“Truth And Consequences”
Writers: Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza
Artists: Tom Grummett (p), Gary Erskine (i)
“Okay, we’re past the ‘bits of teeth’ stage and into the ‘smell of burning flesh’ part of the show”—a perfect summary by the Fixer, concerning this week’s issue of AVENGERS VS. THUNDERBOLTS, by Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza, and Tom Grummett. Severe physical and psychological damage ensues as both the Avengers and Thunderbolts (in their own, conflicting ways) try to save the world from a power-mad Moonstone.
For months, readers have been anticipating an all-out brawl between the Avengers and Thunderbolts, and the creative team definitely delivers with a highly imaginative use of powers—for example, when Songbird transforms her opponent’s screams of pain into solidified sound, all the way down to the opponent’s lungs. Gruesome. Grummett’s art captures the pain almost too good here; in fact, all his action scenes are superb with clear motion and strong impact. But the fights aren’t merely physical, as Moonstone regains the sharpness of her psychiatric training. In classic Moonstone style, she tears her opponents apart, physically and emotionally, humiliating them with words that are both funny and cruel to read. Yet, beyond this high-energy battle is a tragic exploration of the Thunderbolts’ deepest psychological insecurities. Really, these would-be-heroes are just losers, trying so hard to finally become winners. And this raw hope, mixed with frustration and desperation, is what makes the Thunderbolts such an intriguing, sympathetic team.
Now, it becomes clear that the “versus” aspect of this series is more of a moral battle than a physical one. The Avengers are seemingly perfect. They have no moral quandaries, even when readers see them acting in questionable manners. For the Avengers, all well-established heroes, self-doubt is no longer an issue; and, inevitably, self-righteousness seeps in, making their squeaky clean façade almost hypocritical. In comparison, the Thunderbolts are a chaotic mess of anger, self-pity, indecisiveness, and greed; an inner chaos brilliantly exemplified as Grummett draws Moonstone in a constantly changing costume—she can’t decide what moral incarnation she wants to take until at the very end she loses her choice and becomes vulnerably naked. Yet, in spite of their weaknesses, the Thunderbolts are the real heroes of this issue. They are the ones being constantly tested, and failing but trying again. Here, the narrative of Songbird, perhaps the most emotionally tormented of the Thunderbolts, guides readers through her team’s dilemma—shows how their need to prove themselves as the Avengers’ equals, becomes both their doom and saving grace. The Thunderbolts break rank here by either rejecting all former attempts to be good or by making a final (oftentimes foolish) attempt to prove themselves. Thus, the overwhelming suspense of the issue comes as each Thunderbolt redefines him/herself according to a newly deafening conscience. Truly, Busiek and Nicieza have proven to be ideal comic book writers who can mix action with the most profound character analysis. And because of this mixture, readers are taken on an emotional whirlwind where the desire to see the Thunderbolts physically defeated by the Avengers is tempered with the desire to see the Thunderbolts finally prove that they are actually morally healthier than the Avengers—because they still think through and question their actions.
The issue ends in perhaps the best cliffhanger of recent memory as Hawkeye, the character whose perspective is most closely aligned with readers, must make a choice—who wins? Songbird wonders: “What does he do now? Hang onto hope—onto that bedrock belief of his that there’s good in everyone if you give it a chance to come out?” The characters and readers realize that Hawkeye’s decision isn’t merely leading to the end of a battle, but the possible end of a precious belief that people can always be better. And this is a powerful, albeit disturbing, dilemma to leave readers with, wondering if a former criminal who previously demonstrated great signs of compassion and honor, can ever really be trusted. Yet, this is exactly what good storytelling—and the THUNDERBOLTS series—is all about: leaving readers guessing, not just about the characters, but themselves.
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