In Thunderbolts #4, one of Bucky’s new team-mates reflects on whether he’s choosing the right path as the Thunderbolts face their first ambush as wrongfully wanted criminals.

Marvel’s original Thunderbolts were a gang of villains pretending to be superheroes in order to commit crimes unsuspected. However, fake it til you make it is actually a mindset that works, because the Thunderbolts mostly discovered that they’d actually rather be good guys than bad guys. Jim Zub’s new Thunderbolts series features core characters from the original line-up, working under everyone’s favorite tortured anti-hero, Bucky Barnes, in the wake of the events of Avengers: Standoff.

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Previously, in ‘Thunderbolts’…

When Pleasant Hill — the prison where S.H.I.E.L.D. changed the memories and identities of super-villains to keep them unknowingly trapped in an idyllic town — collapsed, Bucky Barnes was separated from Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson and found himself as the primary carer of Kobik, the young girl who started life as a cosmic cube and was being used to alter reality. Bucky and Kobik ended up escaping with a group of inmates who agreed to work with the Winter Soldier to protect Kobik from the corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Thunderbolts also undertake missions harking back to the information provided by Nick Fury as “The Man on the Wall” — working outside the law to protect Earth from intergalactic threats. On one such mission, they encounter a nest of pods — similar to Terrigan cocoons, but containing violent, unknown aliens which start hatching and attacking. Bucky and the gang end up taking them out, but doing so puts them back on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar, as they’re confronted by the Inhumans who believe that the T-bolts just torched their kin.

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Bucky and co going back on the grid means that Kobik does too — she’s wanted by S.H.I.E.L.D., obviously, to be safely contained and possibly used for her power once again, but she’s also wanted by the Red Skull, who was secretly manipulating her as well. Kobik’s the one responsible for Steve Rogers’ current Hydra predicament — when she “fixed” him in Pleasant Hill, she also re-wrote his reality into a Hydra history, because that’s what she innocently believed to be the best thing anyone could be. Bucky doesn’t know about his kid’s history with Hydra, but he has been trying to teach her a lot about free will and not letting anyone exploit her powers — lessons that mostly seem to be working.

However, Kobik still seems to be severing the connection between Steve and Bucky — literally blocking their calls — as Cap attempts to track down his friend separately to Maria Hill’s manhunt, in an arc that’s crossing over into Captain America: Steve Rogers. Hydra!Steve’s motivations regarding Kobik — and Bucky — remain unknown, but two of Bucky’s new charges — Fixer and Moonstone – do not love and adore and cherish the little blue baby, and have plans behind Bucky’s back to either eliminate her power or groom and control her. The remaining Thunderbolts, Atlas and Mach-X, are just stoked that Kobik magically stocks their fridge with beer.

Is this what doing the right thing looks like?

As S.H.I.E.L.D. paints a public target on the Thunderbolts after their run-in with the Inhumans, issue #4 hands the point-of-view perspective over to Abe — otherwise known as Abner Jenkins, who started out his super-powered career as the Beetle but over the years worked his way up to title of Mach-X, as he reflects on whether remaining one of the gang is what’s for him. The Winter Soldier’s team are all seriously wanted criminals, on a terrorist threat level – but Abe may have an option to get out of this with his nose clean.

Most of Bucky’s new team — Norbert Ebersol aka Fixer, Karla Sofen aka Moonstone, and Erik Josten aka Atlas — are escaped prisoners from the Kobik Project, who broke free of their mind-meddled new identities, but Abe wasn’t — he may be an ex-con, but he served his time in a less creepy prison long ago and was actually working for S.H.I.E.L.D. as a security guard, complicit in their Pleasant Hill plans. When he got caught up fleeing the destruction, it was assumed by his old pals that he was also an escapee — only Bucky knows the truth.

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As Abe worries over this general predicament, the camaraderie between Abe and Erik, already a fun feature of the book — their goodnatured support of Bucky is a bright contrast to the scheming of Karla and Norbert — takes the spotlight, adding emotional weight to where Abe’s loyalties lie. It’s here that the team officially discover the news that they’re public enemy number one, with some fun charges including jeopardizing national security and the kidnapping of a minor.

Bucky still can’t contact Cap to set the record straight — cut to Kobik literally doing the casual “who me” whistle of the guilty, but regardless, the team intends to keep doing their job, following up on Nick Fury’s “Man on the Wall” list of intergalactic threats, while attempting to eliminate any digital paper trails.

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Unbeknownst to them, some seriously super-powered individuals are intent on bringing the fight straight to their front yard. Since the events of Time Runs Out, which ushered in the All-New, All-Different Marvel regime, the domineering superhero team Squadron Supreme has been composed of versions of the original members who came from a variety of different universes, but despite their differing origins, they seem to be working together just fine.

