“Sword and Claw”
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Co-Plotter: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Tom Grummett (p), Gary Erskine (i)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Guest starring Wolverine! Oh my God, I can barely contain my rampant excitement!
This is a good solid superhero title, but for some reason, it just doesn’t work for me. Most of the characters (with a couple of exceptions I’ll get to in a minute) come across as flat, and they don’t get a chance to really improve as Wolverine takes over the comic. It’s good to see that someone in the editorial department at Marvel is paying attention, as Strucker is a key part of both this plot and the one going on in Wolverine’s book, so it’s only proper that the connections are at least referred to, but it may have been best to do just that and only refer to them with a caption or bit of exposition. As it stands, we get what is essentially an issue of Wolverine fighting the new Swordsman, guest-starring the Thunderbolts. The pacing of this series has been far too rapid anyway, leading to a feeling of detachment regarding the central characters, and to effectively drop them from their own book for a month doesn’t help matters.
That said, Wolverine doesn’t get to do a one-man show. He’s put up against the new Swordsman, and since it looks like he at least will be a part of this series, it’s not a complete waste of time. Also, as much of an unwanted presence as he is here, Wolverine is actually quite well written, with none of the near-omnipotence that plagues the character in most of his appearances. The Swordsman is also well handled, and the light swashbuckling feel of the character comes across quite strongly, which promises to make him a welcome addition to the generally quite bland Thunderbolts team. He’s also at the heart of a couple of compelling mysteries; his identity for one (I’m guessing Hawkeye or Andreas Strucker) and the motivations behind the Purple Man’s involvement for another. (Assuming it is the Purple Man, of course, since he’s in jail in New Avengers. But that’s what happens when two editorial teams don’t communicate, I suppose. Oh wait, it’s the same editorial team...)
The Radioactive Man is the sole other point of interest in terms of characterisation. He’s a bit of a grumpy Spock/big bloke from Stargate SG1 cliché, but that’s more compelling than the bland angst that seems to characterise absolutely everyone else. Again, this is more down to a lack of room for character development than any deficiency in the writers’ strengths with characterisation, but I’m disappointed that I’m not yet getting a feel for who these people are.
As if aware of all this blandness, there seem to be a couple of attempts at self-parody in here, with a “mysterious glowing pod” that’s quite clearly Captain Marvel, and a resolution of last issue’s cliffhanger which seems to spoof the ridiculous “and with one mighty leap” twists of the past. Sadly, they don’t quite work, as it’s really hard to tell whether they’re deliberate jokes or sloppy mistakes. I’m prepared to be generous and accept them as satirical swipes, but if so they’re less than successful.
The general lack of enthusiasm seems to have infected the art team too, as while Grummett, Erskine and colourist Sotomayor do a solid job, it’s rather unexciting stuff. The final page, for instance, should make me go “wow!” and wonder what’s going to happen next issue, but it really fails to do so. It’s a fine, impressive image, but it’s not stunning, and it really should be. The only time that the art team seems to actually get in the spirit of things is during the Swordsman/Wolverine fight; although Wolverine is made to look rather static and clumsy (and too tall!), the Swordsman is drawn in appropriately athletic poses, further enhancing the swashbuckling feel.
All in all, it’s a solid, well-produced comic, but nothing exciting. The characters aren’t interesting in themselves, and when they’re in action, the art isn’t vibrant and exciting enough. Ironically, this issue has been the most enjoyable of the series so far for me, since it’s based around the Swordsman, a character that both the writing and art teams seem to enjoy, but on the whole, New Thunderbolts just isn’t clicking for me.
(Oh and I miss the title/credits pages. This issue and the last reverted to the awful blank white Marvel “house style” intro pages, and I much preferred the old-school ones from the first two issues, which were more visually interesting than these badly designed insults to the eyes. I understand that Marvel wants to pretend that their trade collections are cohesive “graphic novels,” and not, um, trade collections, but I’d rather read a book with the occasional integrated credits page than put up with these atrocities of visual design.)
Plot: Whew boy! It’s complicated, and I’m not sure if it’s worth the trouble to suss it out. If you can enjoy the ride without obsessing over the details you might be better off. Wolverine is fighting Hyrdra, led by Baron Strucker. A new Swordsman is targeting the Baron as well, and thus Wolverine too, who’s not at his best. Both are being controlled by outside agents, one of which I know, and one of which is part of a crossover I’m clueless about. Meanwhile, Abe has little to no control over his impulse-challenged new teammates.
Comments: “Enemy of the state?” Didn’t that run through some Black Panther issues a year or two ago? Or is it something else? I can’t make sense of Logan’s presence in this issue, except to say that Erskine and Grummett make the best of his newly old-school costume. Thankfully, he’s only one player on a crowded floor.
What’s interesting: The new Swordsman. This is shades of the Nomad/Scourge arc from the old Thunderbolts series, which (when mystery-man Scourge executed Zemo) marked my personal highpoint for that series, and probably my favorite single Nicieza issue on any title. Fabian has managed to keep the secrets-within-secrets/double-agent side of this title alive all along, and always in varied, unpredictable ways. My suspicions about who this new Swordsman might be greatly add to the fun of this issue.
