Ho-lee crap. Properly discussing this issue requires spoiling a plot twist that flips the entire run into a new light, so proceed with ample forewarning. Please leave a comment.
“Songbird VS. the Thunderbolts”
WRITER: Andy Diggle
ARTIST: Miguel Sepulveda
COLORIST: Frank Martin
LETTERER: Albert Deschesne
Songbird crashes in on ex-Thunderbolts Mach IV (Spider-Man fans know him as the former Beetle) and Fixer’s Oregon research post to inform them that Norman Osborn has sicced the new Thunderbolts after her and she’s “putting the band together” to topple him. Mach’s in, but Fixer wonders if rebelling against authority will undo the redemption they’ve earned. Songbird kisses Mach.
At T-Bolts base, Mr. X nearly suffocates Headsman (who now has the delightfully silver agey civvie ID, Cleavon Twain) after egging him into a fight by dissing his brother, but Yelena Belovna (Black Widow II) interrupts with their next assignment via intercom. Headsman chucks a knife at X’s back, but the mutant killer catches the weapon mid-flight.
En rout to Oregon, Yelena webcams with her real boss, Nick Fury, who orders her to extract Songbird alive, a task complicated by Norman’s decision to let Scourge command the ground mission while Yelena monitors from the jet. However, Songbird slings the jet’s missiles back at it, igniting an explosion that hurls it and herself into the woods. Once she finds Songbird, Yelena sheds her “genetic camouflage,” revealing her true identity: Natasha Romanova, Black Widow I.
On its own, Thunderbolts #134 satisfies less than Andy Diggle’s other entries, but its revelations vastly elevate the overall run.
First, the quibbles. Although old school Thunderbolts fans should dig seeing Fixer and Mach IV again, their conversations with Songbird lack Diggle’s typical dense characterization. When Headsman or Ghost occupy a page, each line unfolds with human nuance, but the classic crew have simple points of view and say too little to warrant the space they receive. The same applies to Mr. X, whose generic nineties badassery leaves himself one-dimensional even though he coaxes excellent material from Headsman. Miguel Sepulveda renders it all in grainy, uninked pencil that sets ultra-detailed figures against simplistic backgrounds or solid color.
But that reveal … DAMN. In prior reviews, I half-heartedly questioned “Yelena’s” identity, but I didn’t expect such a shock so soon. The best unveilings, like this one, draw from enough clues that they don’t emerge from left field, but aren’t so foreshadowed that the surprise’s impact diminishes. It incentivizes a second reading of Diggle’s whole run, both to enjoy reexperiencing it in a new context and to catch all the subtle hints. In addition to Taskmaster’s comments on her fighting style, the Widow’s speech patterns always shifted from a heavy Russian accent (dropping articles and such) when talking to Osborn to something less pronounced when communicating with Fury. However, her Russian curses when flustered or excited still indicated a native Russian speaker. In hindsight, she could have been few if any other major Marvel characters. Had Amazing Spider-Man similarly revealed Jackpot as someone both startling and retrospectively the only logical candidate (rather than someone we had never met or heard of), I might not have jumped ship from reviewing that title to this one.
The big answers come bittersweetly, because I fear this compelling direction’s days are numbered. Diggle leaves in a few months, and Thunderbolts appears headed toward a more pre-Civil War status quo. In under a year, Diggle has transformed a pack of unknown thugs and psychos into fully realized people who are both surprising and consistent, reprehensible but lovable, and wrought with conflicting internal goals and values. Take Headsman. The former one-off Untold Tales of Spider-Man foe superficially looks like a brutish biker thug, yet he has the kindly nature to genuinely care for his teammates and his referred-to-in-past-tense brother. But, as Ant-Man asked last month, how okay can a guy who cuts off heads really be? In this issue, he tries to uphold his brother’s honor and alleviate his own humiliation by literally backstabing Mr. X, which illustrates what I mean by “both surprising and consistent.” Cleavon has a heart, but it acts out in barbaric ways.
“I’ll hand ya yer candy ass, college boy!”
4 out of 5. Again, Diggle didn’t jam pack this one as much as the others, but I praise what it adds to the overall run.