Thunderstuck! A Conversation with Jim Zub on Marvel’s Thunderbolts

I had the opportunity to sit down with writer Jim Zub (Disney Kingdoms: Figment; Wayward; Street Fighter: Cammy) at SDCC this year to chat about continuity, shipping, and big character arcs in his new on going series Thunderbolts. A word of warning: This interview will contain some spoilers from the first three issues of Thunderbolts, Avengers: Standoff, and Captain America: Steve Rogers, so please tread carefully. Let’s dive in!

thunderbolts 1So, let’s talk about Thunderbolts! The first thing I’d like to know because I–unsurprisingly I’m sure–deeply care about Bucky Barnes…

As do I!

Oh, for sure. I loved your little stinger at the end of issue #1 asking people to send in letters talking about how dreamy the Winter Soldier is. Did you get a lot of letters?

We got a ton of letters! Alanna, she was the assistant editor, now she’s the editor on the book was like, “We kinda got a deluge of messages all–the really different ones I’ll send you–but a lot of them are just focused on Stucky, so, you know, here’s how it goes.” And I was like, that’s cool, and I’m glad! I know some people can get nervous about that sort of thing; they get really worried about fandom. But I’d rather have people excited and emotionally invested than not give a damn. So people care! And I think that’s wonderful, and I think it’s really exciting that they’re emotionally invested in Bucky, they’re emotionally invested in Steve and Bucky, and they’re invested in Marvel characters. And that’s really the most valuable thing you can ask for: The bond that you build with those readers. And that doesn’t mean giving them everything they want, because it’s not that simple, right?

Right, you couldn’t please everybody.

Absolutely. Ever. There is a very strong contingent that wants Natasha and Bucky to get back together. Well, that’s at loggerheads with Stucky, which is at loggerheads with other stuff. So it’s like–no one’s gonna get exactly what they want. Let alone, the fact is, as much as I find it really interesting, some of the people that respond to me and they say, “Oh, you’re hurting Bucky,” or, “Don’t do this to the Winter Soldier, I love him!” or whatever–I have to be like “my job is to tell a compelling, dramatic story.” So I have to put difficulties in his way. In all of their ways. For the whole team. That is the heart of drama, but it’s not because I don’t like him! I don’t sit around steepling my fingers being like, “I will punish this fictional character!” It’s really about deciding what is a compelling and interesting story, and the best way to test a theme or to test emotional resonance is to put something up against something horrible. It makes them question [themselves]; it makes them strengthen [themselves] to put something into jeopardy.

So, kind of going along those lines, a lot of the conflict in Thunderbolts is coming from Kobik, which I feel is a very interesting dynamic, especially for Bucky. This is something we don’t see a lot of–he’s interacting with something that’s essentially a child. Could you talk a little about Bucky and Kobik’s relationship and kind of where that’s coming from?

Well, it’s fascinating, right? So the team was set when I was offered the book, so they knew it was coming out of Standoff, and they knew what the end result of that was going to be the Thunderbolts coming back, and here’s the team lineup. And they were like, “Tell us what you would do with this?” And one of the things I said right off the bat was, “Well, you’ve got Bucky protecting this ‘girl.'” I use air quotes around that; she’s a cosmic cube made manifest, but we’re going to call her a small girl. And she is a weapon, and she’s been used as a weapon in the way that Bucky’s been used as a weapon. So there’s that reflective quality, you know? There’s also some fascinating parallels there because this is the cube that brought Bucky’s memories back as well, right? There’s all these wheels within wheels. The Hydra stuff, the Winter Soldier stuff. It worked on so many different levels, so I was like, okay, I want to play with this obviously protective, parental kind of approach … But she’s not just a child. She has the power to remake and unmake reality, without any of the moral framework, and so, how does that work? How does [the team] interact with [her] knowing that? What kind of structure can we put in place through [Bucky]?

It’s not like Bucky is on the straight and narrow, and it’s not like he’s been perfect, and it’s not like he makes all the best choices, and every mistake he makes now gets magnified through Kobik, because like any child with a parent, you look to your parents for cues about how you’re supposed to live, what you’re supposed to do. So that’s just been a ton of fun, right? Let alone all the stuff happening with Steve Rogers, let alone the Red Skull–so you just put that all together and there’s just so much dramatic spark. There’s so much intensity there.

