THUNDERBOLTS #64-74 (2002-2003): Becoming Heroes/Becoming Villains

Okay.  Biting off a whole lot of issues in this post, but that’s because it tells two different stories, alternating across issues.  “Becoming Heroes” focuses on Hawkeye forming a new Thunderbolts team out of the ashes of the failed reboot of the Masters of Evil, and it takes place during each odd-numbered issue in this cluster.  “Becoming Villains” is about the new Zemo team’s adventures on Counter Earth (the Heroes Reborn Universe), and it’s told during the “even” numbered issues.

This is where Thunderbolts finally plays to Nicieza’s strengths: He likes to write about a LOT of different people and emphasizes plot over character work.  This can fall apart when you have several full storylines being told in a single issue of a comic: it feels disjointed and it’s hard to follow.  Splitting the stories into two distinct groups of issues mitigates a lot of that confusion. 

Consequently, these are the issues where Thunderbolts earns its reputation as a fan favorite book of the early 2000s.  It’s hindered by a revolving set of artists with different storytelling styles, but overall these are very good stories

Let’s focus on them individually, starting with the more straightforward of the two arcs: “Becoming Heroes” (Thunderbolts #65, 67, 69, 71 and 73).  Hawkeye is an escaped convict at the start of this arc, and he recruits various members of the Masters of Evil  to resist their evil leader, Crimson Cowl, and become heroes.  In taking on Crimson Cowl, her identity is revealed as Justine Hammer—with the help of Silver Sable.

The rebranding has Plantman becoming Bleackheath, Cardinal as Harrier, Man-Killer going as Amazon, and Gypsy Moth renaming herself Skein. 

And becoming highly sexualized.

They detect a spatial rift coming from Counter Earth, they head up to a spacecraft at the center of it where these two storylines finally come together. Once there, they are confronted by some pursuers (we the readers are not allowed to see who they are)…

Next, “Becoming Villains” (issues #64, 66, 68, 70, 72, and 74).

Baron Zemo is back and in Citizen V’s body.  Allow the big Z to explain…

He recognizes that he has a future on Counter Earth—but he’s pretty much burned every bridge on the 616.  He asks his former Tbolts team to move to that alternate Earth and rule it, since its most powerful heroes are now back Earth 616.  His teammates have become heroes over the course of 60+ issues of Thunderbolts, and resist the “conqueror” idead—but of course Zemo tricks them into thinking they’re heroes for the planet.  Zemo’s plan is to buy time and eventually return to Earth 616 and conquer it.

Zemo works with the team in the beginning as subterfuge but, over time, actually comes to like being a hero. 

When a spatial rift caused by the personification of chaos and disorder arises that forces them to choose between saving Counter Earth by destroying Earth 616 or saving Earth while severing the connection with Counter Earth and returning to the 616, they choose the latter, more heroic path.

They emerge on Earth 616 at the end of this arc in time for the final battle of this version of the Thunderbolts (in issue #75)–with the reader being shown that it was the “heroes” of the other storyline that Hawkeye was confronting at the end of issue #73…

Solid reveal. Well done.

There’s lots of typical Nicieza soap opera stuff along the way and at least a dozen subplots, including the “God I wish it would end” Citizen V storyline…

…but overall these are strong issues that truly build into something big—there’s a payoff here (in issue #75), so it’s worth the investment and energy to track all of it.

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