So… it seems that every few months I have to return to familiar ground like birds migrating or your gran when she forgets where she parked her car at the grocer. In my case, I find myself returning to “Thunderbolts”. Now, if you’ll recall me feelings for the series thus far can best be described as: Fantastic! Muddled unfunny joke. Hopeful praise. Jubilant rejoicing, the last one being after Ben Acker and Ben Blacker took the reins of the series and seemed to grasp what made the book actually good. So I resumed reading the series, content that a beloved book of mine had finally gotten the leadership it desperately needed. And then I come in this week to find somebody left the faucet running and flooded the plot with awful dialogue and tacky clichés.
Let’s start with what I liked about this issue because it did a fair job for most of the book. Visually the scenes are put together stupendously, taking advantage of the medium and assembling the panels in interesting and eye catching ways. There’s a sequence where Punisher and Elektra fight their way into and then out of a Super Yakuza stronghold and the unbridled glee I felt brought me back to being a kid again. The entire book balances the tight action of a well choreographed fight with the proper level of exposition so it doesn’t get in the way. Everyone feeling warm and fuzzy? Good, because the story is a piss on the carpet disappointment.
To date, this run of “Thunderbolts” has had three writers —well four actually. Charles Soule by far has done the most damage to the series. I was fine with Punisher and Elektra pairing off to have sexy times. Fine, it’s feasible. But when Charles Soule decided that the two actually intimately loved each other I wanted to ask a few questions, to clarify. If Punisher; a man so unable to move on from the memory of his dead wife and kids that he dedicated every waking moment to murdering crime; was able to move on from the memory of his dead wife and kids and fall in love with Elektra wouldn’t the whole character unravel? Would the book then become the adventures of some guy who used to be a sociopath but has moved on from that? But I was able to forgive this misstep because Charles Soule left and I thought we had moved on from this weird detour. Imagine my surprise when the entirety of this issue was Punisher and Elektra fighting for their relationship. They even retconned their past so the two of them actually had a long, sordid history together. It turns out that these two had been in love since the late nineties, a fact that quickly elicited a follow up. If Punisher knew Elektra for such a long time, a period of time when she was the personal body guard for the Kingpin, wouldn’t he have made at least one honest attempt to fill her with bullets? Perhaps we should let that lie in order to focus on the most crucial aspect of the book, the tackiest dialogue since Adam West donned the Bat suit.
There was a good portion of the book that I thought it was perhaps a satire, a humorous jab at over the top drama comic books where nothing really happens. It gradually donned on me that they were taking themselves completely seriously. Which was disconcerting because Elektra kept telling Punisher to try and kill her quick because she couldn’t kill him until he tried to kill her. At one point there’s a flashback which shows Elektra giving Punisher the heart of an adversary she killed. He then had the heart bronzed and gave it back as a gift. Then, towards the end of the book, Elektra dramatically cuts the heart in two and on the next page, full spread was a broken heart with a dejected Punisher and Elektra on either side. I’m sorry but for a story usually so chalked full of ingenious writing, this all came off as rather half-assed and on the nose.
If they were so determined to have this lovers spat play out over the pages of the book, the least they could do is make Punisher and Elektra’s differences an actual insurmountable obstacle. In the book, Punisher is keen to kill Thunderbolt Ross and all of his allies, but Elektra dumps Ross pretty quickly, yet Punisher still wants to kill her. At least in “Invincible” when Robot came back with Monster Girl from the other universe where they had been kept prisoners there was clear and irreparable damage between them. The story even expanded on the damage by showing the trials they went through, the prison camp they had to survive and the rebellion they led. In the other universe, when they had risen to co-emperors, Robot used his infallible logic to commit genocide. That is a hard difference to reconcile. So if “Thunderbolts” had worked to make Punisher and Elektra’s differences perceivable or even well developed this story may not have seemed so tacky.