Issue #3 came out, and at the end, there’s a sequence where Kobik wants to help, and she says to Bucky, “Why won’t you let me help?” And he’s like, “I don’t want people to use you.” “I don’t want you to put yourself in danger.” All these other things, and he says, “I was used as a weapon, and I don’t want you to have the kind of regrets that I have.” And she looks at him with this totally innocent smile and says, “I could take the regrets away.” And she could!

Thunderbolts #3, Jim Zub, Jon Malin, Matt Yackey
Thunderbolts #3, Jim Zub, Jon Malin, Matt Yackey

Yeah! I read the issue at night, right before I left for the con at like midnight on Comixology. When I read that sequence, it was such an “Oh NO!” moment for me.

[Laughing] I wrote that sequence and I sent it in to Tom and Alanna and they were just like, “That’s it, that’s the button on it. That’s the whole thing.” [Kobik] is this monkey’s paw made manifest, right? Do you indulge in these wishes? Where does your line get drawn?

Where do the consequences start to happen?

Yeah! You see a similar kind of thing happening in Civil War II, where this idea of not remaking reality, but precognition, the ability to know something before it happens -would you do this, or would you do that? Are we allowed to have freedom of choice and all that stuff. So it’s not the same question, but there’s a cool parallel going on there as well.

So, are you working very closely with Nick Spencer and the rest of the Captain America teams with how crazy everything is right now?

Yeah! It’s wild. So what happened was, when I took over the book, Tom set up a conference call with Nick, and it was the funniest call because even internally they said they hadn’t told some people at Marvel [about the Hydra twist in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1], because they just didn’t want the secret to get out. But Nick was like, “It’s intimately important that your book–that you–are aware, because we have to foreshadow, and we have to reflect, and we have to work toward this end goal.” So I said okay, and Nick was like, “I’m going to tell you this, you can can’t ruin this. It’ll break my heart, because we’ve worked so hard.” I mean, in many ways the Standoff event, it’s its own event, and it works, but it’s also a very clear representation of what Kobik can do, as a foreshadowing of what she will do. She can remake people, she can remake their entire lives, and their realities, and their histories.

And they have no idea.

Right! And we proved it, and the payoff is that she’s done it with Steve, right? So that whole event was built to prove that this wasn’t just a flash in the pan, that we’d done our due diligence, and it’s my job to then carry that character forward and make sure that it feels like a logical extension of that, while moving the ball down, not just going in a circle with it. She has to grow and change the conflicts have to grow and change, I’m not just holding the ball and not going anywhere. And that’s tough! Particularly with a character that’s a Deus Ex Machina, in flesh! Like, she can do anything! We had someone send me a letter and they were like, “I don’t know why the team would get in any fights, [Kobik] could just vaporize them.” And you have to be like, “Yeah, that’s kinda not the point?” Let alone that Kobik doesn’t want that, let alone that she doesn’t even think that way. A kid’s not gonna be like that, you know?

Thunderbolts #2, Jim Zub, Jon Malin, Matt Yackey
Thunderbolts #2, Jim Zub, Jon Malin, Matt Yackey

Right, definitely. It makes me think of that line when, after she pulls the Moonstone from Karla’s chest, and immediately says something like, “Everyone has to go eat Fro-Yo and play Xbox!”

Right?! Because as far as she’s concerned, it’s all a game. She doesn’t understand consequence. So, one of the things that Nick and I figured out was sort of like “The Rules” for Kobik. And I can’t tell you what they are because, you know, spoilers, but what are “The Rules” for Kobik? What can she do? How does she think about conflict? How does respond to authority? How does she respond to these types of personalities [on the team]? We have a structure and part of the stories is to reveal that structure to readers, bit by bit. We want to put her and Bucky in situations and prove the theme by threatening it. So that thing at the end of issue #3 is a perfect example. Bucky knows better, but the temptation is so strong. He’s done terrible things, that he regrets. So what if someone told you all those things that kind of make you, you–but are also horrible–what if we could take those away? What would you do? And I love that play; I love that we can do that in this book while we’ve still got our scrappy team of morally troubled misfits. That’s what really thrills me about the book. I love writing action, I love writing sass, and I love putting these characters in the meat grinder, and Thunderbolts lets me do all three, and that’s why it’s been a really ideal project.

