Retro Review: Thunderbolts #76-81 By Arcudi & Velasco For Marvel Comics

Thunderbolts #76 – 81 (April – September 2003)

Written by John Arcudi (#76-81)

Art by Francisco Ruiz Velasco (#76-81)

Coloured by Francisco Ruiz Velasco (#76, 80-81), Studio F (#77-81)

Spoilers (from sixteen years ago)

Marvel was in a strange place in 2003, where they were reevaluating what many of their characters meant in the post-9/11, post-bankruptcy world.  They were, for the first time in a decade or more, truly innovative, and seemed unafraid of shaking up fans’ expectations. In April of 2003, Kasper Cole had taken up the habit of the Black Panther, Geoff Johns was writing the Avengers, John Cassaday was drawing Captain America, Quentin Quire was leading a riot at the Xavier School, the story of the first, black, Captain America was being told in Truth, and the title Thunderbolts underwent a complete sea change.

I’d like Thunderbolts in its early days, when Kurt Busiek surprised everyone with the revelation of who the new super team really was.  I stuck with it, as Hawkeye tried to rehabilitate the characters, despite the truly terrible Mark Bagley character designs and facial expressions.  At some point, though, I gave up on the book and had dropped it.

I remember seeing issue seventy-six on the stands, with a cartoony image, a new trade dress, and a promise of being “all-new and all-different.”  Comics readers know not to expect much change when they see that phrase now, but flipping through the book, I was deeply confused as to what it was, and decided to bring it home.

John Arcudi (an unsung great) and Francisco Ruiz Velasco took the book back to its earliest concept, that of a villain’s redemption, and mixed in some underground boxing, to give us the most unexpected and off-the-beaten path title Marvel was putting out at the time (and Marville was still a thing then).

I remember having fond feelings about this book, but can’t actually remember much of the substance of it.  It’s time to revisit it, and see how it stands up.

Let’s look at who turned up in the title:

Main Characters

  • Daniel Axum (formerly The Battler; #76-81)
  • Armadillo (#76-81)
  • Man-Killer (Katrina Van Horne; #80-81)

Villains

  • Slag (#79)
  • Delilah (#80-81)
  • Scorpion (Mac Gargan; #80-81)

Guest Stars

  • Spider-Man (#80)

