“Interesting…but what’s that to do with me?”
Who is Peter Cannon? It’s a question one comes across when speaking to most fans about the titular Thunderbolt. Even those aware of the character only know of him through one thing: Watchmen. Serving as a basis for the legendary Ozymandias, much like Blue Beetle did for Nite Owl and The Question did for Rorschach, Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, is part of the reason why we have the iconic antagonist. Few antagonists have had the impact on modern superhero comics that Ozymandias has had, for few books have ever influenced superhero comics the way Watchmen has. And Peter Cannon is almost the root of that, the original Charlton counterpart, created by Peter Morisi during the Silver Age of comics. Yet few truly know of him, much less about him, even in 2019. Here’s a smaller hero who, indirectly, has the most powerful legacy in superhero comics. It’s a fascinating scenario and it’s a character ripe for examination. The team of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt understands this perfectly.
Dubbed as Kieron Gillen’s big return to superhero fiction, the title sees him re-team with artist Caspar Wijngaard, whilst bringing in Mary Safro as colorist and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou as letterer. It’s an unbelievably exciting lineup, all things considered. Gillen’s last superhero work was Angela at Marvel, while Wijngaard hasn’t delved too much into the realm of capes and cowls. Safro is more so known for her webcomics work and this project marks the first time she’s colored an other artist’s pages professionally. Otsmane-Elhaou, who’s most well known for his brilliant Panel x Panel and Strip Panel Naked projects, also hasn’t done much superhero work, especially not of this kind. So what happens when you put them all together? Magic.
Rather than evade the shadow of Watchmen and Ozymandias that lies over Peter’s history, the team boldly leans in. What if the original, the inspiration, got to respond to Watchmen and its influence? It’s the question at the heart of this new lens on Thunderbolt and it presents wildly thrilling possibilities. It’s been a little over 31 years since the iconic maxi-series wrapped its run, inspiring a new wave of deconstruction and views on the superhero. Now Cannon gets to take stock and comment. And it works spectacularly, resulting in what might just be the most audacious and ambitious superhero book of the year. Gillen is, famously, a massive Watchmen fan — it’s a massive influence on him and helped forge him into the writer and reader he is, as it did for many of us. Otsmane-Elhaou is also another notably huge fan of the title as well, even going as far as to do a regular podcast that covers a page of Watchmen per episode. This is clearly a team packed with people who love and revere Watchmen, but beyond that, they’re also great fans of comics history, making for a team that’s absolutely the right pick for the endeavor.
Since most readers jumping on board will be unfamiliar with the character, the team ensures that the #1 is an incredibly accessible read. You may know absolutely nothing about Cannon and you’ll still come away with a solid grasp of his character, his cast and his dynamic with them as well as his world and the general narrative. Framed as an enigmatic and eccentric genius, Peter is very much a detached and reluctant hero. His ability? Namely being able to see more than everyone else — more precisely, nine times more. Called into aid his fellow heroes, he questions them why he should even bother to help them or their world. His only real and meaningful connection to the world and its people remains Tabu, his close friend. There’s a lot of Sherlock in this rendition of the character, which goes back to the reluctant hero roots of Peter, with Tabu played as the Watson to his Holmes. It’s a classic dynamic and it’s a great lens through which audience may view Peter.
The book also effectively builds an entire history and universe around Cannon, surrounding him with various superhero archetypes and analogues, in order to help contrast and compare him with the rest of the genre and its inhabitants at this point in time. It even comes through in the dialogue, where Gillen, working closely with Otsmane-Elhaou ensures the other super-heroic pastiches he populates his world with speak in a heightened and almost theatrical manner, whilst Peter Cannon’s speech comes across as far more naturalistic and believable in comparison. Otsmane-Elhaou’s very much a key component in executing the book, as he nails placement after placement and controls the reader’s eye, working in perfect sync with Gillen, Wijngaard and Safro, to ensure the issue works the way it’s designed to.
Add to that which most of us will be discussing and digging into all year, namely the 9-panel grid usage upon which the entire book is built and you have an incredibly special title. Wijngaard gets to really stretch his muscles and dig into the Watchmen-esque formalism and he pulls off an astonishingly gorgeous book that nails the storytelling. There’s a great pace to the entire issue, a wonderful rhythm which builds and builds to the end and it’s Wijngaard who really delivers it and makes it possible. Working within the restrictions of the grid, he packs as much context and wonderful characterization as he possibly can. Whether it be giant, over the top superhero battles across a city or a small hand to hand combat or even a mere mundane conversation, Wijngaard’s composition and framing always feel purposeful and service the story wonderfully, bringing it to the absolute best it can be. His clean and defined artwork with lovely textures and astonishing detail bring the world of Cannon to life and suit its intelligent protagonist whose power is to see the details which others cannot. But Wijngaard also knows precisely when to cut back on the detail and plays to the needs of every panel and shifts to suit content, ever versatile and meticulous. And this is where Safro’s colorwork is vital. Her colors work with this versatility of the book and accentuate every moment and sequence with careful lighting and color choices. There’s a smooth texture to her work here, carrying a sheen that brings an interesting atmosphere and aesthetic to the title. Pair that with some bright, almost neon colors which pop off the page and scream superhero, whilst being absolutely idiosyncratic and you have a title that looks unlike any other superhero comic on the market.What may surprise most is how, for all its ties to Watchmen, the book is full of a gleeful, funny charm that is classic super-heroics and less so what might expect from such an endeavor. Beyond that, what’s also very admirable about Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1 is the fact that it can be handed to someone with no context for Watchmen or Cannon and they’d walk away with a fun and interesting superhero narrative without any issue. But if you hand it to someone who does have that context, they’ll get far more out of it. There are clearly layers and levels of engagement with the book and the more one chooses to engage Peter Cannon on what it is, the more one is rewarded. It’s a metatextual narrative with a jaw-dropping ending that screams of great audacity and boldness. It’s the kind of page turn every reader hopes they’ll get every time they pick up a comic. It’s a bold mission statement which heralds great things. Do not miss this. It’s absolutely one of the smartest and most compelling superhero titles out this year. Gillen, Wijngaard, Safro and Otsmane-Elhaou have struck gold.