Is there some inspiration that you’re pulling from for the team dynamic? Because, honestly, they’re cracking me up. I’m laughing out loud pretty constantly reading this book.

One of the tough things is because these characters have been around for a long time–A little side note: Issue ten is the 20th anniversary of the Thunderbolts as a concept–they’ve been around for a while. They’ve been around for decades. They’ve seen everything. So part of that sass comes from the fact they’ve been around this rodeo a bunch of times. They come at conflict very cynically. Atlas, for example; he’s the kind of guy who’s never been a leader and never will be. He’s a follower. But he looks for a really strong person to get behind, like Zemo, or Songbird, or whoever, and if they’re into it, he’s into it. If they believe it, well then that’s the kinda guy he wants to back up. And Winter Soldier believes in [this cause], so Atlas is like, “Alright, I’m your guy.”

So, he’s a follower, but he’s not an idiot. He’s just someone who’s going to plant the flag in a kinda fun way. So he’s a really fun character, because he’s so earnest. He’s got his heart on his sleeve about a lot of things, and that’s been really fun.

And then you’ve got someone like Mach X, who, originally the Beetle, ten iterations later, wants to be a hero, wants to do better, but has always been troubled and has always kind of screwed up. And so, you’ve got a screw up who’s trying to do better, that’s a classic thing to play with.

Karla is so–now, I don’t want to tip my hand or anything here, but Karla is the most complicated character. Because she can be full on evil, and yet there are multiple times in the previous Thunderbolts where she has done good, or she has been good, or wanted to be good, but evil was so much easier. And I love the ambiguity of that, and I think that’s why she causes so much friction. And friction creates drama, right? So she’s great. She’s always at the fulcrum of causing trouble. That just makes everything kind of function.

And then Fixer is another character who’s tended toward evil, right up sort of until Jake Parker’s run, the last handful of issues. You could see Norbert coming around and trying to be good, and what’s funny is–I’m gonna go kind of continuity nerd here on you…

[Laughing] No no no, please! I love it, I love it.

So old Fixer comes into the present and meets new Fixer and hates him, because he sees him as this milktoast piece of crap. It’s like, “We were awesome! And now you’re like a warden at a prison? A total dork? Why are you listening to these chumps, we’re supposed to be taking over!” Because that’s who he was at the start of Thunderbolts. And I love that that’s all part and parcel about who he is. So the question I get asked most often about continuity is how did Fixer get out of the time loop? And at first I was really kind of cagey about it, because I’m not here to naval gaze continuity; I’ve been given these characters to move the ball forward. But then, the more I thought about it, the more it got stuck in my craw. It was like, “No, no, no, there’s a better way of doing this.” And so we figured it out. It’s coming up. And I think people are really going to like it, because it ties into everything in a really fun way. We don’t spend a ton of time on it because it’s not the point; the point is the result, but it comes up.

That’s kind of, if anything, the way I look at continuity. I read the stuff, I do my due diligence as much as I humanly can, and though all those stories happened, it’s gotta be my job to move the ball forward and tell a compelling story now, not endlessly look in the rear view mirror. But! I will never deny that something happened; I’ll never act like it’s not part of the story, and if it’s valuable to moving the ball forward now, then I’m in.

Natasha and Bucky is another one that people ask about. Natasha’s memories got wiped and all this stuff, and I’m like, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are doing the Black Widow book, and I don’t want to intrude on their territory. We’re all in the sandbox here together. But! At some point in time, if it’s viable and it works, and/or it dovetails with what they’re doing in a way that improves the whole, then let’s do it.

Oh, for sure. Just because something isn’t mentioned constantly doesn’t mean it’s gone, yeah?

Right! And you’ll notice this–writers will emphasize the things that they feel are important, or what toys they have to play with. And so, that’s one of the things that’s been interesting. I’ve never done a continuity book like this. I’ve never done a Marvel superhero book. So learning the ropes has been like, “Well what can I do? What can I not do? Oh, can I request this character to guest star? Can I bring this into play? Is this plot line too obscure?” And learning those things has been a really fun process.

