THE RESPLENDENT SOUND OF T.H.U.N.D.E.R.!

By

Robert J. Sodaro ©

This article originally appeared in Comics Value Annual 1999,
and appears here w/permission of both the writer and the original Publisher*

Sired in the Mid-‘60s by one of the Most-Beloved Creators in the Industry,
the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® are the Superteam that
Categorically Refuses to Stay Dead!

In some respects, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® have lived a most charmed life, as they have risen Phoenix-like from the grave of cancellation more times and appeared under more corporate banners and logos than any group of superheroes has any right to expect. However—on the other side of the coin—there seems to be some sort of black cloud constantly hovering over their collective heads as they have never been able to make it past issue #20 in any of their many incarnations over the years.

Born in 1965, they sprang—Prometheus-like from the fertile and creative mind of Wally Wood, and—by all rights—they should be as well-known today as their Marvel Comics brethren who came into existence just a few short years earlier. Unfortunately, the breaks just didn’t go their way, and the team (in fact the entire comicbook line), just didn’t make it to the end of the decade. Still, the Agents themselves just wouldn’t give up the ghost, and have (sometimes just barely), continued to maintain a comicbook presence to the current day. A touch over 10 years after their initial series was canceled, ownership, as well as the rights to publish them (including their original adventures), were sold by Tower Publishing to John Carbonaro’s JC Productions.

This began a nearly 20-year effort on the part of Carbonaro to bring (and keep), the Agents back into the public’s eye. After a number of false starts; a copyright-infringement lawsuit (that included two or three comicbook lines of faux-T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ comics); and far too many abortive efforts and “almost” deals that fell through to delineate here, Carbonaro is (as always), preparing to bring his adopted children back into print.

Lightning Strikes the First Time

The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® are the creation of Wally Wood, who developed them for Tower Comics in 1965 at the dawning of the Silver Age of comics. Perhaps he was inspired by Stan Lee’s success over at Marvel, or the first “re-launch” of the DC universe, but whatever the reason, Tower (an existing magazine publisher), determined that it was interested in developing its own line of superheroes.

Instead of beginning slowly, and building up the characters over time, Tower jumped right into the fire with both feet, and gave us T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ #1 in November 1965. In that first issue, we were introduced to not only T.H.U.N.D.E.R. (The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves), but the three Agents that formed the original team; Dynamo (their nominal leader), NoMan, and Menthor, as well as the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad. The Squad was a non-superpowered, para-military strike force that supported and backed-up the Agents. The Squad was comprised of Guy Gilbert (Squad leader), Egghead (who went K.I.A. in issue #2), Kathryn “Kitten” Kane, John “Dynamite” Adkins (who was later unsuccessfully groomed to become Dynamo’s replacement), and William “Weed” Wylie. There was also a faceless, unnamed legion of UN-sponsored soldiers who would come in to mop up after the Agents and Squad were finished with their work.

Although the Squad members had no superpowers, they each had their own specialty (Gilbert was a Major and Medal of Honor winner, Egghead was a genius at strategy, Kitten an M.I.T. scientist, Dynamite an underwater demolitions expert, and Weed was an escape artist). As stated, the higher-ups at T.H.U.N.D.E.R. attempted to groom Dynamite as Dynamo’s replacement, but he proved to be not quite up to the task. The Brass had better luck with Gilbert who went on to become the superpowered Lightning.

Two things that made the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ different from virtually every group of heroes that proceeded them (and many of those that followed), were 1) the team worked for the United Nations and 2) their powers cost them dearly. Even then, in the unwritten canons of comics, there were essentially three scenarios as to how people acquired their powers and become superheroes. They were either born with them (Thor, Aquaman), acquired them by accident (Spider-Man, Flash), built some device that granted them power (Iron Man, Hawkman), or trained to be the best at what they did (Captain America, Batman, Daredevil). In the case of the Agents, each of them received their abilities by donning a bit of clothing or other device (Dynamo had his belt, Lightning his costume, Menthor his helmet, and NoMan his android body and invisibility cape).

All of these devices had maximum lock-out times where they would automatically shut down and require time to recharge. For Dynamo, it was 25 minutes, with an emergency five-minute back-up. NoMan’s invisibility cape would shut down after 10 minutes. Still, it was Lightning that would suffer the most, for every time he used his super-speed, it shaved time off his life span. Hence whenever he went into action he was literally killing himself. Menthor “suffered” the least. His helmet actually brought the innate goodness of its wearer, eventually turning the double agent John J. Janus (Menthor), from a potential traitor to a loyal agent.

