With the advent of the Internet, not to mention the fact that solicitations have to be thorough enough to allow retailers to know whether they need to order two or two hundred copies of any given comic, it seems that the opportunities for comics readers to be taken by surprise are minimal these days. This wasn't a problem that Stan Lee ever had back in the 1960s, when folks would buy their comics as and when they happened to see them on the newsstand, and I'm sure it's not something that Julius Schwartz ever lost any sleep over either. Trying to actually surprise today's fans is nigh-on impossible to do without serious obfuscation (exhibit A: clones of Thor being posited as the real deal). In fact, there are very few occasions which come to my mind which can be said to legitimately be examples of twists in a comic story being genuine jaw-dropping shocks. One of these, and a very fine one it was too, was the story of Marvel's most wanted, the Thunderbolts.
In 1996, Marvel (as previously discussed here) launched an event called Heroes Reborn, which took Captain America, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, plus other sundry characters such as the Inhumans and Namor out of circulation for a whole year. This left a bit of a void in the Marvel Universe, in that many of the major players suddenly weren't available for writers to use. Marvel launched a lot of new titles in this period, including Maverick (which gave Jim Cheung his start) and Deadpool (which did the same for Ed McGuinness) and Heroes for Hire (Pasqual Ferry's big break). Some of these, like the Waid/Kubert Ka-Zar series, had the benefit of a comics-y equivalent of a movie trailer in the form of the one-shot Tales from the Marvel Universe, a book which also had the second-ever appearance of the Thunderbolts, the stars of Marvel's big new team book. The team had previously turned up a couple of months beforehand in an issue of Incredible Hulk, attempting to apprehend the big green galoot, and with a number of other ongoing Marvel titles containing an advertising feature which showed pencil sketches and character designs for the T-Bolts' debut issue, it looked like Marvel were throwing quite a lot of weight behind them.
The Thunderbolts were made up of Citizen V (an updating of a Golden Age character, wearing a full-faced mask and wielding a sword), MACH-1 (an armoured, flying hero), Techno (a mechanical genius with a weapon-generating backpack), Atlas (a size-changer), Songbird (able to make solid sound constructs using her voice) and Meteorite (a super-strong flyer). To be honest, they didn't look like much. Some, like Songbird and Citizen V, had pretty good costume designs, but the powers these guys had been given were fairly generic, and the team appeared to be a bit of a second-rate version of the Avengers. That, of course, was until the readers reached the final two pages of issue one of the Thunderbolts' own book.
Having fought the Wrecking Crew and saved the Statue of Liberty from destruction, the Thunderbolts did a meet-and-greet with the press. They were humble, personable and seemed to be generally all-round good guys, even if their leader, Citizen V, was a bit of a cold fish. When the team returned to their base in a disused warehouse, though, things took a sinister turn. As Citizen V removed his mask to reveal a familiar horribly scarred face, the readers realised that something was horribly wrong here, and suspicions were confirmed when he addressed the rest of the team by the names which Avengers fans had known them by for years. Beetle. Fixer. Goliath. Screaming Mimi. Moonstone. These were no heroes. These were the Masters of Evil, and their leader was the megalomaniac Nazi criminal Baron Zemo.
This was, not to put too fine a point on it, staggering. All through the build-up to the first issue's debut, none of the publicity material or either of the team's guest-starring turns in other books had given the slightest indication that they were anything other than a new and slightly humdrum hero team (although some eagle-eyed fans had speculated that at least some of the team's members were ex-Masters of Evil through carefully noting their powers). This kind of surprise was guaranteed to hook readers, and it certainly did the job on me. The Thunderbolts' story was an engaging one, and made all the more so by the fact that the rug had been pulled out from under the readers once already, and as a result, nobody knew how the plot was going to develop. As the tale went on and some of the Thunderbolts found that they liked being heroes more than villains, while other members of the team stuck to the wolves-in-sheep's-clothing plan to try to accomplish their plans by earning the trust of the public and the government, there was always the knowledge that this was a book where you could never take anything for granted.
Sadly, it seems that the point of the team has been rather swept away in a spectacular bit of point-missing by Marvel's current editorial regime, who seem to think that the whole concept boils down to "it's a bunch of bad guys on a team" rather than "can comic-book villains seek redemption, do they really want to even try, and can they cope with what they'll have to do to achieve it". Maybe that's doing them a disservice, though. Maybe they're going to pull a rabbit out of the hat and really surprise us. If any book can do it, this one can.