Another good example is Songbird. So instantly everyone was like, “The whole team’s back, except for Zemo and Songbird!” Which, Zemo, y’know [is taken off the board in Standoff], and Songbird is on the New Avengers. I can’t just walk across the road and go to Al Ewing and go, “Yeah, your six months of planning is out gone. I’m just going to rip her out of this book.” That’s not how this works. We’re all playing. But I put the bug in Al’s ear and I talked to Tom, and it was like, “Okay, does this make sense? Is there a way to have her interact with these people at some point? Can we make the whole better?” And then we come up with a way and away we go. So that’s how this stuff really works. And I know that doesn’t sound very sexy and exciting…

Actually, no, that’s a great answer. This is very up my alley.

I’m sure someone like Brian Michael Bendis could walk in and say, “I want this character,” and like, of course, we’re all going to kind of acquiesce to that. I’m not that person. I’ll probably never be that person. So I’ve gotta play give and take. Push and pull. Because you’re playing in the big sandbox.

Absolutely. And really, that’s all I think, as a big fan of continuity, I think that’s all I ever really want to ask for from writers, just the acknowledgement that there is a sandbox, and that everyone is in it together. That’s all I really need!

Yeah! And I think that that’s what it’s about. We all look at stories and think, “Oh, well I wouldn’t have done that,” or “Oh, I don’t like that.” And you emphasize or deemphasize things based on your own personal taste. And if you look at the one thread of a character–Moonstone is a great example–you can see some writers are much more callous and cold with her, some of them are much more sexual, and other people play her as a brilliant scientist. These are all, in theory, her character. So it’s my job to say, “Okay, what do I feel rings true?” And emphasize those elements and deemphasize the other ones. And that’s my job. And if the editor and I come to an agreement on it, then we’re off to the races.

Speaking of kind of weird continuity moments–I loved your Figment callback at the end of issue #3! I thought that was so cute.

[Laughing] Oh thank you! You know, it was weird. In the plotting it just said, “They’re playing a game or they’re reading a book.” And as I was writing that sequence, I just started laughing and said, “Well, there’s no reason they couldn’t be reading my other book.” Which is such an egotistical thing! And so I asked, even though it was really indulgent, but like … y’know? And editorial was like “[Nonplussed] Yeah. We’ll get back to you.” But it all worked out! And then the Imagineers saw it and they were digging it, so, that was nice. It’s pretty cute.

[Honestly sounding a little like Linda Belcher here] Aww! Bridging the gaps, I love it.

Yeah! And honestly it’s one of those things where like, Disney is the biggest entertainment corporation on Earth, so. You have multiple, multiple, multiple aspects to the company. And getting “approval” can be a total labyrinth, because it’s never as simple as just saying, “Hey, we’re all owned by the same company, Mickey Mouse can be in Spider-Man!” It doesn’t work like that; there are departments for a reason. But! On the other hand, if you want to take it from another sort of attack, the synergy that comes from them all being under the same umbrella is fun, and in a fan culture that’s used to mashups and is used to Tumblr and call backs and weird cross cutting, that is the future of media. That’s how we think. There’s a reason why the Marvel cinematic universe works. People wanna see Star Wars characters and Marvel superheroes in Disney Infinity; it all feels like it can happen. It’s not that we’re going to have Figment show up as a character [in Thunderbolts], but you can put that little wink and nod in the book and away you go.

So, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I would love to hear more about Glitterbomb before we wrap up!

Oh, no worries! So, it’s a new creator owned series, and it launches September 7th. The short pitch on it is essentially that it’s like a Hollywood horror? So in Hollywood, there’s that age range from middle aged actresses when you’re too old to be the “hot young thing” and you’re too young to be the grandma character, you have no career in Hollywood. And you know, an actor can have younger and younger female co-stars, whereas the women just get blanked out. And so, I took these broader ideas that I had about things, like failure and not everyone “winning the lottery” or not everyone getting their dreams, and wanted to really look at what that frustration and that build up really feels like. How can we take that to an extreme? So it’s this horror, supernatural revenge plot of an actress who has not gotten her due and is going to tear a hole in Hollywood’s heart.

You can subscribe to Glitterbomb on Image’s website. The first issue comes out on September 7th with art by Djibril Morisette-Phan and K. Michael Russel. You can subscribe to Thunderbolts with new issues coming out monthly on Comixology!

Mason Downey

Mason Downey

Mason is a midwestern transplant to Los Angeles but he feels most at home in Gotham City. He loves Robins (of the sidekick variety), robots (of the "in disguise" variety), and spending too much money on his pull list every week.