“Christ. He’s optimistic.”
Peter Cannon has studied his scrolls. He embarked on his voyage to the world of Watchmen via formalism, teaming with all his allies. He’s faced his deadly doppelganger, Thunderbolt. And he’s failed. And now, having fallen through dimensional space, he’s crashed into a realm of black and white comics. What hope can there be of defeating Thunderbolt, aka Ozymandias, now that all avenues have proven fruitless?
The creative team of Kieron Gillen, Caspar Wijngaard, Mary Safro and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou have taken on a journey that’s channeling various British creators across each issue. All of them are key voices in a post-Watchmen age, whilst drawing in some form from that 1980s period of comics. The first was Ellis, who changed superhero comics and how team books were done with works like The Authority and Stormwatch. Then it was Grant Morrison, who broke out with Animal Man and has since become one of the most influential voices in comics, consistently playing with the form and challenging readers, whilst being vehemently against the vision of Watchmen. Then it was Mark Millar, a one-time protege of Morrison who reshaped the modern superhero book again, with works like Ultimates impacting a great many things, including the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All of them are keenly aware of Watchmen, as it’s hard not to be, and have presented their own distinct views in response to Moore, Gibbons and Higgins’ influential classic.
But this issue of Peter Cannon? It breaks the pattern. It’s not drawing upon a hugely popular, renowned scribe who’s achieved major commercial success working in the mainstream. In fact, it’s not drawing upon superhero comics or anything that has to grapple with Watchmen‘s influence at all. This installment is very much the ‘Eddie Campbell’ issue, drawing on the Glaswegian creator who was at the forefront of autobiographical comics back in the ’80s. Crafting the ‘Alec’ stories, which follow Alec MacGarry, a fictional persona (or a fiction suited Campbell, if you like your Morrison terminology) that puts to paper the real experiences of Campbell. It’s a series about a great many things, from life and art to drinking. But most importantly, it’s work that’s built on three tiers. It’s a book written around the 9-panel grid and its usage is different from the one most may be familiar with, especially the usage Moore, Gibbons and Higgins have popularized. And it’s certainly different from the usage King and Gerads currently favor (which is also a response to the earlier trio’s work, as Watchmen‘s influence continues to persevere) with works like Mister Miracle.
Moore, Gibbons and Higgins built a book fundamentally about structure, with panels being precise and rigid in almost gear-like precision in service of their watchmaker’s design, all servicing symmetry and the grander plan. The characters of Watchmen are very much clockwork people, eternally trapped, being looked upon from above, all servicing a design they cannot alter, with even the most powerful being absolutely helpless, trapped in these prison bar-like gutters. The characters are all pieces in a narrative bestowed with meaning, with purpose being evident. Watchmen also helped perpetuate the idea of ‘realism’, with many looking at its brutal violence, gore, sex and cynicism, packed in a prescient ’80s tale, and taking the story to be a pillar of ‘realism’ in comics. ‘This is what superheroes would be like, if they were real!’ was the sentiment expressed consistently. Moore, at the time, felt people would quickly tire of this ‘realism’ in months. This, however, we know was not at all the case, as people have chased that dragon to even this day.
But Eddie Campbell? In the strictest sense, given his comics are autobiographical work, his stories are the most ‘real.’ They’re not superhero fiction and are a different genre entirely, but they’re the most real stories one could conceivably tell. And it’s certainly worth examining why and how Campbell even crafts his work, to tell these stories of great veracity, especially in great contrast to Moore. Campbell’s grids need not be rigid and clean, in fact they need not even be the same size. They can be messy, hand-drawn, grids can be entirely absent or even crossed out like in a notebook. Campbell isn’t trying to render his world, characters or stories in Dave Gibbons, Bryan Hitch or Frank Quitely-esque intricate detail with all sorts of rich textures delineating every fabric or brick on the page. That’s not what ‘real’ is to him, much like it isn’t to us. In daily life, how much of that do we really pay attention to? Campbell’s comics are black-and-white, penciled without too much detail. The backgrounds aren’t always there, people can be mere specks or scratchy lines, things can be simple outlines or simple shadows and we only get bits and pieces. And isn’t that reality? When we look back, do we remember every single detail in things meticulously, or do we recall a feeling, a state, a few loose bits that stand out?
