Thunderbolts is really getting very good.
At the same time that Zub and Co. continue to develop preexisting points of contention (Karla Sofen’s determination to take control of both Kobik and the team), they also introduce new conflicts (this time with the Inhumans) that will no doubt provide fodder for later story arcs.(1) Nevertheless, the book’s strength remains its exploration of Bucky Barnes, his burgeoning relationships with his teammates, and how he copes both with his new responsibilities and his tortured past.
Since the recent reveal, in Captain America: Steve Rogers no. 2, that Kobik is—in fact—an agent of the Red Skull, her presence with the Thunderbolts team and her focus on Bucky has taken on an entirely new interpretation. Having rewritten Steve Rogers’ reality to the Red Skull’s specifications, one can only assume her intention is to do the same with Bucky Barnes if she can, and in this issue she makes what could be considered a first attempt to do so.
Kobik offers to take Bucky’s regrets away. And Bucky refuses.
There’s a lot of stuff tangled up in both the offer and the refusal. It’s important to remember that, agent of the Red Skull notwithstanding, Kobik is a child who is being manipulated by someone she trusts to do something she thinks is right. Moreover, she does seem to genuinely care about Bucky. Her attempt to change him, therefore—while in line with the Red Skull’s objectives (and possibly even a task she was assigned)—is very probably being done with the greatest of intentions. And we all know what they say about good intentions.
But Bucky refuses.
He has several reasons to do so. First and foremost is his compulsive need to atone for his past. One of Bucky’s defining characteristics is his determination to do penance for the Winter Soldier’s crimes—even though he knows himself to have been as much a victim as any of the people he killed. To let go of his regrets, to allow someone to wipe them out, would be a betrayal of all that he has striven to become. Additionally, he has already seen the consequences of demolished memories from multiple perspectives. His amnesia is what made the Winter Soldier possible. His lover, Natasha Romanoff’s, amnesia has driven them both to dangerous personal extremes—Bucky as the Man on the Wall, Natasha as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most wanted.(2) Through these assorted experiences, Bucky—perhaps better than anyone else in the Marvel Universe—understands the way in which our memories (even our regrets) make us who we are.(3) For better or for worse, he would not be himself without his regrets, and he has reason to know that it’s likely to be for worse. Over and above his own feelings on the matter, he has a responsibility to refuse the offer.
Bucky’s keen awareness of this responsibility is yet another indication of how his newfound status as the leader of the Thunderbolts is changing him. Being thrust into the position of leader is forcing him to evolve from a hothead constantly going off half-cocked to a thoughtful man of action. Evident in both his refusal of Kobik’s offer and his handling of the Inhumans is a kind of restraint (and a self-awareness) that Bucky has often lacked…
It’s a far cry from his “rush in and get captured” days, and it speaks to the quality of characterization this book offers. In Bucky’s last outing, the much-maligned Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier, we saw a man who was given a glimpse of a life that he couldn’t quite bring himself to live, of a person he couldn’t quite see himself as becoming. As a result of those experiences, we now have something of a more pensive character in Thunderbolts, and we have a creative team exploring those new dimensions with a clear respect for what has gone before. There’s a continuity, and a development, that is deeply meaningful in context. And it’s making this book shine.
1) At this point the burgeoning conflict with the Inhumans is on very thin ice from a narrative standpoint. By which I mean, it doesn’t actually make any sense. I have never read any Inhumans title—and I don’t particularly care to. (I’m an X-Men girl.) Consequently, I don’t entirely understand the Inhumans and their relationship to the Marvel Universe. As far as I can tell they just do whatever they want? And if anyone challenges them (or even appears to challenge them) they proceed to rant and rave about how so-and-so has declared war on the Inhumans? It’s irking. I’m not really sure why anyone puts up with them, to be honest. If any fans have any insight to offer on the Inhumans, I’d welcome it, because they are considerably out of my bailiwick. Nevertheless, Crystal and Medusa’s response to the Thunderbolts actions don’t make any logical sense—even allowing for a poor knowledge of the Inhumans. (And I know this is a comic book, but hear me out on this one.) The Thunderbolts make a strike on what appear to be Inhuman cocoons, but are not. The Inhumans ride in guns blazing over the misunderstanding. So far so good. But then the Thunderbolts win the skirmish. At that point do they kill their prisoners and destroy all trace of the altercation? No. They explain the misunderstanding and leave quietly. And somehow in Medusa’s mind this translates to war on the Inhumans. Friends, we are way beyond comic book wackiness on this one and straight into Queen-Medusa-is-fucking-moron-who-should-never-be-in-charge-of-anything-because-she-clearly-possesses-no-intellectual-capacity-of-any-kind territory. And I think she deserves better. I know we needed a way to get Kobik back on Maria Hill’s radar, but this was sloppy. It’s the one weak point in an otherwise excellent comic. ⇧
2) This happened during the “Black Widow Hunt” story (Winter Soldier nos. 10-14). Do not, under any circumstances, get me started on the “Black Widow Hunt” story. ⇧
3) Although I suspect that Steve will have a pretty good idea as well by the time his “Secret Nazi” story arc comes to an end. ⇧