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THUNDER Agents 1
"T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents 1 (Part 1)"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND Tower Comics; November 1965; Wally Wood and Samm Schwartz, editors.

In late 1965, costumed superheroes were hot, though not as hot as they would soon become thanks to the Batman TV series debuting in January '66. Spies and acronym spy organizations were also hot, thanks to James Bond and "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.". When aspiring comics publisher Harry Shorten recruited veteran comics artist Wally Wood to help develop a flagship title for a new line of comic books, it was a natural development to have a group of costumed heroes who worked for an acronymic spy organization. (Even though a spy wearing a costume is kind of a contradiction in terms-- generally speaking, spies want to escape notice, not attract it.) With the artistic talents of Wood and a stellar array of other artists and a couple of well-conceived stars, T.H.U.N.D.E.R AGENTS became one of the most memorable non-Marvel/DC hero titles of the Silver Age (and a series of which the first four issues are now back in print as part of DC's Archive line; I should note that this review contains SPOILERS for anybody who has not read this issue and plans to buy the Archive book). The comic's format was unusual for the time; 64 pages of all new material for 25 cents, with an anthology format featuring the various Agents both in solo stories and team-ups. The debut issue's cover by Wood depicts the blue and white clad Dynamo lifting an armored assailant over his head, while the invisible NoMan at one side slugs another armored foe and blue and red costumed Menthor comes up in support.

The issue opens with a four page intro, "First Encounter," in which troops belonging to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. (The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves) come to the rescue of the brilliant scientist Professor Jennings, who is under sttack by the forces of the mysterious "Warlord". They arrive too late; Jennings is dead, and the Warlord's agents have escaped with many of his inventions. But some prototypes remain; "an electron molecular intensifier belt which will make the wearer's body structure change to the consistency of steel," "a light polarizer material which is completely non-reflective...in effect, an invisibility cloak!" and "a cybernetic helmet..it could be dangerous, but it could amplify a man's brain power many times over!" The leaders of THUNDER (I'm tired of putting in the periods:-) resolve to recruit three very special agents to make use of these unique weapons. "They'll have to be the best to cope with the Warlord!" The intro story is by Larry Ivie, story, and Wally Wood, art (credits in this review are taken from the THUNDER index in COMIC BOOK ARTIST #14, which was in turn based on indexes appearing in APA-I and THE COMIC READER).

Dynamo, who will prove to be THUNDER's biggest star, makes his debut in the next story, written by Ivie and Len Brown and drawn by Wood, with a Wood splash in which Dynamo poses hands on hips after crashing through a brick wall. But when we first see Leonard Brown (named after one of Tower's writers, though reportedly he didn't name the character himself) he's engaged in more mundane affairs; "This paperwork isn't for me! I'm afraid I made a mistake when I accepted this job!" His boredom abruptly ends as he is summoned to the top secret "Level 7" and through an illusory blank wall to meet with "THUNDER's secret council". They have decided that, thanks to his "physical stamina," Brown is suited to the role of the special agent who will wear the "Thunderbelt". Stripping to blue trunks and donning the belt, Brown allows the belt to adapt itself to his metabolism-- "Now only you will be able to use it!"-- and then turns on the belt, producing a Shazamish electrical flash and thunder sound. He finds that the weight and mass of his body is greatly increased and that his strength is enhanced even more than his scientist mentors expected; when he hits a device meant to test his strength, he smashes not only through the gadget but through the brick wall behind it. But, the scientists warn him, "You must never use the power of the belt for more than a few minutes at a time! Since your body's mass is increased, the drain on your energy is enormous! If you exert yourself for a prolonged period of time, you may even be risking your life!" Undaunted, Brown is sworn into the service of THUNDER and receives a blue and white costume (of "a metallic fabric that will protect you to some extent even when the belt is off") and the nom de guerre of Dynamo.

But meanwhile, an unidentified city is engulfed by a mysterious fog "denser than any fog ever seen on Earth!" which halts traffic and all normal activities. Behind the fog is the purple masked and cloaked Warlord, and taking advantage of it is his agent the Iron Maiden-- a voluptuous redhead in extremely form-fitting metal armor-- and her squad of armored henchmen. They roam the city, seeing with special "black light goggles", and stealing "rare radioactive materials". The White House appeals for help to THUNDER, which puts its science staff on the job. They discover that the fog is man-made and metallic and that a giant electromagnet at THUNDER's "powerhouse" may be effective in dissipating it. Since only Dynamo's strength can handle the giant magnet, he is sent to get it. Since the fog prevents his jet from landing, he has to bail out above the powerhouse, but his parachute rips, and his only hope is to activate the Thunderbelt, which enables him to make a "safe but somewhat rough landing", crashing through the street. Dynamo obtains the giant magnet and carries it through the streets; it attracts the fog particles, and Dynamo ultimately throws the magnet into the sea, dissipating the fog. The Iron Maiden's henchmen driving the mobile fog machine discover Dynamo and crash into him, but he is unharmed and dismantles the machine. The thugs are startled by Dynamo's indestructibility, but one of them rallies; "Come on! Let's not stand around discussing it! We're pretty invulnerable in these suits ourselves!" and they pile on to Dynamo. Nonethelelss, Dynamo manages to fight off the whole gang for some time, but the stress of using the belt begins to tell on him, and he is ultimately forced to turn it off to save his life-- after which he is subdued and captured by the armored men. Knocked unconscious, he awakens weakened, in chains, confronting the Iron Maiden-- and without his belt. The Maiden has handed it over as a reward to one of her henchmen, thinking it just an ornament-- but since Dynamo's first question is about his belt, now the Iron Maiden is intrigued by its properties. "You will tell me the secret of your precious belt! Think of the grandstand seat you'll have for the big show, when the Warlord gives the signal to begin the conquest of the WORLD!" The story is continued to the last story in the issue.

