By: Jeff Parker (writer), Matthew Southworth (artist), Frank Martin, Jr. (colorist)

The Story: As it turns out, this particular man does have a name.

The Review: I spread a lot of DC love around here, and I think it’s time Marvel gets some of that as well.  Now, DC has given a lot of big talk about promoting diversity and highlighting minority characters, but at the end of the day, the most prominent non-white hero in its roster is probably John Stewart, honorary Green Lantern, whose popularity is mostly cultish.

Meanwhile, Marvel has several minority characters who’ve actually reached iconic status, like the highly beloved and respected Storm and, as of late, Luke Cage.  It’s really quite amazing how since his entry into the New Avengers some years ago, he’s made a meteoric rise to becoming one of the most prolific heroes adventuring in the Marvel Universe today.  Even so, for a long time, he still tended to be the “black” voice of the teams he works with, rather than a fully-formed personality of his own.

This issue shows how much he’s grown since his early proto-Mr. T. days.  As he grapples with Mr. Fear’s unexpected attack, we essentially get to see Parker break down Cage’s tough guy exterior, the one he relies on to command the respect of his peers and the loyalty (or, at least, obedience) of the Thunderbolts.  Once all that bravado and rough talk (“One day I’m going to bust in and hear: ‘Luke Cage?  Please don’t beat me like a cheap drum!  I surrender!’…  No time soon, I hope) disappears, we get a very different, vulnerable, and tortured sort of Cage.

At some point in every superhero’s life, they encounter a plotline where they must confront their deepest fears, either actually or via delusion, as Cage does here.  Either way, the experience is actually more valuable to us than anybody else, as we get to see the things that haunt and worry our heroes, and thus what makes up the backbone of their characters.  For Cage, we see not only his determination to escape the stigma of being a criminal, but his hope that others will do the same, as part of his hallucination involves the Thunderbolts giving into their worse selves.

Parker cleverly ties in this gnawing concern with the sequence where Songbird and Mach V confront the bureaucrats who commission the team.  In a neat twist, these suited-and-tied individuals are several times more pragmatic and ends-means oriented than the people they employ, coming off colder and more ruthless than the supposed criminals at work.  They make no apologies, however, and make it obvious they only care about the function of the team.

So it’s up to the Thunderbolts to believe in themselves, which is and will continue to be the biggest draw for this title: whether they can really redeem themselves and become true heroes.  It’s not a coincidence, I think, this issue focuses on the three members for whom that goal panned out.  And it’s certainly not a coincidence that just as F.A.C.T. calls into question the trustworthiness of the remaining T-bolts, they get a sign that things might work out after all.

Southworth has one of those sketchy, delicate styles that’s getting in vogue lately.  It definitely has an appeal, particularly on titles like this, which offer a darker, earthier story, less bound by the spectacle of sci-fi.  At times, his work seems a tad inconsistent, switching between fleshed out and rough, but overall, he makes the drama come to life while selling the more fantastic elements of the story.

Conclusion: A compelling glimpse into one of the more compelling Marvel characters, as well as a nice perspective on what drives the Thunderbolts and sets them apart.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – I question why Cage feels the need to wear a cowboy outfit in the first place.  Seeing as how they’re all in Pennsylvania, the Western gear doesn’t exactly make him blend in.

– And yes, for those of you wondering, my line for “The Story” is a clumsy attempt to reference Clint Eastwood’s “The Man With No Name.”  Bonus points for those who figured it out before getting here.