Welcome to the D-List: Thunderbird

Plenty of comic book characters have died over the years, including many members of the X-Men. However, because of changing creative teams, retcons, and occasional nonsensical decisions, dead characters return to life pretty consistently. While resurrection is a relatively common occurrence in comic books, some characters have never officially enjoyed that luxury.

John Proudstar, a mutant with enhanced strength and speed, was recruited by Charles Xavier for a new team of X-Men, but died mere issues after his first appearance. Over 4 decades later, it is odd that the 616-Universe version of John has never been revived. Look in the sky! Is it a plane? Is it a bird? Yes! It’s Thunderbird on the D-List!

He must be a nice guy, he gave Scott a cute nickname! (Art by Dave Cockrum)
He must be a nice guy, he gave Scott a cute nickname! (Art by Dave Cockrum)

Created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, Thunderbird first appeared in Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975. As he angrily reflected on the disgrace he believed his people had become, John wrestled a bison near his home, an Apache reservation in Arizona. Xavier arrived and asked John to help him save the original X-Men, which John thought was the perfect chance to prove that the Apache were still noble warriors (because wrestling bison probably has a pretty small fan base anyway).

Although he agreed to help his fellow mutants, Thunderbird was full of pride, had a bad attitude, and constantly antagonized his teammates. When the new team of X-Men arrived on Krakoa to save the original team, however, Cyclops was impressed by John’s strength and fighting capabilities. After their victory over Krakoa, John, along with a few other mutants, decided to stay at Xavier’s school and train to become heroes, but John still had an aggressive demeanor. During a Danger Room session, John was injured, but refused help and snapped at his teammates. Thunderbird certainly had a warrior’s spirit, but was very resentful, and never truly viewed the X-Men as his equals.

When Count Nefaria threatened to destroy the planet, John was still recovering from his injury, but insisted that he help the X-Men stop the villain. Although Cyclops tried to prevent Thunderbird from joining them, Xavier recommended he go. The heroes arrived at the NORAD command center, but John noticed Nefaria was trying to escape via plane. Determined to be viewed as a great Apache warrior, Thunderbird leapt onto the small aircraft, broke inside the cockpit, and ripped the control panels apart. Unfortunately, the severe damage to the plane’s electrical systems caused an explosion, and John was killed (where were the flight attendants?!)

There you have it, folks – Thunderbird lived through two issues of X-Men and died in the third (he may have been proud, but he never became a star). Len Wein once stated that Thunderbird was intended to be the “obnoxious loud mouth” of the X-Men, but since the creative team had already filled that role with Wolverine, they decided to kill John just for the “shock value.” (be real, nobody cares about Wolverine) I understand why Marvel didn’t want to use the same character archetypes, but I believe John had much more potential than Marvel allowed. It would have been fantastic to see him develop as a character, regardless of how antagonistic he was toward his teammates.

Although John Proudstar has not been forgotten since his death, he has appeared primarily in sparse flashbacks, the most famous of which is the one recurring image on the stairs inside Xavier’s school when the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men first assembled. However, in an issue of X-Force in the late 1990s, more was revealed about John Proudstar’s past, and exhibited potential for further character development.

Prior to Xavier’s visit to Arizona, John spent 2 years in the Marine Corps, but grew tired of taking orders and returned home (so he was an X-Marine). Proudstar’s adoring family welcomed him back to the reservation, but a friend alerted him to a devious medical facility that had diagnosed many Apache with cancer, including John’s mother. When Proudstar investigated, he found that a doctor was providing false diagnoses and cloning organs from irradiated DNA. John fought the doctor, who had mutated himself, and the villain fled.

While this comic characterized John as a heroic, headstrong individual with blossoming mutant powers, it was unfortunately only a one-shot issue. As such, an origin for his codename was quickly crammed into the comic – while stranded at sea in the Marines, John saw an image of a bird in the sky, and it gave him comfort. Though it sounds silly, at least Marvel tried to provide an explanation for his future codename (I think the sight of a nice birdfeeder would have worked just as well). Furthermore, this issue showed delightful interactions between John and his younger brother, James, the future hero, Warpath. John definitely had the ability to be a nice guy, but I suppose it wasn’t an aspect of his personality that he showed often.

...maybe after you take a shower. (Art by Clayton Crain)
…maybe after you take a shower. (Art by Clayton Crain)

Years later, during the “Necrosha” crossover, Eli Bard, servant of Selene, used the transmode virus to resurrect, among many others, dead Apache to serve his Queen. Once resurrected, John was vocally defiant toward Selene, but didn’t have the ability to physically disobey her due to the villain’s power. James Proudstar was captured and forced to fight his older brother, and sadly, Warpath had to snap the undead John’s neck in order to end the battle.

I was very happy to see John return to comics and, although unsuccessful, fight Selene’s control. It was interesting to see Thunderbird’s stubborn nature put to good use, because he was the only person who vocally protested Selene. But was it really necessary to kill this guy again?! It would have been wonderful to see Thunderbird return after “Necrosha” ended, but shortly after that crossover concluded, John came even closer to a proper resurrection…sort of.

You still look like you’re in a lot better shape than me, buddy. (Art by Doug Braithwaite)
You still look like you’re in a lot better shape than me, buddy. (Art by Doug Braithwaite)

The Chaos King destroyed the underworld, so the deceased were forced to live while the living were forced to sleep. When Thunderbird crawled out of his grave, he met fellow (un)dead X-Man, Banshee, and was introduced to Sean’s former lover, Moira MacTaggert, a few dupes of Jamie Madrox, and Sophie and Esme Cuckoo. John immediately took the lead of this small team, and when Sophie was captured by the Carrion Crow and transformed into a demon, John called on his Apache Gods for help. John took advantage of this chance to prove he was a hero, and he defeated the Crow, which transformed Sophie back to her human form (we need to stop Thunderbird-on-bird crime). Once the battle was over, however, Proudstar returned to his grave.

Although the story was rushed through a two-issue limited series, John acted like a natural leader and pulled together a team of mutants who otherwise would not have worked well together. The prideful anger that once consumed him had diminished, and I wish this limited series had lasted longer so fans could have seen more of Thunderbird’s leadership (and by “fans,” I mostly just mean me).

Out of the many X-Men that have died and returned to life, I wonder if any writer has pitched a story that would permanently revive Thunderbird. I also wonder how John would have been developed had he lived. Would his anger have naturally and progressively faded? Would he have ever led an offshoot of the X-Men? A fan like me can only speculate.

Outside of the 616 Universe, the Thunderbird of Earth-1100 was used regularly throughout volume 1 of Exiles. Outside of comics, Thunderbird appeared in an episode of the cartoon, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, and is currently appearing on the FOX show, The Gifted, although in both instances, his powers were slightly modified. Nonetheless, I am happy that Thunderbird is currently utilized somewhere. With the recent resurrection of Wolverine and the upcoming return of Jean Grey, however, I’ll continue to hope that Marvel decides to bring John Proudstar back to the 616 Universe. This Thunderbird deserves to properly spread his wings and take flight throughout Marvel Comics.  

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