When "Thunderbolts" had to tie into "Shadowland" last year, I remember being impressed at how well the comic stood on its own and made sense even if you hadn't read the main mini-series, while still having a lot to do with the other story. It seems like an obvious thing to strive for, but it's still a rarity in comic-event tie-ins. With "Fear Itself," "Thunderbolts" is once more showing everyone else just how it's done, and as a "Thunderbolts" fan I'm quite pleased.
Jeff Parker has several things to accomplish here; remove most of the Thunderbolts from the Raft so that the events of "Fear Itself" can happen, make the situation keeping they away believable, and have Juggernaut's transformation feel logical. Happily he succeeds in all three of these.
The story in Iraq with the team fighting the undead could have been cheesy or boring, but Parker manages to make it both tense and funny. With the B-Team leading the charge, you get the distinct impression that at any moment some or all of them could die. Parker keeps you guessing the fate of all of the characters up until the bitter end, and moments like Shocker getting buried in a mound of zombies is surprisingly entertaining. (Sorry, Shocker.) As the teams end up working together, it's nice to see it resolved due to the different characters using deductive reasoning to figure out what's causing it, even as early guesses make sense but don't quite succeed.
As for the temptation of Juggernaut, Parker set this up over the last few issues, so that it feels organic and part of "Thunderbolts" rather than something simply foisted on him by "Fear Itself." So when Juggernaut takes the hammer and is finally transformed, well, you can see things shift instantly from bad to very, very bad. It's a great turning point for the issue, and it sets up the next Thunderbolts mission in an interesting way. With their backs to the wall, Parker gives us some doubt on how the B-Team will react. Or in other words, this is great story material that readers will be dying to see resolved next issue. That's how you handle a cliffhanger.
Kev Walker's art is, as always, excellent. The shift from the empty, uncluttered setting of Iraq to the rainy, crowded ruins of the Raft is a great visual shift, one that instantly puts you in a different frame of mind. Then again, it's not surprising; this is an artist who things about each page carefully, from panel placement to the thickness of borders to evoke different moods. Walker works so well with Parker that should one of them ever decide to leave the title, I hope it's to collaborate with the other on a different comic.
"Thunderbolts" #158 works perfectly; it advances "Thunderbolts" and "Fear Itself" storylines, and appeals to readers of either comic. More importantly, it's a hell of a lot of fun. If there was any justice in comics, "Thunderbolts" would be a top-ten title on the periodical charts. If you aren't reading "Thunderbolts," this current storyline is a nice place to begin.