Perhaps you’ve wondered how things would have turned out if Dashiell Hammett had looked at an early draft of The Maltese Falcon and said “You know what? Let’s make the titular McGuffin into a mystical artifact that transforms Sam Spade into a goofy looking energy being who zooms around but doesn’t really do anything. Oh, and let’s make Spade into a tough-yet-glamorous blonde and give her a name lifted from a modestly popular character from forty years ago! And we’ll print it using an unreliable method characterized by eye-melting garishness!”
Well, wonder no more, because we’ve got Jonni Thunder a.k.a. Thunderbolt to serve as proof-of-concept for that creative road not taken.
Much has been made of the inherent flexibility of the superhero genre and its ability to accommodate all manner of other narrative tropes. Sci-fi, romance, horror, mystery, western, war — all have provided grist for the capes-and-spandex mill while providing fresh perspectives and an extended life for what had begun as a passing fad.
Yet while this adaptability has served the superhero genre well over the years, its effect on comics (specifically the American variety) as a medium has been problematic. Superhero stuff may keep the business running (up until now, at least), but at the cost of popular confusion between the genre and the medium as a whole.
A superhero comic can tell a ripping mystery tale, but not all ripping mystery tales require the presence of superheroic elements — and here lies the problem with Jonni Thunder’s 1985 miniseries.
The gravest sin a critic can commit is to review the object he or she wanted to behold rather than the object they actually beheld, but it’s difficult to come away from Jonni Thunder without thinking of what could have been. You had the veteran talent of Roy (and Dann) Thomas and Dick Giordano (Ernie Colon was involved in the early stages, but was committed to Amethyst), working the angle of a Phil-Marlowe-by-way-of-Jim-Rockford private eye drama with a strong female lead. That (along with the creators’ editorial clout) should have been enough to sell something unique for DC and mainstream comics in general at the time.
Yet for some reason — hedge-based marketing, genre-related Stockholm Syndrome, or whatever — they opted to throw in killer robots, a superpowered alter ego, and a coyly tenuous callback to a Golden Age character that no one has given a shit about since the days of the Truman administration. What could have been a novel (if minor) experiment with blazing new trails turned into yet other mediocre superhero launched through a made-for-the-quarter-bin miniseries.
The Rascally One’s decision to bring Jonni back (in a later Infinity, Inc. arc) as the host of a sex-crazed alien parasite…
…was neither a shock or a jolt.