A look back at the comic book title, THUNDER Agents

Jack Goblin By Jack Goblin, 4th Feb 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/1zyub8g4/
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Comics & Graphic Novels

THUNDER Agents was a popular independent comic book in the 1960's. A retrospective of what it was about, and why.

Independant Comics

In the world of comics books, Marvel and DC loom large: The biggest publishers, the most titles, world famous characters. But there are, there have been, and almost certainly there will in the future be other comic book companies, many of them with interesting characters of their own. Archie Publications, with the continuing adventures of Riverdale's perpetual teen. Mirage Studios, which gave birth to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And during the 1960's, Tower Comics and their main title, THUNDER Agents. The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves: As a certain TV character would say, someone REALLY wanted those initials to spell "THUNDER".

The Artist and the Publisher

THUNDER Agents came about because of a 1965 business deal between comic book artist extraordinaire Wally Wood, famed for drawing handsome heroes, beautiful females, and realistic machinery; and Harry Shorten, a book publisher and one time comic book editor. Shorten wanted to start his own comic book line, with a special twist that would make them stand out. These comics would be double sized issues - 64 pages instead of the 32 pages common to comics of the time - and feature several stories instead of just one.

The Set-Up

But he needed content; and fortunately, Wood had an idea that was big enough to base a whole comic series on. At that time spy and counter espionage shows and fiction, like TV's The Man From UNCLE and Secret Agent, and the James Bond books, were extremely popular. Wood's idea was a fusion of the spy and superhero genres, based around a semi-secret organization, THUNDER, a branch of the United Nations. THUNDER's mission was to fight international criminal gangs and would-be world conquerors; and to do this, they had several superheroes who served as agents. Shorten approved, Wood became the chief artist, and a variety of other artists and writers - among them Gil Kane, Reed Crandell, and Steve Ditko, as well as other well known names in the comic book field - were hired to supply other stories. And soon things were off and running.

The Coming of Heroes

The first issue appeared in November 1965; and in that origin issue, THUNDER was already up against it. They were battling the Warlord, a mysterious cloaked figure and the one who had caused THUNDER's creation. He had appeared out of nowhere a few years before and was now employing many of the world's spies and criminals, and using his own army of mind controlled men, to try to take over the world. And it was looking like he might succeed...

Especially when, in the very first story, the Warlord scored a major victory. His forces killed super scientist Professor Emil Jennings, who had been developing weapons and inventions THUNDER could use to defeat him. However, not before Jennings had come up with a variety of devices, including three amazing prototypes that could give the users super human powers. The prototypes were too sophisticated to be duplicated; but in the hands of the right individuals, THUNDER hoped they might be the key to victory. So they set about creating some superheroes. Such as...

Roll Call

Dynamo - Leonard Brown was a strong, brave, stout hearted agent chosen to wear the Thunder Belt, a special device that with the turn of a dial would increase his molecular density tremendously. This gave him incredible strength, a lot of resistance to damage, and greatly increased mass, making him virtually a superman. But the belt had a limited operating time, and caused great stress to his body, so Brown could only use it for brief periods. He was dubbed Dynamo and became THUNDER's main agent. Dynamo wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, and his enemies would often manage to trick or deceive him, defeating him and depriving him of the belt. But with or without his belt, Brown would never give up, never stop fighting no matter how hopeless the odds, and as time when on he gained a great deal of battle savvy and skill in using his capacities.

NoMan - Jennings wasn't the only supergenius THUNDER had. There was also Doctor Anthony Dunn, an old man who had created several identical androids: Blue skinned, man-like beings with greater than human strength and abilities. The androids were inert, however, because the plan was to eventually transfer a human mind into them, making a cybernetic superbeing. THUNDER, unwilling to lose the wheelchair bound, possibly dying Dunn, requested HE be the one to provide the androids' mind. Dunn agreed, and in his new android body was once again healthy and strong. He also could transfer his mind from one android body to another instantly, making him unkillable and uncontainable. When he was given Jenning's second invention, a cloak that with the touch of a button could turn him invisible, the former Dr. Dunn made a classical reference, named himself NoMan, and became THUNDER's chief sneak and counter-spy.

