Remember those old Red Scare movies? The ones where the Aliens came down and invaded earth, but the Aliens were really just a metaphor for the Russians? Me either. By the time I saw them for the first time, they were already someone else’s memory, already lodged into the popular consciousness, already someone else’s dealing-through-fiction-with-the-ghosts-of-a-childhood. Even during my own childhood, it was easy to call these movies for what they were—a playing and replaying-out of Cold War paranoia. And if Freud had the right idea, this act of playing and replaying produced an existential pressure valve that would relieve the tension of just being alive during the Cold War.
It seems a tragedy that the Hulk, although being present during the height of the Cold War, and first seeing print at the dawn of the Silver Age of Comics, would never be elevated to the cultural heights where it could wrestle with these same sociocultural issues. And the Hulk had everything going for it, it was rigged from the same blueprint as the birth of the Cold War. It had secret desert bases, military-funded black-ops experiments and a hero who was little more than a cage for the series’ primary villain. What you need to be able to do is imagine the psychological tumult of something like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde but set against the epic cultural scope of something like Tolstoy’s War & Peace and simultaneously, something that deals with political chicanery of the highest order like the kind illustrated in Redford’s All the President’s Men.
Imagining all of that in a single moment will give you some sense of the missed directions latent in the Hulk as a cultural concept—all the roads the Hulk could have been taken down, but sadly wasn’t. So when I assert that with Thunderbolts, over the course of the 11 issues that comprise the series thus far, Daniel Way has found a narrative strategy that exhumes the latent possibilities of the Hulk, I mean that Way has tapped many of those missed directions to portray the Hulk in a way the character should have been, but hardly ever was.
Of course, this isn’t the Hulk of your father’s day, this isn’t the joyless green giant. This is the new Hulk, the Red Hulk, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, the same general who pursued the original Hulk for as long and as mercilessly as he did all those many years gone now. And the same general who, sadly, unexpectedly now finds himself transformed into (well that’s not true either, he was manipulated into seeking out the transformation) a Hulk himself. There’s probably a deeper tragedy to Tad Ross’s story in becoming the Hulk than there ever was to Bruce Banner’s. Way exploits this character nugget elegantly by having only the villains the Thunderbolts face meditate on the inherent tragedy of Ross himself being a Hulk.
It’s not entirely true either that Thunderbolts as a whole is about “fixing” the Hulk by elevating the character to its true potential in terms of cultural politics. The evolution of the Hulk to its true sociocultural potential was already effected during the first Thunderbolts storyarc which saw Ross form a team of take-no-prisoners-kill-everyone-in-the-room soldiers of fortune from the Marvel Universe and turned them loose on Kata Jaya, a Pacific island that had been the site of US military involvement (and the site of the mythic Gamma Bomb testing) since the 50s. Military involvement that Ross himself had had a hand in. The Kata Jaya arc was simply magnificent. It dealt with a complete cultural update of the Hulk mythos. It saw the team deal with the fallout of late stage Cold War embroilment (courting the attentions of anti-Communist governments, and sometimes even manipulating events to see these governments installed in perpetuity) by enacting policies like COIN which became popular during Bush 2. (COIN or COunter INsurgency being the method of ensuring regime change is longer lasting by weaving pro-Democratic elements into the social fabric).
Just as Ross has dealt with the ghosts of his past by dealing with the fallen-into-ruin Gamma Weapons program on Kata Jaya and the anti-Communist dictatorship he helped install, Thunderbolts writer Daniel Way has dealt with the ghosts of an unfulfilled Hulk of times past. But that was only the first storyarc. It’s this second arc, the one that concludes with issue #11, that proves to the genuine test for Way and for the high concept of this new Thunderbolts team.
Originally, the Thunderbolts was a character drama about villains who sought redemption but were unwilling to foreswear their violent methods. “Justice, like lightning striking the Earth,” as the saying goes. One obvious success for Way has been his instinct to introduce a more complex motivational palette than simply “seeking redemption.” Punisher wants a higher bad guy body count. Deadpool wants to escape boredom. Venom wants to serve his country in a way that ordinary citizens cannot know about, lest their idealism become fractured. But in expanding the emotional and psychological palette of the Thunderbolts, wouldn’t the focus get lost? What threats could be worthy of this new team? Not the kinds of threats that would pose a challenge to US strategic interests, but the kinds of threats that would pose an ideological challenge to this new team. In other words, could there be more to this team than simply mopping up the fallout of the past? Or is Way’s new Thunderbolts a cultural dead-end of its own?
Here’s the dirt. Daniel Way has done exceptionally well to evolve the high concept even further. Thunderbolts is no longer about the cultural moment we faced during the 90s, when as sole superpower, we needed to enter into conflict with corrupt (but anti-Communist) regimes that we once may have bolstered. In this second arc Way as brought readers face to face with modern terrorism, the kinds of worlds Mikko Hypponen and Misha Glenny continually warn us are nearer us all than we think. In addition and in the personage of Elektra’s brother (the primary villain for this arc), Way has given the team a genuine philosophical challenge, and brave new battlefield to contend on—the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens.
But if Way’s done well, series regular artist Steve Dillon’s done even better. One wouldn’t think to deploy an artist like Dillon, famous for elevating ordinary conversations to almost the level of character-driven confessions, on a book like Thunderbolts. But the genius in Way’s conceptualization of the Thunderbolts is that it isn’t wall-to-wall, guns-a-blazing action. It is, more muted, more meditative, and more psychologically intense. Dillon’s work elevates the book to the level of art. And if the book doesn’t quite get where it’s headed just yet, it’s Dillion’s artwork that holds all the promise that we’ll be there soon enough.
There is however, a slight drop-off when considering the individual chapters of this arc (both storyarcs, in fact) as opposed to considering the evolution of the book’s high concept. The individual chapters don’t satisfy quite as much as the idea of the storyarcs satisfy. The exchanges between Ross and the Leader form the emotional core of the book and are genuinely intense, psychologically at least. But as for the other interactions? Sometimes the moments themselves aren’t best to illustrate the personality and ideological variances between say Venom and Elektra or Deadpool and Punisher. But saying that, I must also observe that over the course of the arc, Way has gotten sharper about these framings, so there’s really no chance that this is a progression with diminishing returns.
The final verdict? Despite the slight struggles with the storytelling modes and moments, Way and Dillon’s Thunderbolts deserves as much credit as can be given for unlocking the true narrative potential of Hulk, and then evolving the idea of the Thunderbolts in its high concept. Moreover, Way has taken pains to conduct readers down a logical storytelling path and not merely bombard them with information. That’s the mark of a true storytelling, and it evokes a sense of trust in the reader. Enough trust to follow where he may lead.