Major Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. For a spoiler-free article, read our review.
The wreckage of a city. Carnage everywhere. An alien invasion. A world on the brink of war, uniting in the face of this horror. If any of that sounds familiar, there’s a reason. The above are all conventional elements visible across superhero fiction throughout the years, but taken together, they call back to one of the most iconic and influential books in the industry’s entire history: Watchmen. Arriving over three decades ago, the book changed the landscape of superhero comics and how they were thought about and to this day, its impact is keenly felt. Ozymandias’s grand scheme to unite a world in chaos by manufacturing an alien threat to cause carnage seemed to work and as he intended, as we still remember it all too well. But where has that led us, really? What has Watchmen‘s influence, which is in many ways Ozymandias’ influence, brought us to? And where can we go from here? These are the questions the new Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1 is asking, and they’re well worth asking. Starring the hero who inspired Moore, Gibbons and Higgins’ Ozymandias, it’s a pointed arrow aimed at the heart of Watchmen.
Opening with a full splash page of a face surrounded by destruction during an alien invasion, right out the gate, the book invokes the finale of Watchmen, full of splash pages showcasing the carnage. And it’s no accident, it’s incredibly purposeful. The book wants you to think of Watchmen and in a lot of ways, with the opening, it almost feels like it’s picking up right where Watchmen left off with #12. But looking deeper, what else do we see? Watchmen is iconic and its iconography is most widely represented in the The Comedian’s smiley-faced yellow button surrounded by carnage, with a streak of blood on its top right corner. It’s essentially the first image one often sees of Watchmen, especially since the covers almost act as a sort of unofficial first panel for each issue. A giant full page shot of this crafted face that symbolizes simple happiness covered in blood, it’s not an image one forgets. And for the ’80s, it was an incredibly potent image that stuck. Here, from the very first page, which is a splash, the book reveals a contrasting image. Gone is the symbol of a happy cartoon face, replaced with a very real face of flesh and blood. There is no grin to be found either, only shock and horror. And much like the steak of blood on the button, a streak of blood stretches across the top right of the man’s head. It’s a powerful and ominous opening that speaks to where we are and where we’ve come from since Watchmen. Much like Watchmen‘s beginning, the image serves almost a warning sign, with the man’s eyes gleaming blue as he stares out at that which lies beyond. The creative team simply drops you into this world and warns you of what’s to come, invoking one of the most powerful images and works in the medium and genre. There’s no mistaking what this is.
The splash pages continue, one after the other, switching perspective to give the reader a full grasp of the scenario. Moving from the top (much like Watchmen‘s own beginning) to the bottom sides and them panning out into the distance to look at the entire big picture from a distance, every image feels purposeful and meaningful. There’s an incredible sense of movement to the book through each shot as it dynamically jumps from one page to another. All this careful build leads us back to the home of our titular hero, Thunderbolt, and as one might expect, the creative crew of Kieron Gillen, Caspar Wijngaard, Mary Safro and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou continue to cleverly pack in both neat references and overt callbacks to Watchmen. The first time we ever meet Ozymandias in the now-classic series, there’s a storm raging outside and the first proper shot we get of him is through glass, as the rain keeps on. Peter Cannon, the man who was the basis for Adrian Veidt, is introduced in a similar fashion. From the very first page, the rain is set up and from there we get to the lovely splash that finally reveals Peter to us.
