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T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives Volume One
posted May 4, 2003
Wally Wood and Various
My first inclination upon receiving the Archives edition of early T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comic books was to fake the review and put the $50 book, shrink wrap and all, up for bid on E-bay. The books in DC's Archives group are almost always great looking and this book is no exception -- credit is due senior editor Dale Crain and art director Amie Brockway Metcalf for the snappy presentation here. Yet no matter how lovely their appearance, for many arts comics readers, myself included, the books in this particular DC line tend to result in consumer quandary. Most readers interested in comics as art are reasonably immune to object-fetishism and its emphasis on the physical item over the material being delivered. If not, they usually learn to compartmentalize it. Such a person should therefore be very likely to either flat-out prefer the slick paper and sturdy hardback storage possibilities provided in these volumes over the tattered, flat, ragged paper of the much-too-expensive originals, or at least appreciate its particular advantages. The problem becomes apparent when actually sitting down to read the books in question. Released of its context as a collectible, the stories in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives Volume One must fend for themselves. The unfortunate news is that the comics reprinted here seem special only to the degree one has immersed oneself in relative superhero comic book values. For most readers, this is an extremely forgettable B-movie with a slightly funky cast given the fancy DVD treatment.
As the appropriately fannish introduction by Robert Klein and Michael Uslan points out, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents concept likely found its impetus between the twin juggernauts of an ascending Marvel formula for personality-driven superhero comic books and the wave of organization-focused super-spy entertainment popular at the height of the Cold War. It must have looked can't-miss in 1965. A battery of super-powered devices turns three anti-crime operatives into working joe superheroes, crime fighters of sometimes limited effectiveness and occasional self-doubt. Despite nicking their introspective characterizations and their tendency to stress a higher level of realism than your average Superman comic book, Tower's effort lacked the bold imagination and richness of humor to be found in the best '60s Marvels. Most of the shorts compare favorably to lower-tier titles being done at the House of Ideas in terms of overall entertainment value. One of the stronger pieces is a loopy story about a double-agent drawn by Gil Kane called "Menthor: the Enemy Within" that suggests a superhero whose alter-ego sans mind-scrambling helmet is a bad guy, a fun take on the secret identity concept.
One supposes there is also some scholarly value in a book like this one, depending on how hard one is enjoined to look at this particular corner of publishing at this specific moment in history. One might compare the way these comics built on Stan and Jack's successful branding at Marvel to show what lessons other professionals were taking from that line's growing sales. Another reader might use it to compare Wally Wood's more traditional, representational superhero iconography to Kirby's more aggressive, stylized take on similar material. It could also be useful for some to have a place to compare Wally Wood's art to previous efforts by Wood in mainstream comics, or to contrast the work done by various Wood assistants in a concentrated span. But for most of us, these are pretty ordinary tales of the fantastic with a really hefty price tag.