Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Fifth of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. For All Anyone Cares #184

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (1966)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action #2-4 (1986)
Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (1986)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (2014)

So here we are at the fifth issue and, well, the novelty is wearing off. As I've mentioned in the past, I got into the Agents through the short-lived Deluxe Comics series, and only read the Tower books as highlight reprints or sporadic bargain low-grade back issue finds. Reading five different incarnations a month in their individual chronological order in a manner closer to how they were released has given me insight into why the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents have consistently failed in the marketplace.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
"Dynamo and the Golem" starts off this issue with unsure footing. Reed Crandall was a great artist even before he was thoroughly processed into the house style by inkers Wally Wood and Dan Adkins, but a consequence is that his story looks more like slightly off-model Woody than its own thing. The script has a similar issue, with masked terrorists, Subterranean Warlords and a behemoth for Dynamo to fight. All the expected elements are there, but they don't play out correctly. Len Brown doesn't struggle with the mundane trials of his job before finding relief in physical conflict. Instead of sarcastic asides, Dynamo has a completely silent punch-out for seven panels sandwiched between flat expository dialogue (followed by more cycles of the same.) Dynamo is perhaps too competent, recalling Menthor as that character shows up and falters in a cameo, swapping hats. The story even ends back at HQ with Alice Robbins, but with propagandistic sloganeering replacing romantic misunderstanding/petty bickering. Aside from the lovely visuals-- hell because of them-- the tale brings to the fore the Dynamo formula of coming up with goons for the hero to toss around and something big for Len to punch without much regard for logic or nuance, simply coasting on visuals. For a character only a couple of months away from having to support his own giant-sized solo spin-off title, this tale underlines how little creators have to work with there in the absence of the Woody sheen.

NoMan "In the Caverns of Demo" has a few more surprises, not all of them good. The famed Gil Kane returns for the first time since the debut issue on a different strip, and while it's still a looser, lesser job, Kane suits NoMan better. Demo also returns to become NoMan's first recurring foe, and his presence is set up through a retcon that backs up Iron Maiden's situation in the previous issue. You get a strong impression of how momentous T.H.U.N.D.E.R.'s defeat of the Warlord was in the second issue while simultaneously making clear that G.I. Joe already beat their Cobra and have no one substantial to fill that void. Further, there's no reason Demo specifically needs to be in this story beyond it dispensing with set-up and affording fan service continuity clean-up. The island of "barbaric sub-breed" humans could only have been worse if they were not unambiguously Caucasian (this time.) It's an okay adventure with solid art, but rote in a title becoming defined by being rote.

Dan Adkins provides a peachy pin-up/dossier entry for Lightning, which seems like a precursor to Who's Who/OHOTMU. It contrasts sharply against the Lightning story that follows by Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia. In their forward to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives Volume Two, Robert Klein and Michael Uslan noted that the Lightning strip was the closest to standard super-hero fare and was created under the greatest autonomy away from Wally Wood's editorial eye. Put more critically, it was bog standard for middle rung DC of the early Silver Age, not inventive enough for Julie Schwartz, but maybe a decent effort out of George Kashdan's office. No one should be impressed that Baron Von Kampf is already back. Oh hey, I just got that. Since he's Lightning's first recurring foe, would Guy refer to him as "Mein Kampf?" Speaking of Guy Gilbert, his being in the suit seems of no consequence to the story; sub-Flash fare without reference to the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad or even what Guy looks like under that mask. Mediocrity runs so deep that the Lightning logo can't escape falling below standard. Sekowsky's idiosyncrasies are the only saving grace here.

"Menthor vs. the Entrancer" proves the general rule that the worst written story of any given issue will probably star Menthor. John Giunta isn't stingy with panels per page, especially during the villain's origin sequence, but his style is a tad dated and the story being told feels like a throwback to the late Golden Age. The Entrancer is a thuggish lift of Doctor Strange, which by T.H.U.N.D.E.R. bad guy standards is rather advanced developmentally, but he comes to a limp end in a dull yarn. The basic premise of John Janus being an evil double agent stymied by his helmet seems to have been forgotten, and his supposed role as most qualified T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent is undermined by mistakes and dependency here. It doesn't help that there's no consistency in his creative pool from month to month. Remember how Janus now has powers even without the helmet? Neither does the scripter. Between his highly derivative costume and the lack of investment in the character behind the scenes, it's no wonder that telltale zero on his brow is starting to look more like a target bullseye.

"Double for Dynamo" closes out the book with a team feature, and makes clear that kids were paying twice the standard comic book cover price of the time for this story and a bunch of ballast. Steve Skeates continues along the thread started in his NoMan story of last month with a frantic search of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. for android replacements. It's too bad for the promising premise that they have a reliable detection method in place from page one, and that no one of consequence was found to have embedded themselves in the agency. The Mastermind is a bit of a goofus nogoodnik who literally does a bellyflop before this whole affair resolves. He's outclassed by his masked minions, who looked to have inspired the Black Spider from '70s Batman comics. The tale is light entertainment drawn by the Wally Wood studio, and the main takeaway is that the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad's Weed was being actively groomed as a street smart sidekick for Dynamo.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action #2-4 (Savoy, 1986, 75p)
Once again, I've never had copies of these books in my hand, relying solely on the internet for my reading pleasure, as can you. Aside from badly (and likely illegally) reconstituted British Tower reprints, the final issues of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action also offered two full color (colour?) newly (amateurishly) created tales by artists Eddie DeVille and Jon Sussex. The NoMan feature is brief with a predictable non-twist (and an unforeseeable panel of gratuitous nudity. Blame Page 3.) The Dynamo & Iron Maiden story echoes Menthor's closing comment from the fifth issue of the Tower run, "You may not be smart, Len... but you're sure lucky!" Both stories are actually fairly inventive for three page filler. Why everything has to take place on private islands off the coast of New England, I don't understand.

Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (Deluxe, 1986, $2.00)
I have yet to replace the copy of The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Companion I ordered a few months ago, only for it to "mysteriously disappear" at my old shipping address, but I do have other Twomorrows magazines lying around that covered some of Deluxe Comics' scams. I used to defend David Singer based on his own line of bull and superior product versus Carbonaro, but on further inquiry, he seems to have been super shady. His last editorial page in the final published issue of Wally Wood's invokes Nixon by name, which would be damning enough. Following this with a Jerry Ordway illustrated story that throws several Agents under the bus to promote awful seeming Codename:Danger characters in a never-to-be-finished crossover is itself a criminal offense. Ordway is the most obvious and potent direct inheritor of Wood's artistic DNA, and for fifteen pages we visually received the finest revival the Agents deserved. However, the story is lame, waving away what should have been a continuation of a previous subplot with a line of dialogue, and setting up new threads to dangle forever. It's a shame, especially since Roger McKenzie's script pops when he's not tripping over Singer's junk, and even Paty's coloring steps up.

There's an all-text advertisement for 1987 Honeymooners and Buckwheat calenders offering "trivia, dates of importance" and such for just $9.95 shipping inclusive ($20.56 in 2014 dollars.) Even accounting for Eddie Murphy's years old series of Buckwheat SNL skits, even if somebody would have wanted these things in 1986, could there have been a worse way to advertise to them than an all-text page?

The Lightning strip goes out as it came in-- an abomination. The serial killer "mystery" is solved through the revelation of a previously unseen figure from Guy Gilbert's past that thinks in heavy exposition with a bad "accent." In case you were concerned that the misogyny might lighten up, no worries, a lovely professional is hideously disfigured and her eyeballs gouged out (partially) off-panel. Keith Giffen continues to cut as many corners as possible to lighten his workload with barely comprehensible narration full of extreme close-ups, shadows, stats, and general abstraction. The Bierbaums' script continues to anticipate the demeanor of message board trolls. Nothing is or will ever be resolved to anyone's satisfaction, but at least I don't have to read this anymore.

Singer is joined by Mike Harris for a cheeky, copyright flouting Dynamo lark that tries to near literally treat the character as a Superman clone in the fashion of Christopher Reeve. The Big Two pseudo-cameos at a costume party aren't appealing, but it is fun to see period obscurities like Grimjack, Sable, Aztek Ace, Thunderbunny and so on. Still hard to see the point, as it isn't exactly funny, nor is it a character study, and it certainly isn't exciting.

The capstone on the run is yet another Dynamo tale that doesn't do the property any favors. The creative team behind the minor black & white boom hit Ex-Mutants; the now forgotten Anthony Pereira, John Statema and Mike Witherby with '90s Marvel poster boy Ron Lim; offer an inane yarn seemingly designed to fill as much space with as little of consequence as quickly as possible. Ignominious indeed. Say, did you know Rob Liefeld, Jim Balent and Dale Keown used to do covers on that series in their early days, and it launched Paul Pelletier's career? Marvel owns that now, right? I don't remember it being all that great, but you'd figure if it was still on the market, somebody would have done an omnibus by now.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (DC, 2011, $3.99)
This series is frustrating. It's telling one of the most sophisticated and involving stories of the lot, but doing so in the least satisfying manner episodically. For instance, this issue has a five page flashback sequence well rendered by Ryan Sook that serves up needed exposition. The rest of the book is another strong showing by Cafu & Bit where pieces set up in previous issues finally begin to click together. Then, it just stops, again. Every month, about the point where Nick Spencer has ratcheted up your interest, he breaks off to have a smoke and stargaze. He's screwin' just like a Chinaman.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (IDW, 2014, $3.99)
I think this was my favorite issue of this run so far. I previously had trouble getting past Andrea Di Vito's high-end licensed toy comic visuals, where new artist Roger Robinson is more of a storyteller. Robinson isn't as polished, but he brings mood and more varied angles. Colorist Rom Fajardo is still swell, but he seems to be taking greater license with his contributions, adding digital squiggles and other bits of personal panache. With the main characters established, there's a greater sense of their moving toward an overarching story, rather than being pieces of P.O.V. in a perfunctory scenario. I also like the nods to Tower, playing on reader familiarity to create foreshadowing, but in the present enough not to lose new readers. I do have one complaint. I've been buying the Subscription variants, which tended to have bigger name artists and play with the classic incarnation more often. With #4, I bought two copies, so I could make use of the blank sketch cover this convention season. Starting with #5, Andrew Currie has taken over the Sub covers, and it's plainly inferior to Robinson's standard cover. It's so bad that I might have to rethink my buying habit.

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