There’s a whole bunch of convoluted history wound up in today’s Brand Echh entrant, the first and only issue of Solson’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. #1. SO let’s get started. To begin with (and as we’ve covered here
The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were created primarily by Wally Wood for the short-lived Tower line of comics in 1965. A fun mix of the two big national crazes of the period, THUNDER Agents mixed super heroes with James Bond-style spycraft. It was a well-remembered series, even though it only lasted for four years and 20 issues (plus a few solo character spin-offs and a trio of paperback reprints.) What really made THUNDER Agents a cut above was the strong artwork throughout the series, especially at the outset. But alas, this wasn’t enough to overcome changing tastes, the higher quarter price tag on the Tower books, and the overall softening of the marketplace for super hero comics in general as the decade closed. So for a decade, the THUNDER Agents could be found only in back issue bins.
This all changed with a fan by the name of John Carbonaro got involved. He had a love of the THUNDER Agents characters, and so he convinced the owners of Twer to sell all of the rights to him, lock, stock and barrel. This led to Carbonaro attempting to munt a revival of the property in the burgeoning Direct Sales marketplace in the early 1980s. He started first with a one-shot black and white magazine that felt more like a fanzine than a professional publication, and then went on to partner with Archie Comics as an adjunct to their attempt to launch a Red Circle super hero line. Two issues of a color THUNDER Agents comic was produced under the JC imprint and printed and distributed through Archie (as well as at least two reprint comics of the 1960s material.) Despite all of these efforts, while there was a little bit of fan interest and nostalgia for the characters, the book didn’t catch on.
Then, things started to get interesting, and not in a good way. One of the people working on the Red Circle launch was a fellow named David Singer. Singer worked alongside Carbonaro to some degree during the time when the series was being relaunched into the mainstream through Archie. And he made what he thought was a useful discovery: none of the original THUNDER Agents comic books carried the necessary legal lines apart from the first one. So Singer decided that the THUNDER Agents must therefore be in the public domain, and that what Carbonaro had purchased from Tower had been smoke. And so he set out to produce his own line of THUNDER Agents books.
Singer was canny at the outset, filling the pages of his new THUNDER Agents launch with top-flight talent from Marvel and DC. Creators involved included George Perez, Dave Cockrum, Keith Giffen, Steve Englehart and more. Singer was paying extraordinarily good page rates in order to get these creators to do work for him, but he saw this as a necessary step in terms of getting the brand, his brand, established. Carbonaro wasted no time in suing Singer for copyright and trademark infringement. As the details of the lawsuit and the situation became public in the pages of fan publications such as the Comics Journal, the notion that the THUNDER Agents were in the public domain took hold–and suddenly, a gold rush was on.
If you had been a fan of the THUNDER Agents in the 1960s and lamented their absence throughout the 1970s, then the mid-1980s was the time for you. It seemed like everybody suddenly decided to either put out their own THUNDER Agents material or else use them as guest-stars in their existing titles. Seriously, there were a ton of cut-rate THUNDER Agents appearances everywhere you would turn–enough so that an issue of the satirical BORIS THE BEAR from Dark Horse could both parody the situation while adding to it, having its homicidal lead character hunting down and executing the many new THUNDER Agents clones at the behest of the spirit of Wally Wood himself. All of which leads us to this title.
It was no surprise when Solson Publications announced their own entry in the great THUNDER Agents Revival Sweepstakes. Because if there was a bottom-feeder publisher in the mid-1980s, it was definitely Solson. The outfit was founded by Gary Brodsky, the son of Marvel Comics artist and production man Sol Brodsky. Like his father, Gary wanted to get into publishing in the worst way. And that’s exactly what he did. Beginning in 1986, Solson came out with an incredible number of absolute shlock comics, books that weren’t anywhere near professional quality, with lousy concepts, amateurish artwork and ill-considered ideas. The perennial Solson comic book series was REAGAN’S RAIDERS, which cast Ronald Reagan and members of his cabinet as super heroes in the most tone-deaf manner possible. In an era of fly-by-night black and white shlock publishers, Solson was the shlockiest.
But with that said, I must admit that I do actually have a soft spot for their one and only issue of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. The creative team was Michael Sawyer, James Lyle and Ron Wilber, and as far as I know, none of them went on to do much of anything of greater note in the field. Lyle’s name is connected to a couple of titles in this period, and Wilber worked additionally on a spate of porno comics for Eros/Fantagraphics. Sawyer, though, is a ghost.
Sawyer, Lyle and Wilber chose an interesting tack for their THUNDER Agents revival. They set it in a dystopian near-future, one in which the THUNDER Agents had been active back in the 1960s but were now forgotten and lost to time. The creative team was clearly being influenced by contemporary works such as Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN, and attempted to do something along similar lines, using a super hero property to comment upon the state of the world in general. They weren’t anywhere near as adept as Miller, Moore or Gibbons, of course, but even if their reach exceeded their grasp, and least they were trying to do something interesting with the idea, and not just picking the bones of a dead super hero property with a direct knock-off.
That all said, the execution here really isn’t much good at all. It’s wordy and dense in the wrong way, most of the characters are stock caricatures, and the artwork is often clumsy. And if you came to the book because you like the THUNDER Agents, you’re a bit out of luck, because only one such Agent shows up in this first issue, and not until the closing pages. It definitely wants to be taken seriously in that way that emo teenagers want to be taken seriously, and it’s similarly overwrought. But somehow, there is a spark of something in this mess that brings me back to it. It’s somehow earnest in its cynicism.
Back at the main event, Carbonaro eventually was able to win in court, establishing the legitimacy of his claim to the THUNDER Agents and awarding him not just cash damages but also all of the rights to all of the THUNDER Agents material that Singer had commissioned and published. Suddenly, time was up for knock-off THUNDER Agents stories, and just as rapidly as they had sprung up everywhere, they all disappeared once more–including THUNDER, which never published a second issue. It was a bit of a pyrrhic victory for Carbonaro, though, for while he made deal after deal, some of which got material into publication, some of which did not, he was never quite able to re-establish the property as a growing concern.