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Thunderbolts #1 was the greatest trick Marvel Comics ever pulled

page from Thunderbolts #1
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

On March 10 Marvel launched a new mutant team in its long-awaited Children of the Atom #1 (which was delayed a year by COVID-19). But not all is as it seems (or was advertised) with the Children of the Atom, with the issue ending in a twist reveal about the heroes' identities.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

This isn't the first time Marvel has managed to hold on to a secret about a new 'superhero' team. Almost 25 years ago (in 1997 to be exact – mark your calendars to celebrate next year), Marvel capitalized on the absence of teams such as the Avengers and Fantastic Four who were then trapped in the Heroes Reborn dimension by building up a high-profile new team of superheroes called the Thunderbolts.

(Incidentally, this year marks the 25th anniversary of Heroes Reborn, which Marvel is celebrating by reviving the title's branding for a new summer event).

Created by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Mark Bagley, the Thunderbolts were led by Citizen V, an updated version of a Golden Age Marvel hero, and promised to deliver "Justice Like Lightning" (according to their tagline), to Avengers-level villains and threats. Marvel built the new team up as a group on par with Earth's Mightiest Heroes, ready to step up and save the world in the Avengers' absence.

But Thunderbolts #1 ended with its own massive twist reveal about the true nature of the heroes of the Thunderbolts (spoiler alert: they were not new characters at all, but ones readers already knew – we'll get into it). That twist set the stage for the nature of the Thunderbolts for years to come, with few comics living up to the level of hype and surprise (or even trying to) that the secret of the Thunderbolts generated in its day.

Don't reveal the shocking secret!

page from Thunderbolts #1

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Along with Citizen V, the original Thunderbolts consisted of MACH-I, Techno, Atlas, Songbird, and Meteorite. They made their debut in January 1997's Incredible Hulk #449, aiding the title hero in a fight. They then got their own Tales of the Marvel Universe one-shot a short while later. 

And through both of these early appearances, there was little to no indication given about the true nature of the team (I promise we'll spoil it – we're building anticipation! For almost 25 years!).

But then, in April 1997's Thunderbolts #1, the truth was revealed.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

The Thunderbolts weren't new heroes – in fact, they weren't heroes at all. Rather than a team of new characters designed to step into the shoes of the Avengers, the Thunderbolts were actually previously introduced supervillains in disguise as part of a plan to conquer the Earth.

At the lead of the team was Citizen V, who was secretly Baron Helmut Zemo using the identity of a hero his father, WWII villain Heinrich Zemo, had killed. The rest of the team was comprised of members of his Masters of Evil, a villain team dating back to 1964's Avengers #6.

MACH-I was in fact Beetle, using a new suit of hi-tech super armor built by his teammate, Techno. Techno, who designed most of the team's gear (and helped adapt and disguise their powers and appearances) was actually the Fixer.

Songbird was Screaming Mimi, who wore a harness that turned her sonic scream into hard-light constructs. Atlas was actually Goliath, a size-changing villain who originally used the name Power Man (he was Power Man before Luke Cage used the name, but he was actually the fourth guy to call himself Goliath. He's the only Atlas, though).

And finally, Meteorite was Moonstone, using pretty much exactly her same powers of flight, intangibility, and energy manipulation, but pretending to be slightly nicer than her usually jerk self – though she was secretly Zemo's most loyal enforcer and his insurance plan against betrayal from the others.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

In August 1997 following the team's debut earlier that year, writer Kurt Busiek told Wizard Magazine that he had initially envisioned the concept of villains disguised as heroes as a plot for Avengers (a title he later took on as writer when the Avengers returned from their Heroes Reborn pocket dimension), in which disguised villains would slowly infiltrate and replace the team.

"The actual origin of Thunderbolts came when I used to live in New Jersey and drive to New England to visit my parents. To keep myself awake, I'd give myself books to write, and work out about two to three years of continuity," Busiek said at the time. "One trip, I assigned myself Avengers and came up with the plan that the Masters of Evil would ultimately conquer them by posing as new heroes and slowly replacing them. At the time, I thought it was a neat idea, and filed it away."

