Creative Team:Fabian Nicieza (writer), Mark Bagley (Penciler), Pat Zircher (Fill-in Penciler), Norm Breyfogle (Annual Pencils)
Core Issues: Thunderbolts #34-50, Thunderbolts Annual 2000
Essential crossovers: Avengers (Vol. 3) #32-#34, Maximum Security
Kurt Busiek may have been the original Thunderbolts writer, but the one with the longest pedigree on the series is still Fabian Nicieza, who shaped the team from issue #34 of the original series, right up until #109. Nicieza spent most of his run working with artist Pat Zircher, who took over with issue #51 – but many will have forgotten that for the first year or so, he mostly collaborated with original Thunderbolts penciler, Mark Bagley.
Today, when creators leave a title, it’s generally at the end of an arc, and often involves a relaunch or repositioning of the characters. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, Busiek actually began several plot threads in the couple of issues before he left for Nicieza to pick up – the most major being the series climax, in which Hawkeye (who was leading the team at the time) announced that the Thunderbolts were going to take down the Hulk.
Much of Nicieza’s early run owed something to Busiek’s plot notes, which is why the veteran writer retained a credit for several issues after. With events such as the return of The Beetle, the debut of MACH 2, the unmasking of Citizen V, the introduction of the new Scourge and the death of Jolt the early issues retained – indeed, recaptured – the pace of Busiek’s earliest stories. Although the opening 12 issues are considered classic, the latter half of Busiek’s run was comparatively limp – many of the book’s biggest events, in fact, occurred during the Nicieza/Bagley period.
Artistically, the book had been consistent ever since the series began. Bagley had drawn almost every issue, and his particular blend of superheroics and storytelling was then, as it is now, a joy to read. When Bagley was taken off the title to concentrate on his Ultimate Spider-Man run, he quickly became one of the industry’s top talents – or rather, people finally recognised him as such. Those of us reading Thunderbolts were already well aware.
For many years now, Marvel has treated the series rather like the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe. While Busiek’s opening 12 issues garnered much acclaim, it was soon eclipsed by his work on the returned Avengers title. Nicieza’s run – explosive though it was, by the fans’ standards – never quite managed to get the book much attention. A cancellation was undone by a Busiek and Nicieza Avengers/Thunderbolts collaboration, and the relaunched book ticked over under Nicieza until it was handed to Warren Ellis and reworked into something massively successful – though perhaps not entirely similar to what came before.
In light of the rejuvenation of the brand, Marvel did little to remind people of the Thunderbolts’ more conventionally superheroic past. Even Busiek’s run – acclaimed though it was – has never been reprinted past issue #12. Nicieza’s run, even those issues with a name collaborator like Bagley – is unlikely to ever see print, if only because the second and third volumes required to get to it will end up slogging through Busiek’s weaker period first.
And yet the Nicieza/Bagley issues are arguably the title’s fasted-paced period, every one featuring a major event and interleaving several compelling plot mysteries. Although Nicieza eventually succumbed to his own predeliction for convoluted plots and pet characters, the run with Bagley, which ended in the title’s fiftieth issue, was incredibly entertaining.
It might not be revolutionary stuff – but if you’re interested in reading a companion to Busiek’s own Avengers run (which received a complete reprint in hardcover), the Thunderbolts of this period is the perfect book for it – not just because of the direct crossover, but because Songbird features in Avengers Forever, the Genis-Vell Captain Marvel of Avengers Forever guests in Thunderbolts, and the 2000 annual follows up on a Hawkeye/Mockingbird plot thread introduced in one of Busiek’s earliest Avengers stories. And best of all, it’s doubtlessly available on the cheap.