"Thunderbolts" #172 by Jeff Parker and Declan Shalvey is, in many ways, a reward for Thunderbolts fans that have made it this far (and I count myself as one of those). Over the years, the series has undergone a wide range of transformations and metamorphoses, each of which moves it slightly further away from the original cast and concept: the Masters of Evil masquerading as heroes. This "Thunderbolts Vs. Thunderbolts" storyline pits the current team against the earliest incarnation as the former's time-hopping journey comes closer to the present.
It's great to see the original team back again, especially because the last few years of the title have used them in a greatly diminished capacity in favor of spotlighting new villains. Parker introduces everyone well and the interplay between both teams is fun to read. Many of the members function as loose analogues for one another and are ostensibly on the same side, but the rougher cast of the modern team makes it easy to see how they'd feel like scrapping rather than talking.
Declan Shalvey's artwork is great, too. Shalvey's artwork has often fit best with murkier or darker stories, but here there's a brighter, more traditionally super-heroic approach, helped along by some fine coloring by Chris Sotomayor and Jordie Bellaire. Fans of the original T-bolts will certainly appreciate Shalvey's attention to detail as he brings Mark Bagley's original designs to life with fantastic accuracy. I'll admit, I got more than a twinge of nostalgia from seeing them in action.
Further cementing this as a celebration of 15 years of the Thunderbolts, the issue contains a brief but incredibly welcome interview with creator Kurt Busiek and original editor Tom Brevoort. It's not quite the anniversary extravaganza some titles have had recently, but "Thunderbolts" is one of the few series that has survived since the '90s with only a brief lapse in publication and it's good to see its success acknowledged.
In a wider context, however, it does feel a little like this storyline has run out of steam. It's exciting to see the old team face the new team, but the time-skipping story is incidental to that. After so many issues, the format seems tired and reasonably easy to see the course of: the team fights the locals, then jumps into the future before the consequences come back to haunt them. We do appear to be leading towards some payoff, but even with this most enjoyable diversion taking place, it's hard not to be reminded that it's long overdue.