The Thunderbolts, the original series (and it's successor the New Thunderbolts), was one of my favorite comic series. However, because of the nature of Thunderbolts, those readers with a fairly intimate knowledge of the MU will appreciate the book more than the average reader. Not that this means that those unfamiliar will be lost. Both the main writers (Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza) draw on the long and varied expanse of the Marvel Universe for plots and characters. Recognizing a reference to a past story or a supporting character reappearing after years is part of the appeal. The stories are of such a quality that they stand apart from their insider references (and in early issues there is even a recap page to help).
Who are the Thunderbolts?:
As a result of Onslaught crossover event most of the Avengers and all the Fantastic Four were thought to have died. In the aftermath of an attack on New York City and the death of the heroes a team of new heroes emerges and gives some hope to the people. Away from the the press it is revealed that the new heroes are members of the Masters Of Evil. Why they are pretending to be heroes and their goals will be revealed as the series progresses. This team consists of:
-Citizen V(as in Victory)/Baron Helmut Zemo: Seeking both revenge for his father's death and a way to outdo his father's legacy. He disguises himself as the grandson of the Golden Age hero Citizen V
-Meteorite/Moonstone/Karla Sofen: A psychologist who enjoys twisting peoples psyches. She gained powers through taking an alien gem from a patient of hers. The gem allows her to fly, gives her phasing, strength and resilience.
-Techno/Fixer/Norbert P. Ebersol: Started out trying to take over SHIELD and established himself as a fixer of problems of criminals.
-Atlas/Goliath/Power Man: A grunt who underwent the same process as Wonderman to gain super strength and toughness. When he lost those powers, he used Pym particles to become the criminal giant, Goliath.
-M.A.C.H.1/Beetle/Abner Jenkins: Created a suit of battle armor and became a prolific, if not successful, criminal. Frequently encountered Iron Man, Spider-Man and Daredevil.
-Songbird/Screaming Mimi/Melissa Gold: A runaway that fell in with criminals. She got sonic powers when the wrestling group she had been a part of bought powers to compete in an unlimited (superhuman) class.
-Jolt/Hallie Takanama: Abducted and experimented on by the geneticist Arnim Zola. She gains bio-electric powers that enhance her agility. Orphaned because of Onslaught she becomes the moral compass that the others need while they in turn become the family she needs. She is initially unaware of their criminal past.
Marvel's Most Wanted TPB:
Reprints: Captain America #168; Incredible Hulk #228-229; Strange Tales #123, 141-143; Avengers #21-22; Marvel Two-In-One #56
These are all first appearances of the T-bolts and are introduced with preliminary sketches of their new heroic identities
Avengers:Under Siege TPB:
Reprints: Avengers #270-271, 273-277
Baron Zemo organizes the Masters Of Evil for a psychological and physical assault on the Avengers. Although they prevail, the Avengers emerge a broken team. Hercules is put into a coma, Jarvis is crippled and the mansion is destroyed (for the first, but not last, time)
Justice, Like Lightning TPB:
Reprints: Thunderbolts #1-4, Annual '97; Incredible Hulk #244; excerpt from Tales Of Marvel Universe; Spider-Man Team-Up #7
New heroes, the Thunderbolts, emerge from the ashes of Onslaught's attack and the loss of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. But, these heroes have a secret...they're really the Masters Of Evil! They face the Hulk, save Franklin Richards from the Mad Thinker and rescue a genetically altered orphan from Zola the Nazi Biochemist. She joins the team as Jolt. Publicly it's the right move, Zemo can't help wonder if it threatens his plan.
The Heroes Reward #5-12; -1:
While Jolt's presence bolsters the teams feelings of acceptance and heroism, Zemo worries he is losing control over them. A flashback shows them starting on their paths to being criminals. The team fights a Growing Man and then AIM. In their encounter with AIM they run across the Black Widow (lone Avenger after Onslaught) who suspects their true identities. She reveals this to Songbird and MACH1, telling them that they should turn on their leader before she can prove who they are. Giving them a chance to turn their lives around like she did. Unfortunately, the choice is made for them, when G.W. Bridge and SHIELD out them during a press conference. The T-bolts reluctantly return to Zemo, who puts his master plan for taking over the world into effect.
Wanted:Dead Or Alive #13-20:
Having turned against Zemo and faced the mind controlled Avengers and FF. The T-bolts are prepared to turn themselves in when they are teleported to the sub-atomic dimension of Kosmos (the source of Pym particles). Caught up in their civil war, Moonstone makes a less than honorable deal. The T-bolts will assassinate the king for their freedom. Only MACH1 and Songbird know about it and agree to help. But when MACH1 has the opportunity to kill the king, he can't. So Moonstone does. Upon their return to Earth, the T-bolts wanted status sends them on the run. Hunted by SHIELD and the Great Lakes Avengers/Lightning Rods. Temptation surfaces in an offer by a new Crimson Cowl to join her MOE. Meanwhile a mysterious new Citzen V tracks Zemo and the T-bolts. A rejection of the cowl's offer is almost fatal until the team is rescued by Dreadknight.