When I was young, I had always heard that the prerequisite for comic book fandom was owning a complete set of All Star Comics featuring the JSA, and that for second generation fandom it was Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Because we now live in the Golden Age of Reprints, I am able to own both of those series, in hardcover. [NOTE: the title is an acronym for "The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves," but don't expect me to continue putting the periods behind each initial throughout this discussion.] DC started releasing the series in archival format in 2002 (wow, has it really been 20 years?), but I only ever got as far as midway through volume three (which I know because my bookmark is still in that volume where I left off and volume four is still in its shrinkwrap). Because the first of my Comic Collecting Precepts is "Don't buy what you don't read," it is my intention to read my way through volume eight during the course of this discussion.
I have a bad habit of, when returning to an abandoned reading project, starting over at the beginning. Or I should say I used to have that problem, because I resolved in 2009 to always pick up where I left off when returning to an unfinished project. I have been pretty good about adhering to that plan over the intervening years, but this time I am going to start at the beginning because it has been so long since I last attempted it. I have read this first volume at least three times, IIRC: once when it was released, once when v2 was and once when v3 was. So I've read v2 twice, but only the first half of v3. In addition, I have read T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents - Best of Wally Wood hardcover at least twice.
But because I have started a discussion of the series, I shall start with issue #1. I don't know how much I'm going to have to say about these early issues, but here we go.
"FIRST ENCOUNTER": The four-page introductory story (by Larry Ivie and Wally Wood), sets up the premise: Professor Jennings has been killed by the forces of the Warlord, but a United Nations task force manages to salvage prototypes of three devices the professor had been working on: an "electron molecular intensifier belt," an invisibility cloak and a cybernetic helmet designed to amplify the wearer's brain power.
DYNAMO: Len Brown is chosen to wear the "Thunder Belt" (as it has been dubbed). "Len Brown" is also the name of the scripter; the artist is Wally Wood. The first thing Brown (the fictional one) does with the belt is to punch through a brick wall, a Wally Wood trademark. This story also introduces Dynamo's femme fatale, the Iron Maiden, one of the Warlord's lieutenants. He can wear the belt only for a short time without causing damage to his body. At the end of this first story, he is captured.
NOMAN: Doctor Dunn is the aging scientist who invented a series of androids into which a human mind can be transferred. The catch is, although the mind can be transferred from android to android, the switch from human to android is one way. Dunn transfers his mind into one of the four android bodies shown, allowing his human body to die. For some reason, in addition to having an android body, it is decided that Dr. Dunn also receive the invisibility cloak. He adopts the identity of "NoMan" and is perhaps the most inept agent in all of THUNDER.
I don't know how much these android bodies cost or how many of them there are, but the one thing I remember about NoMan from the few issues I have read is that he loses a body in almost every story. In this story, NoMan is sent after the Sub-Men of Demo, another of the Warlord's lieutenants. He sets out in a car with a spare body in tow, almost as if he expects to lose a body. (The spare body is incorrectly drawn with a one-of-a-kind invisibility cloak of its own.) NoMan is defeated, his body's "mechanism's demolished." He transfers his mind to the spare body waiting in the car (now correctly drawn sans cloak). He returns to the lab to find Demo and his assistant fled and to retrieve the cloak.
The art is by Reed Crandall and Wally Wood. So far, the agents are oh for two. A text story follows, but I never read those.
MENTHOR: Mr. Janus, the man chosen to wear the cybernetic helmet, is a double agent for the Warlord. You'd think the name "Janus" might have clued someone in, but the Guardians didn't pick up on "Sinestro" so maybe not. Like the thunder belt, the helmet cannot be worn for long without damaging the wearer. It gives him telekinesis and the ability to fire "brain blasts." One more thing: the "H" in Menthor is silent, pronounced "mentor" (but that spelling means something else). I can't tell you the number of time I've heard someone pronounce the "TH" as in "menthol" rather than "Neanderthal." The art is by Gil Kane (with George Tuska and Mike Esposito).
THUNDER SQUAD: A non-powered group of operatives (Guy, Dynamite, Kitten, Weed and Egghead) with art by Mike Sekowsky.
DYNAMO: The conclusion to the Dynamo story earlier in the issue, in which Menthor, NoMan and the THUNDER Squad team-up to save him. NoMan loses another android body, the second in a single issue.
I've never seen an actual copy of issue #1 (outside a bag), but I am disappointed at the reproduction value of this entire first volume; it's kind of murky.