On the site of the battle with the Inhumans that put the Thunderbolts back on the radar, a S.H.I.E.L.D. drudge-work clean up crew is overtaken by the new Squadron Supreme, who seem to be investigating their own alien conspiracy. You’d think this would put them and Bucky on same side, because those pods they destroyed weren’t Inhuman after all — but the Squadron, dedicated to protecting this Earth after some of their own worlds were destroyed, jumps to conclusions about the scene of the battle and becomes hung up on the volatile super-weapon the Thunderbolts must be harboring — that would be Kobik, by the way.

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Back at T-bolts HQ, Erik is angry and dismayed about Abe potentially peacing out on the group, but Abe seems to be really weighing up how best to stay on the side of the angels — he worked so hard at redemption, and doesn’t know if he could handle losing all he’s earned by getting brought in as a criminal even while trying to do good and save the world. Should he flee now, and remain on the right side of the law? Erik, on his part, is still traumatized by Pleasant Hill, by being given an amazing fake life that he still dreams about.

Just as the boys are just getting into a heart to heart about how they need to look out for each other because it’s all they’ve got left, they’re interrupted – the Squadron Supreme, thanks to Doctor Spectrum’s unique energy-tracking powers, invades their base and try to take them out in their own living room. Abe considers trying to de-escalate the situation through talking, but it becomes clear that they’re operating on a level of righteousness that isn’t open to hearing someone out, so it’s all-out battle.

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I’m obviously not gonna be rooting for Team Squadron Supreme here. For starters, they brag about killing Namor, which, gross, how very dare, but they also have no idea the “stolen weapon” they’re trying to recover is Kobik, or what she can actually do — they even try to rescue her as an innocent victim in all of this, which she is, but not in the way that these so-called good guys think. The Thunderbolts are looking very outmatched, so Karla, whether through honest desperation or as part of her previously-revealed plan to get Kobik to do her bidding, combination commands-begs the girl to help them.

Despite initially trying to stick to Dad’s stay-safe no-cosmic-manipulation rules, Kobik is easily swayed to save her friends when directly asked to, so just like that, she moves the whole Thunderbolts base, sans Squadron Supreme, to the freaking North Pole. The Squadron are literally left in an empty foundation on the side of a mountain.

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Once Bucky establishes that his tiny spitfire didn’t kill anyone — he’s really scared about her doing things she doesn’t understand and could get blamed for — he’s relieved and even a little amused about their predicament. But they’re still stuck at the damn North Pole, because that’s where Santa Claus lives. And with Kobik’s abilities, he’s probably harnessing up the reindeer to come greet them right now.

As usual, the Thunderbolts mailbag is a charming hub of fan communication that welcomes new and old Winter Soldier fans alike. Zub fields requests for appearances by both Black Widow and Bucky’s poor lost plums (the fruit that brought a fandom sobbing to its knees) with good humor, but the sinking of another potential ship did actually bring me some disappointment. Matt Bridges writes in with a query about the blossoming bond between Abe and Erik — a crucial element to this issue — but Zub admits that the story he’s writing is more bromance than romance. It does seem like a missed opportunity for incidental, normalized representation, but sigh, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Honestly, I don’t walk around wearing slash goggles, but I’m on Team Mach-Altas, for real. I’m queer and it’s 2016. This is the lens through which I view human interactions. When two dudes start getting heavy about being there for each other and they get attacked and one’s all get AWAY from him, I’m gonna have certain expectations. Neither Abe or Erik are big enough flagship characters to warrant the apparent world-ending panic that some big franchises seem to have over the idea of changing an assumed-straight hero into a LGBT one, and it’s definitely what I vibed from the dynamic in this issue until I turned to the letters page and saw it denied.

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The bigger question at hand – is Abe in or out? Is it all for one and one for all? While he’s not a double agent or anything — he does not approve of what went down in Pleasant Hill, and was looking for a way out of there himself – he’s also not wanted by the law, because they haven’t yet identified him as part of Bucky’s group. COULD he do a full flip and turn the others in, or will he end up deciding that he’s truly doing good right where he is?

Next month, in Thunderbolts #5, Bucky enters Civil War II and goes toe to toe with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. No, not that one. The other one. Yeah, Miles. “It’s the Winter Soldier versus Spider-Man and only one of them is going to walk away.” Somehow I’m pretty sure they’re both gonna be okay, Marvel, but let’s see what you got.

Thunderbolts #5 will be released on Wednesday, September 28.

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