Framed slightly above the reader and through the glass, Peter is clearly in a position of power. His pose conveys an ease and confidence, which gets across key information about the character. He also stands alone in the corner, away from the rest of his super-heroic peers. Cannon’s distance is another key aspect that is vital and the team, through simple framing and perspective, get it across perfectly in the work to the point that its elegant simplicity is likely to be taken for granted. Beyond that, we see Supreme Justice, the big, primary-colored chief superhero figure behind Peter. He’s approaching Peter in clear frustration, trying to reach him. And yet Cannon stands unaffected, disinterested, looking away at a piece of paper he’s holding in his hand. Cannon is very much a man ahead of everyone, literally, and all those behind him watch in frustration, trying to reach him. Wijngaard’s storytelling is not only thoughtful but meticulous in this regard. And following this page, where in we’re introduced to how Peter is in relation to the rest of the world and where he stands, literally, the book goes into nine panel grid. It’s a clever shift that immediately jumps to Peter Cannon’s own perception of reality and one that’s incredibly vital for a book addressing Watchmen.Once the nine panel grid enters the picture, the book very much takes off. Peter Cannon’s superpower, if you will, is the ability to see more than everyone else. Precisely, nine times more. And what is that if not the nine panel grid? And so it works, giving the reader a visual representation of how Peter sees and lives every moment. It’s a useful power and it’s essentially the power Ozymandias, his Watchmen counterpart had. In a book about nine panel grids and formalism, Ozymandias was very much a reader viewing nine panel grids and 18 panel grids (essentially two pages of a comic spread out) to derive meaning from the various moments and events. He sees more, he knows more, he understands more. It’s a simple ability and it’s as old as time, even going back classic literary archetypes and figures such as Sherlock Holmes. The book after this first nine panel page then, sticking with the grid, showcases the ordinary person’s perspective and what they see, in order to contrast Peter’s own claim of seeing nine times more. We get a giant panel that is but a single image and nothing more, before we cut back to panels focusing on Peter once more. The book continues to emphasize the perspective and intellect of Cannon in a way that not only feels exciting, but distinct from any other geniuses of superhero fiction. Gillen brings a believably stylish sensibility to Cannon that is unique, which Wijngaard executes wonderfully throughout via careful body language, composition and expressions.
Agreeing to aid the rest of the heroic community in their hour of need, as the alien invasion ravages civilization, Cannon ultimately dons the mantle of Thunderbolt once more. At his side are a whole host of analogues and archetypes, such as the aforementioned Supreme Justice, who is very much derived from the patriotic soldier archetype. Whether it’s Captain America, The Peacemaker or even going more direct, The Comedian, it’s all there. Then there’s Nucleon, the radiation-powered hero who seems to echo the likes of Captain Atom or more relevantly Doctor Manhattan, even through distinctly colored letters (green rather than blue) with a white layer surrounding every balloon. Pyrophorus, the red armored figure, clearly invokes tech based heroes such as Iron Man, Blue Beetle and even works even for Nite Owl. Then there’s The Test, who works for The Question or Rorschach mold, while the cloaked woman fits the Phantom Lady and Silk Spectre gap. And next to all of them, dressed in plain clothes, is Tabu, Peter’s close friend and the Watson to his Holmes. Working with them, Cannon quickly helps dismantle the invading alien forces with effortless ease, owing to his brilliance.
And this is where things get more interesting. Peter Cannon may be a response to Watchmen, but it isn’t merely just that. It’s about the entire realm of superhero fiction. If it opens with Watchmen, in battle sequences with the heroes against the alien forces, it evokes Ellis and Hitch’s The Authority and contemporary superhero comics of that ilk. This isn’t simply a work responding to a three decade old comic, it’s a book about how far we’ve come since then and where we are. It’s taking stock of all of that to build an incredibly contemporary superhero comic. Much like Watchmen, working with analogues, analyzed, commented and explored superhero fiction, its history and its place in the moment for the ’80s, Peter Cannon looks to do the same for this age. It’s why when one pays attention, it’s easy to notice that all the heroes gathered have virtually no secret identities and seem to be full-on paramilitary forces and government agents, effectively like cops — something that’s become relatively common place in the modern superhero landscape.