Next we have the origin of THUNDER Agent NoMan, story by Larry Ivie and drawn by Reed Crandall and Wood. A physician asks a stooped, ancient figure in a wheelchair, "Are you SURE you want to go through with this, Dr. Dunn?" "LOOK at me, young man...need you ask?" the old man snaps. The experiment he is considering will give him a chance at immortality, but...."I know... I will cease being...HUMAN!" But considering he is near death in any case, Dr. Dunn has nothing to lose. And so, after surveying an array of blue-skinned androids which he helped create along with the late Prof. Jennings, the aged doctor is placed in a cabinet where "your entire mental makeup is being transferred to electronic impulses which are re-etching it into the brains of the androids!" The experiment is a success, as one of the androids rises, animated by Dunn's mind; "It was worth it! For the first time in years I feel young and strong!" Having had his consciousness implanted in one android, Dunn finds that he can switch it at will instantly to any other one of the blue androids. Moreover, in his new guise he has been chosen as the user of Jennings' invisibility cloak, making him "the most potentially powerful spy the world has ever known!" "From now on, call me NoMan!", the former Dr. Dunn declares.

Meanwhile, we meet Demo, "the Warlord's most formidable underworld agent!" "Underworld" literally, for he makes his headquarters in a cave, and his own agents-- as he boasts to beautiful female agent Satana-- are brutish but powerful "sub-men". Demo leads his sub-men, crawling up from the sewers, to steal "valuable chemical elements" for the Warlord's master plan. Alerted by THUNDER to an attack on a chemical factory, NoMan sets out in his "THUNDER car", taking a spare android body along, and discovers "a tribe of cave men breaking in! What incredible strength! Even the power of this android body might not be able to match it!" Choosing discretion, NoMan uses his cloak to become invisible before wading in to battle the horde of sub-men . He manages to battle and baffle the sub-men, but a spray of escaping chemicals makes him partly visible and Demo gets in a shot which "kills" NoMan, destroying his inner mechanisms. Fortunately, he switches his consciousness to the spare body out in the car just in time, and Demo and his submen flee back underground. Back at THUNDER headquarters, NoMan gets a bit of a scolding; "You must be more careful in the future, NoMan! Aside from almost losing your immortal brain, you almost lost the invisibility cloak as well!"

Next, we have the debut of THUNDER Agent Menthor, in a story drawn by Gil Kane and George Tuska, with inks by Mike Esposito. Curiously, Menthor's costume, designed and drawn by Gil Kane, is all but identical in design to an earlier Kane costume creation-- that of DC Comics' the Atom. Not that there is much danger of confusing the two characters, as Menthor is a normal sized man while the Atom is six inches or less tall. Still, the character's derivative look may have been one of the reasons why he had a shorter career than the other THUNDER Agents, coming to a grim end relatively early in the series' run.

Possessed of both a brilliant mind and tremendous physical and combat skills, THUNDER recruit John Janus seems like the ideal agent. There's just one problem; he's a double agent, working for the Warlord, who has ordered him to infiltrate the agency and make an opening for the Warlord's agents to invade and destroy THUNDER headquarters. When THUNDER asks for volunteers to test Prof. Jennings' mysterious cybernetic helmet, Janus offers himself, thinking it a good chance to "get in good with the brass". Upon donning the helmet, Janus is frozen unmoving for ten minutes, leading one of the scientific observers to think, "Great Scott, he's dead!" Hearing the thought, Janus rouses and assures the scientist that no, he is not dead. When one of THUNDER's giant computers goes on the blink, Janus instantly diagnoses the problem-- and then, when the computer accidentally topples over, threatening to crush people, Janus halts it with a burst of pure mental energy. And the treacherous Janus' heroic deed is not merely a pose; the helmet "causes a subconscious personality change in the person wearing it, enabling an evil man to do good!" But the effect is not permanent; when Janus collapses from the strain of using the helmet and the scientists remove it, Janus reverts to his evil self, remembering nothing of why he chose to help the other agents. But having evidently proven himself, Janus is given the use of the helmet permanently and assigned the code name Menthor.

