Rethinkable: "Thunderbolts #11"

In entering the narrative fray by examining unthinkable political scenarios, Thunderbolts regular writer Daniel Way has very effectively rethought older Marvel high concepts to their inherent potential.

Thunderbolts #11

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Daniel Way, Steve Dillon
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2013-08

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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