Friday, June 5, 2009

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents in the 80s Part 2: The Deluxe/Solson Days of Thunder

Last Week, we looked at the early days of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents revival of the 1980s. This time out, we look at the last days...

By the mid-80s, John Carbanaro's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents revival was in a downward spiral. The folks at Archie had let him down by making his books low priority. And then there was the furor caused by John C.'s sometime acquaintance/employee, David M. Singer. David was studying to be a lawyer, and his quizzical mind learned what Jim Shooter had learned--or at least, believed: Tower Comics had failed to properly copyright its T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents material. According to Singer, regardless of any agreements between Tower and John C., the Agents were public domain and anyone could publish T.A. comics*. And so he did.

Listen, when you're a young comics fan and you hear that a much-loved comicbook is making a comeback with the hottest artists of the day at the helm, you don't ask questions, you just buy. Singer's Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (which he published under the Deluxe imprint) gave us George (New Teen Titans) Perez, Keith (Legion of Super-Heroes) Giffen, Dave (Uncanny X-Men) Cockrum, Jerry (All-Star Squadron) Ordway, Rich (70s star) Buckler, and even legends like Steve Ditko and Murphy Anderson between its covers. On Baxter paper. In full-process color. 52 pages worth. For two bucks (the major sticking point as far as most fans were concerned in the days of seventy-five cent/one dollar comics). Singer and company were trying to recapture the old magic by using top artists and the same format as the original Tower series (but with fewer ads!). Oh, yeah, they had "pretty good" writers, too. Steve (Avengers, Batman, Captain America) Englehart, Dann (Roy's wife) Thomas, Tom and Mary (Legion of Super-Heroes) Bierbaum, and Roger (Captain America, Daredevil) McKenzie. The first four issues were amazing. Perez and Thomas made Raven cool; Giffen and the Bierbaums made Lightning weird; and Englehart, Cockrum, Anderson, and even Singer, himself, turned out some pretty cool T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents stories.

Why no solo Dynamo stories? Because Singer planned on spinning off a second T.A. book with Dynamo as the star. Didn't happen. John C., who, no matter what Singer or anyone else had to say, had paid for the rights to the Agents and he wasn't going to sit still for anyone else using them.**

By the fifth issue, though, it didn't really matter. Yeah, McKenzie and Ordway took over the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents strip and Ordway's art really captured Wood's style while keeping things slick and modern. Giffen and the Bierbaums were still running Lightning through the proverbial mill (pun intended--no matter how rancid). But Perez, Cockrum, and Englehart were gone. Instead of replacing them with more super-stars (Can you imagine Frank Miller on Raven? John Byrne on any of the Agents? The mind boggles!) , Singer was hiring up-and-comers like Mike Harris, John Statema, and Ron Lim who, while quite good, weren't exactly the marquis names we were expecting. Poof. Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was gone to that great back-issue bin in the sky.

In 1987, Gary Brodsky, son of Marvel Comics legend Sol Brodsky published one issue of an "alternative future-timeline" version of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, simply titled T.H.U.N.D.E.R. through his Solson publishing company. Brodsky licensed the book through Carbanaro, but it lasted only one issue. When you get past the "why is No-Man constipated to the point of pain?" cover, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. is not a bad book. Written by Michael Sawyer with very nice art (though a bit too much on the gray scale) by James E. Lyle and Ron Wilber, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. was set in a future gone mad, with a No-Man seemingly gone mad, as well. The daughter of Len (Dynamo) Brown would don her father's belt to become the new Dynamo, and it looked like a new Raven and other new agents were waiting offstage. Lots of potential, but as with many publishers during the "black and white boom/bust" no follow through.

On and off during the 1980s, DC, First, and even Marvel's Epic line tried to work out deals with John C. but nothing ever came to fruition.

The Agents made a couple guest-appearances in the 80s, as well. One, in Dark Horse's Boris the Bear #11-12 (Summer 1987), was unauthorized, with John C. sending DH a "cease and desist" order to keep it from happening again. Another, in Apple Comics' Thunder Bunny #11 (Fall 1987) got Carbonaro's okay after he saw the issue for himself. Apple Comics licensed T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents from John C. for the remainder of the 80s, but never did anything else with them. When their contract expired, John C. allowed the publisher of Penthouse magazine to license our heroes, which led to their legendary appearance in Omni Comix #3 in the 1990s. Oh, that Gulacy/Austin art!

Those are the highlights, Groove-ophiles. For all the skinny on the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, might I suggest you nab a copy of TwoMorrows' excellent T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Companion? I learned a lot from it, thanks to its interviews with the actual creators. I think you'd dig it, too.

*For more info on that situation (as well as details on the Archie Comics deal), directly from the typing fingers of the late John C. himself, check out his discussion forum, which is still up and running.

** Detailed in Robert J. Sadaro's "The Resplendent Sound of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.", in the section sub-titled "The Coming Storm".


James Lyle said...

Hi, James E. Lyle here. I was just surfing around the net and came across you THUNDER Agents stuff. Had to laugh at my THUNDER cover as "NoMan constipated to the point of pain"--hey, we were going for angst! Funny though.

John C is still alive as far as I know. I haven't heard from him in a few months, but he was around then.

The Groovy Agent said...

Hi James, glad you stopped by. Glad you got a giggle from my description of that cover. It was meant in good-natured fun after all. The new art you have up on your site looks fantastic, by the way!

Sorry, but by all accounts--including the official T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents site--John C. passed away this past winter. His funeral services were held on March 2, 2009.I would dearly love to be wrong about that!

Note to "The Man": All images are presumed copyright by the respective copyright holders and are presented here as fair use under applicable laws, man! If you hold the copyright to a work I've posted and would like me to remove it, just drop me an e-mail and it's gone, baby, gone.

All other commentary and insanity copyright GroovyAge, Ltd.

As for the rest of ya, the purpose of this blog is to (re)introduce you to the great comics of the 1980s. If you like what you see, do what I do--go to a comics shop, bookstore, e-Bay or whatever and BUY YOUR OWN!