Menthor - The third of Jennings' devices was a helmet that would greatly enhance the mental capacities of the wearer. The man chosen to wear it and become Codename Menthor was THUNDER agent John Janus: Genius, accomplished athlete, trained combatant. Almost too good to be true; and he was. Janus was actually a Warlord secret agent who had infiltrated THUNDER to destroy it from the inside, and when he was given the Menthor helmet it looked like he'd be able to do it faster than he'd have dreamed possible. A funny thing happened when he put it on, though: The helmet gave him telekinesis and telepathy, the ability to control others and absorb their mental energy, a variety of powers. But it also turned him good. Janus was a traitor; Menthor was a hero who fought to defend THUNDER and defeat the Warlord. The trouble was, once the helmet was off, Menthor turned back into Janus, who had no memory of his time as Menthor or that he had switched sides. This reverse Jekyll / Hyde situation had potential. But in the second issue it was jettisoned, perhaps for being too difficult to maintain, and Menthor became a conventional super-hero.

The Beginning

Dynamo, NoMan, and Menthor spent the first few issues of THUNDER Agents fighting the Warlord and his lieutenants like Demo and the Iron Maiden - a typically stunning Wood fem fatale, this one wearing armor - in concert with the THUNDER squad: A group of highly trained agents with a variety of skills, lead by special agent Guy Gilbert. The unexpected appearance of the three superheroes disrupted the Warlord's efforts and things reached a temporary stalemate, allowing time for some character development. Like Iron Maiden falling for Dynamo and deciding, since she had no intention of reforming, he needed to stop walking the straight and narrow and become a criminal like her. She'd make sure he did. There was also the somewhat odd twist that for all the agents except NoMan, being superheroes was just their day job. They showed up, put in some office time, fought evil, then checked out and went home. Although they were on permanent call in case the Warlord or some other menace would show up.

The new comic book and characters attracted the fans in droves and it became extremely popular for a time. But it was soon clear that while fans loved Dynamo - his story benefited from some of Wood's best art, extraordinary feats of strength and heroism, and very fast pacing - and they liked NoMan, Menthor was not impressive to them.

The trouble was, conventional superheroics with someone whose powers are mainly mental aren't very dramatic. Open fire on Dynamo, he'd turn on the belt and rush you, bullets bouncing off his body. Try to shoot NoMan, he'd turn invisible and attack, or let you kill one android body while another rabbit punched you from behind. Pull a gun on Menthor he'd look at you, order you to drop it, then to go turn yourself in to the police. It didn't help that Menthor's adventures weren't drawn by Wood and both art and writing tended to be uninspired and conventional. Menthor wasn't a popular part of the book and in issue number 4 he began to be replaced with...

The Fastest Man in the World

Lightning - The Warlord wasn't the only one causing problems. There was also a world wide criminal organization known as SPIDER (Secret People's International Directorate for Extralegal Revenue), and a variety of mad scientists and trouble makers. One of these was an unrepentant Nazi mastermind named Baron Kampf. He had a gas that put anyone exposed to it into extreme slow motion, making it easy for his immune troops to take over and loot even THUNDER headquarters. The Baron's goal was to eventually establish a Fourth Reich; and how could you fight someone who made people super slow?

By making someone super-fast. THUNDER scientists adapted one of Jennings' experiments to create a time accelerator suit that enabled the man wearing it to move like lightning. Hench the name. Guy Gilbert was chosen to don the Lightning costume and became THUNDER's version of the Flash, able to do all sorts of super speed tricks. He fought and eventually finished Kampf, joining the ranks of THUNDER's heroes. The suit came with a built in problem, though. It accelerated time; so the person wearing it was aging at a much faster rate than anyone else. Lightning was literally running himself to death and damaging his health more and more each time he used his powers. And as the series went on, this became a recurring problem and plot device.

The highpoint!

But the Warlord war continued to be the main focus. The stalemate didn't last long; for every plan the THUNDER Agents could stop, the Warlord seemed to come up with another, even more dangerous one. Finally culminating in an effort to drop a stolen nuclear bomb on Moscow and provoke WWIII, tricking the U.S. and the USSR into destroying each other. Dynamo managed to get aboard the counterfeit U.S. bomber the Warlord was piloting towards Russia, and confronted the villain. During the struggle, he ripped off the Warlord's mask... and was stunned by a green, goggle eyed, inhuman face. Then the plane crashed, with only Dynamo surviving.

