“I can. I must. I will.”
It all ends here. Well, technically, it already has. There’s a lot to be said when a creative team accomplishes the lovely achievement of consistently delivering great work. And indeed, a lot has been said about this particular creative team and this title. Kieron Gillen, Caspar Wijngaard, Mary Safro and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou are a terrific crew. But what do you say? What can you say to a team that somehow manages to end on top of all that and go out better than ever? What words can express the sheer astonishment or more aptly, admiration well enough, without falling short? And so, speechless, that’s where we’re at. It’s the absolute visceral response to the finale of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, the comic that struck like lightning (puns are fair game for a review on a Gillen comic) and goes out with similar impact.
And yet, it’d be absolutely criminal to not discuss and talk about this issue, this stunning conclusion, that packs in a great deal and brings it all to a close.
The book begins with Cannon in between worlds, still black-and-white, having departed the world of Eddie Campbell autobiographical indie comics. Making his exit the only way one can in an autobiographical work, he took photos of all these ‘real’ people and himself and arranged them into a grid, in order to convey meaning. Now out and away, having learned from Pete, his counterpart from the Campbellverse, Eddie Campbell himself and Alan Moore on top of all that, Cannon is ready to face what awaits him. Examining a splash of blood, in the way Rorschach once did in the opening pages of Watchmen, Peter notes that while it’s a risk, he must follow in “his” footsteps. This is interesting. While it may confuse some or be be hard to discern initially, it’s a really smart and thought-through bit that is explained and paid off in the next page.
But before we get to that, it cannot be overstated just how well the creative team’s work meshes together. Wijngaard’s defined and expressive black-and-white Cannon contrasted against the gorgeous canvas of color by Safro, popping with pinks and blues (Cannon’s color scheme) with Otsmane-Elhaou’s special hand-lettered captions, drawn from Campbellian influence, all make for such a powerful mix. Here are all these elements that are so strong and distinct on their own, and when put together make the rich magic that is this book.
And thus, we arrive at this very special page:
To enter the world of Thunderbolt, aka Ozymandias, essentially the Watchmen world, you simply follow in Watchmen‘s footsteps. That is to say, you mimic Watchmen. And thus we get this, a blatant reference to Rorschach’s arrival in The Comedian’s apartment, as Watchmen showcased its first title. The page is laid out to mirror that, down to the big title breaking up the page, in that classic and iconic Gibbons style. Otsmane-Elhaou has a lot of cool but hard things to juggle here, from Peter’s own distinct balloons and the hard-lettered Campbellian captions to the Gibbons-balloons of Watchmen. You can tell the letterer is having enormous fun with the book and here, he recreates the same typeface of Watchmen titles, while Wijngaard and Safro put their own fun spin on the setup of the classic page with Rorschach. Having uttered his classic catchphrase of “I can. I must. I will,” Peter Cannon’s stepped into the Watchmen world, only to see the literal flaws in its structure, as surely every creator eventually does. It’s an important day when you do — here’s this immaculate structure, revered, adored, so almighty and then you see the cracks, you see the problems.
From there on, aided by Robo-Tabu, Peter gets further in, at last making a deal with Thunderbolt/Ozymandias. The secrets of formalism that Peter Cannon holds, which permit him to traverse various realities freely, in exchange for the end of the alien threat, which saves both the Campbellverse and countless other worlds. Well aware that it’s only a temporary pause for Thunderbolt, Peter reveals his secrets. How the team decides to pull off this moment is really a treat, as Otsmane-Elhaou sprinkles in those handlettered captions, while Wijngaard and Mafro make up a blue-dotted background, breaking the rhythm of the Watchmen structure once more. The panel right after sees a shocked Thunderbolt commenting on this break in flow, this wild anomaly in his perfect 9-panel grid structure, which is a really charming little touch and perfectly expresses the book’s core sensibilities. Meta-textual as hell, designed to be inter-textual and funny as hell doing all of it. It has a cocky, rebellious grin as it sports its skill.
However, the second Peter does share, openly asking Thunderbolt to watch and to learn, he’s frozen into ice by the powers of the dreadful antagonist. For in his world, in this Watchmen 9-panel grid, in this story, he is all powerful. However, Peter’s indie handlettered captions then emerge, breaking the flow and structure of this world, of this Watchmen 9-panel grid and thus change the story. Thunderbolt is all powerful in one story, the deconstructionist superhero narrative as envisioned in the ’80s. But what happens when you change the story? That’s precisely what Cannon does. Changing the story from that specific fiction to something else, inspired by his lessons from people from the autobiographical Campbellverse, Cannon alters the parameters. Now the core conceit under which it operates is “Who is a better man?,” which grants Cannon significant power, with Thunderbolt being at a disadvantage in such a narrative.