DC COMICS - (2011):
In an earlier post, I equated the Deluxe Comics series to simulating the development of such long-running series as Fantastic Four (by John Byrne), Thor (by Walt Simonson) and Daredevil (by Mark Waid). If one were to keep reading beyond those series' "renaissance," one would eventually get to a second renaissance including Fantastic Four (by Mark Waid), Thor (by Dan Jurgens) and Daredevil (by Mark Waid again). If Deluxe represented the super-hero renaissance of the '80s for the THUNDER Agents, then DC certainly represented the second renaissance of the 2Ks. With these series, the potential of Tower's THUNDER Agents had finally been achieved.
When the first of DC's two series started coming out in 2011, I still hadn't read all of the original series in archive format. Although I enjoyed the revival series a great deal, I eventually "lost the story" reading on a month-to-month basis. Now that I'm rereading it in a chunk, I can see why: it's pretty complicated (one might even say "convoluted") and made perhaps a bit confusing by non-linear storytelling. The series is written by Nick Spencer and drawn (primarily) by Cafu.
The series begins at a certain point, then skips eleven months ahead, then skips twelve months back. A more simplified version would be: Raven is captured by SPIDER; THUNDER is sent to the rescue but the current Dynamo and Lightning are killed in the attack; THUNDER must recruit new super-agents; a second rescue is attempted. But, as you shall see, even a linear plot is somewhat convoluted.
The two main POV characters are Colleen Franklin (a field agent) and Toby Henston (a "salesman"). Think of a "salesman" as a recruiter. As one of the THUNDER higher-ups explains: "Unfortunately, the equipment that empowers the agents can only be used effectively by a handful of people. Divide that by the number of people willing and qualified for this kind of work, and identifying suitable candidates becomes a serious challenge" (an explanation which answers the question posed by Cap early on in this discussion as to why THUNDER simply doesn't recruit multiple super-agents at a given time).
The Chief has been replaced by director Keane, and some sort of organic super-computer named "Daniel" chooses the candidates (but it's still up to a "salesman" to talk them into it). The current Menthor is S. Idnani; the current Dynamo is E. Lindahl; the current Lightning is H. Cosgei. And there's NoMan. Also, Colleen Franklin and Toby Henston don't seem to particularly like each other (at least Colleen doesn't respect Toby for sure).
Here's where the plot gets kind of convoluted. SPIDER has an agent named Dylan Price who, under the identity of Richard Lyle, infiltrated THUNDER. THUNDER, in turn, groomed him to infiltrate SPIDER as... Dylan Price! It is during the mission to rescue the kidnapped Raven, led by the double agent Price (or "Lyle"), that the previous versions of Dynamo and Lightning were killed. Now a year has passed since that batched raid, and a new team of THUNDER Agents, recruited by Henston and led by Franklin, are set to try again.
What I like about this series is that it definitely takes place decades down the same timeline as the original Tower series.
ISSUE #2: This issue alternates back and forth between "NOW" and the origin and recruitment of the current Lightning, Henry Cosgei of Kenya. The main sequence is drawn by Cafu, and the flashback sequences by Chriscross. Henry Cosgei is a runner from a culture of runners, the Kalenjin. He became a celebrated athlete brought low by a doping scandal. (The evidence suggests that he's guilty, but I believe he is innocent.) With nowhere left to turn after his fall from grace, he joined THUNDER as the new Lightning. A new wrinkle has been added to to use of the suit. In addition to aging the wearer, it also shows visions of the wearer's death. As he continues to run, different visions of an ever-decreasing lifespan appear. In the present day, as Lightning makes the first assault, NoMan follows invisibly, foreshadowing the focus of the next issue.
ISSUE #3: This issue, the flashback sequences (set in 1952, 1967, 1969 and 1973) are drawn by Howard Chaykin. In addition, there are "NOW" sequences (detailing the raid) as well as "THEN" sequences (leading up to it). By the time Colleen and Toby go to recruit NoMan (who was released from THUNDER in 1973), he has become almost totally detached from his humanity. He lives with a woman named Lauren, described as his "assistant." He watches pornography "trying to test certain chemical responses in the clone brains." His mind-switch is now completely automated so that " his mind just immediately moves over to another body once the heart stops pumping blood to the brain." This is a failsafe he installed to prevent himself from being able to commit suicide.
The flashbacks show him working side-by-side with Professor Jennings in 1952 and fighting side-by-side with Dynamo in 1967; in 1969 he was willing to sacrifice Kitten for the sake of a mission; in 1973 his wife committed suicide and he was fired from THUNDER. In the "THEN" sequence, Colleen says something which Toby doesn't hear in order to convince him to rejoin THUNDER. In the "NOW" sequence, he is ambushed during his rescue attempt of raven and it is implied that Dynamo is a double-agent in the employ of SPIDER.