Supporting Characters

  • Mama Axum (#76-81)
  • Jason (#76, 78)
  • Rey Trueno (#76-81)
  • Coach Cady (#76-80)
  • T-Bone (#76-78)
  • Gina (Daniel’s ex; #77-78)
  • Benny Axum (Daniel’s son; #77-79, 81)
  • Mr. Eales (Daniel’s parole officer; #77, 79)
  • Lydia (#77-81)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • Daniel Axum, our main character, a very large man wearing a hardhat, heads home through a snowfall.  He arrives at his mother’s place, where he lives, and finds that she’s left an old newspaper on his bed.  It shows him, as The Battler, getting beaten by Spider-Man. He flies into a rage, and his mother explains that she just wanted to remind him that his life used to be worse than it is right now.  In our first glimpse of his face, we see that one of his eyes is deformed, oversized, with a scar around it. We learn that he spent three years in prison, during which time his father died and his mother had to move to New Jersey.  Daniel makes it clear he never wants to go back to jail. We cut to a fight between a radically redesigned Armadillo and some guy, in what is clearly an illegal fighting gym. Armadillo gives in to his rage, and beats the guy to a pulp.  Apparently most people there bet against Armadillo, and are not happy as they leave. Jason, the guy that collected the money, takes it outside to a parked car where his boss, Rey Trueno, is enjoying the attentions of a young woman named Amber.  He kicks her out of the car and into the cold while Jason and Trueno talk about how Cady, the coach, is saying that Armadillo’s lost his skill. Jason complains that the fight was too quick, and worries that Armadillo is going to lose soon, on a fight they haven’t fixed.  Trueno worries about having to start all over, but Jason reminds him that Cady has a new fighter in mind. Trueno decides to move up Armadillo’s next fight to the next night, and then has Amber sent up to his room. At work the next day, Daniel’s boss needs him to pull some equipment out of a ditch, and forces the issue when Daniel wants to finish his lunch, bringing up the fact that he’s on parole.  Daniel pulls the equipment out, and is told to hurry and finish his lunch. Coach Cady tries to give Armadillo some pointers before his fight. Armadillo complains about being tired, and having to fight too often. Cady gets Armadillo worked up by suggesting he’s not up to the fight, but we see the next morning that his opponent, a wolfman type, is lying in the gutter. When work lets out, Daniel heads to a bar, The Limbo, where T-Bone, the bartender, is not prepared to extend his tab.  Coach Cady comes up behind him and dumps a beer on his head. Daniel doesn’t rise to his challenge, and tries to ignore him. As Daniel tries to leave, Cady goads him further, bringing up his prison time. Daniel looks like he’s about to hit Cady, when he is encouraged by Rey, who is sitting in a booth with four women draped around him.
  • Rey makes it clear that he knows about Daniel’s past, but calls him Daniel Broughton, the name he used before he changed it to Axum.  When Cady calls that a “monkey name”, Daniel punches him through the bar’s window, and they brawl in the street (clearly Cady is also a superhuman).  After they wreck a car, a streetlight, and the neighbourhood, Cady yields, and Daniel realizes what he’s done, which pretty much guarantees him five years back in prison.  Rey comes out and says he’ll pay for all the damages – it’s at this point that Daniel realizes he’s been played. Rey makes his pitch – he wants Daniel to fight for him, and offers him a lot of money, and the respect that comes with it.  Rey, who is pretty short, tries to connect with Daniel by explaining that he also knows what it feels like to lose, and hands Daniel his business card. Walking off, Daniel throws it in the garbage. Daniel’s mother speaks to his baby’s mother, Gina, on the phone, making excuses for why he can’t come to the phone.  Gina claims Daniel is behind on his support payments. Just as she hangs up, Daniel comes home, and his mother is very upset to see that he’s been fighting. The next day at work, Daniel has words with his boss, who always insists on calling him Danny, before learning that his parole office, Mr. Eales, has come to see him.  When Eales brings up the Limbo, Daniel worries that Rey screwed him and that he’s headed for prison. Instead, Eales is there because he’d heard that Daniel had been seen drinking there, which is in violation of his parole. Daniel claims he deserves some release from all the stress he’s under, but Eales rejects that, letting him off with a warning.  After cashing his cheque, Daniel returns to the now-closed Limbo, and starts looking for the business card he’d thrown out. Rey is there, and gives him a new one. It’s fight night, and the crowd is chanting against the Armadillo. He’s not happy to learn that Coach Cady knows nothing about his opponent, and Armadillo gets the feeling that the Coach is ready to cut him loose.  Scared and worried, Armadillo heads out to face his opponent – Daniel Axum. Daniel is nervous too, especially when he sees Armadillo wade into some of the crowd. A girl ringside insults Daniel, and then Armadillo attacks him, quickly beating him down. Armadillo yells to Coach that he still has it, and says he’s going to kill Daniel.
  • Daniel thinks he’s done for, but then realizes that Armadillo is not fighting with any real skill, and this gets him up on his feet.  When he finally hits the ‘Dillo back, he realizes that he’s scared, and this gives Daniel even more strength, until he manages to take Armadillo down.  Daniel is very pleased, and the praise he gets from Rey, not to mention the congratulatory kiss he receives from the girl who insulted him last issue, makes him pretty happy.  Later, he accepts a small stack of cash from Rey, and makes it clear that Rey has earned his trust. He comments on how frightened Armadillo seemed, and Coach Cady and Rey gas Daniel up with talk of future bouts.  Daniel hadn’t intended to fight more than once, and on his way out, he chats with Lydia, the woman he saw ringside. We see that Armadillo is lying on a table, bleeding and in pain. Daniel returns to the Limbo, where he clears his tab with T-Bone and leaves.  Next he heads to Gina’s, where he pays her all the money he owes her. Later, we see Daniel making a snowman with his son. He and Gina talk, and it’s the first she’s been nice to him since he got out. Later again, Daniel is soaking in his mother’s too-small bathtub while she talks to him through the door about the fact that he’s paid three months’ rent in advance, and that she is worried about what he’s doing for money.  Back on his job, Daniel dreams of the glory he felt winning that fight. His boss comes to talk to him, and apologizes for being indiscreet when his parole officer came before. He tries to give Daniel some straight talk, telling him to stop blaming others for his own mistakes, and points out another parolee, who has been working with him for sixteen years, and has been miserable the whole time. Daniel doesn’t say much, but later he goes to see Rey and asks if the fights are actually legal.  Rey says it’s all safe, and we see through a montage that Daniel wins a number of bouts, and while his mother doesn’t come around, everyone else starts to like him a lot more. After these fights, Cady talks to Rey about how right he was about Axum, although Cady wishes that Daniel wasn’t spending time with Lydia. We see that it’s all starting to go to Daniel’s head, and he is starting to lose sight of things.
  • Rey is appearing on an after midnight radio talk show hosted by a guy named Morris Lachs.  Rey is at the roach-infested studio to talk about his plans for the future of New Jersey sports, but his host wants to dig into his past, bringing up his sporting goods stores, his scandal ridden time on the Camden City Council, and his short lived time working for the United Football League.  These questions get Rey angry, and when Lachs brings up his unsanctioned powered fighting league, Frey tries to deflect before finally losing his temper. Daniel trains with a sparring partner, while the Coach suggests that he work on “staying low”. He won’t tell Daniel much about his upcoming fight, for the championship, and Daniel finally gets angry with his condescension, and we see that Daniel is still angry that when the Coach first goaded him into fighting, he went racial.  Lydia arrives to take Daniel out, and asks about his tattoo – originally it was Gina’s name, but he had it altered to just read ‘Gin’ when he was in prison and she left him. Later, Daniel is at his mom’s, playing with his son. His mother is still unhappy with him. They argue quietly, and just as Daniel asserts that he is in control of his destiny here, the phone rings, and Rey orders him down to the Limbo. Daniel insists he has to wait until Gina’s picked up the boy, which irritates Rey.  When he arrives at the bar, he joins Rey and Cady. Rey gives him half of his payment for the upcoming fight – fifty thousand dollars – and then insists that Daniel quit his day job. Daniel objects, because he has to keep that employment to maintain his parole. Rey tells him to do it anyway, insults his manhood, and takes back the money before storming out. The day of the fight, Cady tries to give Daniel some advice. Rey comes by, and we learn that Daniel did quit his job. Rey shows him the full hundred thousand, and tells him he’ll hold it until the end of the fight.  As Daniel walks towards the ring, he runs into Eales, his parole officer, who is there as a fan and has a large bet riding on Daniel. Daniel figures out that Rey was testing him, and is angry, but then it’s time for his fight. His opponent is a massive guy from Russia named Slag. They begin to fight, and Daniel decides he doesn’t like Cady’s advice about staying low, and begins to fight his own way. He manages to knock Slag out, despite being about half his size, and wins the World Champion title. Later, he and Lydia drive back to the place where the fight happened so Daniel can get his cell phone.  He’s surprised to see Armadillo outside, begging for money.
  • Issue eighty opens with Spider-Man fighting Man-Killer, a woman with shoulder pad armor that gives her great strength.  As they fight, she gets more and more angry with Spidey, who uses that against her, until she ends up trussed up for the police.  Armadillo continues to beg for money outside the gym. Some local kids find him and mock him a bit; one explains that he got brain damage in his last fight.  Daniel also watches this, and bristles when Coach Cady orders him back to work. Cady shuts the door on Armadillo. Man-Killer, Katrina Van Horne, is in a holding cell, and surprised to learn that her bail has been paid by her “old friend” Lydia.  Driving towards New Jersey in a limo with Lydia, Rey, and some other guy, Man-Killer demands to know what’s going on, as she doesn’t know them at all. Rey makes it clear that the guy is her new lawyer, and that they are going to help her beat her new charges.  Daniel is still practicing in the ring when Cady tells him that they need it for Man-Killer, who has just arrived with the others. Cady suspects Daniel knows her. Daniel’s mom calls to say that Gina has offered for Daniel to take Benny for the weekend, and he agrees.  Lydia also notices that Daniel is watching Man-Killer. She tells Daniel about convincing her to join them, and Daniel suspects that they are playing her. Cady’s first attempts to coach Katrina don’t go well, and when Rey suggests a new trainer for her, Cady gets angry.  When he tells Katrina to focus, she charges him, punching him into a wall. Daniel and Lydia are in the changeroom (it’s pretty clear they just had sex), and Daniel admits that he’s becoming more and more suspicious of Rey. Lydia explains to him that their league is about to go legit and nation-wide, which can make Daniel famous.  She oversells it though when she talks about his face being on cereal boxes, and he ends the conversation. On his way out, Katrina recognizes him from his Battler days and asks him to meet her at the Limbo. Later, she introduces him to her two friends, Delilah and Mac Gargan, the Scorpion. She asks him if he’s ever been on a team.
  • Daniel, Katrina, Delilah, and Mac talk about how much they hate Spider-Man, and speculate as to what kind of person (or monster) he really is.  Eventually, they get to their pitch to Daniel, that they want to team up to take Spider-Man down once and for all. Daniel suggests that Rey is doing good by her, and she shouldn’t risk losing everything.  This makes her angry, and makes reference to the rumour that it was Spider-Man that ruined Daniel’s face. He leaves, annoyed at himself for falling back into his old life. He thinks about his last fight with Spider-Man, where he got dragged behind a bus and thrown into a wall, which presumably caused the injuries to his face.  He lets his rage get the better of him and he trashes a newspaper box. Later, he goes to talk to Katrina at the gym, and says he’s interested in her mission; she tells him to meet on Saturday at 7. Lydia comes up to him and tries to get him to go to Atlantic City with her for the weekend, but he mentions that he has his son that weekend.  Rey tells Katrina to go into Manhattan to see her lawyer about a delay in her trial. She accuses him of purposely slowing down her case so she’ll have more time to fight for him and heads out. Daniel wrestles with his demons before calling his mother and asking her to watch Benny for him. He doesn’t know that Lydia is listening in, and she runs to talk to Rey.  In Manhattan, Katrina learns that her case was dismissed. As Daniel goes to leave the gym, Rey stops him, saying he needs him to come to a meeting on the weekend. Daniel refuses, citing his son, and Rey raises his voice. They get into an argument in front of a number of fighters, and Daniel makes reference to the way Rey treats his trash, meaning Armadillo. Leaving, Daniel also dismisses Lydia, referring to her as Rey’s secretary.  Rey sees Armadillo digging through trash cans, and goes to a bodega to get him a sandwich and some other food. They talk, and Daniel is surprised to learn that Armadillo doesn’t hold him any ill will. He sees Katrina, and tells her he’s not going to help her fight Spider-Man. She says she also wasn’t going to do it anymore. The last page shows Daniel at home with his mother and son, Katrina drinking with Rey and the lawyer, and some neighbourhood kids laughing at Scorpion and Delilah, who are webbed to a flagpole.

This was a terrific, if too short, run.  John Arcudi took this book to very new places, showing us the life of a D-list supervillain trying to get on with his life.  It fits with the usual theme of the Thunderbolts title, the quest for redemption, but takes it to a much more street level view, and does it without any connection to the previous seventy-five issues of the title.  

Arcudi is just so good at developing these characters.  He really makes Daniel’s plight clear, and makes everything here believable.  The inclusion of some Marvel characters helps contextualize the comic, but Daniel could be any ex-con looking to turn himself around without any real help or prospects.  That he’s huge and strong isn’t the point.

I’m not sure if this was always just going to be a six-issue run, because there was a lot of room for further exploration.  I’d like to know more about Coach Cady, who is himself super strong, but a complete mystery. I’d also like to have seen more of Man-Killer, who was a pretty interesting character the way she was written here (and probably nowhere else in her previous and later appearances).

I love the art by Francisco Ruiz Velasco, which is cartoony but also very evocative.  His oversized powered people still manage to look normal, with a few exceptions.  I don’t like his redesign of the Armadillo – actually, that’s not entirely true. I found the character visually very interesting, I just don’t like that he’s the classic Captain America character whose goofy appearance has always been very endearing to me (I have a huge soft spot for the Mark Gruenwald/Paul Neary Captain America run where he debuted).  

One thing I really love about this comic are Velasco’s covers, which play on the look of magazines like Maxim from that time.  I’m sure they caught a few eyes in the comics shops, but I don’t know if they helped or hurt sales ultimately, as they didn’t do the best job of advertising the actual content of the comics.  Of course, the fact that covers advertise things like “bling-bling” and “booty” is pretty cringey, by today’s standards.

It was fun revisiting this run.  There needs to be more “slice of life” comics, like Gotham Central, that shows how people who are adjacent to mutants, heroes, and villains, just get on with their life. 

Next time around, I’m going to be checking out a Milestone title that I was not aware of when it first came out, but got interested in years later.

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

If you’d like to read this story, there was a trade published:
Thunderbolts: How to Lose

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