me an opportunity to do that."
The building blocks of both concepts for the series collide well with Spencer's interests. From his earlier work like "Existence 2.0" to his current hit series "Morning Glories," the writer does well by characters thrown into situations high above their experience. "That's sort of the Philip K. Dick school of protagonist. I never really liked anybody who had their sites set on grandeur before grandeur occurs. So none of these characters were particularly looking for this kind of thing or seeking this kind of life. I'm a fan of my leads being victims of circumstance rather than steering their own destiny."
Moving forward in "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents," the creative team will get a chance to draw that focus on each of the costumed members of the squad as the story builds piece-by-piece from the debut issue where their handlers saw one Agent captured by a double-agent for the villainous organization Spider. "In the next few issues, each focuses on a different one of the Agents. We'll get to spend a significant amount of time with each one. And that in and of itself is a bit of a hat tip to the structure of the original stories, which were built on the solo adventures that'd all link up in the end. I wanted to have fun with that formula that was common in the Silver Age and do that in a modern book. Our second issue is all about Lightning and our third all about Noman. We really get to know those characters in the course of 20 pages.
"I felt like we had a lot to introduce in the first issue in terms of bringing readers into a whole new part of the world, to a whole new mythology if they hadn't read the original stories," Spencer said. "I felt like there was enough there to make a compelling first issue and introduce some characters in Colleen and Toby who are going to be our guides in this world and who have a major role to play. I wanted the first issue to be about getting to know them and the world they live in, but now we'll get into knowing the Agents."
As he's growing along with the characters, Spencer is getting to know Cafu as a collaborator, saying how he's expanded what he can do in the book thanks to the former "Captain Atom" artist's flexibility on the page. "The thing I love about working with him is that I can give him anything. He does these amazing widescreen, big budget, two-page splash action sequences, and then you can bring it much, much closer to see him absolutely nail a character moment. One of the things I loved seeing a lot of reviewers rave about was that one scene with Colleen where she's asked about Toby and the little smile she gets while thinking about him. Cafu has such a gift for swinging back and forth between those two extremes with ease. For a writer, that's as much as you can ever ask for. He's the whole package in terms of storytelling. I really do think that for years, people are going to be talking about how he's now at the start of a great career. I hope this book introduced him to more people and they see what an amazing artist he is."
All in all, Spencer said that for now his goals with the series are to build a bigger, deeper story than some have seen in "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" in the past while not losing sight of the fact that the property needs to live on. "I think about the fact that I can tell a satisfying story on its own, so you try to make the parts of the puzzle scalable until you can take them out or condense them as you need to tell a story effectively. But the second question I always keep in my mind is one of the idea that this is not a creator-owned book and how this is going to be around for another 50 years. I would like to set things up in a way that someone else can step in here and tell stories in 50 years. That's fun for me – trying to add a little piece to that legacy and be part of a tapestry that outlives the run itself."
As for questions of how a book like this – based on a cult property and introduced into a crowded market – will find a selling point in a world where many fans follow comics that matter to bigger continuity issues, the writer expressed a sole focus on the task at hand rather than the bells and whistles of line management. "One of the things I will confess saddens me a bit when you look at online discussion of this book and other books as well is this whole 'Well, that book failed, so so will this one' or 'This book isn't tied into a franchise or event so it'll fail,'" the writer said. "I don't think there are many things in comics that depresses me more than that concept becoming popular with readers. I look at my favorite runs at DC – be it Grant Morrison's 'Animal Man' and 'Doom Patrol' or Alan Moore's 'Swamp Thing' – and I love how they told their own story. A writer and artist getting together on a book and trying to tell a compelling story...that should be what matters. That should be what we as writers and artists should be focused on."
"T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" #2 goes on sale on December 8 from DC Comics.