When Words Collide: Three Short Essays on Jeff Parker's "Thunderbolts"

Mon, March 19th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT | Updated: March 19th, 2012 at 3:54pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

I've never written much about Jeff Parker's work at Marvel, but I've read a lot of it, from his M.O.D.O.K.-ified "Marvel Adventures The Avengers" to the various incarnations of the "Agents of Atlas" to the Silver Age Sentry pastiche to the international ramblings of the new "Hulk" to, of course, his long-running and still ongoing stint on "Thunderbolts."

But there's a simple reason that I haven't written much (or anything) about those comics: it's hard to find anything to say. Parker is, above all, a tale-teller. Not in the Neil Gaiman sense of "Once upon a time, I will tell you a precious tale that calls attention to the history of all tales ever told and will be like Chaucer for moody teenagers" but in the sense of an enthusiastic, amiable pal who recounts a grand adventure by excitingly telling about how "this happened, then that happened, then you won't believe it, but this other thing happened and it was crazy!"

Parker's stories are rapid-fire plot spectacles, and most of the comics I tend to write about in this column are comics that are "doing something" with the medium or at least a particular genre. Or saying something about some theme or narrative technique. Or feature artwork by Howard Chaykin.

Parker's "Thunderbolts" comics race along so quickly they don't have time for any sort of meta-commentary or any clear declarations on exactly what it is they're doing, narratively. The issues just pick the reader up and send him or her on a race to the finish, with the ground constantly shifting beneath our feet, and the finish line shifting further and further away. And yet that exhilarating pace is what Jeff Parker is "doing" with the "Thunderbolts." But it's impossible to write about without resorting to plot summary, since it's all plot driven. And I tend to avoid plot summary when I can. But I can't totally avoid it this week.

So this is a bit of an experiment here, asking myself if I can write three short essays (plus this introduction, which is a fourth essay all its own) on Jeff Parker's "Thunderbolts" to see what I can find by digging deeper into the series. To find out what happens when I break apart its whirring plot mechanisms to see how it all works.

I reread everything from the first "Heroic Age" issue until the most recent one (so that's "Thunderbolts #144-170" for you playing along at home from some distant future where comics are instantly downloadable onto some sort of electronic device), and this is the result: Three Short Essays on Jeff Parker's "Thunderbolts!"

1. PLOT ACTION VS. CHARACTER DECLARATION

I'd like to stay away from the compression vs. decompression debate, because that conversation usually tends toward "plot point per dollar" discussions and that's always struck me as a particularly dumb way to talk about story or art. I mean, Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine" has one plot point in the whole 142-page novel, priced at $13.00, but that doesn't mean that the book doesn't feel densely packed with other stuff.

(Though if we do sidebar that discussion, then "Thunderbolts" has more plot points per dollar than almost any other superhero comic available right now. If you're worried about a cost per plot benefit ratio for some reason.)

But what I would like to look into is the plot vs. character debate. The old saw (maybe you learned it from some "How To" book or some night class at the adult education connection) is that genre fiction is plot-driven and literary fiction is character-driven. Genre is melodrama. Literary fiction is drama. That oversimplification works, most of the time, as a way to categorize kinds of stories, but it doesn't work with comics when some of the best comics have been structuralist at their core, and character-centric only in that the structure is based around characters (as we see in the best of Dan Clowes, or even in Art Spiegelman, and certainly in the superhero comics from Alan Moore and those who learned from him).

Yet heavily character-centric comics have arisen, springing out of the alt-comics memoir ghetto and in no small part derived, in the land of the superhero mainstream, from Brian Michael Bendis's fascination with David Mamet. Trace the pre-Bendis and post-Bendis Marvel Universe and you'll find a chattier landscape, for sure. Not that pre-Bendis superhero comics were less wordy, necessarily, but that characters were more likely to declare themselves at one another, and less likely to have back-and-forth conversations.

Jeff Parker, though, in "Thunderbolts" keeps the action moving along so swiftly, and the characters so embroiled in the plot momentum, that conversations are almost entirely plot-centric. And Parker's not interested, on the surface of this series, in any kind of structuralist games. "Thunderbolts" is a comic that's linear (even, paradoxically, as it hops backwards in time in the later issues) where things happen in a logical sequence, based on what happened in earlier scenes. And when the characters speak, they speak about what happened, what's now happening, or what should happen in the future. Character is through action more than words, which is appropriate in a series about a bunch of duplicitous criminals trying to work under a former-mercenary-hero-turned-Avenger. Yet the characters, throughout the series, prove themselves almost completely honest (except for Hyperion, who gets punished almost instantly for his betrayal).

In essence, "Thunderbolts" is a comic that's almost completely literal instead of figurative. Luke Cage doesn't represent anything more than a guy tapped to do a job he doesn't particularly like for the good of the country. Songbird doesn't stand for anything more than a woman who continues to try to redeem herself by doing what's right. Man-Thing doesn't symbolize anything more than a useful mode of transportation. They are what they do. And that's all they mean. They mean the function they serve in the plot, and yet that works to make the series a more effective narrative machine because their roles are clear and direct and everything move forward all the more quickly.

