Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

T.H.U.N.D.E.R.Struck-The Comic That Never Was

A Little History Before Our Main Course

“The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves”

This is the story of a comic book that I was almost involved with back in the 1980s. It’s a cool story, but first, you need some history.

Back in the mid-1960s, a small start-up comic book company, Tower Comics, launched a line of comic books that allowed some veteran creators the chance to work with more creative freedom than they’d been previously allowed. The most memorable titles to come out of this experiment were the ones featuring the superhero/secret agent hybrid, “The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents,” a team of special agents working as a special unit of The United Nations. Most of the agents got their powers from the inventions of Dr. Emil Jennings, whom they are trying to rescue in their first adventure.

The books addressed slightly more adult themes than other comics of the day did. They even went a bit beyond the ground-breaking work that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were doing at Marvel. In The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents characters could get killed, and unlike the comics of today, they stayed dead. Even though the book was published irregularly over the four-year history of Tower Comics, it is fondly remembered to this day by fans who enjoyed the scripts by Len Brown, Steve Skeates, Wally Wood and others, and the great artwork by Wood, Reed Crandall, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Al Williamson, Joe Orlando and many others.

Carbonaro’s B&W Magazine-sized revival.

There have been a few attempted revivals of this classic comic book over the years, but they have been hampered by questions over who exactly owns the rights.  A fan, John Carbonaro, claimed to have purchased the rights in the early 1980s, and he vigrorously and litigiously defended those rights up until his death early last year  He was very protective of the property, and very adamant that any revival be done to his specifications. Over the years he self-published a few issues of his own revival, partnered with Archie Comics on another short-lived revival, and even had a deal with Penthouse comics.

A few years before his death, he arranged for the original comics to be collected and reprinted by DC Comics in their deluxe “Archive” format. A new series from DC had been announced for 2003, but Carbonaro apparently proved too difficult to work with and nothing came of this.  After his death in early 2009, DC Comics struck a new deal with his estate, and a new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series will debut from DC in about a month.

The Agents turned up in a team-up with The Justice Machine, in a book that featured early work by Bill Willingham (the writer of “Fables”)

What makes this story remarkable is that it’s still not entirely clear that Carbonaro actually owned all the rights to The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.  There is a mountain of evidence, some of it recently uncovered, that due to a failure to register any copyrights, all of The 1960s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents material has been in the public domain since the day it was published. However, it’s also very unlikely that DC Comics would commit to publishing a series based on this property if the rights weren’t nailed down as tight as a drum. It’s very likely that, due to years of vigrously defending his rights, whether he really owned them or not in the beginning, that Carbonaro fulfilled all the legal requirements necessary to establish ownership.

David Singer, who at some point had been retained by Carbonaro to give publishing advice, claimed otherwise back in the early 1980s, and after splitting from Carbonaro, announced it to the world. I seem to recall a press release that said something to the effect of, “All God’s chillun’s got the right to publish The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.”

The first issue of Singer’s version of The Agents

Singer, a gregarious self-promoter, purchased the rights to use the late Wally Wood’s name, and published “Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” beginning in 1984.  Singer’s company, Deluxe Comics, seemed to be well-financed.

Unlike Carbonaro, who insisted on writing The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents himself and using inexpensive fan artists, Singer paid to hire some of the best creators in the business.

Writers like Steve Englrhart, Dann Thomas and Roger McKenzie, and top-flight artists like George Perez, Dave Cockrum, Murphy Anderson, Jerry Ordway, Keith Giffen, Steve Ditko and Rich Buckler were on board, and over the course of five issues, they brought back The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents in style.

But Carbonaro put his money into the legal system.  After his initial case was rejected by the court, Carbonaro re-filed his suit, this time including the major comic book distributors of the day.  Singer had run into quite a few problems of his own, including failing to pay his creators what they’d been promised, and shut down his company in 1986.  At the time he placed the blame on his distributors, who dropped his books rather than face the lawsuit. Singer did not come out of this with his credibility intact. he was having trouble paying creators before the legal problems worsened.