Campbell’s real stories are and can be impressionistic, showcasing a subjective reality, where in there is no great, grand design or pre-set meaning. It’s just the day-to-day events of one’s life and they star people who are and can never be captured or trapped in these little boxes, these little grids. They’re not clockwork, they’re not gears with meaning or purpose or great thematic significance, they’re just people. Real, messy, contradictory, a bit disjointed, unpredictable — they’re more than their narrative purpose. Campbell never tried to capture them in one panel or page, choosing to often skip various details and omitting things to emphasize how much more there really is, with us only getting little bits of these individuals. They struggle to get out of bed, they do stupid things, they drink perhaps too much, they make love, they’re anxious, they find joy in hanging out with their friends and hope for love. They’re real, truly real, in ways the characters of Watchmen or superhero fiction, rarely are. Even the lettering, which switches from upper-case to lowercase and is varied, going from in-panel to the gutters outside and more, all done by hand to give the book its personal, ‘real’ sensibility, like you’re holding someone’s truly scribbled down onto the page, reflects this.
Peter Cannon understands all this perfectly and makes full usage of this. Wijngaard masterfully evokes Campbell’s style and comics here while retaining his own voice perfectly, ensuring the issue fits with the rest of the book while standing the way it’s meant to. Even the first page is very much an homage to the first page of Campbell’s first Alec story: The King Canute Crowd. Wijngaard manages to sell you on this total genre shift and one that’s set in 1993, utilizing some of Campbell’s techniques to breathe life to this reality. From the dots, the little splashes of white, the gray layers and backgrounds, the rough, almost scratchy textures at times and the shading, it all clicks. Otsmane-Elhaou’s work here shines greatly as well, with the letterer painstakingly hand lettering each and every single panel of every page. It’s an admirable effort and understandably necessary, given how Campbell’s own lettering is, if the book is to achieve its goal of capturing Campbell. What’s fascinating here is rather than try and mimic Campbell’s letters precisely, Otsmane-Elhaou runs with the spirit and sensibility and does his own spin, which firmly evokes Campbell but never feels like it just is, it still has its own voice and holds, which is important to the story. Even the choice of Cannon’s regular balloons and tails in lettering to juxtapose the Campbellian reality of line-as-tails and free floating text for balloons, adds to the point that Cannon is out of place here, an inhabitant of a superhero comic in a truly real autobiographical genre world.
Once there, Cannon meets his autobiographical genre counterpart, Pete. Pete is a doctor in a world without superheroes and helps out Peter, taking him to people who can help him. Gillen plays it smart here, utilizing a trick that goes right back to #1 of the book. There, Cannon was shown to be more ‘real’ than the other superheroic archetypes upon his introduction, but in here, Cannon’s the one that’s less, going on about dimensional travel, while Pete talks like a real person. It’s a fun contrast and its purposeful. The book’s lead is a reader and importantly, a creator and since the book is about form, he also notices the odd monologue style in this world. But what happens next? Why, Peter Cannon meets Alan Moore!
Taken to a ‘Doctor K’, who listens to him and believes him, Cannon is intrigued. The visual influence here is very clearly Alan Moore and the choice of ‘K’ for his name is intentional here. As once they all head out to a pub, named The Clock (because of course), Cannon finds its inhabitants to be Lauren, the woman who runs the place and took the role from her mum, Eddie the comic, Daniel who does night shifts, and Johnny who goes to New York. The allusions are obvious: all of these are the characters from Watchmen. Lauren being Laurie, a legacy hero, Daniel being Dan who takes on night shifts and can thus be dubbed a night owl, if you will. Pete replaces Adrian, because of course, while Manhattan is John, who goes to New York, i.e. Manhattan, a lot. And this leaves Eddie, who is The Comedian, while Doctor K is Walter Kovacs. But that just scratches the surface, as we’ve established K is also modeled after Moore and on the other end, Eddie isn’t just Eddie Blake (The Comedian), he’s also Eddie Campbell, the comics creator. Things get very meta-textual as we dip down into layers underneath layers, in an almost inversion of Grant Morrison’s final issue of Animal Man, where in the character travels to the ‘real’ world rather than have the creators come to his own.
And here, the talk commences between the residents of The Clock and Cannon. K tells him of the Genovese murder, calling right back to the incident that birthed Rorschach in Watchmen #6: The Abyss Gazes Also, where in Nietzsche is quoted and Rorschach’s nihilistic, black-and-white philosophy is put on full display. Here, however, K speaks to how it doesn’t have to be like that, it need not be black and white, it need not be ‘us’ against ‘you’. Contrasting Rorschach’s popular “I’m not locked up in here with you, you’re locked up in here with me!” K says ”But you’re not trapped in here with me, I’m not trapped in here with you, we’re trapped in here with each other. So we should make the best of it, hrm?” It’s a key moment, calling back to and repudiating one of the most well known parts of Watchmen and it’s a lovely twist on the conceits put forth in the original. In some ways, the scene is reminiscent of All-Star Superman #12: Superman In Excelsis, where in Lex Luthor has a similar revelation and realizes how wrong he truly has been and how we’re all we really have.
