Brand Echh: JCP Features the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1

The opening up of the Direct Sales marketplace, comprised of a string of independently-operated comic book specialty shops across the Nation and eventually the globe–offered up new promise in terms of the way in which comic books were sold. Up to this point, Comics were sold like any other periodical publication: a print run was sent, it was sent to outlets all across the land, and whatever didn’t sell was returned for credit and subsequently destroyed. It was an utterly wasteful system, and by the end of the 1970s, companies were having to print three copies in order to sell one. Consequently, most pundits reckoned that the entire industry would fold within a year or two as margins became unsustainable. The Direct Market changed all of that. There, the store owners ordered the specific quantities of each comic book that they wanted and thought they could sell, and they purchased them on a nonreturnable basis. Ergo, no waste, no returns, and a much healthier profit margin on every copy.

What the Direct Market also did is to provide a network and an infrastructure that would allow for new, smaller publishers to enter the field and to stand at least an outside chance of making a go of it. The marketplace could be brutal, though, and there was a decent amount of turnover among companies–few of them lasted through the end of the decade and only a small percentage of them became perennials. But this meant that the industry was suddenly flush with new product coming from new creators–an exciting time.

One of the earliest players to enter the field was John Carbonaro. A longtime comic book fan, Carbonaro had set himself up with a stake that he hoped would bring eyes to his new venture. Noting that Tower Publications hadn’t done anything with their short-lived but fondly remembered T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents characters since the late 60s and the pop of the Silver Sage super hero bubble, Carbonaro arranged to purchase all of the rights to those characters himself, and set out to publish new stories with them. This venture would consume the rest of his life, and while he insisted to his dying day that the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were a gold mine waiting to happen, he could never quite get the deal he wanted to make them successful again..

Carbonaro’s first move was to put out JCP Features #1, a black and white magazine format release that was intended to reintroduce the characters to new readers after their absence of a dozen years. There was a bit of excitement about this revival in the fan press of the day–early issues of Fantagraphics’ mainstream publication AMAZING HEROES covered the proposed launch in detail. But honestly, the end result feels more like a fanzine than a professional publication, its young artists–including a very young Mark Texeira–are enthusiastic but unpolished. There are a lot of rough edges on the thing.

To produce the book, Carbonaro turned to a number of fans-turned-would-be-professionals who operated Richmond Studios. This included the aforementioned Mark Texeira, Pat Gabriele, Lou Manna, Chris Adamses and Kevin Duane. The plot for the issue involved a new invasion from the alien race that Dynamo had encountered in the 1960s in the first four issues of his self-titled series. Beyond that, it’s an action-heavy spectacle designed to showcase the assorted Agents characters and their individual powers and abilities. There’s not a lot of emphasis placed on characterization, and the artwork swipes from the original Wally Wood books all over the place. It’s fun, but not quite at the level of a professional product.

As this issue was in production, John Carbonaro struck a deal with Archie Comics, which was in the process of reviving their Red Circle line in order to similarly test the renewed interest in super hero characters. Carbonaro briefly came on board Archie as one of the prospective editors of this initiative, and Red Circle agreed to publish THUNDER Agents as a regular color comic book. This move brought Carbonaro into contact with another fan, David Singer–an association that would create years of trouble for him. Only two issues of THUNDER Agents were released by Archie/Red Circle under the JC imprint, and material for a third issue was burned off in the BLUE RIBBON COMICS anthology title some time later. Carbonaro’s association with Archie did allow him to get the rights to reprint a pair of stories produced for that firm in this issue: a short Joe Simon and Jack Kirby teaser for their series THE FLY and a Black Hood story written and illustrated by Neal Adams that had never properly been printed prior to this. That gave Carbonaro some big names to use in promoting this initial publication.

