Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thunderbolts (2013) # 32

Cover Artist: David Yardin
Published: Dec. 2014
Original Price: $2.99

Title: "The Punisher Vs. the Thunderbolts", Part 6
Writers: Ben Acker & Ben Blacker
Artist: Kim Jacinto
Letterer: VC's Joe Sabino
Colorist: Isreal Silva
Editor: Jordan D. White
Editor-In-Chief: Axel Alonso

Six months after the dissolution of the Thunderbolts, the Red Leader (who faked his own death at the Punisher's hands) has taken control of the Central American county Kata Jaya, where the Thunderbolts had their first mission.  With an army of Crimson Dynamos and soldiers powered by gamma radiation, Red Leader has established total dominance over the country and rules it with an iron fist.  He goes on a tour of his compound with his assistant, Caitlin, where he has renegotiated his deal with Mephisto to own a pocket of Hell in which to torment his brother, Madman.  The Leader has established an empire by providing scientific resources to other villains and criminal organizations, but what he really wants is the love of Caitlin, who constantly rebukes his attempts at winning her heart. 

The compound is attacked by the reunited Thunderbolts (Red Hulk, Deadpool, Elektra, and the Punisher), who have arrived with the Avengers to take out the Red Leader.  Following their imprisonment six months ago, Red Hulk and the Punisher were given a deal to "clean up their mess" and be awarded their freedom.  While Hawkeye and the Avengers stay to deal with the army of soldiers and demons, the Thunderbolts go into the compound, where the Leader successfully evades all of their attempts to capture him.  To the villain's surprise, he is shot in the back with tranquilizer darts by Caitlin, who is an undercover SHIELD agent.

Back in a prison facility in the United States, the Red Leader is imprisoned.  The Punisher holds up Ghost Rider's severed skull, which uses the Penance Stare to place the Leader in a cycle of torment.  Hawkeye and the Thunderbolts leave, but the team disbands, leaving Red Hulk alone.  Inside the prison, Ghost Rider's skull is deactivated by Mephisto, who has Leader sign a new contract (upon which the power of the Ghost Rider returns to a relaxing Johnny Blaze as he's reading a book in his home).  Mephisto then escorts Red Leader to Hell for an eternity of torture and damnation. 

The Spirit of Vengeance was defeated by the Punisher and exorcised from Johnny Blaze in Thunderbolts (2013) # 29, and Blaze did not appear in issues 30 and 31.

The Thunderbolts had their first mission in Kata Jaya in Thunderbolts (2013) # 1-5.  The Red Leader's brother, the gamma-powered Madman, was killed in Thunderbolts (2013) # 5.

Red Leader made his original deal with Mephisto in Thunderbolts (2013) # 21.

Johnny Blaze makes his next appearance in All-New Ghost Rider (2014) # 6.
Thunderbolts ends with a pathetic whimper as it fails to justify its own existence, leaving me to wonder just how the hell this series lasted for 32 freaking issues.

Let's get the important bit out of the way of the way first, which is Ghost Rider's involvement in this issue.  Johnny Blaze was introduced to the series with a lot of fanfare, but didn't really do much of anything during his time with the team, usually getting sidelined pretty quickly in the few storylines he participated in.  Ghost Rider was a character who would theoretically fit fairly easily into a cast of characters like this, but he never really clicked and was just sort of there in the background.  His one spotlight was the issue of this arc that saw him get chumped by the Punisher, which brings me to the baffling use of the character at this issue's climax.  Apparently, Castle didn't just exorcise the Spirit of Vengeance from Blaze, he separated them into two physical beings and has been keeping his skull in his backpack ever since, a skull that still has its power but none of its consciousness.  I can't even begin to understand how that makes any sort of sense, other than to set up the joke bit at the end with Blaze sitting in his house and suddenly becoming the Ghost Rider again.  It sort of typifies Johnny's role in this series, the joke character who sits around while Red Hulk and the Punisher do everything important.

Acker and Blacker do at least attempt to give the series a proper wrap-up with all of their call backs to previous storylines (Kata Jaya, the Crimson Dynamos, Mephisto, etc...), but it's wrapped in such ludicrous trappings that it makes the entire series feel like even more of a failure than it really was.  Thunderbolts had a good concept, it just lacked creators who were able to do anything with it, outside of perhaps Charles Soule (though even he seemed to flail a little bit when it came to most of the characters).  The Red Leader turned out to be not so much of a threat after all, despite all of the build-up through three separate writers leading toward his inevitable betrayal.  Killer pandas and Captain America zombie clones aren't what you need when trying to tie up what started as a serious drama/action series.  Perhaps Acker and Blacker realized that trying to give the series any kind of meaningful end was futile and went for the slapstick as their last resort?  Who knows?

The artwork is by Kim Jacinto, who had produced several fill-in issues throughout the last year, and it's telling that Marvel couldn't keep a consistent artist on this series for even one story-arc.  Jacinto isn't a bad artist, though as I've said before he falls into that exaggerated cartoon category that, at least in my opinion, didn't help the series find its audience.  Still, I like bits and panels of the art in this issue, and it does fit the over-the-top tone of the story.

Thunderbolts is a series with a lot of history behind it, and this iteration will likely not be viewed kindly in the future.  Could you imagine this series, with these characters, handled by the likes of Jason Aaron and Leonardo Manco, just to spit-ball a more mature creative team?  As it is, this final issue of the series is a mercy killing at best and at worst a waste of money for anyone unfortunate enough to pick it up.
Grade: F