TFMSR 012: T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 …

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1, Nov. 1965. Cover by Wally Wood. © Respective Copyright Holders.

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I can’t tell you exactly when I learned to read, but I know that comic books hastened that skill very early on. By the age of six I could pretty much fully understand comic books, so never tell me that they’re bad for kids (I’m looking at you, Dr. Wertham). And by the time I was ten years old in 1965, I was fully immersed in funnybook heaven. That was a great age—and a great decade—to be reading comic books.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, by 1965, my older brother and I had access to numerous fanzines, so we were knowledgeable about the world of comics, or at least much more so than the casual reader. But at that point in time, we weren’t getting any kind of regular comics news about upcoming books or new publishers, so there was always that “shock of the new” sensation when we walked into our local newsstand, which we did with alarming frequency … twice a week. And one late summer day in 1965, a new publisher greeted us, Tower Comics, with T.H.U.N.D.E.R Agents #1. Cover-dated for November 1965 (before the Batman TV show opened up the superhero floodgates), this comic immediately was a familiar sight to me, at least with its artists.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R Agents #1 included work by Wally Wood and Reed Crandall and I knew who both were, outside of their most famous EC comics connections (that discovery came later for me). Wood had just finished a short but memorable run on Daredevil, along with some other inking jobs at Marvel. And I had seen more work by Wood and some stories by Crandall in Warren’s Creepy and Eerie magazines, although I will admit that Crandall doing superheroes was a bit jarring. His incredible inking style on the Warren mags gave me a feeling of old-time illustration, like the kind you’d find in Sherlock Holmes stories or something similar, even though I’m doubtful that I had even experienced anything like that up to this point (although my grandfather had shelves full of Edgar Rice Burroughs books in their original Grosset & Dunlap hardbound editions, sadly minus the painted dustjackets, but an occasional J. Allen St. John illo might have appeared in those).

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents issues 1 through 9, with covers by Wood; #9 is pencilled by John Giunta, inked by Wood.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 was a canny combination of superheroes and spies, clearly aligning with the twin obsessions of pre-teen boys in the mid-1960s. James Bond was king; by 1965, four Bond films had been released in the U.S. (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball), and 007 merchandise had flooded the stores. Marvel Comics’ rise in the industry brought a whole new level of superhero awareness to readers, too. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. stood for “The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves,” mercifully reduced to a catchy acronym. They weren’t exactly spies along the lines of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., which premiered roughly around the same time (probably August of 1965), but they were super-powered agents who were at war with a mysterious entity called “The Warlord,” who had his one acronym organization S.P.I.D.E.R. (and I have no idea what that one stands for … make up your own!).

Other Tower Comics publications included Undersea Agent (with some great Gil Kane covers and interior art), Fight the Enemy, and Tippy Teen, who outlasted them all.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was put out by a new comics company called Tower Comics, whose parent company, Tower Publications, had its fingers in a lot of publishing pies, including sleazy paperbacks via their Midwood Books imprint, and science fiction and fantasy with their Tower Books line. They started in 1959 and ran until 1981, but their comics division was only active from 1965 through 1969. In addition to 20 issues of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and titles featuring their most popular T.H.U.N.D.E.R. characters, Dynamo (four issues) and NoMan (two issues), they also published a related series called Undersea Agent (six issues), a war title, Fight the Enemy (four issues), and a teen title, Tippy Teen, which outlasted every other Tower title and ran for 27 issues, plus a “Special Collector’s Edition” and two spin-off titles, Teen-In (four issues), and Tippy’s Friends (15 issues). No, we will not be doing a Tippy Teen “Tales from My Spinner Rack” installment, so don’t get your hopes up.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents 10 through 20 covers along with a Wood sketch for #13. By the time 18-19-20 arrived, they were reprints and came out with increasing infrequency.

As the comics industry heated up in the mid-1960s, writer, editor, and publisher Harry Shorten started the Tower Comics line. He brought on famed comics creator Wally Wood and gave him almost total freedom to just create comics. Shorten handled the business end, and Wood was free to do what he did best. At this point in his career, Wood was most famous for his EC comics work—something I wouldn’t discover for another five or so years, when reprints began with the opulent Nostalgia Press book, Horror Comics of the 1950s—and his short stint at Marvel. Wood had been producing stories for EC’s only surviving title, MAD magazine, but in 1964 one of his stories was rejected, so he quit. He went over to Marvel where Stan Lee promoted the hell out of his work on Daredevil, a title that floundered until Woody took it over with issue #5. In issue #7, he famously redesigned Daredevil’s costume into the streamlined, all-red number still in use today (well … sort of), and created one of the character’s most famous stories: “In Mortal Combat with … Sub-Mariner!” He did seven memorable issues, but left after feeling the Marvel Method of creating comics—where the artist basically plotted and paced the stories, and Stan Lee (or another writer) came in and added dialogue and captions—was too much heavy lifting to do without compensation. So when 1965 rolled around, Wood was able and willing to take on a challenge, and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 was certainly that.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 first story page (top row, left) and some of the file pages created for the various characters in the series. I’m not sure when and where the Iron Maiden and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad pages appeared.