While Cannon hurts that he is not “real” the way his Campbellian counterpart is, that he is far more of a fiction, he cannot be beaten down by another fiction that he finds to be lesser. A fiction that is content in being exactly what it is meant to be, eternally constrained, never curious or capable of change, eternally trapped in its haunting design. And thus it must be stood up to and faced. This is really where Gillen starts to let loose some big, big things, with whatever lid kept them at bay finally bursting and doing so in the best possible way.
“You mastered this story–but it is only one intricate lesson. There are so many other lessons from other scrolls…so many scrolls yet to be written. I learned a few lessons about people, from people, I bring them with me. The story now is ‘Who is a better man?’ and ‘better’ is never static…it’s a direction.”
This quote really sums up one of the core messages of the book and one of the core conceits Gillen loves to explore. With The Wicked + The Divine so close to its finish, it’s fascinating to compare and look at the commonalities within the works here. Both inspired by Watchmen to varying degrees, both fundamentally about art, storytelling and being a creator and ultimately being stories about a struggle against a storyteller trapped in their own narrative, unable to change or evolve, essentially unoriginal and self-destructive. Ananke and Thunderbolt (aka Ozymandias) have fun parallels in terms of what they represent and their narrative purpose and usage, although they do diverge significantly. But nevertheless, it’s interesting. Gillen is very much fascinated and haunted by this terror of stagnation that haunts us all and how we can perhaps beat it, truly.
And at the same time, it’s a loud holler to every creator or would-be creator and reader, acting as a reminder for how Watchmen is just one well done story. There are countless others in countless other series and there will be more in comics yet-to-be written. But if we forever cage ourselves in the pursuit of the Watchmen dragon, in the obsession of its deconstructive dreams, we’ll never get there. The flag of “realism” can be paraded all one wants, but that doesn’t help. Cannon, in the face of that, speaks of real people and lessons from them, true realism the likes of which Watchmen and its clockwork people cannot really be compared to.
But it gets better. Cannon and Thunderbolt get into a bout of fisticuffs, all told to us by more Campbellian captions with finger-arrows. With the very lettering being a part of his arsenal of power, Cannon lays a great beat down on Thunderbolt. And then he does something amazing. In what may just be the most supremely savage and brutal line in superhero comics of the last few years, Cannon tells Thunderbolt the following words: “In the end…this? All of this? You did it thirty years ago.” It’s a cold, cold line and it’s shade of the highest order. So many are enamored with the 9-panel grid and use it because one book from the ’80s did it to great popularity. It was cutting edge then. But now? It’s a creator short-hand to evoke assumptions and ideas attached to familiar work. It’s as old as any trick in the book. It’s textbook. Much in the vein of Fearscape, which is almost a diss-track on Vertigo/indie comics and general formalism of great many comic writers, Cannon delves into similar territory but for the realm of superhero fiction. As Cannon puts it, “Please. Let’s try something else.” And that’s really what it’s about: moving past Watchmen.
However, fisticuffs never truly resolve conflict, not in this book and neither does it prove one to be better. After all, this is a book about creators and formalism. All must be proven through craft. And so Thunderbolt gets up and yells out his own version of a Watchmen line we’ve all heard far too many times, “I can never end!” He attempts the formalism Cannon shared with him, but as he does so, he falls further and further into a 9-panel grid. Traversing other realities requires adaptability, the power to change, grow and evolve. But that is not who Thunderbolt/Ozymandias is. He cannot change. He is firm in his belief of his deconstructionism and his obsession with the 9-panel grid. And so when he tries to go beyond it, the 9-panel grid quite literally deconstructs him and is the end of him. To be deconstructed by the tool you upheld, that is the extremity, the thing at the end of things lying in wait for every creator who cannot let go of the past, that specific narrow past, to move on and move forward, in order to evolve. Their own formalism is their doom, their own 9-panel grid their eternal cage, their ultimate trap. As Cannon warns us, these are the dangers of unrelenting deconstruction.
