By Glenn Walker
There's been a lot of buzz about DC Comics' new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series, and for those who aren't long-time comics readers, or not so nostalgic for the Silver Age, you might be asking the questions: Who are the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents? and Why should I care? That's what I'm here for, with my vast storehouse of useless comics knowledge I call my head. Let me tell you folks, about the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents…
Back in the day, or the late 1960s, the comics industry was a bit different. If you were looking for superheroes, you only really had two choices: DC Comics or Marvel Comics. Occasionally however, a third option would pop up. One of the most intriguing was Tower Comics, which made the scene in 1965 with the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. They were a different take on the superhero concept, riding the trend of espionage, and borrowing an acronymonic name (for the record The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves) – they presented something new, and readers were thrilled. Tower presented more pages and fewer ads, albeit with a higher price (a whole quarter in a world of twelve cent comics), and introduced a whole new universe of super-powered characters.
This superhero universe, however, was rooted in reality with its espionage background. Powers came from devices, and those devices came with a price. Use the power, lose your life. Also, they weren't heroes in the traditional sense – this was just their day job. New concepts drew in the readers, and the characters, while some weren't that original at first glance, offered new spins on those ideas. And some of the amazing talent that worked on the titles included Wally Wood, Gil Kane, and Steve Ditko.
Dynamo utilized the Thunderbelt, which made him super-strong and almost invulnerable. NoMan was an android, so popular in the Silver Age, who not only wore a cloak of invisibility decades before Harry Potter, but if he died, he could transfer his mind into any one of numerous other robot bodies. Menthor was a double agent, yet when he wore his helmet, he gained mental powers and also became a force for good. Lightning was a speedster who aged a bit every time he used his super speed. Raven was a streamlined Hawkman, while U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A. Agent (I told you acronyms were hot) was Aquaman as a secret agent. They even had a support team called the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad led by a guy named Weed who was what guys like Snapper Carr and Rick Jones should have been.
The heroes were countered by the evil acronym S.P.I.D.E.R., and a host of other baddies, the most infamous of whom was the Iron Maiden. Part Doctor Doom, part Catwoman, her relationship with Dynamo was hotter and more complicated than any we had seen in comics so far. We even had our first real superhero death in comics with Menthor in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (1966). It was violent, gripping, and unlike later comic book deaths, no take-backs. Dead was dead.
The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents titles (there were several, the main one and various solo books) lasted for a few years and then eventually the money and the interest died down. However, the characters were fondly remembered by those who saw them first, and over the years, many revivals flourished. Legal complications made anything permanent almost impossible, but for the past decade, DC Comics has struggled to get the rights – and now they have them.
The new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents title is written by Nick Spencer (of Morning Glories fame) with art by "CAFU" (Carlos Alberto Fernandez Urbano), whose work graced some of the Superman books this past year. The concept of the superhero gig being a job as opposed to a legacy, and the deadly aspect of the powers, are the central themes here. The latest issue (#4) even featured a history of the team by artist George Perez, who had worked on one of the more visible revivals of the characters in the 1980s.
I am loving this series, and it just gets better with each issue – it's recommended. And if you'd like more insight into the history of the world and characters of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, you might want to check out my feature article in Comic Fan! #4, available here from Main Enterprises. Yeah, shameless plug, but they're good folks.