For this he paid the ultimate price, however, and died in action protecting the Agents from the Warlords (#7). This marked perhaps the first time in comics that a major character died in action. Interestingly enough, this scenario was virtually identical to what occurred a couple of years earlier in Avengers #9 where Wonder Man joined the Avengers with the intention of betraying them, only to reform at the last minute and die while saving their lives.

Weather Patterns

Not ones to miss a trick, Tower quickly followed up its team book with a couple of titles where members of the team were broken out into solo stories. Dynamo and NoMan debuted shortly after Thunder Agents™ #1. Unfortunately neither title lasted long (Dynamo went four issues, and NoMan went two). A related title was U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A. Agent, which lasted 6 issues (a seventh U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A. Agent tale appeared in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® #16.)

U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A. Agent stared another UN agent (also non-powered, like the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad), named (what else), Davy Jones. Recruited from the Navy, Jones went to work for the United Nations Department of Experiment and Research Systems Established at Atlantis. Though Jones never met anyone from T.H.U.N.D.E.R., and there were no common characters in the two series, it can only be assumed, that—had the two titles continued—they would have eventually crossed paths.

Another pair of Tower books were Fight the Enemy (3 issues), a WW II anthology title; and Tippy Teen (an Archie-like book that lasted 28 issues, including a Special Collector’s Edition). Still, in spite of what seems like a fairly solid line-up of comics for the mid-to-late ’60, Tower wound up pulling the plug on the entire division in ’69 (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ went to issue #20). While this could very well have been the last chapter in the story of Len Brown (Dynamo) and his friends, it proved to be merely the first chapter in what has turned out to be a long and strange trip indeed.

The Coming Storm

In 1981, fan-turned-(semi)pro John Carbonaro acquired the rights to Wally Wood’s best-loved children. He subsequently produced one B&W, magazine-sized issue on his own before striking an arrangement with Archie comics to continue the series. Under the arrangement with Archie, Carbonaro continued to produce and package the Agents under the JC Comics label, while Archie acted as printer and distributor. The JC/Archie T.H.U.N.D.E.R. comics were produced in color, and standard comic-book sized. Unfortunately, due to a convoluted set of incidents, that arrangement didn’t last very long (two issues of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ , plus three issues reprinting from the original Tower series). A third, original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® story appeared under Archie’s Red Circle logo in Blue Ribbon Comics #12, an anthology title.

Shortly after this, Carbonaro met up with David Singer, which would send John down a long, tortured path and all but kill the Agents as a viable set of characters. Singer, a self-professed fan of the Agents who imagined himself a junior-grade Stan Lee, managed to ingratiate himself with Carbonaro, first presenting himself as a partner in Carbonaro’s publishing company and then as his legal representative (Singer had a law degree, but had not yet passed the Bar). According to Carbonaro, Singer utilized his inside knowledge of the dealings between Carbonaro and Tower, and then attempted to assume ownership of the agents by presenting himself as Carbonaro’s legal representative. When this failed, he claimed that the Agents existed in the Public Domain and attempted to wrest the Agents away from Carbonaro.

Apparently, Tower (which published magazines, but had no experience in publishing licensed characters), had inadvertently left the copyright notice off several copies of the various comics they published. Singer used this loophole to attempt to declare that the Agents had fallen into the Public Domain allowing anyone could publish them. He went so far as to issue a press release to this effect where he boldly proclaimed that “All God’s Children” could publish the Agents, and then proceeded to do so under the Deluxe Comics banner without Carbonaro.

Knowing that Tower’s copyright and trademark on the Agents were valid and legal, Carbonaro sued Singer for copyright infringement in 1984, beginning what turned out to be a protracted and nasty legal battle that lasted three years and rocked the industry. In 1987, Carbonaro proved victorious and regained control of his beloved Agents. (He has also firmly established his ownership over the copyright and trademark of the Agents and has been issued papers to that effect by the Copyright and Trademark offices of the U.S.) As part of the suit, he acquired all of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. material that Singer had published. At the time of Carbonaro’s victory over Singer, Deluxe had long-since gone out of business, due mostly to Singer’s own ineptness, lack of business acumen, shady dealings, and failure to pay his creators either on time, or what he had promised them. (Not to mention, Carbonaro had enjoined the major distributors from handling the Deluxe comics by naming them in his suit, thus severing the company’s cash flow and access to the marketplace.)