Less interesting: Let’s see, killing Strucker could unleash a deadly plague, but just poking him is fine and dandy? The most intriguing part of the Thunderbolts interactions isn’t Abe’s nagging worry or the newbies shallow desires, but rather the Radioactive Man’s fragile self-control. When you add the Purple Man (not looking his best, or playing quite his usual game) and the idea that Fathom Five is part of terrorist cell At’la’Tique, which may or may not be under the control of Strucker (so he’s playing two of his teams against each other? For show?), you’ve got one really convoluted imbroglio. I can’t quite make sense of it, so thank heavens for:
More interesting: Grummett and Erskine, satisfying that Power Company jones with a bristlingly clear multitude of figures who are all recognizable and all capable of elegant, top-drawer action, and:
Also interesting: Nicieza’s way with words, giving a satisfying voice to narration by Purple Guy, running commentary by Swordsman, and the requisite convincing gruffness to Wolverine.
The shower scene is a time-honored tradition in schlock cinema and is necessary for any bad film. In this scene, the actress apologizes for your having to sit through what amounts to a cinematic train wreck or a celluloid black hole. In essence, she is saying to you “Poor thing. You’ve been through enough. Here are my ta-tas. Oh god, it’s a Greydon Clark film. Let me just soap them up for you.” There is a shower scene in The New Thunderbolts, and damn well there should be.
What the hell is this? We start out with Wolverine slicing and dicing like the mutant Romco Vegematic that he is, but wait a minute, what’s he doing here? Isn’t Wolverine an X-Man? Let me Check. That belt-buckle doesn’t stand for ten. He is an X-Man. Perhaps, I picked up the wrong book. Nope. It does say Thunderbolts on the cover. Oh, wait a minute. It says New Thunderbolts. Wolverine is in the New Avengers. I know what happened.
Once upon a time there was a flu-stricken princess named Fabian who became the writer of the New Thunderbolts. One night so desperate to combat the effects of the virus, he took some NyQuil, which of course put him out quicker than a punch from Mike Tyson.
King Joe entered the Princess’s room and saw his darling Princess fast asleep atop outlines and notes about the issue. King Joe gathered all the information, put a bankie around the Princess’s shoulders and gave him a peck on the cheek.
King Joe sent the notes to the Court Jester Brian. Brian of course thought that these were the notes he needed for this latest issue of the New Avengers. Brian was getting some flack for his decompressionist values in which it took him one hundred and ninety six pages to tell a simple knock-knock joke.
“I’ll show those critics,” blustered Brian. “Big fight with Wolverine and Hydra,” said he. “Eat that! Oh, and this is a cool way to introduce helmet guy.”
The story finished, Brian yawned and found that the fight only took ten pages.
“What am I missing?” asked Brian. “Sweet Christmas! I forgot the booty sex!”
The pages finished, Brian sent them to King Joe who sent them to Major Tom.
Now Major Tom was a might confused because them Duke boys had sent him a Wolverine story. He looked at the envelope, and it read, New Avengers. Tom knew something was amiss. He called Count Kurt and asked, “How do I make this a New Thunderbolts story without removing Wolverine?”
“Replace helmet guy with mysterious sword-fighting guy.”
Tom hung up the phone and decided the best way to research this fight scene was to watch Jackie Chan’s classic period back to back. Sufficiently pumped, Tom went to draw the fight scene.
“Wolverine may have absolutely no reason for being here, but he is going to kick ass. Speaking of which, I'll just shred the Luke Cage/Jessica Drew tryst,” Tom thought aloud. “And before I forget, I damn well better add a shower scene to apologize for this mess.”
Tom sent the pages to Sir Gary, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, this bad movie is going to at least look like a million bucks. A shower scene? That’s probably a smart move.”
Sir Gary sent the work to Squire Chris. Chris raised an eyebrow and said, “O-Kay. Wolverine is in the Thunderbolts. Why? I don’t know, but if the rest of the team are giving it their all...A shower scene? Good call.”
King Joe surveyed his empire, and all was good. A page rapped on his door and handed him an envelope. Joe took out the pages of the New Avengers. They looked great. Then...tragedy struck.
Joe counted the pages. There was only ten! Joe panicked. He bolted out of the office and ran to Princess Fabian’s room. He stopped, for there beneath the sleeping form of his little workhorse, a half-complete Thunderbolts script sat.
Joe gave Princess Fabian a peck on his cheek, took the half-completed script, held it close to his chest and danced out of the room.
“Why with a little editing this New Avengers script could be a New Thunderbolts script, and I’d only have to white out the Avengers on the cover because the New is in both titles.”
King Joe sent the Princess’s half-completed Thunderbolts script to Major Tom with a memo: “Keep the shower scene.”
