Thunderbolts: Faith in Monsters (Review)

venom

Writer: Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis once wrote a haunting Thunderbolt’s story arc called Faith in Monsters. This story tied directly into the Marvel’s Civil War era. Marvel’s United States had been rocked by the Superhuman registration act. This law required all vigilantes to “unmask” themselves and register their identities with the government. Because this paralleled with similar laws of Nazi Germany, a schism formed between Captain America and Iron Man which lead to Captain America’s assassination by Bucky Barnes. During this time, Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn has been given the chance by Tony Stark to form a new team of Thunderbolts. They are given the task of enforcing the mutant registration act. This is the context Warren Ellis’ new incarnation of Thunderbolts takes place. The Thunderbolts are a team unlike other Marvel Teams because its ranks only include B-list villains. Ellis version is no different. This team is comprised of Venom, Songbird, Penance, Moonstone, Radioactive Man, Swordman, and Bullseye while having Green Goblin as its director. However, unlike other incarnations of this team or other antihero mashups, Warren Ellis’ team is brutal and uncompromising. Warren Ellis style of writing often incorporates real world psychological profiles for his characters, and that style adds an extra element of horror to this story arc. Each member has their own unique sociopathic identity which are all revealed over the course of interviews with each member of the team. Bullseye achieves a rush of euphoric emotions whenever he kills no matter who it is or the reason why he does it. This creates a perverse and godlike affinity which is also void of any sense of morality. Then there’s the Swordsman who crafted a fetish by wrapping the hilt of his sword with his dead sister’s flesh. With this incestuous tinged belief that this bond grants him power, the sword is used to slay his victims. Moonstone is a psychologist who is a master of manipulation and had made several of her patients commit suicide for her own sadistic enjoyment. The masochist Penance wears a suit similar to an iron maiden and believes his power stems from the pain he inflicts upon himself. Venom’s description of his relationship with his symbiotic alien sounds similar to a burnt out junkie describing their need for angel dust, complete with the homicidal rampages balanced with feelings of inadequacies and paranoia. Then there’s Songbird who would be simple B-list superhero if it wasn’t for her attraction towards genocidal psychopaths like Baron Zemo. What’s interesting is how Ellis is able to pull the reader into the morbid and oppressive world of these killers. These are all psychological profiles pulled from real life serial killers, which have been featured on countless news programs. What is worse is Norman Osborn is the puppetmaster of these sociopaths. It’s a what if tale about someone like Hemler having control over an elite military unit comprised of people like Ted Bundy, Albert Fish, and Charles Manson. So why does the U.S. Government allow such a situation to happen in the first place? It’s the old fallacy of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. After all, who would know how to challenge the Masks better than the villains? As the story progresses Ellis uses his FIX news broadcast to make satirical comments about the governments morally questionable decisions and how its laws affect the citizens it claims to protect. One section highlights how S.H.I.E.L.D. renamed Superheroes as Unregistered Combatants. This is similar to the real world example of the C.I.A. arbitrary use of Freedom Fighters versus Terrorists. This sounds like a hard pill to swallow for millions of Americans who have been saved countless times over the years by people like Captain America and Spider Man. However, Ellis rips a page from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, and he employs the use of news sensationalism and marketing as weapons against the Superhero community. For example, interspersed among the news segments are toy commercials promoting the Thunderbolts. This along with the government’s bias spin in their public statements assures the public that these unregistered combatants are a threat to American citizens. Now, it’s quite natural for the readers to feel the dissonance between themselves and the oppressive and villainous regime. In order to make this story connect, Warren Ellis also employs C-list superheroes such as American Eagle, Jack Flag, Steel Spider and ShadoWoman. These are the if you blink you may miss them heroes of Marvel’s continuity. Why use these heroes instead of the VIPs we’re all use to? While Captain America and company carry an aura of fame, C list heroes are everyday nobodies from Main Street. This allows us to see how the moral weight of such laws like the Registration Act would burden everyday people. American Eagle is a retired hero who is lured into stopping his community forming a lynch mob, ShadoWoman is a heartbroken metahuman simply trying to find a source of income, and Steel Spider is a lonely but disturbed individual with an answering machine full of messages from worried loved ones and obsessive bill collectors. Not only does each one have relatable personalities, but also each one is morally challenged with doing what is right versus breaking the law. For example, Jack Flag and his wife Lucy are a lower class couple struggling to survive in their urban neighborhood. Jack and Lucy witness a gang harassing a female victim, and we’re lead to believe this isn’t the first time they’ve witnessed this gang commit such atrocities on women. If someone was to call the cops, they wouldn’t reach this part of the ghetto in time, even if they did bother to show up. Although Jack Flag’s glory days are long gone, Jack Flag isn’t going to stand idly by in fear of the consequences and watch another innocent become victimized. After all, everyone probably is or knows someone who has reached out or intervened in a situation in hopes of stopping a violent escalation. Therefore, Jack is no different than any of the readers, and this is when Ellis finally humanizes the story. Before Ellis could reveal the first heroic moment of the series, the readers had to understand that the consequence is being hunted down by government sanctioned sociopaths. Jack Flag is no different. After witnessing a well paced and beautifully illustrated stand off between Jack Flag and the Thunderbolts, Jack Flag is left paralyzed and sent to a Guantanamo Bay for masks. Although this is a traumatizing moment, Ellis goes on to sprinkle some dashes of hope on top of the bleak nihilism. Remember no matter how much the readers want to cheer for the underdog superhero, the chilling fact remains this is a Thunderbolts series. By incorporating different writing styles and capitalizing on the medium, Warren Ellis crafted an ageless political commentary.

 

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