If it wasn’t evident by this point, while #1 was Ellis, #2 was Morrison, #3 was Millar and #4 was Campbell, this is very much the Alan Moore issue, really. Watchmen came out of a summer and he wholly hoped people would get over it. They didn’t. They clung to it and they still do, even now, with Before Watchmen, HBO Watchmen and Doomsday Clock and plenty more. It’s also why he did work like Supreme and the ABC line, in order to showcase an alternative for superhero comics, which ultimately few paid real attention to. Moore has long fought against the monster he made and is extremely self-aware, both about his work and the superhero. And if there’s one thing he desires more than anything, it’s innovation and a move to the future, past the shackles of the past, much like he was able to manage back in the ’80s. So there’s that. The final issue calling back to and directly mirroring Watchmen #1 is a dead giveaway. But really, this is the Kieron Gillen issue. With playful cheekiness, themes about stories being traps that need to be grown out of so that change may be possible and the general biting criticism packed in as meta-narrative are all exceptionally Gillen. Even the above fisticuffs? They’re the best of Gillen beating up the worst or, alternatively and more aptly, the worst of Moore. Beating the snot out of the symbol of the superhero father in comics, the man who brought Gillen into it all, in order to push forward, is certainly very Gillen. This is the man that was forged by the influence of Moore, this is the man who’s worked with Moore and knows him. So a reading that sees the issue as an amalgam of both creators is also just as valid as any above.
From the depths of the most literal deconstruction by the 9-panel grid one is likely to ever see in a superhero comic, the book zips along with Robo-Tabu and Cannon back to the original universe with Regular-Tabu waiting. And from here onwards, we see the fruits of all the labors and lessons Peter’s gone through. Discussing plans for how he plans to reconstruct all his lost and deconstructed hero-peers, some more literally than others, Cannon now has a fresh viewpoint. He believes not in looking down and breaking apart. He believes in looking up and believing. It’s a man in his 40s finally coming to true wisdom. And it is worth noting that it is written by Gillen in his 40s. Being a creator who’s done the superheroics in his youth, having gone away, distancing himself from them and then finally confronting this root and falling in love with all their potential all over again. Cannon is as much Gillen as he is himself.
Proclaiming how he is not interested in being “easy” and he is not afraid of “not easy,” Cannon is now a man reborn. The team, carefully blending the romance plot and human arc with that of the creator arc, brings them together beautifully here. Embracing his ex-lover Tabu, he rekindles the flames of relationship and embraces all which doesn’t come easily to him, ready to venture out into unknown and scary territory, both in his relationship and his craft. Almost giving the reader a Watchmen-esque goodbye saying “I leave it entirely in your hands,” Cannon then comments about repetition and the trap. This is another clever nod, looping back to the last page of Watchmen, where in the comic reader is granted the journal and the story says “I leave it entirely in your hands,” asking the readers to do with Watchmen what they will.
Gillen, Wijngaard, Safro and Otsmane-Elhaou have a different message. With Cannon commenting that doing that is no longer viable, something different happens. Cannon uses his formalism to break the very panel borders and breaks a gutter, literally escaping the trap he’s in. And then when the final tier segments off beyond the 9-panel grid, he delivers the real message. It’s not about leaving it in our hands or theirs. It’s about joining hands and heading into the unknown, into the future, into the “not easy,” to discover what can be done, what hasn’t been and innovate. The book asks us to join us on its voyage into the unknown, into the empty white space of potential, where anything is game and possible, thus the characters turning into black sketches and then vanishing, with the letter-work simply indicating “Let’s find out.” It’s a powerful, powerful message. It’s a call to arms. It’s a mission and a notice. We’re heading into the future — join us. Don’t just sit on your hands; move forward. If Watchmen‘s message was that of a passive watchmaker, Peter Cannon‘s message is that of a proactive formalist who encourages you to journey beyond and embark on greater creative exploration.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is a triumph in every regard. Gillen, Wijngaard, Safro and Otsmane-Elhaou have crafted not only one of the finest superhero comics, but one of the finest comics out there. It’s a pure love letter to the form and the history of superhero fiction. And ultimately, its message is the dream of all it draws upon and honors. It’s the dream of Ellis, the futurist, Morrison, the lover of the impossible, Millar, hollywood’s golden boy, Campbell, the innovator who never stops, Moore, the undying proponent of progression and ultimately Gillen, the ultimate fan, critic and creator. This is the book Ellis would chuckle at, Morrison would cheer at, Millar would yell at, Campbell might grin at and Moore might nod approvingly at. It’s an ultimate lesson from a creator who’s saying “Here’s what I’ve learned, take this and be better than me.” It’s about the shackling limitations of form and yet also about its incredible possibility and wonder. So join Peter and Tabu, won’t you? The future awaits and this time, we’re going to do more than just watch. We’re going to break past the impossible.