But that’s just the start, as the comic, in a careful pace and rhythm builds to a massive reveal in the last four pages, wherein everything is clarified and its intent made clear. After the chaos is over and the day is supposedly saved, Peter is informed that the world is uniting. Tabu comments that things are finally looking up, only for Peter to shoot it down. He tells him it’s no cause for celebration of any kind, but rather the opposite. With the book firmly in the classical nine panel grid, steeping the reader in Peter’s perspective, we’re told that this entire alien invasion was a machination designed to lead to this end result. Tabu is horrified by the very notion and asks who could even think of such a thing, with Cannon replying that he would and that he had, although he didn’t do it. Calling the idea immoral and more importantly an idea likely to be ineffective, Cannon confirms that he would never do such a thing. And yet if he didn’t, who could? This is where the book drops the big bomb, when Peter deduces to Tabu that they’re all under attack by a Peter Cannon of an alternate dimension. And with that, the book cuts to The North Pole, where in a metallic base, we see a penultimate splash covered with nine monitors, with a man watching them. Colored by Safro, the screens have a retro tint to them which evoke older coloring and scream Watchmen. Then we’re finally shown the alternate Peter Cannon, who’s been watching this entire time, amused that his doppelganger had figured things out. Sporting long hair, a cape and the symbol of a gear on his forehead, he’s a very obvious figure. Even the lettering shifts here to Gibbons’ iconic style to cement the meaning for the audience, as Otsmane-Elhaou makes the transition overt but also seemingly seamless with relative ease.
The absolute audacity and boldness of making Ozymandias himself the antagonist of this entire story is mind-blowing. It’s not a move that’s ever been done and when you think about it, it feels shocking that it hasn’t been. It’s such an obvious notion, in a way, and yet in over 30 years no one’s ever conceived of it. Gillen, Wijngaard, Safro and Otsmane-Elhaou got there first. With the great revelation they re-contextualize all the events, references and homages right from the very first page, as we’re seeing Ozymandias/Alternate Peter Cannon’s influence play out in the story. The intertextuality of Peter Cannon and Watchmen makes even more sense as the reveal bridges all gaps and brings both tales together, putting them up against one another, so they can go head-to-head. Suddenly it’s no longer just a Peter Cannon story with allusions to Watchmen, it’s nine panel grids versus nine panel grids, ideology versus ideology, meaning versus meaning and the superhero versus the supervillain, one might say. Taking the most influential, iconic and impactful antagonist in superhero fiction of the last 30 years and making him a foe for Peter Cannon to go up against is not only inspired but makes a ton of sense considering their ties. It’s an in-story and in-universe affirmation and recontextualization of the meta-context comic fans already have. Ozymandias is a fallen Peter Cannon and establishing that Cannon conceived of the plan Adrian Veidt is most well known for pulling off but didn’t do it re-frames both characters and their dynamic in a vastly more compelling way and has a lot to say on both.
The team of Peter Cannon, using familiar superhero trappings and conventions, namely the alternate world doppelganger which represents the fallen or antagonistic self, have brought in Ozymandias for a ripe exploration in the contemporary age of comics. How does his viewpoint and his influence translate to the current moment? And where can it take us? Cannon and Ozymandias are both empowered by their ability to see more than those around them and thus derive meaning, like a reader, and ultimately Peter Cannon is a struggle for meaning and possibility. It’s a battle for the fate and future of the world, but not just any world, the superhero world and what it is, has been and can be. In a lot of ways, this is most reminiscent of Grant Morrison’s famous superheroic work. While many will point to the obvious Pax America, which also aimed to respond, critique and comment on Watchmen through original counterparts, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is much more so in the vein of his Batman or Superman, wherein there’s a gleeful, almost playful charm and the work is very much steeped in superheroes and their history, but it’s also a rigorous examination of genre, ideas, what’s great about it and what isn’t. The hero is also very much placed against fallen renditions of the core idea to explore what makes it special and worthwhile to begin with. This is certainly the closest to that sort of metatextual superhero examination Gillen has done to date and it’s a fascinating attempt.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1 isn’t just an issue of another superhero book, nor is it just a regular Peter Cannon story. It’s a tale of comics history from prior to Watchmen, that’s lived past Watchmen, looking at its legacy and exploring what superhero stories can be in this day and age. It’s aiming to critique, comment and assess what superhero comics are today and can be for tomorrow, much like Watchmen did for the ’80s. It’s clever, fun and built on meticulous formalism. It’s a book that’s fundamentally about the nine panel grid. This is comics history in the making, happening before our very eyes. Aiming high, with a boldness and daring that both inspires and surprises, this is a title that’s going to be important. Get on the thunderous ride of Thunderbolt, because the gears are beginning to turn. You’re going to wanna watch.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1 is out now!