2. LOST IN TIME: SLIDING OUT OF THE MARVEL MAINSTREAM

That kind of plot momentum does come at a cost. It leaves only a bit of room for reflection (by the readers or the characters) and so Parker's "Thunderbolts" is only as compelling as each successive plot. It feeds off ever rising action and increasingly dramatic climax. The series lacks X-Men-style soap opera emotions, and it doesn't even have the character interplay of the current Avengers books. It certainly doesn't have the interlocking hyperstructure of the Jonathan Hickman Fantastic Four franchise.

So it has the swift-moving escalator, with bigger or more unique threats at each level. The challenge of assembling the team gave way to a fight against loose Asgardian monsters which bled into a fight with mutated cave creatures and the entire ninja onslaught of Shadowland and dimension-hopping with the Avengers themselves and then gigantic Kaiju monsters with a crazed Superman analogue they can't trust and…well, that was all just in the first 10 issues, and I left some stuff out.

That kind of zooming along, tearing up plot points and spitting them out, is almost in opposition to the rest of the Marvel Universe, where Norman Osborn spends issue after issue gathering his troops and taunting the Avengers or Tony Stark's quest to mass-produce a repulsor-powered car takes years of reader time. The only time "Thunderbolts" slows down is during "Fear Itself" when the team spends several issues chasing after one of its own: a god-powered Juggernaut. But even then, at a slower-than-normal-pace, it feels like an impatient comic, ready to get things moving again. The presence of Juggernaut kind of gives it that feeling automatically, but it's mostly Parker's default mode for this series anyway.

Once the "Fear Itself" tie-in issues end, the restlessness of the series manifests itself in a way that allows it to break free from its Marvel peers. It becomes unstuck in time, where it can move swiftly without tripping over anything else on the stands next to it. So the Thunderbolts (or half of them anyway – the more interesting half, by far, with only Luke Cage left in the present to attend to his Avengeriffic duties elsewhere) bounce back to World War II and hang out with the Invaders, then they jump to Victorian England where they become entangled in Jack the Ripper problems before bouncing a century-and-a-half backwards where they meet Merlin and Arthur and company and, of course, the requisite superhero time-travelling action-packed hijinx.

You can almost hear Jeff Paker building the narrative escalator: "What's bigger than Nazis? Jack the Ripper! But how do I top that? King Arthur! But surely that's the end of the story, because when Rick Veitch tried this trick and ended back at Jesus he got fired. Hmmm."

The most recent issue ends with the time-tossed Thunderbolts in a present that's not quite their own. They missed the mark by a few years. Instead of Jesus, Parker decided to go with Kurt Busiek. The Thunderbolts of now face the Thunderbolts of issue #1, with Baron Zemo and the disguised Masters of Evil. The escalator has circled the Earth and brought them back to the ground floor.

3. JUST HOW DARK WILL THESE AVENGERS BECOME?

And that's where, reportedly, the Thunderbolts will end their run. Jeff Parker and Kev Walker and Declan Shalvey will wrap up the time travel story with the old team fighting the new team and bring our "heroes" back to the present day where they will be replaced by the just-in-time-for-a-movie-tie in Dark Avengers team. (Carrying on the numbering of this series, with Jeff Parker, Kev Walker and Declan Shalvey still attached as creators.)

Maybe all the Thunderbolts, except Luke Cage, will die.

That would be a shame, though, because even though they've been characterized through their actions instead of any deep reflective moments, Parker has built up his crew of Centurius, Boomerang, Troll, Satana and Mr. Hyde into something quite compelling. They play off each other (and off Thunderbolt stalwarts like Moonstone and Fixer) quite well. And just look at that list of names. Can you imagine characters like that starring in any other book at Marvel? Even the traditionally third-rung team of "The Defenders" has always had characters more famous than that in the leading roles, and the new Matt Fraction incarnation is like the bedazzled version to Parker's ragged denim ensemble.

I'd guess that Parker, if he has much say, which I hope he does, would populate the new Dark Avengers with some characters equally as interesting, or at least find a way to keep some of these characters around, maybe with new identities. Troll could be L'il Wolverine Girl. Boomerang could be Captain Hawkeye. Mr. Hyde could be White Hulk. The possibilities are endless, surely.

One thing is certain: Jeff Parker's "Dark Avengers" isn't likely to be filled with the kind of superhero boardroom chit-chat you'll find in similarly-titled comics. No, if his history on this series is any predictor, then Luke Cage and his Dark Avengers will be fighting an Infinity Gauntlet wielding Ego the Living Planet by year's end.

In addition to writing reviews and columns 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.

TAGS:  when words collide, thunderbolts, jeff parker, dark avengers

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