By late 1997, Marvel Comics needed some new superheroes.
The Avengers and Fantastic Four had all seemingly died in battle during the Onslaught event, a company-wide crossover that had spiralled out of the X-Men comics. Of course, this being comics, no-one ever really dies – but Heroes Reborn is definitely an article for another day.
This created a vacuum for the bad guys to finally take over; or at least so it appeared – before the Thunderbolts arrived!
Introduced in Incredible Hulk #449 ahead of their own #1, the Thunderbolts were a brand new super team led by the stars and stripes-adorned Citizen V. With the heroically pure tagline “Justice, Like Lightning”, the T-bolts looked set to be the next big thing in the hero game – yet what followed remains one of the biggest twists in comic book history.
On the final page of Thunderbolts #1, Citizen V and the Thunderbolts were revealed to in fact be the villainous Baron Zemo and his Masters of Evil!
So began one of the most compelling – if underrated – superhero comics of Marvel’s history, brought to us by the dream team of writer Kurt Busiek and superstar artist Mark Bagley.
If you want to learn about Baron Zemo’s Thunderbolts – well, there’s only one place to start…
Who is Baron Zemo?
The Thunderbolts would never have existed were it not for the twisted scheming of Baron Zemo, one of Captain America and the Avengers’ most enduring foes.
With the bad Baron finally donning his purple ski mask for the MCU’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, his profile has never been higher – which means there’s never been a better time to find out exactly who Baron Zemo is.
And that’s actually a question with two answers…
The 12th Baron: Heinrich Zemo
The 12th Baron Zemo (although the first in comic book history) was Heinrich Zemo, a Nazi scientist and war criminal who wore a purple mask to hide his identity.
Heinrich had several encounters with Captain America and the Howling Commandos during WWII. During one battle with Captain America, this mask became fused to Heinrich’s face by the experimental glue Adhesive-X. His life irrevocably altered, Heinrich lost his grip on reality.
Despite this, Zemo senior’s biggest victory came towards the end of the war. He captured Captain America and Bucky, and strapped them to an experimental plane which was rigged to explode.
Captain America broke free and fell into the Arctic Ocean, where he became frozen in ice – thus setting up his eventual return to the modern Marvel universe. Bucky, meanwhile, was thought to have been killed in the plane’s subsequent explosion – although we know how that turned out…
When Captain America returned and joined the Avengers, Heinrich Zemo formed a group of supervillains – the Masters of Evil – to combat the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Heinrich Zemo finally perished in a landslide of his own making while fighting his old nemesis.
The 13th Baron: Helmut Zemo
Heinrich was an abusive husband and father, and junior didn’t fall far from the tree. Heinrich’s son – Baron Helmut Zemo – was both a brilliant engineer and committed to Nazi ideals of a master race.
Baron Helmut Zemo first appeared in 1973’s Captain America #168 in costumed guise of the Phoenix (most definitely not the cosmic force from the X-Men comics). Helmut attempted to replicate his father’s experiments with Adhesive X, but during the battle with Captain America he himself fell into a vat of the chemical glue, and was believed dead.
Yet he returned years later; his disfigured face hidden beneath a familiar purple mask.
The new Baron Zemo went on to become one of Captain America’s most cunning and vicious adversaries, and even came close to achieving something that none had achieved before – destroying the Avengers!
So how does this all tie into Zemo’s Thunderbolts? Well, to get there we need to know a thing or two about Zemo’s ever-changing squad of supervillains…
Who are the Masters of Evil?
Heinrich Zemo may have formed the Masters of Evil, but it was his son that took them closest to victory.
Helmut’s Masters of Evil – the fourth iteration of the team – relied on sheer numbers and brute strength. Zemo and over a dozen supervillains led a stunning attack on the Avengers Mansion in the Under Siege arc, and came desperately close to finally defeating the heroes.
Although this story eventually ended with the villain’s defeat, it remains a standout moment in Avengers history.
Zemo surfaced again, but the Masters of Evil did not reform until Onslaught provided the perfect opportunity…
Introducing Baron Zemo’s Thunderbolts
As a duplicitous schemer, it made perfect sense for Zemo to take advantage of the apparent death of the Avengers. Inspired by hearing the Beetle talking to Goliath about who would take the heroes’ place, Zemo quickly put together the perfect team for the job.
In short order, a new roster of the Masters of Evil adopted new heroic identities…
To lead his Thunderbolts, Baron Zemo adopted the identity of an English resistance fighter that his father killed during the war. Citizen V was a noble, swashbuckling leader, at least in the public eye. But behind the scenes he was focused coldly and clinically on his end goal of enslaving the world through mind control!
The definition of a bad doctor, psychologist Dr Karla Sofen graduated from manipulating her patients to a full-blown supervillain life when she acquired the Moonstone, a Kree device that gifted her incredible superpowers. As Moonstone, Sofen faced the Avengers many times, including as a member of the Masters of Evil. This led to her position on as Zemo’s second-in-command, Meteorite.
Norbert Ebersol is a technological genius who turned to a life of crime for the challenge, the thrill, and to satisfy his ego. As the Fixer, Ebersol fought SHIELD, Spider-Man, the Avengers, Alpha Flight and more, both alone and as part of the Masters of Evil. With the Thunderbolts Ebersol became Techno, the technology savant.
Abner Jenkins first rose to infamy as the Beetle. A brilliant flight engineer, Jenkins turned his skills to mercenary work. This brought him into conflict with the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, among others. As a former member of the Masters of Evil, Jenkins was a natural fit for the Thunderbolts, and in the guise of the heroic MACH-1, he used a new flight suit to carve a new identity for himself.
A former US soldier-turned-mercenary, Eric Josten’s backstory took him through several costumed identities, including Power Man, the Smuggler, and, after gaining his size-changing powers, Goliath. When Josten’s convoluted biology began to cause him problems, Zemo and Fixer came to his aid, simplifying his powers. Out of loyalty, Josten joined the Thunderbolts as the size-shifter Atlas.
A professional wrestler under the name Screaming Mimi, Melissa Gold had lived a tough life. Experimentation gifted her superhuman abilities and – with an advanced neck harness – the ability to control and shape sound. Gold served on the Masters of Evil before joining Zemo’s Thunderbolts as Songbird.
Complicating matters, the team was joined by idealistic teenager Hallie Takahama, aka Jolt.
After losing her parents in the Onslaught event, Takahama was kidnapped and experimented on by Arnim Zola. These experiments gave Takahama electricity-based superpowers, and she escaped at the first opportunity.
Takahama went looking for help and found the Thunderbolts, who had moved into the Fantastic Four’s abandoned HQ. After joining the mission to free the other child abductees from Zola, Takahama ended up joining the team as the costumed hero Jolt – thanks largely to the machinations of Meteorite.
Jolt became a pawn in Meteorite’s power struggle with Zemo, but she formed genuine relationships with the other Thunderbolts. In particular, she grew close to Atlas, who came to see the youngster as something of a surrogate sister.
What happened to the Thunderbolts?
With the Avengers and Fantastic Four MIA, the public took Baron Zemo’s Thunderbolts to heart. However, when the heroes returned, Zemo knew that time was almost up.
In #10, as he launched the final phase of his plan, Zemo revealed the Thunderbolts’ true identities to the world.
Jolt, heartbroken by the revelation, managed to convince Songbird, MACH-1, Atlas and Meteorite to do the right thing, and the team succeeded in stopping Zemo’s plan – after battling the rest of the Masters of Evil along the way.
With Zemo gone, the Thunderbolts were in crisis. No longer supervillains, the team found themselves struggling to make it as genuine heroes in a world that would never trust them again. The team needed new leadership and one more chance to prove themselves.
This being comics, both of these things would soon come from the most unlikely source – Clint Barton, AKA the Avenger known as Hawkeye…
If you want to read the adventures of Baron Zemo’s Thunderbolts then you have a few options to choose from:
Everything you need to get the very start of the Thunderbolts story. Thunderbolts Classic Vol. 1 contains Thunderbolts #1-5, #-1, Annual ’97; Incredible Hulk #449; Spider-Man Team-Up #7; and Tales of the Marvel Universe #1.
Featuring the culmination of Zemo’s plan and the Thunderbolts’ rebellion. Thunderbolts Classic Vol. 2 includes Thunderbolts #6-14 and Heroes for Hire #7.
If you’re already a fan of Baron Zemo’s Thunderbolts then you may be more interested in the new hardcover omnibus, arriving in April 2021. Containing the entire Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley run, every spin-off, one-shot, annual and appearance in other books, this is the comprehensive first-generation Thunderbolts story.
Not the Thunderbolts, but another perilously close defeat for Baron Zemo in this classic Avengers story. Under Siege had a big impact back in 1986, and many fans still consider it a pivotal story arc today.