NEXT: Dynamo... and George Perez.
"What I like about this series is that it definitely takes place decades down the same timeline as the original Tower series."
I may be a little slow on the uptake, but it finally occurs to me that the use of different artists for the flashback sequences is DC's way of honoring the tradition, established by Tower and continued by Deluxe, of utilizing the best artists in the field. this issue opens with a new character, Dr. Vaani Nandakumar, delivering an orientation speech to new THUNDER agents. George Perez's double-page spread on pages 2-3 is a montage of all three publishers' series, including three characters we have not seen before.
We learn that "for THUNDER Agents over the last four decades, average tenure of service is less than a year, and the survival rate is essentially zero." Dynamo's belt, it is revealed, has undergone a few more modifications since the '80s: "after thirty minutes, the unit will power down slowly, until reaching a safer level of use. Tower Control also now has remote access to the belt, allowing THUNDER analysts to instantly deactivate the device in case of emergency." Eric Lindal is a real horse's neck. It would be easy to believe he is the traitor alluded to last issue.
The "NOW" section flashes back and forth between the assault on SPIDER and what's going on at THUNDER HQ. In case you are wondering why Toby, the recruiter, is along on a field mission (as I was) it is explained that it was thought his presence "might have a calming effect on the new agents." In the "THEN" section, Toby pretends to have feelings for Colleen in order to recruit Lindahl, but he reveals to her later it was just a ploy. In the midst of the operation, it is discovered that the Menthor helmet is missing from THUNDER HQ.. Meanwhile, Dynamo is struck down from behind by a mental blast. BIG REVEAL: The traitor is Toby, not Lindal! He repeats a riddle from issue #1 which seems to be key to the plot: "Why did God harden the Pharaoh's heart?"
Wow, this is some good stuff! I wouldn't call it "decompressed" exactly, but the issue don't take very long to read. What's more, I don't ant to put them down!
ISSUE #5: "FIVE YEARS AGO" (art by Ryan Sook), two brothers, Fraser and James, inherit a wad of money from their parents and set out to "Go change the world." The older brother, Fraser spends his share of the money buying SPIDER: "Apparently," he explains, "they were big back in the '60s. Just some cheap, two-bit crook enterprise. But they have a lot of good equipment, and they're positioned globally." He bases his political philosophy on the Biblical story of the plagues of Egypt and convinces his brother to join him in his cause. James submits to an experiment which will completely sublimate his own personality in order for him to infiltrate THUNDER as (you guessed it) Toby Henston.
As soon as he takes out Dynamo, his real personality surfaces for the first time in five years. Now that they brothers have the Menthor helmet, they can begin to make their move, using the Menthor helmet to get secrets from Raven's mind and take over THUNDER. Meanwhile, Dynamo and NoMan are out of action, Lightning has been incapacitated by his visions, and Colleen has lost track of "Toby." She give Lightning a pep talk and they prepare to make their assault. first, Lightning frees NoMan then they both free Dynamo. Elsewhere, James puts on the Menthor helmet and a change comes over him. He shoots Raven, then he shoots his brother Fraser. A SPIDER agent shoots him just as the THUNDER Agents come bursting through the wall.
Colleen approaches her wounded colleague. (Is it Toby? Or is it James?) He says, "Colleen, hey... Listen... I--I'm really sorry. I didn't wanna hurt anyone... seriously... I told them I didn't want to hurt anyone... Wait, hold on... where's my brother? Where's my brother?" FADE TO BLACK.
ISSUE #6: FADE IN. Toby/James awakens in a THUNDER hospital facility, Colleen at his side. "In ten seconds," she tells him, "Keane is gong to come in here with a big smile on his face. Don't talk." Colleen has concocted a cover story that the theft of the Menthor helmet was all part of their plan. They didn't know who they could trust, so they had to do it on their own. their ordefrs had been, if they couldn't recuse raven, they had to kill him, which is what Toby/James did. Now he finds himself promoted to be the new Menthor.
I think James was never convinced by his brother's fanatical plans and only agreed to go along so he could overturn them at a critical juncture. I think he killed Raven to keep him from falling into Fraser's hands, then killed his brother because he deserved it. I think there's a lot of "Toby" in James and there always has been.
A few issues back, in a flashback, Raven told NoMan, "If you're really starting to lose what made you you in the first place, would it be so bad to give up the ghost?" Now NoMan finds himself standing over Raven's corpse in the THUNDER morgue. Then the M.E. comes in to remove Raven's wings, which are apparently grafted on to the recipient by this point. Dynamo recuperates. Lightning calls home but cannot bring himself to speak to his daughter. Director Keane congratulates Colleen on a job well done and presents her with a reward: THUNDER's file on her mother.