Today, if you visit Wikipedia, you will find a paragraph that says, “The lawsuit was eventually decided in US District Court in favor of Carbonaro, with Singer acknowledging Carbonaro’s registered copyrights and trademark. Under the decision, Carbonaro also received, among other things, an assignment of all rights to “Wally Woods T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents,” previously published by Singer, and an undisclosed sum of money. Deluxe Comics closed its doors in 1986, when several major distributors failed to pay sizeable past-due invoices[citation needed] .”

A classic cover

When interest in The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was stirred up again last year, David Singer posted a lengthy message over on the ComicsBulletin forum.  In part, it read, “Sadly, after the release of issue #2, Deluxe was sued by a fan who had paid hard cash to Tower for a quit claim in which Tower gave to the fan “whatever rights, if any” it held in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. As explained, above, they had no rights, so neither did he. Contrary to urban legend in the comic book industry, he did not win his law suit. He lost it! He lost it so badly, the judge would not even allow the Deluxe attorney to plead our position. The judge listened to the fan’s attorney’s opening remarks, held a ten minute recess to review our rebuttal, and returned to give a ruling from the bench: The fan had no rights to the Tower characters and original books, as they were all in the public domain. End of discussion. We won. Deluxe then went on to publish three more issues of “Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents,” issues # 3-5. We could not have done that had we lost. SO, why did we cease publication of “Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents?” The fan, refusing to give up, brought an appeal, and named four of the largest national comic book wholesalers as co-defendants. In response, they dropped carrying our book. Without them, we could not stay in business.”

However, later in that thread, the following was posted: “I have recently posted comments regarding the copyright status of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents as public domain characters. My comments were incorrect. I must make the following clarification: John Carbonaro and David Singer, Singer Publishing Company, Inc. and Deluxe Comics, have reached a final settlement in the lawsuit between the parties (entitled John Carbonaro, et. al. v. David Singer, et. al., 84 Civ. 8737 (S.D.N.Y.)). Singer acknowledges Carbonaro’s registered copyrights and trademark in the “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents®” and has consented to be permanently enjoined from utilizing any of the “T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents” characters, stories or artwork or Carbonaro’s trademark. Under the settlement, Carbonaro will receive, among other things, an assignment of all rights to “Wally Woods T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents,” previously published by Singer.”

DC Comic’s new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents series.

It seems to be a case of semantics.  Singer says he never “lost,” since it was settled, rather than decided in a court of law.  The end result was that Carbonaro’s ownership of the characters was on firmer ground than ever.

The case was settled after Singer’s company shut down, and it was probably a case of him cutting his losses.  The sad thing is that Carbonaro’s ownership of the material Singer published is clouded by the fact that Singer didn’t pay for all of it, in which case the rights should revert to the writers and artists.  That probably means that this great material will never be reprinted. {PopCulteer’s Note: In comics, never say “never.” Less than a year after this post was written, DC Comics did release an Archive Edition collecting these stories. Sadly, it reminded everyone that most of the stories in this book were left unfinished, with major storylines unresolved.}

It’s possible that someone with deep pockets could have challenged Carbonaro’s rights, but it would have been pointless because a victory would just mean that anybody who wanted to publish The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents could do so, not just the person filing the suit. Basically they would just be spending money to take the rights away from Carbonaro, with little in the way of a possible return.

With DC Comics on board, it seems clear that, even if the original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents material is in the public domain, that Carbonaro had done enough to establish ownership of the trademarks in the time that he was the steward of the property.