The end of the war? No. Because as it turned out, there was not just one Warlord, there were many of them. And they WEREN'T human. Rather, the Warlords were of an ancient race that had existed before Mankind had evolved. The development of violent, fast reproducing humans forced the Warlord race to keep retreating, until finally they had gone underground, keeping themselves hidden from man for centuries. Then a nuclear bomb test had accidentally destroyed one of their subterranean cities. Deciding peaceful co-existance wasn't possible and it was Humanity or them, the Warlords had set out to make sure it wasn't them.

With their secret now revealed the Warlords began an all out offensive. But THUNDER kept defeating them, and the battle soon devolved into the Warlords mainly trying to kill the THUNDER Agents. Finally resulting, in issue 7, with Janus being captured, deprived of the Menthor helmet, and used as bait by the Warlords to lure all the THUNDER Agents into a trap. A battery of high powered death rays were set up that would go off when the agents were inside the area of effect. Not super strength or super speed or the ability to transfer minds would save them, ALL would die. And a large number of Warlords were present in the underground bunker where the trap was located to watch that happy sight.

Except that Janus, the one time traitor, took advantage of distraction on his captors' part as the THUNDER Agents approached to dash past them and - despite being shot repeatedly - throw himself into the death trap just before his colleagues reached it. His blasted, smouldering body landed at their feet. Realizing he had saved them from death at the cost of his own life, the Agents attacked the Warlords in the bunker savagely, wiping them out. Which brought issue # 7 to a bittersweet conclusion.

The death of Menthor and of so many Warlords was a turning point. All through issue # 8 THUNDER began getting the upper hand, beating and destroying their enemies' remaining organization. And finally, at the conclusion of # 8, in a pitched battle on board a huge orbiting space ship, Dynamo, Lightning, and NoMan fought the Supreme Warlord and destroyed him, his ship, and his remaining forces. And that WAS the end of the Warlord War.

And the End of the Road

The trouble was, once you've saved the world, what do you do for an encore? For DC, Marvel, or Ian Fleming, the answer would have been, do it over again. As a newer, even more deadly villain would make his appearance, and each agent and the group would face more life and death challenges with the stakes even higher.

But there was no strong editor, no central planner at Tower, and apparently no one could come up with something big enough to challenge THUNDER. SPIDER continued to be a problem but there was no worry THEY'D be able to take over; they were just in it for the money. Various Communist menaces reared their red heads, but they were mainly threats to U.S. supremacy, not the world. Mad scientists and thieves came and went, new heroes Raven and the Undersea Agent were introduced, but there was no focus, no grand story arc, nothing to sustain fan excitement.

Or apparently that of the writers and artists. Many of the stories became pedestrian and conventional. Readership dropped; earlier stories were reprinted to save money; and finally, in 1969, after 20 issues, THUNDER Agents was cancelled.

Conclusion

But that was not the end of the story. Copyright to the THUNDER characters has shifted hands several times, and there have been occasional efforts to revive the series, including once by DC. None of them have been successful. Sometimes the storyline is updated to reflect modern concerns and ideas; sometimes it remains similar to the original. Either way, despite the appeal of the characters, the series doesn't have the attraction it once did. Apparently the idea of government created and controlled superheroes belongs to a time when government was seen in a more positive light. These days, a semi-secret spy organization that has enormous power seems as sinister as the forces it fights.

Perhaps that will change, in the future. And a future comic book company be able to make a new THUNDER Agents a success.


Link to Wikipedia's article on THUNDER Agents

Media Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tags

Comic Books, Dynamo, Menthor, Noman, Superhero, Thunder Agents, Tower Comics, Wally Wood

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author avatar Jack Goblin
Was born. Haven't died yet. Don't intend to anytime soon.

Thank you much for reading my articles. I hope they brought you pleasure and enlightenment. :)

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Comments

author avatar Phyl Campbell
4th Feb 2014 (#)

Wow. That's wayyyy more than I ever wanted to know about a comic book franchise. I do appreciate the share though -- my son loves his comics and his superheroes and cannot get enough.

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
4th Feb 2014 (#)

Nice post!

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