The long legal battle over The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® ultimately asserted three things: 1) Tower Comics’ original copyright and trademarks on The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® were valid and legally binding; 2) Carbonaro was now (and always) the legitimate and legal holder of those rights; and 3) Deluxe Comics was in violation of Federal Copyright and Trademark laws. Carbonaro’s resounding victory over Deluxe resulted in a settlement which included cash, plus Deluxe surrendering all story and art copyrights, as well as all back-stock to Carbonaro.

At long last, Carbonaro was vindicated.

Stormy Weather Ahead

While his legal troubles were largely behind him, Carbonaro now began a decade-long search for a new home for the Agents. By his own accounting, Carbonaro spoke with virtually every major and numerous minor comicbook publishers in his quest to get the Agents back into print (including, but not limited to Marvel, (Marvel’s Epic line), DC, Image (Extreme and WildStorm), Dark Horse, Comico, Apple (with whom he actually struck an agreement, but never managed to publish) and others. He also had discussions with a number of production houses and creators in an effort to generate either a movie or animated TV series (Batfilms, Marv Wolfman, etc.), all to no avail.

In 1994, he finally struck a deal with George Caragonne and his company, Constant Developments, Inc. (CDI), to begin production of new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ stories. Shortly after announcing his deal with Carbonaro, Caragonne hooked up with Penthouse magazine where he began to produce a line of Adult comic magazines for the company. In addition the Adult comics, Caragonne launched Omni Comics, which, in issue #3, included the first chapter of what was to be a four-issue T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® story. (This story was supposed to appear as a standard, stand-alone T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® comic, but—again for convoluted reasons—never did.) Unfortunately, tragedy struck again. Caragonne was dismissed from Penthouse and, despondent, took his own life.

Without Caragonne to head up the comicbook division, Penthouse scaled back its operation and canceled most of its line (including Omni Comics). Once again the Agents were without a home and fell into the limbo of non-publishing.

Echoes of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. (Future)

Never one to admit, acknowledge, (or even spell), defeat, Carbonaro continues to soldier on. He has “re-acquired” publishing rights back from Penthouse, as well as the existing (Omni) T.H.U.N.D.E.R. artwork, and is currently in the process of re-(re)-launching the series. This time out he is doing it on his own and not relying on others to helm the series that he has held close to his vest for over a decade. Carbonaro (“Carbs” as he is affectionately known to his “friends”), has long held the faith that—given half a chance—the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® can make a solid go of it and turn into the money-making franchise that it was always meant to be.

One can only hope he is right.


Additional T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Stories

In addition to the above, there was a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ series containing original stories which was published in England. This series was officially licensed by Tower prior to the sale of the characters to Carbonaro. It is unknown how many issues of this comic were published, or in what year(s) it was published. Only one copy of a single issue is known to exist.

A single issue of a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ comic was published by Solson in the ‘80s. This story was officially licensed by Carbonaro. The story was a future, alternative time-line which included all of the Agents, and may or may not be considered part of the official canon. NoMan appeared on the cover.

There was also (at least three) comics that parodied the Agents. Two of them—The Inferior Five #1 (DC, 1972), and Not Brand Echh #2 (Marvel, 1973)—that did so while Tower was still publishing. The third (Boris the Bear, Dark Horse, mid-to late ‘80s), did so while Carbonaro owned them. Dark Horse was served with a “cease and desist” notice from Carbonaro, and refrained from future parodies.

There was at least one issue of Thunder Bunny in which the Agents appeared, which received the tacit approval from Carbonaro (albeit later). Other publishers (Americomics, Maximum Comics), announced comics staring their version of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents™ (when the Agents were thought to exist in the Public Domain), but never delivered due to either notice from Carbonaro detailing his ownership (Americomics), or the company’s own inability to produce such books (Maximum Comics announced a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents® comic, but no proof exists as to whether or not it ever managed to actually publish the comic).

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*This article has been slightly edited and modified by the original author to reflect it’s new format, and the passage of time.


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