What separated Tower Comics from every other company on the newsstands was their books were 64 pages for 25 cents, and were—allegedly—published bi-monthly, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 had six big stories in it, three of which were drawn by Wally Wood: “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Introduction: First Encounter,” (four pages), which set up the UN reserves premise and introduced The Warlord; “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Dynamo in Menace of the Iron Fog,” (12 pages), in which Len Brown got the “Thunder Belt” which granted him powers; and “Dynamo at the Mercy of the Iron Maiden,” (nine pages), which continued the earlier Dynamo story and united all the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents in one tale. In addition, there was the first NoMan story by Reed Crandall (ten pages), which introduced the android agent whose aged and infirm creator—Doctor Dunn—could transfer his consciousness into various android bodies; NoMan also had a cloak that rendered him invisible. Menthor was T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents’ double agent, John Janus, serving The Warlord and his organization S.P.I.D.E.R. (you weren’t a spy-oriented comic book without acronyms; blame it on your U.N.C.L.E.); his experimental helmet gave him intense mental powers, but also formed a schizoid personality that made him a hero. The Menthor story (12 pages) has a splash page by Gil Kane, but the story art looks like George Tuska and Mike Esposito to me. Next came T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad (10 pages), drawn by Mike Sekowsky and featuring five more T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Guy, Dynamite, Kitten, Weed (clearly patterned after Wood himself), and Egghead. Other artists, such as Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, and Dan Adkins, would sign in for duty at T.H.U.N.D.E.R., and new heroes like the super-fast Lightning and high-flying Raven, would join the team.

The covers for Dynamo issues 1 through 4, including the Wally Wood original for issue #3.

As mentioned, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents begat separate Dynamo and NoMan comics and a sorta/kinda related Undersea Agent comic book. While the main T.H.U.N.D.E.R. book lasted for four years, its publication became more and more sporadic. Some later issues contained reprints of older stories. Finally with issue #20, cover-dated for November 1969, one year after the previous issue, the agents lost their thunder, but not the fans’ memories; T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents as a comics property has been resurrected more times than just about any other 1960s series from a defunct—or still-existing—publisher. It’s a tangled web of revivals and reboots, but I’ll try …

A little cross-pollination between Tower Comics and Tower Books with a paperback collection of NoMan stories during the original run; other T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comics were published by JC Comics, Deluxe Comics, DC (Archives and ongoing series), and IDW. The DC ongoing has a cover by Darwyn Cooke.

In 1981, John Carbonaro released two issues as JC Comics; in 1983, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents appeared in Justice Machine Annual #1, published by Texas Comics. In 1984, David M. Singer’s Deluxe Comics published Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, featuring art by George Pérez, Steve Ditko, Rich Buckler, and Jerry Ordway (Wood had died in 1981). Singer and Carbonaro battled it out in court, with the latter winning the rights to the characters, and—assumably—the coveted Thunder Belt, invisibility cloak, helmet, and every other gadget and wing-ding the characters utilized to have powers. In the 1990s, Rob Liefeld tried to publish a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series through his Extreme Studios and failed, but Carbonaro did a story with the characters in Penthouse magazine’s Omni Comix #3, which was drawn by Paul Gulacy and reprinted in Jon B. Cooke’s The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Companion, published by TwoMorrows Publishing in 2005 (this is a great history book on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Tower Comics; you can nab a digital copy by clicking here). DC picked up the rights from Carbonaro in the early 2000s, but couldn’t get him to agree to the changes they wanted to make with the characters; instead they published a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives series, which lasted for seven hardcover volumes, but the reproduction was lousy (in my humble opinion), and appeared to be just cleaned up scans of the printed comics (stats or negatives of the original comics were probably destroyed years ago—very few companies thought to save this stuff for future reprints). DC finally published their own new series after Carbonaro’s death, written by Nick Spencer with art by Cafu, but it lasted only ten issues; a six-issue mini-series followed. And then T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents moved over to IDW, where they republished the crappy reprints and tried to relaunch the series yet again. In 2015, Michael Uslan (the executive producer of the Batman film franchise in all its permutations) got the movie rights to it, but no movie has been forthcoming.

Nowadays every time I visit a comics shop, I pretty much know what I’m going to find before I get there. And while there’s always new books by new creators to discover, I wish I could go back to late summer 1965, as the new school year loomed and a cold eastern Pennsylvania winter was on the horizon, and walk into Moser’s newsstand and find a new comic book I never heard, from a company I never knew existed. 25 cents was pretty steep for a comic book in 1965; that was two “regular” ones, with a penny left over, when a penny still had at least some kind of buying power. But of all the new books that came out in that mid-1960s era, most crappy, some okay, only one series stood out, at least art-wise, and that was T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. I’d kill to discover something new like that, sight unseen, once again, but I suppose the most thrilling part of it was the time and my age. There’s no better time to be reading comics than as a ten-year-old in 1965.

Next time (in two weeks): “Dell Comics are Good Comics,” but this Dell Comic scared me shitless. Tune in to find out why.

To read all the “Tales from My Spinner Rack” posts, click here!

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