Caught behind the big showcase of Avengers and X-Men last week was Thunderbolts, the little comic which could and has been for the past fifteen years. Sure, there have been periods of quiet, but ever since at the very least Warren Ellis' revitalising Civil War tie-in series; Thunderbolts has been progressing with unstoppable momentum. And sure, it's going to be turned into Dark Avengers soon, but for characters like Songbird, Ghost and Moonstone this title has been revelatory.
The basic concept for the book was showcased fifteen years ago last week, when writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley unveiled their new superhero team. The only twist being, at the end of the issue, every member of the cast pulled off their masks to reveal that they weren't heroes at all - they were villains, pulling off an elaborate con. And ever since, each new incarnation of the team have seen former/current villains donning the guise of common everyday superheroes in order to complete a scheme... or genuinely seek redemption.
Issue #172 plays into this concept brilliantly, turning the long-running central storyline (in which members of the Thunderbolts have been sent back through the time stream, causing havoc across the decades) in on itself for a clever look back on the title. On this stop in the timestream, the team have ended up... facing the very first lineup of the Thunderbolts. The new team faces the old. But not only are a new team facing an old team - but some current members of the team are now forced to look back on themselves when they were younger. Moonstone comes face to face with her younger self, while Fixer sees himself when he used to go by the name of Techno. Oh, youth!
Jeff Parker has been writing the title for a very long time now, starting off with Luke Cage and a team of supervillains before expanding the storyline into this manic cross-time caper we're currently in the midst of. It's been a triumphantly entertaining run, vaulting over mandated events like Shadowland and Fear Itself with consummate ease, as Parker displays his ability to write the single most entertaining comics you'll find on the shelves. There are jokes and action and character, but also a hefty jolt of energy in every issue. Whether putting a stetson on Cage and pretending to be in a western story or putting pathos into Man Thing, Parker's run has been filled with fantastical ideas and straight-up fun.
This latest issue continues that, giving readers a cast of relatively unknown villains and anti-heroes and making them into a quirky, diverse team. Thunderbolts reaches it's fifteen year of existence as a concept in style, and Parker leaves readers with a last page which salutes everything about Busiek and Bagley's original story, while moving things into a crazy, messed-up, brilliantly fun place. If you're not following Thunderbolts, you should probably go back a few years and start.