Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Thunderbolts #117

Under the watchful eye of Norman Osborn, formerly known to a select few as the Green Goblin, the Thunderbolts have found new life and new membership. As Tony Stark’s enforcers, the team has seen its ranks filled with an odd mix of forcibly reformed villains (Venom, Bullseye), original members (Moonstone) and unstable head cases (Penance). As the overly-violent crew responsible for restraining and capturing unregistered powers, the team has developed something of a notorious reputation after Penance went ballistic and Venom ripped off an unregistered hero’s arm during a recent mission.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Warren Ellis’s work over the years. When he’s on, writing science fiction adventures with his limitless imagination and incredible knack for believability, he’s among the industry’s finest. When he goes off on a tangent, gets stuck on a subject or gets overly political, I’ve got no time for him. In Thunderbolts, thankfully, his writing is much closer to the former than the latter. The bulk of this issue features Doc Samson, super-powered therapist to the stars, and his conversation with Robbie Baldwin, AKA Penance of the Thunderbolts.

Samson is the kind of character that, when treated properly, can single-handedly make a story. Peter David handled him beautifully in an issue of X-Factor years and years ago, and Ellis treats him likewise in this issue. Even though he’s not a regular member of the book, the writer covers him as one, granting him a great ability to read people and respond accordingly. He’s the voice of reason in this tale, a welcome breath of fresh air from the thick scent of darkness that’s invaded the rest of the team’s operations.

By giving that kind of respect to Samson, Ellis gives the character the kind of control he needs to transform Penance from a cheap joke of a concept into a genuinely interesting, conflicted personality. When Doc Samson is exploring his psyche, Baldwin is a tremendously developed individual– which came as a shock to me as a reader, after observing his (mis)treatment elsewhere. Penance and Samson are the centerpieces of this issue, and when they have a breakthrough during their brief therapy session, it’s exciting both visually and mentally. Penance’s outburst, coupled with Samson’s reaction, is a phenomenal moment that I won’t soon forget.

I mentally tripped over myself when I realized that the artwork in this issue belonged to Mike Deodato, Jr. This is some genuinely refined, mature work, completely in tune with the dialog-heavy story Ellis has provided. There’s very little giant, explosive action in this issue, just a lot of talking heads and some weighty talks. For many artists, that would be the kiss of death, but for Deodato, it’s an excuse to display the depth of his capabilities. Something as subtle as the slow clench of Robbie’s fist as Doc Samson unravels his personality… that would be lost on the reader under the watch of almost any other artist.

And the power of the artwork isn’t just limited to its basic execution. Deodato’s trying new things throughout this issue - with his paneling, his heavy use of shadows, the textures on his character’s clothing, the facial expressions – and without exception, they’re all hitting their mark. His artwork is a perfect fit for the tone and mood Warren Ellis is setting with the story, and gives the issue exactly the kind of honesty and realism it needed.

Every once in a while, you’ll stumble upon a single issue that works so well on its own that it immediately enhances the stock of the surrounding issues and the series as a whole. This is one of those comics. The storytelling is profound and intelligent without feeling stilted or overly wordy. The artwork does its job and then some, giving the tale a dose of style and a great personality. It’s firing on all cylinders, and truly a sight to behold. Buy this, even if it’s just for one issue. It’s a phenomenal read.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 10

No comments: