I first encountered the THUNDER Agents in the pages of Maurice Horn’s WORLD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMICS, a two-volume set of books chronicling all sorts of comic book series from around the world. My local library had them in stock, though for some reason they weren’t kept with the other books on comics, but rather over in the reference section. But this didn’t stop me from finding them and pouring over them whenever I could. Because they were reference books, you couldn’t check them out like regular books, so whatever information I gleaned from them had to be done on the fly. And because I loved super heroes, the write-ups on the assorted THUNDER Agents characters fascinated me. So when I found a beat-up copy of THUNDER Agents #1 during that first trip to the Batcave comic book store, I knew I had to have it. I paid something like a buck-seventy-five for it–there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in the characters in 1978, though that would start to change in a couple of years.
THUNDER Agents premiered in 1965 and was an attempt to cash in on two of the biggest trends in popular culture at the time: super heroes and spies. (If the creators could have found a way to work Beatles music into the series, I’m sure they would have.) It was published by Tower, a newcomer to the industry, one of the short-lived companies who tried to stake out a position in the market due to the heightened interest in super heroes. They and the series only lasted about four years, shuttering quietly in 1969 after 20 issues of THUNDER AGENTS and assorted other comics. One of the things that set the Tower releases apart from much of the market was the fact that they insisted in releasing their books in the oversized “annual” format and priced at a quarter, more than twice what a regular comic book cost at that time. This can’t have helped them in terms of parting kids from their loose change. But it does mean that every issue of THUNDER AGENTS was a cornucopia of good art and fun stories.
The THUNDER Agents were largely the creation of Wally Wood, with some kibbitzing from Larry Ivie and a few other folks–how much kibbitzing really depends on who you ask (and Ivie was always something of a self-aggrandizer, so it’s tough to credit his accounts.) Wood had just come from Marvel Comics, where he parted ways with editor Stan Lee once he realized that Lee expected him to do most (all?) of the plotting on the strips he was working on for no additional pay. Given the opportunity to start up his own competing line of super heroes, Wood jumped on it with gusto. He was one of the finest artists of the period, a mainstay of the well-remembered EC Comics stable and one of the few to work on The Spirit alongside Will Eisner. You could hardly have asked for a better person to spearhead a new title launch.
THUNDER AGENTS opened on a simple premise: mankind is under siege by a mysterious figure known as the Warlord, who possesses an army of shock troops and super-scientific technology. it will turn out in the issues ahead that he was the leader of a subterranean civilization that desired the surface world. To meet this threat, the nations of the world had formed T.H.U.N.D.E.R.: The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserve. THUNDER was the GIJOE to the Warlord’s Cobra Commander. The organization was well-financed and began to develop super-weapons of their own to counter the Warlord’s schemes. But before anything more than the prototype devices could be created, Professor Jennings is killed in a Warlord attack–leaving THUNDER with a trio of devices designed to give its operatives superhuman abilities, but no way to duplicate or mass-manufacture them. As such a trio of THUNDER’s operatives are selected to be the group’s super-agents and put their lives on the line to use Jennings’ discoveries to battle back the enemy.
The most popular of the THUNDER Agents, and Wood’s favorite (and the character whose strip he most often worked on) was Dynamo. He’d intended to be called Thunderbolt, but the release of Charlton’s character of that same name scotched those plans. Dynamo was Len Brown (named after his scriptwriter by Wood), a working class stiff who was nonetheless a secret agent for THUNDER who was given a transformative belt that would give him superhuman strength and durability for 30 minutes at a go. Wood cast him very much in the style of the early Joe Shuster Superman, and delighted at having Dynamo tear through a horde of enemies or evidence his spectacular strength and durability. The second THUNDER Agent was perhaps the most unique. This was NoMan, himself an ancient scientist, the head of a program to develop artificial android bodies. His mind was not only transferred into one of these bodies, but it could switch freely between them–making him functionally immortal so long as he had another android form to move his consciousness into. NoMan was also given an invisibility cloak from the stash of gizmos that Professor Jennings had developed, to increase his effectiveness (although only one android body could wear the cloak at any given time–so if it got pulverized, as NoMan’s bodies generally tended to be, the cloak would need to be retrieved.)
The third THUNDER Agent was John Janus, a top-of -the-line cadet who earned the right to wield Professor Jennings’ mental command helmet in the guise of Menthor. But it turned out that THUNDER’s screening process wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Janus was secretly an agent of the Warlord, infiltrating the organization to destroy it from within. (his name might have been a tip-off to them.) However, whenever he would don the Menthor helmet, his demeanor would change, and he’d become a thorough good guy, dedicated to bringing down the Warlord and his forces. This dual personality was swiftly abandoned in subsequent stories, which is a shame–it was probably the most interesting thing about the character. He was the least successful of the initial THUNDER Agents, and in a shocking turn of events for the time, he was killed off for real in issue #7, giving his life to protect his fellow super-agents from harm. The fourth strip in the initial book was THUNDER Squad, which featured a non-powered team of THUNDER Agents very much in the mode of the Challengers of the Unknown or the Howling Commandos. There were five of them, each one a broadly-drawn type: Guy, the leader, Dynamite, the kinda dim big guy, Egghead, the brain, Kitten, the girl, and Weed, the slightly weaselly safecracker and escape artist. Their series was the least popular thing in the magazine, and so in issue #4, Guy was given an acceleration costume that turned him into the fourth super-agent, super-swift Lightning.
The thing that really set THUNDER AGENTS apart from the other titles on the stands in the mid-1960s was the quality of the artwork. Led by Wood himself, this first issue included contributions from Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, and Dan Adkins, and future issues would include stories by Steve Ditko, Manny Stallman, Ogden Whitney, Paul Reinman and many others. The focus here was on art over story–the THUNDER Agents stories tended to be less wordy than the Marvel books of the same period. This first issue laid out the origin of each of the main THUNDER Agents in solo adventures, then brought them all together for the climax (in the manner of a Justice Society story in ALL-STAR COMICS) to rescue the fallen Dynamo, who had been captured by the Warlord’s right-hand woman, the Iron Maiden. She was one of the best-remembered female characters from this age, a true femme fatale who contended with Dynamo and the THUNDER Agents on several occasions and was popular enough on her own that she could have headlined her own series. Needless to say, this initial issue made me a full-on fan of the THUNDER Agents, and I went on to collect the entire series over the course of the next couple of years. This was a great comic book end to end.