Synopsis: A civil war rages within the criminal organization of HYDRA. One faction, the Dawn of the White Light, has subordinated the deadly mutant, Wolverine, to their will and sent him to assassinate HYDRA’s Supreme Commander, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. But when Wolverine gets to his prey, somebody has beaten him to the target, a mysterious swordsman. Things get complicated and the two would-be assassins cross blades. Meanwhile, Zebediah Killgrave, the Purple Man, watches the fray from afar.
But what of our protagonists? What are the Thunderbolts doing? They are recuperating, mending their equipment, or relaxing after their recent activities. But conflict develops in their ranks; is heroism a 24 hour, seven-days-a-week job? In “Sword and Claw” the conflict is sharp and the endurance necessary for their success begins to bleed away.
"Authors say, ‘Characters tend to write themselves.’ I find that contradiction…vexing."
This is a concentrated read. The premise is a thematic exploration of control and the variety of nuances it conveys, like domination, management, and restraint. The story bifurcates into two plotlines, the fight at von Strucker’s office and the debate at Thunderbolt HQ. Each spotlights a thematic element, domination and management, respectively, but the concept of restraint underlies both. The unity of plot is further established by the narrative voice; Killgrave discourses over both plotlines, imagining himself as the author of the events with total control over his creations.
The “Fight at von Strucker’s” plotline is especially complex in underlying structure. On a superficial read, it feels like typical superpower slugfest, sword and claw in conflict. This is called a story of “resolution” where our protagonist has a goal and must face challenges to attain it. But it is also a story of “solution,” a mystery for the reader. It is obvious from the narrative weight allotted to the mysterious swordsman that he will play a significant role in upcoming issues of this title, but who is he? What are his motivations? There are clues seeded throughout the narrative to help the interested reader puzzle it out. It’s impressive that the writers were able to handle all the high adrenaline activity of the fight while unobtrusively offering snippets of information, slyly hinting at things to come.
Though this issue is primarily driven by theme and plot, there is plenty of superb characterization throughout. Fine attention to dialogue and coherence of behavior make each character credible. Especially noteworthy is the economy through which it is accomplished. For instance, James Sander (Speed Demon) shows up in only fifteen panels and speaks approximately only 160 words, but he receives ample delineation through his words and actions; he is distinct. This is a far cry from the typical decompression-fest where a grim-and-gritty character engages in meaningless activity for an entire issue droning out the same old song; lazy writers disguise their lack of narrative concision with the term “character-driven.”
As usual, the art is fantastic. Grummett’s compositions convey the action and intensity of the story with a smooth sense of narrative flow. Attention to detailed action creates for a rich experience, depicting the athleticism and ferocity of the fight scenes in an engaging and accessible manner. His panel work is noteworthy in how it manages the reader’s eye movement and establishes setting; this is used to great effect in the plunging finale to the fight at von Strucker’s.
Chris Sotomayor’s colors are a definite treat. The variety of color gives the story a visual opulence, capturing the nuances of character and scene. However, sometimes they become murky, obfuscating the action, like in the panel where the swordsman comments upon his sword’s surprising resilience. It needed a bit more accentuation through highlighting. But this is only a minor quibble. Sotomayor’s colors are luscious, and I’d like to see him take his craft to the next level.
"I craft, where they crush. I take stained tattered remnants and weave a warm, cozy blanket."
There is a misconception prevalent in the hobby. Creators and consumers have become accustomed to equating serious with dismal. In the quest to make our craft worthy of “mainstream” respect, we have eschewed any narrative that isn’t dark and dreary. The old tropes of the genre are deemed as immature and unrealistic. Traditionalist superheroic narratives are not considered serious. This is a sophomoric prejudice.
Underlying the sword and claw, this issue makes a strong aesthetic statement. It has thematic resonance with the Pygmalion and Galatea myth. In one version the myth, Pygmalion is a sculpture who finds the women of his town beneath his attention. So, he crafts his ideal woman out of clay. Moved by his passion, the goddess, Aphrodite, grants his heart’s desire; his woman of clay becomes his wife in the flesh. His ideal is made real. Through the spark of his artistic genius, Galatea takes on a life of her own.
In Killgrave’s narrative, we can see the obvious Pygmalion motif in that he thinks that he’s controlling the ensuing actions as some sort of performance art. But this is only a superficial correlation. Pygmalion is a metaphor of the creator, be it the writer who structures the story or the reader who participates in bringing the story to life within their imagination. Through the investment of our passion, these characters are imbued with vitality. This is especially true for those characters that have long, rich histories; over time, these characters have built up strong thematic portfolios and developed a wealth of interconnections within the shared literary reality.
One criticism that gets launched at the Thunderbolts periodically is that it involves obscure B-list, second-rate characters that nobody cares about. Wrong! There are no B-list, second-rate characters; there are only B-list and second-rate writers and readers. Under the attention of a talented creator, any character may be brought to their true potential. It is this aesthetic fidelity that makes the New Thunderbolts such a rare treasure. It is a serious examination of the themes of superheroism that unabashedly embraces the genre conventions and imbues a spark of life into them. I highly recommend this title.
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