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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review of Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt 1985 mini-series

When Roy Thomas started working for DC comics in 1981, he wanted to create a NEW male character called Johnny Thunder (he was very fond of the name).  Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway were discussing the neglected private-eye comic book genre and came to the conclusion that nobody had successfully mashed up the private-eye and superhero genres in a while - this was the spark that led Thomas to flesh out the idea for Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt and a rough plot was quickly established. While Conway was too busy to do the actual writing, he did co-plot the first issue of the mini-series.

Roy Thomas’ wife, Dann Thomas, was a big fan of Raymond Chandler (and detective fiction in general) and jumped at the chance to collaborate on this mini-series. It was Roy and Dann who decided that Jonni should be a woman who aspired to be like her hero, Philip Marlowe*. Dann Thomas wrote the first draft for the four issues based on the plot that she, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway brainstormed. Roy Thomas did a quick re-write smoothing everything out - but the majority of what you read in that series (the snappy dialogue and the one-liners) were written by Dann.


Ernie Colon (who had been working with Thomas on the Arak ongoing series) was Thomas’ first choice as an artist, but Colon got wrapped up with Amethyst, and Dick Giordano was eager to take over as illustrator for this project - so Giordano became the penciller and inker of this mini-series. Giordano was still editorial vice-president of DC comics when he accepted this assignment - prior to Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt, Giordano’s last interior artwork was for Wonder Woman #300 (1983).

Between the conception of Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt in 1981 and the actual realization of the project (due to Thomas’ and Giordano’s busy schedules), DC had published another PI series - Nathaniel Dusk (written by Don McGregor) in 1984. (Allegedly, McGregor was overjoyed that Nathan Dusk didn’t have to incorporate super-hero elements and was able to keep it strictly detective fiction.)

The mini-series itself had a film noir type detective plot with supernatural/sci-fi/fantastic elements (as usually found in comic books). Curiously, none of the 4 issues in the mini-series had a Comics Code Authority (CCA) Seal on the cover - indicating that it was targeted towards a more mature audience. I noticed that some parts of dialogue were heavy with subtle sexual innuendo, but I hardly doubt it was enough to not be approved by the CCA.

Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt was extremely well received by comic fandom - Don Thompson, editor and respected comic book critic, praised Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt in the Comic Buyer’s Guide and even stated that it read better than Nathaniel Dusk. Alas, Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano’s extermely busy schedules meant that neither would have any time to work on a Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt ongoing series. At best, they would be able to work on the occasional Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt mini-series or graphic novel, but nothing ever came of it.

Jonni Thunder later appeared in Infinity Inc (another book Roy Thomas was writing) from 1986 to 1988 as Skymaster’s main squeeze. Her adventures with the team occurred after the Crisis On Infinite Earths event, so I guess they would count as post-Crisis appearances.

As previously mentioned, this is NOT the first Johnny Thunder to appear in DC comics... Johnny Thunder (first named ‘Johnny Thunderbolt’) first appeared in Flash Comics #1 (1940). Created by John Wentworth and Stan Aschmeier, he was a bumbling comedic character who had a sentient energy-being thunderbolt pet who would do whatever he commanded (akin to a genie in a bottle who has to obey his master’s wishes). All of his adventures were set in the present-day (so, around World War II). His antics were a regular feature in Flash Comics back-up stories from the get-go – until about 1948 when the newly introduced Black Canary took up his slot. He also starred concurrently in All-Star Comics from 1940 to 1948 as a member of the Justice Society of America (and it looks like Black Canary booted him out of that series, too).**

A few months later, a NEW character named Johnny Thunder appeared in All-American Comics #100 (1948) only a few months after the original Johnny thunder was ousted from his two regular books.  This new Johnny Thunder rode a horse named Black Lightning and his stories took place in the latter half of the 1800s in the American Old West. This new Johnny Thunder did not have access to a thunderbolt pet and really had no connection the aforementioned Johnny Thunder. This new Johnny Thunder had a pretty nice run and even became the headliner for All Star Western in the late 1950s. Western Johnny Thunder’s star faded in 1961 with the cancellation of All Star Western.
Despite the fact that Jonni Thunder had the ability to become a living thunderbolt energy-being and the original Johnny Thunder controlled a sentient thunderbolt energy being, no connection was ever made between the character (missed opportunity?).

I am of the opinion that a catchy name never dies and there will always be a ‘Johnny Thunder’ to reflect whatever is happening in current comic book pop culture as long as DC comics is around. Case in point, in the 1940s (also known as the “Golden Age” of comic books) superhero ‘funny’ books were the predominant genre in comics books, thus we had a comical character with fantastic powers named Johnny Thunder appear. When the superhero genre died out and the Western genre emerged, we suddenly had a new Western-themed vigilante named Johnny Thunder appear. It’s a pretty bold declaration for me to state that Jonni Thunder was a product of the second and third-wave feminism movement (ex: a strong, assertive, independent female who can go toe-to-toe with any man) -  all I could think about while reading Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt was how the lead character reminded me of Candice Bergen’s character Murphy Brown (aired from 1988 to 1998). And finally, for the late 90’s, Jakeem Thunder: an African America youth who gains possession of the original Johnny Thunder’s pet thunderbolt and uses this new power to become a hero. I’m strongly suggesting that DC introduced this new version of ‘Johnny Thunder’ to their readers to demonstrate that they are “hip with it”.

*Philip Marlowe is the main protagonist in Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction.

** Don’t worry, he would re-appear again in Roy ThomasAll-Star Squadron ongoing series (1981 - 1987) and make sporadic appearances in other comic book whenever the Justice Society of America was involved. At the time of Jonni Thunder AKA Thunderbolt’s publication, America vs the Justice Society was also being published.

This article first published in August 2014.

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