From there on, Cannon converses with the rest of the crowd of The Clock and feels strange. He has a feeling but he can’t quite place what it is. He does what a Peter Cannon always does: he watches. And he observes simple kindness, happiness, contentment and joy. Then, when the inevitable alien invasion drones of Thunderbolt arrive, the book makes one of its chief points. “They tried to understand how this fit into their world. It didn’t. It was obscene,” the book tells us, having shown us. The superhero does not fit into reality and pretending they do leads isn’t terribly productive. The book even brings up the justification many use, that being “comics aren’t for kids!” to justify the choice, punctuating its point. And that’s really when Cannon has his own epiphany, the revelation, which many of us already know, but this superhero must learn. He’d assumed, upon arrival, that these inhabits of the autobiographical genre were lesser than him, he was baffled by their world, for it lacked superheroes. But they’re no lesser, in fact, they’re far more ‘real’ than he or anyone he’s met prior is. As the book puts it, Cannon is Hollywood forty, but Pete is Northampton forty and that’s the truth of life, isn’t it? And that feeling he had? It was envy.
One of Watchmen‘s key critiques, which many know well, is that it’s not realistic, despite its detail and its nihilism. Cynicism doesn’t automatically make something more ‘realistic.’ Grant Morrison’s long criticized the work and touched upon this in various places, from Supergods and Talking With Gods, to the classic Flex Mentallo, with a character saying “Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism” and even Pax Americana addressed it by dismantling structure at a key juncture to show what reality and life really is like. Gillen goes a bit further and taps directly into the very genre of comics that are about reality to make his case and not as someone who disparages the book, but as someone who adores it. And so Peter Cannon, who’s distant and can look down on others, finally understands. He has the capacity for selfishness and arrogance, as displayed by Thunderbolt, but he realizes the simple truths of reality, the ones Watchmen omits to make its points. The day to day beauty, the joy of simply spending time with your friends and just…being. And so, for once, as he gets ready to depart to face Thunderbolt once more, he tells Pete that he has studied enough, being in this reality and corrects him to let him know they will take care of everyone, not just himself. Meanwhile, Thunderbolt, off in his own reality, colored gorgeously to be one of the best looking books in the market by Mary Safro, broods over his supposed perfection. He speaks of the grand design and perfectness, as embodied by Watchmen and will not compromise. There is no alternative. In the prior issue, Thunderbolt speaks to how he’s transcended the superhero genre, and he has. And in this issue, so did Peter Cannon. But the difference? Thunderbolt imposes his own views, his own rigid and narrow ideas of ‘perfection’ of craft and storytelling on everything, he imposes his genre rules and views on everything he comes across. And dissecting it down, he leads things to where they’re at: absolute annihilation. Peter, on the other hand, learns. He absorbs and understands. Both transcend genres, but one learns lessons from beyond and brings them back to apply them, he allows himself to be transformed, while the other is a prisoner of his own making. It’s imposition vs absorption. That’s the essential difference between creators.
Even going back to their scrolls, Peter understands, knows and realizes he’s not worthy of them. But Thunderbolt? He feels he absolutely is and remains full of it. And it’s this absolutely deadly, stagnant, arrogant self, this personal demon, this haunting nightmare of comics, that Peter must confront, if comics are to move forward. He cannot hold things back, all that he represents must be stood up to and faced. But not with fisticuffs; not in this comic. But with formalism, with craft that displays what it is always meant to display: veracity. To tie things up with a reference to Moore’s Tom Strong, “I’m a survivor. You’re a relic.” One learns, the other does not and has failed to.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #4 is a magnificent issue of comics. It’s a comic about comics, reality, structure, life and creators. In no other book will you find Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell collectively assembling to help out the protagonist with advice. Dubbed “The Clock Crowd” (a lovely reference to Campbell’s King Canute Crowd), this installment remains the absolute best of the thrilling series thus far and knocks things out of the park. This is a series bubbling with things to say and it never wastes time to do so, with every issue being meaningful. It’s a superhero comic unlike any other out there, but it’s also about the power and potential of superhero comics and what can be accomplished with them, if one looks beyond insular influences and expands outwards, embracing possibility. While it may deal with the past, it’s a comic firmly about how to head into the future. But perhaps what maybe most admirable about it is just how many layers it packs in. It works the more one engages with it and is loaded with levels of meaning one can dig up, depending on how much context one has. The more you know, you more you can see and that’s what the book wants you to do. It wants you to watch and thus walk away a more well-read reader.