Charles Soule already wowed me once with his introductory issue of Red Lanterns, but Thunderbolts is an entirely different beast of a second-tier group of vengeance seeking heroes...wait...hm...in any event, Soule picks right up from the last story-arc, working with initial series artist Steve Dillon to tell a very small, intimate story of the team’s power couple Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios. The tale revolves around Elektra’s self-described freedom fighter brother Orestez Natchios, who really is just a simple thug with a penchant for thrill killing. He was supposed to be dead by Elektra’s hand, but Punisher has discovered otherwise and conducts a manhunt to find out if his bedmate has been entirely honest with him. If you’re here looking for Deadpool, Red Hulk or Venom, I’m afraid they’re not available, but in their place we have a small, intimate story of a lover’s quarrel taken to lethal levels and Soule admirably picks up the baton that Daniel Way handed him, keeping the tone of the dark wetworks superhero team alive and well, especially writing the Punisher as an analytical, fastidious hunter of criminals. The opening scene, set as a posh, decadent party, is absolutely pitch-perfect tone wise. Soule also seems to take an especial delight in writing the deadpan vigilante with just a little bit of not-quite-self-aware panache. Anyone who writes the line “What, I’m a #$%& idiot?” as one of Frank’s completely serious lines definitely gets the character.
This issue also sees the return of Steve Dillon, one of the most love-him-or-hate-him artists this side of Howard Chaykin, but in this case I think his unique skill set is put to good use. Dillon draws characters who make an impact just by standing, and that’s what a great many of his characters do: stand and be imposing. When he’s required to do fluid action, it doesn’t always work, but this issue is definitely a more staid, mellow affair, allowing Dillon’s characters to stand tall and stand sturdy. Punisher is one of the characters Dillon is most used to drawing and that fact is always on display as Castle is rarely better than when drawn by his experienced hand. There are few artists who quite capture Castle's jaded weariness with his lot in life as Dillon does, and that is definitely on display here. There’s an especially impressive two pages of Frank tracking Orestez with profiles of both men bookending the panels.
There are a few scenes that would have looked better with some of that sweet, fluid action, and these scenes mostly fall flat, unfortunately. This is also, ostensibly, a team book that puts a laser-like focus on two (and REALLY only emphasizes one) of its members for an entire issue. It’s two of its most interesting members, but if you read Thunderbolts without caring about the dynamic between Punisher and Elektra, this issue will absolutely leave you out in the cold.
Luckily I love the Castle/Natchios dynamic, so this issue was great for me to read, and while I may have complained about Dillon’s art in the past, his strengths are definitely on full display here. His strengths are for drawing ugly people doing ugly things, and this issue is concerned with nothing else. Soule does such a seamless job that I actually was only barely aware he hadn’t been writing this series the entire time! Pick this up if you like the Punisher, or if you want to see the Thunderbolts team dynamic take a seismic shift.