But back  in the mid-1980s, we didn’t know that. Conventional wisdom was that the property was fair game.  Several smaller publishers considered releasing their own take on The agents, and CODA Publishing, the company which published my brother’s comic book, was one of them.  Which is why I had to present this little history lesson, before I launched into the story of…

The Comic Book That Never Was

CODA Number 3

Back in 1986, when my brother Frank and I were publishing CODA, we were under the impression that The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents were in the public domain. For about a week in October of that year, we toyed with the idea of doing our own take on The Agents.  I would write it, Frank would draw it, and with the hook of using established characters in our book, we were hoping it would offset the coming comic book bust.

After a few days of batting around ideas, we decided that it wasn’t worth it to risk the legal wrath of Carbonaro based on the shaky claims of Singer.  But lucky for you guys, I never throw anything away.  I recently uncovered a few preliminary sketches by Frank (and a couple by me) and I found my notes for the planned series, which was to be called, “T.H.U.N.D.E.R.Struck.”

Top: Kurt Waldheim Middle: Rudy’s version Bottom: Frank’s version

Please note that I am in no way challenging anyone’s ownership of The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents or doing anything else to engender any unwarranted legal attention. These are simply some curios from my files, presented for your amusement. As far as I can tell, The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents are the property of the estate of John Carbonaro, under license to DC Comics.

“T.H.U.N.D.E.R.Struck” was going to be loaded with political satire, with a nod to Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” but it wasn’t going to be a totally dark series. The premise was that The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents had been disbanded in 1969, when the comic book ceased publication, but over fifteen years later, due to a bureaucratic snafu, funding for the unit had been restored, and rather than lose the money, The United Nations decided to revive the now-defunct special agency.

This was back in the days that Kurt Waldheim was the Secretary General of the UN, and he was going to be a major character, though only referred to as “Kurt.”

Mr. Waldheim had more hair back then, but the only photos I could find were more current.At the left you can see Kurt in three forms. For some reason both Frank and I drew him with some weird science-fiction robe collar, but I can’t for the life of me remember why.

The original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents had gained their powers from devices built by Dr. Jennings or other UN-affiliated scientists.

In our story, the original agents had pretty much scattered to the four winds.  New agents would be assigned the the code names and weaponry of the original characters.

No Man, from the original comics

The exception was No Man, who was already dead, sort of. In the original series he was a dying scientist who had managed to transfer hismind into that of an android. When the android bodies were killed, he simply sent his mind to the next body. He also used Dr. Jennings Invisibility Cloak to conceal himself.

No Man seemed to have an endless supply of bodies, stashed all over the place.  One other quirk was that he had problems coming to terms with his humanity, since his mind was trapped in the body of an android.

We knocked around a lot of ideas with that as a starting point, but there’s nothing solid in my notes. Frank did draw up a version of No Man, though he left off his cloak of invisibility.

No Man by Frank Panucci, October 1986

Dynamo by Wally Wood

We took quite a few liberties with the other characters.  Dynamo was the strong man of the original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.  Leonard Brown (named after the co-creator/writer of the series) was a special agent who was able to achieve short bursts of  super strength thanks to a “Thunderbelt,” which, if left on too long could also kill him.

In our series, Leonard Brown had been injured by the belt, and was in a nursing home.  Nobody else who tried on the belt could get it to work, so it just sat in a storage room for years.  When the UN revived The T.H.U.D.E.R. Agents, the belt was brought out of storage, where it wound up in the hands of Chimmy, an Idiot-Savant who was a mathematical and scientific genius who didn’t have any social skills.  After fiddling with the belt for a few seconds, he managed to get it to work, but only when he wore it.

So Chimmy was on the team as “the strong man,” even though he functioned on a level not unlike that of Rain Man. Oh, and the belt hummed real loud, just so we could work in a Zappa reference.

Here he comes to save the day

Raven, by Gil Kane, I think

Raven was sort of a cross between Batman and Hawkman, who was able to fly thanks to an “anti-gravity cape” that functioned like a set of wings.  We didn’t come up with a reason for him being gone, but we replaced him with a young, African-American woman, who was sort of based on Janet Jackson. It gave us some ethnic and gender diversity, and was an excuse to draw a female flying through the air, which wouldn’t hurt sales any.

