The disinformation campaign surrounding the book’s launch is legendary. After the “Onslaught” crossover, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were presumed dead (actually taking part in “Heroes Reborn” in a pocket universe), which, you can imagine, leaves a pretty big superhero void in the mainstream Marvel Universe. So it’s announced Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley are going to introduce an all-new superteam called the Thunderbolts. These mysterious new superheroes get an intro in an issue of Incredible Hulk to lead you into buying the regular series, where the first issue is played totally straight, right down to the enthusiastic “Justice … like lightning!” catchphrase on the cover. They have a solid first-issue adventure, crafted by Busiek and Bagley to look like everything else Marvel was publishing at the time…until the last page when the Thunderbolts are revealed to be Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil in disguise, merely posing as superheroes to con the authorities to give them access to the Avengers and SHIELD files.
And you had no clue until you read that page. Marvel couldn’t have kept the secret today with the internet the way it is, of course, and even in 1997 it was a feat. That makes me a little sad, but I’m part of the problem, of course; I don’t buy very many new superhero comics these days, but I “follow” them, as you might follow a baseball team you don’t get to see play very often, by reading the internet. Even if I were buying more, I’d likely steer of the big line-wide tentpole events…and yet the junk is in my system, so I’ll read news and reviews about them because I want to know what happened. It takes almost no effort to find spoilers, so I’m always quite surprised how reliant these tentpole events are on rearranging status quo. That’s why Thunderbolts looks even stranger thirteen years down the line. Now you’d have to hype up that concept ahead of time, or else who’s gonna buy it? I almost think you’d know something was up with this book from the start if they launched it today – “All new characters, not tying into anything, no high concept…there’s no way they think this is gonna sell; what’s the twist?” Conditions were just right in 1997, though. The issue sold out, reprinted and sold out again. Stealth high-concept smash hit.
The problem is, where do you go from there? The trick about high-concept superhero books is that they’re hard to build a long-running series out of because high concepts have a way of boxing superheroes in. You can do a million issues of the Avengers (so long as you can think of new scenarios) because their only real mission is to stop threats and preserve the status quo. These Thunderbolts, though, have a clear endpoint in mind, so either they accomplish their goals and the series ends, or you keep putting it off and the audience gets bored waiting for them to hurry up already and do something.
Busiek, however, doesn’t need me to point this out, because he already has the solution. So, through the first twelve issues, most of the team decides they like being superheroes and want to reform. Well, that’s a start, but by 1997, “villains reform and become heroes” has worn thin (in the early-to-mid 90s, of course, it was all too common for popular villains to get their own book and reform just enough so you could root for them a phenomenon we’ll get into more about next week with Deadpool), so Busiek has Zemo (who has no intention of reforming) see where this is headed and outs the whole group so that they’ll have to be loyal to him or be fugitives.
Busiek has done something very clever here, in using a high concept to bait an audience and then getting them hooked on the characters and situations so that they’ll stay even after you’ve removed the high concept. After issue #12, the Thunderbolts aren’t driven by their high-concept mission; they hang together because it’s them against the rest of the world.
Curiously, I'd like to make a case that Thunderbolts is Chris Claremont’s X-Men in reverse!
The whole mutants-as-persecuted-minority is a high concept, and you can use it to sell movies and power some storylines, but it's hard to really sustain it because again, either mutants and humans finally live together in peace and the story ends, or you get what has happened to the franchise, and get locked into a holding pattern where nothing is ever accomplished and no progress is made, and that’s a pretty terrible lesson to teach kids about overcoming adversity, isn’t it?
Claremont’s the one who really pushed the high concept as he stayed on the book for years and years, but if you look at the first chunk of his run, the stuff with Dave Cockrum (the first time) and John Byrne, it does nothing to drive the main plots of the book (with the exception of the Sentinels, kind of, and "Days of Future Past"). What does Arcade’s Murderworld have to do with these themes? What does Black Tom Cassidy? The Shi'ar? You could rework Proteus to be a non-mutant and the story would play out much the same. The Dark Phoenix Saga is generally considered the peak of the X-Men franchise, and yet you will find nothing at all about persecuted mutants outside of a few comments after the attack on the Hellfire Club.
Being mutants doesn’t drive the story, being mutants is simply what brings the characters together, because the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne stuff is really all about how people you’re sort of thrown together with become friends, and how friends become family. Nightcrawler finds people who don’t fear his appearance, Banshee finds love with Moira MacTaggart, Colossus finds a larger world than life on the farm. They all find friendship, and the Dark Phoenix Saga is really about how far you’d be willing to go for somebody you love.
Once you have a solid core of characters like that, you can do soap opera and supervillains for years. And that’s what Busiek hit upon doing Thunderbolts – being an ex-supervillain, just like being a mutant, is the reason these people with very different personalities don’t just go their separate ways.
And then you can throw curveballs. Busiek has Hawkeye join the team and offer to become the T-Bolts’ new leader to help them get a pardon, but he also demands MACH-1, the former Beetle, serve a prison sentence for an old murder charge. Instant conflict. “Who does this guy think he is?” “He’s trying to help us!” I’d never seen much personality in Hawkeye, but under Busiek he’s good-hearted but always a little self-righteous, always assuming that he knows exactly what you’re going through even when he probably doesn't, always looking for a chance to prove that he’s not just The Dude With The Arrows even if it involves big risks.
High concepts are great at grabbing attention and they help you sell the movie rights, but you also have to actually make things happen that are interesting or all you have is a pitch. Thunderbolts did both.