Several T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Artist: Wallace Wood.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: Tower Comics
First Appeared: 1965
Creator: Wallace Wood
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In the mid-1960s, with James Bond tenuous relation) riding high in books and movies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. riding high on TV, flamboyant, high-profile spies (if that isn't …

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… a contradiction in terms) were all the rage — especially if they worked for agencies that had cool initials. In comic books, Marvel responded with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., in 1965. That same year, Tower Books, a paperback publisher, entered the comic book field with two titles — Tippy Teen (probably no relation to Harold Teen, but part of the same teen humor genre) and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Both debuted with the cover date of November, 1965.

Like most contemporary acronymic agency names, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. stood for words that have clear meaning separately, but are kind of hard to figure out when put together. In this case, it was "The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves". "United Nations", we understand — but what would be the "Higher United Nations"? And these guys do — what? Enforce defense? And if they're merely reserves, how come they're on active duty all the time? Fortunately, 1960s audiences seldom looked at their spy thrillers closely enough to be bothered by nitpicky questions like these.

Being 1960s comic book characters, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were mostly superheroes. Dynamo was the brawny guy of the group — he had a high-tech belt that could make him invulnerable and super-strong. NoMan was a spook type, similar in appearance to a DC character, The Spectre, and with spook-like super powers as well — but again, with high-tech rather than mystical sources for his abilities. Lightning was a knock-off of The Flash, and Raven (no relation) one of Hawkman. Menthor, who had mental powers (again, from a high-tech source), was a double agent, secretly working for T.H.U.N.D.E.R.'s arch-enemy, The Warlord. He got his comeuppance (i.e., was killed off) in the seventh issue, and was later replaced with a new Menthor. Rounding out the cast were a commando team called The Thunder Squad.

The series was created by Wallace Wood, whose art had been seen throughout the comics industry since 1947. Aside from this series, he was best known for his work at EC Comics, and for sex-charged features like Sally Forth and Cannon. Wood was mainly responsible for the overall look of the series. Other highly talented artists who worked on it include Reed Crandall (Blackhawk, Treasure Chest), Gil Kane (Green Lantern, His Name Is … Savage), Mike Sekowsky (Justice League of America, Captain Flash) and Ogden Whitney (Herbie, Skyman). Scripters included Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Bill Pearson and Leonard Brown — the latter of which, by the way, was also Dynamo's "civilian" name.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents got rave reviews in fanzines of the time, and was quickly spun off into new titles. Dynamo and Noman got their own comics, and another new comic introduced a sister agency, U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A. (don't ask). But the boom was short-lived. A year or two into the series, sales began to falter — possibly because of a general downward trend in superhero comics as the Batman TV craze faded, possibly because the public was beginning to lose interest in initialized spy agencies, and possibly because Tower's comics were published in an extra-thick format and consequently cost as much as the other companies' annuals. The title effectively ended with #19, November, 1968, tho one more issue, full of reprints, staggered to the stands a year later. A British edition seems to have been published shortly after that, but it folded quickly.

And that would have been the end of them, if not for the tremendous fan interest they'd sparked. In 1981, a fan named John Carbonaro acquired the rights and went into partnership with David Singer, who represented himself as a professional publisher, to put them out in new comics. Carbonaro and Singer split up before the comics came out, following which Singer publicly claimed the characters had fallen into the public domain, and published the comics anyway, starting in 1986. Carbonaro, subsidized by Archie Comics, got his version into print in 1983.

But other small publishers started thinking that if the characters belong to anybody, why shouldn't they get on the fun? Several companies announced T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series, and some actually managed to get them on the stands before Carbonaro was able to re-establish his rights and put Singer out of business. Among them were Blackthorne (which was responsible for more Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knock-offs than everybody else combined) and Solson (famous for Reagan's Raiders). The Tower Comics characters became a comics industry joke, and all of the '80s series were very, very short-lived.

Now that the laughter has died down, the '60s series still looks good, if somewhat dated. Carbonaro tried to interest other publishers in his characters, and in 2002, DC Comics finally made a deal with him. The original series was reprinted in 2003, in a hardcover edition for serious collectors. From there, it was expected to go into a series of new stories, but DC and Carbonaru were unable to reach an agreement on character designs. Carbonaro died in 2009.


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Text ©2001-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Tower Comics.