T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 1

By Wally Wood, Len Brown, Larry Ivie, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-689-6                  eISBN: 978-1-62302-362-1

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal comics masterpiece is painfully convoluted, and when the meteoric lifespan of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: wrapped up in legal wrangling, financial jiggery-pokery and plenty of petty back-biting.

None of that, however, can diminish the fact that the far-too brief original career of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the then-still-reawakening superhero genre and the era’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with blazing action and heady glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage genre.

The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (premiering in September 1964); bringing the whole shtick inescapably into living rooms across the planet.

Wildly creative maverick Wally Wood was approached at this time by veteran MLJ/Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics.

Woody called on some of the biggest names in the industry to produce material in the broad range of genres the company demanded (as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan there was a magnificent anthology war-comic Fight the Enemy and wholesome youth-comedy Tippy Teen).

Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled the funnybook – which outlasted all the others – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones Gil Kane and Ralph Reese all contributed scripts for themselves and the industry’s top talents to illustrate on the adventure series.

With a ravenous appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes steadily rising in comic-book popularity and amongst the general public, the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times.

When T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November) thrill-hungry readers like little me were blown away. It didn’t hurt either that all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80-Page Giant format: there was a huge amount to read in every issue!

All that being said the tales would not be so beloved if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, far more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in comics: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This initial compilation of classics collects T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1-4: spanning November 1965 to April 1966 and covering the first golden year of the series. The action starts with no preamble in ‘First Encounter’: a simple four page tale by Ivie & Wood and lettered by Archie comics mainstay Victor Gorelick.

A team of UN commandos fails to save brilliant scientist Professor Emil Jennings from the attack of the mysterious Warlord, but at least rescues some of his greatest inventions, including a belt that can increase the density of the wearer’s body until it becomes as hard as steel, an invisibility cloak and an enigmatic brain-amplifier helmet.

These prototypes are subsequently divided between several agents to create a unit of superior fighting men and counter the increasingly bold attacks of many global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the Thunderbelt and codename Dynamo in delightfully light-hearted adventure ‘Menace of the Iron Fog’. Scripted by veteran writer Len Brown – who until publication had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had prankishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag – this explosively bombastic romp gloriously pandered to every kid’s dream as the nice guy got the power to smash stuff…

This cathartic fun-fest also introduced the Iron Maiden; a sultry villainess clad in figure-hugging steel who was the probable puberty-trigger for an entire generation of boys…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan’ came next, the eerie saga of aged Dr. Anthony Dunn who had his mind transferred into a specialised android body, before being equipped with the invisibility cape. The author’s name is unknown but the incredible Reed Crandall (with supplemental Wood inks) drew the first episode, which also found time and space to include a captivating clash with sinister mastermind Demo and his sultry associate Satana who had unleashed a wave of bestial sub-men on a modern metropolis.

NoMan had one final advantage: if his artificial body was destroyed his consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

Larry Ivie filled in some useful background on the war against the Warlord in the prose adventure ‘Face to Face’ before the third agent was chosen in ‘The Enemy Within’ (also with no script credit but illustrated by Gil Kane, Mike Esposito and George Tuska). Here, however, is where the creators stepped well outside comic-book conventions. John Janus was the perfect UN employee and super-agent candidate: a mental and physical marvel who easily passed all the tests necessary to wear the Jennings helmet.

Sadly he was also a deep-cover mole for the Warlord, poised to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R. at the earliest opportunity…

All those nefarious plans went awry once he donned the helmet and became Menthor. The device awakened the potential of his mind, granting him telepathy, telekinesis and mid-reading powers – and also drove all evil from his mind whilst he wore it. When the warlord attacked with a small army and a giant monster, Menthor was compelled by his own costume to defeat the assault. What a dilemma for a traitor to be in…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad’, by Ivie, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia, is a rip-roaring yarn featuring an infallible elite team of non-powered specialist operatives (predating TV’s Mission: Impossible outfit by almost two years) who tackled cases the super-agents were too busy or unsuited for.

In this initial outing the Squad rush to defend their Weapons Development Center from a full paramilitary assault only to discover that it’s a feint and Dynamo has been captured by the Warlord…

The first issue then ends with a massive old-fashioned team-up as all the forces of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. converge to rescue their prime agent who is ‘At the Mercy of the Iron Maiden’ (Brown, Wood & Dan Adkins): a spectacular battle blockbuster that still takes the breath away…

As always, issue #2 led with the strongman star as ‘Dynamo Battles Dynavac’ (Brown, Wood & Richard Bassford): another colossal combat classic with the hapless hero getting a severe kicking from a deadly automaton. Once again a narrative thread stretched through the disparate solo tales as the hero’s girlfriend and fellow agent Alice was kidnapped…

NoMan was ‘In the Warlord’s Power’ (Bill Pearson, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando & Wood) when an army of Zombie-men attacked a missile base and the evil overlord found a way to take control of Dunn’s android frame after which Menthor again defied his master to defeat a Warlord scheme to destroy T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ (illustrated by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before ‘D-Day for Dynamo’ (with art from Wood, Adkins & Tony Coleman) pits the assembled heroes – reunited to rescue Alice – against Demo, the Dynavac unit and the Warlord forces in an all-out war with atomic consequences.

Here the series took a fantastic turn as the Warlord is revealed to be an agent of a subterranean race of conquerors…

Prose piece ‘Junior T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents’, neatly segues into another T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad thriller as the team respond ‘On the Double’ to a South American crisis involving mutant monsters, Communist insurgents and bloody revolution in a classy caper illustrated by the Sekowsky/Giacoia team.

Drawn by Adkins, Wood & Coleman ‘Dynamo Battles the Subterraneans’ opened the third issue as the Warlord’s macabre mole-men masters attacked Washington DC, after which ‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Coleman) sees a far more plebeian but no less deadly masked menace ended by the undying agent.

Dynamo almost becomes a propaganda victim of Communist agitator ‘The Red Dragon’ (Adkins, Wood & Coleman) whilst the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad battle a madman who manufactures his own ‘Invaders from the Deep’ (another uncredited script limned by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before main event ‘Dynamo vs. Menthor’ (Wood, Adkins & Coleman) poses a terrifying mystery as a trusted agent almost destroys the entire organisation…

With a scattering of captivating Fact File pin-ups by Wood & Adkins featuring Dynamo, NoMan, the Thunderbelt, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad and Menthor, the visual excitement in this issue is beyond price.

Dynamo tale ‘Master of Evolution’ (Brown, Wood, Adkins & Coleman) opens the fourth issue with a dinosaur bashing extravaganza, whilst the fiendish Mastermind arrayed his own android armies against the Artificial Agent in ‘The Synthetic Stand-Ins’ by Steve Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia, after which the same team debut the latest super-agent in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad saga ‘The Deadly Dust’ after a Nazi scientist uses a time-retarding dust for evil and the heroes respond with a reflex-enhancing super-speed suit.

This first case for hyper-fast Lightning was followed by a Dynamo milestone. ‘The Return of the Iron Maiden’ was drawn by Crandall, Wood & Adkins and saw the Armoured Inamorata betray her latest employer Dr. Death for the good-hearted hunk of man sent to arrest her.

Finally, the mystery of Menthor is partially resolved in fast-paced thriller ‘The Great Hypno’ (illustrated by Giunta, Wood & Coleman), and of course the storytelling extravaganza is supported by more fantastic art extras in the form of NoMan in Action! and The Origin of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Fact Pages.

These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading, so why not add these landmark superhero spy sagas to your collection of all-time favourites?
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 1 © 2013 Radiant Assets LLC.. All rights reserved.