Armagideon Time

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.

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9 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: Electric schlock”

  1. Monzo

    Wait, did Roy Thomas bring back his OWN forgotten character just to kill her off, or did Jonni survive the parasiting?

  2. Tim O'Neil

    Given what we know about Roy the Boy, I’m sure he began with “tenuous connection to forgotten Justice Society C-lister” and worked his way back from there. The detective trappings were just the means to get to the end of plugging an imagined continuity hole.

  3. stavner

    At least it has a bunny.

  4. mikesensei

    Yeah, I foolishly bought this back in the day. Loved me some private-eye stories as well as vintage mystery-men…but this didn’t work at all. Don Macgregor and Gene Colon’s ‘Nathaniel Dusk’ (also at DC) was getting good press; I wonder if the Thomases thought they could get a piece of that action by aping the Hammett/Chandler narration too.

  5. Zeno

    That looks like Tom Orzechowski’s lettering work. What? He wasn’t busy enough with X-Books back then he had to take on side gigs at this level?

  6. Casey

    How do you feel about Dakota North and Ms. Tree? Those are basically what you’re wanting Jonni Thunder to be, and they came out at around the same time.
    And I feel like in the past you’ve said that the comic book industry wasn’t meant to last forever, that its decline was natural, inevitable, and overdue. And more often than that I recall you arguing hat the comic book business and fandom is the sewer drain of art and society, the one-way destination of everyone and everything rightly rejected by the upper echelons, and should be gotten rid of if it can be.
    So it’s especially surprising, in light of all that, to see you trot out a plan to save comics as stale as “genre diversity.”

  7. bitterandrew

    The fact that neither Ms. Tree nor Dakota North have been included in this feature should imply how I feel.

  8. Snark Shark

    oh! I liked Dakota North! This was a long time ago I read it, though!

  9. Pedro de Pacas

    I got a taste of Ms. Tree in a crime comics anthology – it was pretty damn good.

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