The acronym (The Higher United Nations Enforcement Reserves) may connote a multi-national agency, but when you get down to it, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (DC Archives) were an all-American group. A short-lived superhero series from the mid-sixties, the Agents came out under the previously unknown Tower Comics imprimatur: three years after Marvel launched its line with the first issue of Fantastic Four. Today, the Tower line is fondly recalled by Silver Age comic book aficionados, less for its characters and stories and more for the quality of its art.
Tower's line of superhero books was overseen by the great Wallace Wood, a troubled but gifted artist known among fans for his EC s-f and Mad comics, plus his work on early issues of Marvel's Daredevil. A dynamic and detailed cartoonist with a flair for rendering zaftig pinup babes, Wood tended to flit from assignment to assignment, much to the consternation of his fans (his run on Daredevil, though it changed the look of the character for the better, only lasted six issues). With a coterie of comic pros (Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, Dan Adkins, Mike Sekowsky), Wood put his visual stamp on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its offshoots. The result was a line of superhero books that instantly looked great - even if the stories didn’t always approach the same level of visual presentation.
I was unprepared by DC Comics' recent hardcover reprint of this series. The comics company has been doing a strong job respectfully reprinting many of its superhero series as 200-plus page hardbound Archives - including a few works from outside the DC line like Will Eisner's Spirit or the first Mad comics - but I'd have thought that the company would've gone for one of its as-yet-unprinted series (Superboy, say) before settling on this relatively obscure batch of books. I'm not complaining, mind you, just more than a little surprised.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was Tower's flagship superhero title, a large 68-page book (most comics typically ran half that size) sold on newsstands for a quarter. Its lead was a superlunk named Dynamo, who received cover prominence and two stories per issue. Premise behind the book was fairly simple: a brilliant scientist is murdered by enemy agents, leaving behind three prototype inventions: an "electron intensifier" belt, invisibility cloak plus a cybernetic helmet capable of "magnifying a man's brain power several times over." Each device is given to a single agent; it's the belt that transforms amiable everyman Leonard Brown into dynamo. Once he fires his Thunderbelt, it adapts to his metabolism and becomes fatal to anyone else who tries to wear it. In one episode, an enemy agent is vaporized after putting on the captured Dynamo's belt.
The remaining prototypes are taken up by NoMan (aged scientist Dr. Dunn, who in addition to the invisibility cloak, can shift his "entire mental makeup" from one android body to another) and Menthor (a double agent named Janus, who undergoes a subconscious personality change once he utilizes the helmet - a ripe idea that Tower's writers never fully explored). To abet our super-powered heroes, an "international" team called the Thunder Squad also appeared in the early issues but thankfully didn't last. The Squad was so colorless that when one of 'em died in issue #2, you barely remembered who he was.
But Dynamo was the star of the show and for good reason. For one thing, the guy actually had a personality, which is more than you can say for the rest of the cast. A wall-smashing he-man (Wood loved to render bricks, flying out at the reader), Dynamo's enhancement had entirely gone to his brawn - and not a bit to his brain. He was regularly captured by the baddies, especially the armored femme fatale Iron Maiden. Though Wood was an artist capable of rendering men's mag cuties without a stitch of clothing on 'em, he clearly was of a generation that appreciated good tease. His Iron Maiden appeared fully covered (all we saw was the lower half of her pouty face) in shapely medieval garb; only thing we knew about her was she was mercenary, attracted to Dynamo and hot. Our poor hero was caught between his own attraction for this dangerous beauty and the equally curvaceous, but safer, agency secretary Alice Robbins.
But the best thing about Dynamo was his capacity for performing all sorts of goofy superhero acts for no other reason than the fact that they looked cool. One of our hero's favorite means of transport, for instance, was to jump out of a plane sans parachute and let his increased body mass protect him on impact. In one story, he even hitched a ride on a rocket - a pretty expensive jaunt - then plummeted into the ocean. First time I read it as a smarty-pants adolescent, I remember wondering why the guy didn't plunge all the way to the ocean floor and drown trying to swim back to the surface.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R.'s nemeses were fairly standard comic book types - world-conquering Warlords with more than a trace of Ming the Merciless about 'em, mad scientists who clone a park of dinosaurs decades before Michael Crichton thought to do it, an array of anonymous evil agents - and the relatively short (ten-thirteen pages) plots are frequently utilitarian at best. About half the scripts in the first four issues are uncredited, and these frequently are the weakest entries. Volume One's intro writers, Robert Klein & Michael Uslan, make some extravagant claims about some of the book's offerings, even comparing a later Iron Maiden tale ("Return of the Iron Maiden") to Will Eisner's hero high mark Spirit. The comparison does no service to the Tower tale, though, which inevitably flattens when held alongside Eisner's more floridly movie-mad eight-pagers. Artists Wood and Reed Crandall (best known for his work on Blackhawk) do a nifty job recreating a Hollywoodized Middle-Eastern setting, but the results just aren't as consistently witty as Eisner. (Iron Maiden does get a decent moment in this 'un, though; leading a bound Dynamo across the desert on a camel, she notes, "Capturing you is getting to be a habit!") It's better if you just take these stories on their own terms: simple and concise, frequently silly, superhero tales with work by some of the era's best American comics artists.
Coming out as they did in the midst of Marvel's elevation of extended plots and heightened adolescent angst, Tower's books already seemed anachronistic in 1965. Reading these stories today, though, they can readily stand up against much of Marvel's melodramas. Nowadays, many Americans have mixed emotions about any organization that claims the United Nations as its sponsor, but, I've gotta tell ya, back in the day - when dinosaurs walked the streets and underground races plotted to overthrow the surface dwellers - we were damn glad to have a group like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. around. . .