At some point during this process, David Singer had determined that Tower had not properly copyrighted their comic book releases beyond the first issue. Believing the characters to now be in the public domain, he proceeded to set up his own publishing concern, Deluxe Comics, and start up his own revival of the THUNDER Agents in opposition to Carbonaro’s. To add insult to injury, Singer was backed well enough at the start that he was able to hire the services of some of the most popular writers and artists in the field to work on his version, including George Perez, Dave Cockrum, Steve Englehart, Keith Giffen and others. Carbonaro quickly sued Singer for copyright and trademark violations, but the case moved through the court system slowly.

As a part of his defense, Singer proclaimed loudly that the THUNDER Agents were now public domain, and that anybody could do with them what he was doing. In response, several people believed this to be the case, and either started up their own THUNDER Agents projects or featured the characters in their already-running series. (The THUNDER Agents appeared in the JUSTICE MACHINE ANNUAL from Texas Comics, but that appearance was properly licensed and arranged through Carbonaro.) We covered the Solson version here:

In the end, Carbonaro won his lawsuit and was granted both damages as well as ownership of the material that Singer had commissioned. And all of the fly-by-night THUNDER Agents comics disappeared overnight. That said, Carbonaro had little better luck attempting to develop the THUNDER Agents on his own. He got one story published in PENTHOUSE COMICS’ OMNI COMICS, and an aborted attempt through DC that Carbonaro himself pulled the plug on when he felt it was straying too far from the source material. There was also another project that never came to fruition by Rob Liefeld. But none of it was especially successful and none of it fulfilled Carbonaro’s faith in the characters. John Carbonaro passed away in 2009, his dreams for the THUNDER Agents unfulfilled. After his passing, his estate licensed the property first to DC again, who released a moderately successful series as well as a full line of hardcover reprints of the 1960s Wally Wood material, and then IDW, who put out a short-lived title.

5 thoughts on “Brand Echh: JCP Features the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1

  1. Singer had been my introduction to the property, but I’ve loved everything I’ve read. Even the less professional appearances have had something going for them because of how well-crafted the core ideas were.

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  2. John and I were roommates for years in Houston TX. Several times I (and others) would advise him to let publishers do as they wanted, and he could cry/moan about it all the way to the bank.
    I DO want to say that John was a great friend, and one of the most big-hearted people I’ve ever known.

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  3. A couple of points. First, regarding the Direct Market, it had its pros and cons. It took almost all the risk away from the publisher, and placed it on the owners of a growing nationwide network of comic shops. That was great for the publishers as long as the network kept growing. But when it finally stopped growing, the tie to legacy distribution had been severed, and publishers could do nothing to increase circulation outside of a now shrinking network of comics shops. As a result, today there are large swaths of the country where there are comic book deserts, and, as a result, circulations are smaller than ever. For example, where I live in Iowa there are two comic shops in a 6,400 square mile area, housing a major university and more than 300,000 people. When I was a kid in Chicago, there were three stores in the one square mile around my neighborhood where I could, and did, buy comics. Ironically, during the past 45 years, it was not until I retired to Iowa that I had an LCS near me that was less than a 30-minute drive away. Such a distribution model is not a good way to attract, and keep, new readers .

    Regarding the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, I love the Tower books from the 1960s, and have complete runs of all except “Tippy Teen.” As for the various iterations of the characters published during the 1980s, I missed them all because (a.) I was stationed in Northern California nowhere near the only LCS in the vicinity, and (b.) Living in England or Okinawa, Japan. It wasn’t until many years later I saw a smattering of the new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents material in dollar boxes at conventions, and what I saw did not impress. I also missed the DC and IDW reboots because, yet again, where I lived I did not have a convenient LCS nearby, and thus made infrequent pilgrimages every couple of months or so when the opportunity arose. Because trips were so erratic, I never got in a habit of creating a pull list, and simply picked up stuff after perusing the racks, minicon/ majorcon boxes, or online sources. With new comics so hard to get for someone like me, it’s no wonder audiences are shrinking. Personally, I don’t like the LCS-only distribution model because it is now arcaic, and stifles any opportunity for distribution growth. To reach new audiences, I think comics should be as readily available as candy or Pokémon cards.

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