Busiek then revived the concept when the absence of the Avengers and Fantastic Four left room in the Marvel Universe for a whole new team to debut, with the publisher diving in wholeheartedly for the secret.

Part of why the secret of Thunderbolts was so impactful was that back in the day, fans actually didn't know there was a twist coming in Thunderbolts #1 at all - let alone that the characters who had been billed as Marvel's next big thing were in fact the same villains who had, in the '80s, literally destroyed the Avengers Mansion and nearly killed several members in the story Avengers: Under Siege.

Marvel also let the secret lie, not hyping it for months in advance as the publisher might do today, allowing readers an open road to speculate on how the Thunderbolts would fit into the Marvel Universe.

Both of these approaches were rare (and still are) in an age when publishers often tease surprises and plot twists for months only to reveal the surprises themselves before the book hits the shelves. DC's reveal of the identity of the Next Batman is a recent example, as may be Marvel's apparent reveal of a new Phoenix host on a variant cover.

That more standard marketing pattern seemingly just repeated itself as Marvel revealed the identity of the woman Doctor Doom will marry in May’s Fantastic Four #32, after teasing it as a secret for a month.

Children of the Atom seems to draw on that same rare T-bolts energy, allowing the last page to be a genuine surprise.

Thunderbolts became a best-seller as well as a massive hit among fans and critics alike, and it might never have broken out like it did if Marvel didn't sit on the genuinely shocking reveal and not telegraphed it beforehand.

Lightning is striking again... and again... and again

page from Thunderbolts #1

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Naturally, the original Thunderbolts line-up couldn't last – no honor among thieves, etc. 

When it was revealed that Zemo's plan for world domination went much farther than some of his teammates previously thought, Songbird, Atlas, and MACH-I turned on him, while Fixer and Meteorite stayed by his side. However good won out, Zemo was defeated, and the remaining team members decided to stay on as heroes, led by Hawkeye of the recently returned Avengers.

Over the years, the Thunderbolts have become a Marvel Comics mainstay, with various versions of the team organized under slightly different premises often a staple of Marvel's line. Though the overall concepts behind the various incarnations of the Thunderbolts have sometimes been wildly different, the team usually consists of villains working as heroes, often under the pretense of reformation.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Most recently, a new version of the team was brought together as the personal enforcers/protectors of the Kingpin as part of the Venom-centric 'King in Black' crossover.

The Thunderbolts reveal also had the added effect of returning Baron Zemo to prominence as a Marvel Comics villain. Baron Heinrich Zemo was introduced in the '60s as a primary foe for Captain America and the Avengers, a role his son Helmut Zemo (the current Baron Zemo) inherited through the '70s and '80s. 

Zemo was relegated to the wayside through the '90s, until Thunderbolts brought him back to the spotlight, leading to an ongoing presence as a top-level Marvel villain since. Zemo has even made it into the MCU, played by Daniel Bruhl in Captain America: Civil War. 

Bruhl will reprise the role for the upcoming The Falcon and the Winter Soldier MCU Disney Plus streaming show, with a somewhat more comics-influenced look (we're still holding our breath to see how/if the MCU could handle the surprise of its own eventual Thunderbolts reveal, playing up a now nearly 25-year-old secret).

image of Daniel Bruhl as Baron Zemo in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Marvel has elevated the Thunderbolts to a mainstay part of its universe, with almost 25 years of history to go on. And, as illustrated by Children of the Atom #1, the publisher has also folded the idea of a surprise reveal around a team of characters into its repertoire in a regular way.

And yet, despite the great stories that have often come from baking a big surprise into a character or team's introduction since the Thunderbolts pulled it off, few stories have come close to matching the power and pomp of the classic moment when Baron Zemo reveals the truth about his Masters of Evil and their heroic disguises.

Before they became the Thunderbolts, the Masters of Evil were the villains of 'Under Siege,' one of the best Avengers stories of all time.

Newsarama staff writer who learned to read from comic books and hasn’t shut up about them since.