Soon, the Warlord orders Janus to disable THUNDER's security measures and allow the entry of a squad of the Warlord's "Cobra" agents-- including a monster created by Prof. Jennings' stolen "counter-evolution machine". Janus willingly sabotages the alarms and then dons the Menthor helmet, intending to use it to aid the "Cobras". But as he puts on the helmet, his attitude again changes; instead of wanting to help the Warlord, he now wants to help THUNDER stop the Warlord. Menthor goes into battle against the Cobra agents, first fighting them off with his combat skills, and then, as they start to overwhelm him, freezing them in place with a mental bolt from his helmet. Menthor not only subdues his adversaries but drains strength from them; "I now has the strength of ten men!" He needs it when the Warlord unleashes "Id", the monster from the "counter-evolution machine". Having virtually no mind, the creature is immune to Menthor's mental bolts, and only raw strength is able to stop it. Once again Menthor is the hero of the hour, despite the question of how the enemy agents got into headquarters. And once again Janus reverts to type when he removes the helmet, apologetically explaining to the Warlord that he "blacked out". "If you fail again, I assure you your next blackout will be permanent!" The idea of a THUNDER double agent was an intriguing one, which could have made for a very interesting series of stories, but the writers didn't seem to know what to do with the concept...in future issues, they fairly quickly turned Janus/Menthor into a conventional good guy, as the helmet permanently cured his evil impulses, and then killed Menthor off.

The next story, drawn by Mike Sekowsky, featured the THUNDER Squad, which would turn out to be the least successful of the features debuting in the issue. The Squad consisted of a group of talented but non-super specialists; leader Guy Gilbert; Dynamite, "weapons man"; Kitten, token female and "technical device expert"; Weed, "locksmith-- can get into anyplace"; and bald Egghead, "super-brilliant strategist". The Squad is activated when the Warlord sends a legion of zombie soldiers to attack a "weapons development center". The zombies succeed in capturing a valuable laser gun, but the Squad pursues them through a tunnel, only to be halted by the same telepathic mental force, wielded by the Warlord, that holds the zombies in control. The brilliant Egghead mentally battles the Warlord to a standstill, only to be finally felled, but while the Warlord is distracted Dynamite breaks the Warlord's control and uses the laser gun to defeat the zombie army. Defeated in this attempt against THUNDER, the Warlord feels impelled to boast that he will still win as "I have captured your main agent, Dynamo!" The Squad returns to base to report Dynamo's capture. They would only appear twice more in their own feature, though Squad leader Guy Gilbert later became the fourth super-agent, Lightning (a Flash knockoff) and the other Squad members Kitten, Weed and Dynamite hung around as supporting characters in the super-agent stories...except for Egghead, who would be killed off in a later issue.

The closing story in the issue again features Dynamo "At the Mercy of the Iron Maiden!" -- though the tale, drawn by Wally Wood and Dan Adkins, is actually more of a team-up story of all the agents. Torture and truth serum have failed to persuade Dynamo to reveal to the Maiden the secret of the Thunderbelt; "I command you to tell me why you wore that belt!" "I thought you would have guessed it by now, sister...to hold up my pants!" Ordered by the Warlord to find the belt's secret or else, the Iron Maiden starts tinkering with it herself, but her activities activate a signal which is heard in THUNDER headquarters and the other super-agents, following the signal, converge on the Maiden's secret island headquarters. The Maiden discovers that the belt is leading the enemy to her, and orders one of her henchmen to fly off in a plane with the belt, to divert the attack. But Menthor (who is apparently in his helmet induced good-guy mode) directs NoMan to intercept plane and belt, while Menthor and the THUNDER Squad go to rescue Dynamo and capture the Maiden. Catching up to the fleeing plane, NoMan leaps invisibly from his own jet to the enemy plane, slugs the Maiden's agent, and recaptures Dynamo's belt. Meanwhile, the THUNDER Squad takes on the rest of the Iron Maiden's army of followers. The Squad manages to defeat the Maiden's men, but she still has one "trump card" left-- Dynamo as a hostage. Landing with the belt, NoMan tries to reach Dynamo invisibly, but his android body is severely damaged by the Iron Maiden's soldiers who can see him with their black-light goggles. But Menthor carries out a diversion, enabling NoMan with his body's last strength to reach Dynamo and activate his belt. The re-energized Dynamo does a Samson-smash, pulling down the Maiden's cave headquarters on the heads of her henchmen, though she herself escapes by plane, and the Warlord who was thought to be personally present turns out to be a dummy and a radio set. To Dynamo's pleased surprise, however, the "dead" NoMan turns out to be safe in another body; "They can destroy my body, but not my spirit! We'll win yet, Dynamo! This I promise you!" The final caption promises, "See the criminals brought to justice in the next issue of THUNDER AGENTS!"