Sidekick. Soldier. Assassin. Hero. Spy. James “Bucky” Barnes has played many roles in his prolonged life. Recently, he took on another one, replacing Nick Fury as “The Man On The Wall” – the watchman who watches the watchmen, protecting the Earth from unseen threats. Particularly the threats posed by Earth’s self-appointed protectors.
This was how James learned of Pleasant Hill – a secret super-prison established by S.H.I.E.L.D. disguised as a perfectly ordinary small town, populated entirely by brainwashed super-villains and other people deemed dangerous. Given his past as the Soviet super-assassin dubbed The Winter Soldier, James has strong opinions about the ethics of brainwashing. And he has particularly strong opinions about the whole project being overseen by Kobik – a sentient, reality-altering Cosmic Cube which took on the form and personality of a four-year-old girl!
This is what sparked James to support a jailbreak and inspired him to take in four former villains – Moonstone, The Fixer, Mach X and Atlas – along with Kobik. It’s an uneasy partnership, to say the least.
Some of them are fully reformed and want to make amends for their criminal pasts. Some just want revenge on S.H.I.E.L.D. for what they’ve done. In either case, James “Bucky” Barnes has found himself adding one more role to his list.
I picked up this title purely out of love for Jim Zub’s work on Skullkickers and Conan/Red Sonja. Unfortunately, those readers who were hoping for something similarly humorous and action-packed will be sorely disappointed. There’s little of the humor Zub is famous for in this first issue and no action beyond the opening fight scene.
What is here, however, is a brilliant character study of The Winter Soldier. Bucky is the point-of-view character for most of the issue and Zub does an excllent job of getting inside his head and setting up the general concept of the book. The logic behind why Bucky would take in other people who aren’t exactly black or white in terms of their morality as potential allies (even notoriously treacherous ones like The Fixer and Moonstone) is justified by the narrative. The interaction between Bucky and the naively innocent yet insanely powerful Kobik is particularly enthralling. Would that the rest of the cast had received similar development!
I’m familiar with Kurt Busiek’s original Thunderbolts title and the base concepts for all the characters in this comic. This is fortunate, because this first issue doesn’t give us much chance to get to know the rest of the cast beyond The Fixer being an arrogant jerk and Moonstone being a manipulative witch. Atlas seems particularly undefined, which is a shame given what I read of his background since the original Thunderbolts (a former villain turned hero who fell back into villany after being denied a chance to be a hero after the Superhero Registration Act passed because his powers were unstable) seemed to be the most compelling backstory out of all of the characters.
If the line-up of this team didn’t inspire Nineties nostalgia, the artwork just might. Jon Malin is an artist of the Rob Liefeld school and your enjoyment of the artwork in this issue may hinge upon how well you can tolerate strangely-drawn feet, elongated bodies and constantly narrowed eyes. There’s also a lot of oddly forced poses (note Mach X’s gleeful guitar solo above, as he discovers the team’s newly redecorated hideout has a beer-stocked fridge) but Malin is a good visual storyteller if nothing else. That being said, the bright, neon colors of Matt Yackey and Malin’s thin inks seem at odds with the dark, mysterious tone of Zub’s script.
Thunderbolts #1 isn’t a bad comic but it’s unlikely to win over new fans. The artwork is competent but doesn’t suit the serious story. The plot and character development may improve in future issues, but it’s unlikely I’ll return to confirm that.