Flashback to the Iron Maiden liberating a harem of unwilling women from Sheikh Farouk, then leaving him to their tender mercies. she takes one of them with her. Hmm... what's that mean?
NOW: Aboard a plane, Colleen peruses her mother's file. Her mother is the Iron Maiden.
28 YEARS AGO: Rusty is in a suburban kitchen preparing a meal with an infant (Colleen, obviously) in her arms, singing along to Dion's "The Wanderer" playing on the radio. Her refrigerator is well-stocked with healthful foods: Fruits and vegetables, milk, butter and eggs, yogurt. the phone rings as she slices a cucumber. It is Len Brown, calling from the supermarket. "Hold on," she says. "Someone's at the door." She spins and throws her knife right through the throat of one of the THUNDER Squad. Three more have rappelled from the roof to her windows and back door.
At the supermarket, Len, too, is accosted by a THUNDER Squad. "Len Brown, formerly known as the THUNDER Agent codenamed Dynamo," says one, "you are hereby placed under arrest by authority of the Higher United Nations war crimes tribunal for harboring the fugitive known as the Iron Maiden." By the time they lead him back to their house, Rusty is being led away in handcuffs. A female Squad member walks out of the house with a baby in her arms. "Sir?" she asks her C.O. "What should we do about this one?"
NOW: Colleen arrives in Morocco, She's there to kill her mother.
BACK-UP STORY: "High up in her airship, with his thunderbelt malfunctioning, Dynamo finds himself held prisoner by the Iron Maiden--forced to watch as she prepares to detonate an atomic device over Washington, D.C.!" This retro-story takes place sometime after the Tower series (and sometime before this issue's flashback). Dynamo and Iron Maiden finally admit their true feelings for each other. Iron Maiden helps Dynamo escape, then apparently perishes when her airship is destroyed (although, obviously, she survived).
I remember reading this issue for the first time 12 years ago. (Yikes!) I had kinda lost the overall story by then, but #7 was almost entirely a flashback drawn by Mike Grell. By 2023 I kinda forgot that Colleen was Len and Rusty's daughter, so it came as something of a surprise to me when I read #6.
ISSUE #8: This issue has a '60s sequence by Nick Dragoda, an '80s sequence by Mike Grell and a present day sequence by Dan Panosian. Everything written by Nick Spencer.
NOW: In Morocco, Colleen meets with one of her mother's confidants who is going to betray her. Iron Maiden rescued this woman from a prostitution ring in Moscow eight years prior. Once Colleen gets the information she needs, she shoots the woman dead. Her last owrds: "Just like... you... you look just like her."
28 YEARS AGO: Iron Maiden has reportedly killed 4819 peaople with her bare hands. she is being interrogated by THUNDER, but is not cooperating. Ten years prior (say, 1973) Dynamo retired and fell off the grid. Len is not being charged. He protests his wife's treatment. She had been promised immunity for her help in winning a secret war, but nothing in writing. Len cooperates only for the benefit of their little girl.
NOW: Colleen shoots her way into her mother's facility, killing at least three guards, all female. Iron Maiden's chief of security shows her the footage and asks if she knows her. "Of course I do," she answers. "She's my daughter."
BACK-UP STORY: "In their last encounter with Uru, the Subterranean Warlord, and his new partners in crime, SPIDER and the infamous Iron Maiden, Dynamo, Lightning, NoMan and Raven were taken captive and sentenced to death! and up above, the Subterranean armies stand ready to attack the nations of Earth unless they are stopped!" Another retro tale, specifically the one in which Iron Maiden wins her pardon. The pardon was promised by the Director, not the Chief.
NEXT: "The Death of Dynamo!"
ISSUE #9: Same artists and format as last issue. I think by #8 I was reading only the Mike Grell sequence, and I haven't read #9 or #10 until today.
28 YEARS AGO: Len cuts a deal with THUNDER (in writing this time): one last mission and Rusty and Colleen are free. He fights the last mission, but it kills him.
NOW: Colleen fights her way into her mother's sanctum (six pages, no dialogue). Colleen gets the drops on her, but Iron Maiden disarms her and points her and points her weapon at her head. She pulls the trigger. Click. Again. Click. "Didn't load it," says Colleen. But not did sh come alone. NoMan, Lightning, Dynamo and Menthor came dropping through the ceiling.
BACK-UP STORY: "Having just riumphed over the forces of evil in the Great Subterranean War, Len Brown, the THUNDER Agent Dynamo, has announced his retirement from THUNDER, effective immediately." His friends throw him a party. Kitten (now called "Kitty") and Alice are there (don't know about Roxanne), and both kiss him on the cheek.
