Thunderbolts – Cage


By Jeff Parker & Kev Walker (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4775-6

At the end of 1996 the “Onslaught” publishing event excised the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man and Avengers from the Marvel Universe, unwisely handing over creative control to Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee for a year. For the early part of that period the “Image style” books got all the attention, but a new title created to fill the gap in the “real” universe eventually proved to be the real breakthrough of the period.

Thunderbolts was initially promoted as a replacement team-book; untried champions pitching in because the superhero big guns were dead and gone. They consisted of Captain America clone Citizen V, size-shifting Atlas, super-armoured Mach-1, energy-casting virago Meteorite, sonic siren Songbird and human weapon Techno.

A beleaguered and terrified populace instantly took them to their hearts, but these heroes shared a huge secret – they were all super-villains in disguise and Citizen V (or Baron Helmut Zemo as he actually was) had nasty plans in mind…

Ultimately defeated by his own scheme as his criminal underlings (Mach-I AKA the Beetle, Techno/the Fixer, Atlas/Goliath, Songbird/Screaming Mimi and even the deeply disturbed Meteorite/Moonstone) increasingly yearned to be the heroic ideals they posed as, Zemo was ousted and the Thunderbolts carved out a rocky career as genuine, if controversial, champions under a succession of leaders.

During the superhero Civil War the ever-changing squad – generally comprised of felons looking to change their ways or escape punishment – became Federal hunters, tracking and arresting metahumans who refused to surrender to the Super-Human Registration Act. Eventually the team fell under the aegis of government hard-man Norman Osborn.

Through various deals, deeds and malign machinations Osborn – the former Green Goblin – sought to control the Thunderbolt project as a stepping-stone to becoming became theUSA’s Security Czar…

As the “top-cop” in sole charge of a beleaguered nation’s defence and freedom, the psychotic Osborn dominated America’s costumed and metahuman community. Replacing super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. with his own all-pervasive H.A.M.M.E.R. Directorate, the deadly despot saw Captain America arrested and defamed after setting the world’s heroes at each other’s throats; deliberately dedicating all his energies to securing overwhelming political power to match his scientifically-augmented strength and overwhelming financial clout.

Numerous appalling assaults on the nation occurred on his watch, including the Secret Invasion by shape-shifting Skrull infiltrators and his own draconian, oppressive response – dubbed Dark Reign – wherein Osborn drove the World’s Mightiest Heroes underground and formed his own team of deadly Dark Avengers.

Not content with commanding all the covert and military resources of the USA, Osborn personally led this team, wearing appropriated Tony Stark technology and calling himself the Iron Patriot, even whilst betraying his country by conspiring with a coalition of major super-villains to divvy up the world between them.

He finally overreached himself by overruling the American President and directing an unsanctioned military incursion on godly citadel Asgard (see Siege and Siege: Dark Avengers) and when the fugitive outlawed heroes at last reunited to stop him, Osborn’s fall from grace and subsequent incarceration led to a new Heroic Age.

In the aftermath it was discovered that the Security Chief’s monstrous manipulations were even more Machiavellian than suspected. One of his most secret initiatives was the kidnapping of super-powered children: tragic innocents he tortured, psychologically abused and experimented upon in a drive to create the next generation of fanatically loyal super-soldiers…

Those traumatised and potentially lethal kids became the responsibility of the exonerated and reassembled Avengers who decided to teach the surviving lab rats how to be heroes in a new Avengers Academy whilst Osborn, beaten but not broken, was incarcerated in ultra high-security penitentiary The Raft

Collecting material from the Enter the Heroic Age one-shot and Thunderbolts #144-147 (July-October 2010) this new direction, written by Jeff Parker, illustrated by Kev Walker and coloured by Frank Martin, sees the Legion of the Lost reformed with a fresh brief and a new leader to once again offer penitence, potential redemption and probable death to the defeated dregs of the Marvel Universe…

The drama begins with the arrival on the high-tech island prison of Osborn and a new intake of monstrous convicts who pretty soon learned the ropes at the calloused hands of Luke Cage, Power Man, former Hero for Hire, reserve Avenger and latest director of the Thunderbolts Program. The no-nonsense hard-man offered a last-chance way for some ofAmerica’s worst malefactors to pay back their immense debt to society and maybe buy a slice of salvation…

Issue #144 took up the story as new Warden John Walker (originally super-soldier U.S.Agent before he was maimed during the Siege of Asgard) and Cage began selecting potential recruits in ‘The Boss’.

With original and genuinely reformed Thunderbolts Fixer and Mach-V as Cage’s trusted deputies, the dangerously ambivalent sociopath Moonstone opportunistically joined the best of a reluctant, conflicted and very bad bunch which comprised deranged phasing hacker Ghost, the weary, dispirited mystic mobile monolith Juggernaut and Captain America’s antithesis Cross-Bones, one of the most ruthless killers in existence.

Offering technical support was size-shifting Scientist Supreme and Avengers Academy headmaster Hank Pym (alternatively known as Ant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, The Wasp and Giant-Man), who had devised a most unique method of transportation for the penal battalion: one that utilises the unsuspected teleportational talents of the macabre but insentient monster called the Man-Thing

However before the team could even undergo basic training the intransigent Zemo attacked the inescapable isle, determined to reclaim his old team…

‘Field Test’ offered a surprise or two before Cage took control again and the squad set off on an emergency first mission: tracking down a trio of man-eating trolls ravaging the Oklahoma countryside and presumably escaped from Asgard after Osborn’s ill-fated attack on the dimensionally-displaced City of the Gods…

That grisly outing promptly led to another crisis-response from the woefully untrained unit as they were then dispatched to New Guinea to rescue scientists and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents investigating mutagenic, metahuman-creating Terrigen crystals found in a cave.

The mission was another tragic debacle. There was no cure for what the techs had uncovered and then become, so the salvation run turned into a grim and nasty bug hunt…

This sleek, effective thriller concludes its dramatic presentation with the intermediate part of a crossover tale which began and ended in Avengers Academy and offered some intriguing insights into the ongoing personal rehabilitation of Juggernaut Cain Marko.

The students at the unique school were being trained under a hidden agenda: although officially declared the most accomplished of Osborn’s next generation protégés, the sextet Reptil, Finesse, Striker, Hazmat, Mettle and Veil were actually adjudged the most experimented upon, abused and psychologically damaged. The Academy not only wanted to turn them into heroes but also intended to ensure the prodigies were not incurably corrupted potential menaces to all mankind…

The crossover tale ‘Scared Straight’ (see Avengers Academy: Permanent Record) revealed how toxic nightmare Hazmat, animated Iridium golem Mettle and slowly dissipating gas-girl Veil turned a school-trip to The Raft into an attempt to gain revenge on their erstwhile tormentor.

Although the most secure and infallible jail on the planet, nobody realised just what Hazmat could really do and when the power went out she and her equally incensed classmates headed straight for Osborn’s Solitary cell…

Their ill-conceived ploy also released an army of irate and murderous villains and the new Thunderbolts were forced to prove how far they had come by choosing which side they were now on. More important than showing Cage and Warden Walker, the convicts and once-pariahs had to examine their own unsuspected ethical changes and how far they had progressed before order was finally, brutally restored…

This collection also includes a superb cover gallery by Marko Djurdjevic, Bryan Hitch & Karl Kesel, Larry Stroman, Frank Martin, a wealth of character designs and pages of un-inked art fromWalkerto complete a wry, clever and suspenseful action-adventure package that all fans of gritty superhero action will adore …
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