By all rights, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is the kind of series that should be right up my alley. It's critically-acclaimed, obscure, rich with comic history (and a brother likes to learn) and attempts at real-world international flavor, not to mention it's a bit weird. However, with six issues in, it hadn't managed to really hook me yet. However, issue #7 might finally be the thing to do it.
The big stumbling block so far is that none of the characters stick out as particularly likeable enough to be appropriately interesting. The concept is fairly bleak – this is a group of United Nations-sanctioned operatives, usually some kind of screw-ups in need of redemption, who volunteer (or get strong-armed into volunteering) to take on these superhuman personas like Dynamo or Lightning, knowing in advance that the process is going to take many years off their lives even if they manage to survive their missions. The current Dynamo is an amoral mercenary, while the current Lightning is a Kenyan runner disgraced by a scandal that's cost him his family. There's also NoMan, who is one of the original team members who sports a cloak of invisibility and the secret to immortality – such that it is, since he keeps transferring his consciousness to new Dr. Manhattan-looking bodies and losing bits of what made him human in the process. Then the last arc gave us a new Menthor in Toby Henston, the "salesman" for the Agency who was revealed as a double agent for the enemy organization Spider and suddenly turned into a triple agent by donning a mind-control helmet that seems to have controlled him into killing his own brother instead. Maybe. Still not sure what the hell happened there.
Knowing nothing about the history of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents makes it difficult to know who you're supposed to be rooting for, especially since some of the heroes are jerks. While it hampers the series by not having any readily relatable characters, it appeals to the curiosity by not really letting you know who to trust. On the surface, the "Higher United Nations" they work for should engender trust, but there have been implications of nefarious string-pullers. On the surface, the team's handler and the book's main protagonist Colleen Franklin would seem to be our point-of-view character, but we're not inside her head and she's working a ton of angles at all times. This book is stuffed to the gills with intrigue, which is what's kept me reading despite never having come away from an issue with any clear feeling beyond "well… huh. Huh. Huh."
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7, though, gives us a deeper look at The Iron Maiden, who seems like our first immediately awesome character, and she's a villain. She showed up last issue to take out a sadistic shiekh – albeit for money – and allowed one of the many women he's abused and terrified to take up a knife and do the dirty deed herself, earning her a place at the mercenary's side. Now, we get her history, learning that she's Franklin's mother, and once had retired from the life of armored skullduggery in secret with Len Brown, a former Dynamo with whom she'd fallen in love. However, the Higher United Nations War Crimes Tribunal tracks them down and destroys their domestic bliss, claiming Brown was harboring a fugitive. Has she actually committed war crimes? Were they minor infractions or unthinkable atrocities? Is her immediate awesome-sauce merely something in which her entrenched horribleness has been basted? We shall see.
As if designed as a precursor to DC's "Retroactive" event, we've got Mike Grell handling the art for the flashbacks to the 80s where we see the aforementioned domesticity and Franklin as an infant, and Nick Dragotta giving us a back-up story in a full-on Kirby-esque style to show us the beginnings of the Dynamo/Iron Maiden affair. Nick Spencer is able to jump from the modern tone to the 60s format fairly effortlessly, and it's kind of fun to get that old-school feeling to prop up the dreary misery of the present-day tale, where Franklin matter-of-factly blurts to her driver that her job is to kill her mother. It also feels like the first real fun this series has had.
It's entirely possible that my tepid response comes from a lack of familiarity with the characters, and a resistance to looking them up on Wikipedia to find out more. The effort here is to allow the series itself to be my only exposure and see how it stands up. At this point, after coasting through on the inertia of a tightly structured story with enough unpredictability to keep me guessing, this Iron Maiden arc will hopefully offer the oomph to make me truly want to keep guessing.