NEXT MONTH: "End of an Era."
ISSUE #10: The same format as the previous two issues, except the artist for the present day section is Dan McDaid.
28 YEARS AGO: On her way to her new home in handcuffs, Rusty's situation is explained to her by a THUNDER representative: "You understand, Rusty, the deal Len made, it's not amnesty. This is complete and total house arrest. You'll never be allowed to leave the property. As afr as your neighbors are concerned, you're sick and bedridden, and those guards are your full-time care. This agreement has been constructed to give Colleen as much of an opportunity to live a normal live as possible--one that includes her mother."
Over the course of the next two pages, Rusty cleverly reveals that she has bribed the planes entire crew and they are now working for her. "Wait!" the agent pleads. "Rusty--this isn't what your husband would have wanted!" "My husband is dead," she replies. "You killed him." Then she kills the agent.
NOW: Colleen has her final confrontation with her mother. Toby uses the Menthor helmet to extract knowledge from Iron Maiden's head. Colleen confronts her mother with the knowledge that she allegedly continued to operate as terrorist, without her husband's knowledge, after she reformed and Len retired. Then Colleen turns her over to the daughter of a man she killed and walks toward the door. "Wait," says her mother. "I can help you. I know what you're hiding. I know he's still alive." I'm not sure exactly what she's referring to here, but Colleen and Toby leave the room and it explodes behind them.
BACK-UP STORY: Len retires and meets up with Rusty aboard a ship bound for Australia where they both plan to live happily ever after.
"Join us in November for THUNDER Agents Volume 2!" says the next issue blurb.
That is the point at which I decided to commence tradewaiting.
OMNI COMIX #3:
"Cold Warriors Never Die"
The version reprinted has 32 pages, 5 of which follow the cliffhanger. The additional pages have the self-described non-human character Styxx (who is a dead ringer for Batman villain Hugo Strange) telling his gang of killers (and new readers) the abilities of the THUNDER agents. He also mentions that the unseen Iron Maiden has provided them with intel.
The art is by Paul Gulacy, and I could not think of a better choice.
I first experienced Gulacy’s terrific art in the 70s on Master of Kung Fu.
Theresa "Tracy" Jones, the new Undersea Agent and daughter of the original. "Because of an accident of birth, water responds to her magnetic control." A sexual relationship between her and Guy is implied.
It’s made clear that Tracy Jones is not inclined to kill when she doesn’t have to. She is upset when killing happens anyway.
Although NoMan's consciousness can still be housed in only one body at a time, he now has the ability to set his other bodies about doing simply tasks and monitor them from time-to-time.
Since the androids are more advanced than robots, they should have always been able to do things that don’t involve decision-making without NoMan’s direct involvement.
The new Menthor is Colonel James Denmark, formerly of United states Navy Intelligence. He is the leader of the Super Agent Task Force.
The Menthor helmet now allows the wearer to project mental force blasts.
Dynamo can now activate his belt by voice command. At one point he apparently has the ability to fly through the air like a missile. He also can instruct the belt to give him 150% of his superstrength for very brief periods.
The opposition now includes super types, one of which is a werewolf who implies he plans to eat some of the THUNDER agents.
His first act is to destroy a civilian Carnival Princess cruise ship just to show he is serious.
As bad as he is, he sent the nuclear missile into the open ocean without the intent to destroy the ocean liner to show he could do it. Killing non-combatants actually worked against his plans (in a very small way).
Menthor divides the THUNDER Agents into three squads, all with specific goals and objectives. The fight is brutal, but it ends in a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger.
Undersea Agent is apparently hit with a ray from a character the werewolf called Arsenal. When we last see her she is on her back on the ground. Did she live or die? Your choice.
DC COMICS - (2011):
As he continues to run, different visions of an ever-decreasing lifespan appear.
This is a very effective sequence.
The flashbacks show him (Anthony Dunn) working side-by-side with Professor Jennings in 1952 and (NoMan) fighting side-by-side with Dynamo in 1967; in 1969 he was willing to sacrifice Kitten for the sake of a mission; in 1973 his wife committed suicide and he was fired from THUNDER.
…..committed suicide right in front of him.
Wow, this is some good stuff! I
Once again, I don’t have anything to criticize. Very good story.
She gave Lightning a pep talk….
This part is great. “Eventually someone just points at whoever is in trouble, whoever needs our help and says ‘Yes, you keep doing this, you will die. But if you don’t, they will.”
Tomorrow I'll take on issue #6 - on.
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