This was way back before the teat-exposing incident at the Super Bowl, very early in her career so Frank actually wasn’t sure what Janet Jackson looked like.

In his sketch, she seems to have more of an Eartha Kitt vibe going on.  My earlier sketch shows that I designed the costume, which is particularly hideous. I would like to apologize for the stirrup pants and high heels.

Our take on Raven by Rudy (left) and Frank (right)

Lightning by Wally Wood

Lightning was the speedster of the group.  Unlike The Flash, Lightning had a distinctive limitation: every time he used his super-speed, he shortened his life.  It was a pretty cool idea for the 1960s, and it made it real easy for us to play with the concept and replace the original character.

We just had Guy Gilbert, the original Lightning, in the same nursing home as the original Dynamo. He’d nearly run himself to death, and was being kept alive by machines in the hope that they could find a way to reverse his rapid aging.

It occurred to us that, if you have a device that gave a person super-speed, but could also kill him if he used it, you might assign that particular device to the biggest A-hole in the office. So we came up with a total jerk that all the other agents hated.  Physically the character was sort of based on Val Kilmer, in the movie “Real Genius,” only with dark hair.  Frank added the lightning stripe.  We just thought it would be fun to take a character that was easy to despise and make him a hero.

Frank’s concept of Lightning

Wally Wood’s ultra-sexy Iron Maiden

We updated one more character from the original series.  The Iron Maiden was an armored femme fatale enemy agent who had a bit of a thing going on with Dynamo. In the original series, she was a sexy redhead.

The flirting between the hero and the female villain was well-done, but due to the comics code they couldn’t really hook up in any meaningful way without The Iron Maiden either turning good or getting killed.

With our take on Dynamo, as essentially a high-functioning Autistic person, the idea of a fling with a sexy redhead wasn’t going to work.

We decided to go in another direction.  In our version, The Iron Maiden was a bit more overtly Soviet than she was in the original series.  She was also not built quite the same way.

Da, she is Iron Maiden. You got a problem with dat?

We had one more addition to our crew, a character who was NOT in the original series. I felt that The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents should have had a director.  I came up with a slick, sophisticated Germanic man of the world.  However, since the disbanding of The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, he had retired and moved to the desert to be a painter.

Riendfleisch Herz was that former director, and the whole idea of creating him was to have his character forced out of retirement to oversee the new group of agents.  The twist was that this smooth operator from the 1960s had changed a bit during his retirement…his post-retirement persona was modeled on Captain Beefheart.

Frank came up with great designs for Herr Herz, showing him both in the 1960s and the 1980s.

He’s got a beef, in his heart, against the world

Frank and I had cooked up a bunch of cool story ideas, and we had fun coming up with the designs, but ultimately it would have been a bad idea to go forward with “T.H.U.N.D.E.R.Struck.” Chances are, it would not have gained much of an audience. We would have had a hard sell, pitching it to comic distributors who were scared off the property by Carbonaro’s lawsuits. Basically, our efforts would be better directed toward creating works that we knew we could own outright.

The whole reason for us even considering it was our fondness for the original comic books. They were major inspirations to us.  It was fun getting to play in the comic book industry back in 1986 and 87, but we might not have had as much fun if we’d been dragged into court.

But it was a kick digging into the files to come up with these sketches and ideas.  Hope you enjoyed them.

3 Comments

  1. Frank Panucci

    Cheezus, this stuff should have been left in the drawer. Bleh. I don’t even remember doing it. Let’s not bring it up again, ever.

  2. Jane Schneider

    I like this a lot! Professors at State are fond of bringinbg up comics. I love them and would do more in a heartbeat! How ’bout “PROFESSOR DANGER!”? (Dr. Danny Boyd was a wrestler via that name.)

  3. Jane Schneider

    yes, he was.

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