Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt- Watch, the oversize hardcover collection of Dynamite Comics’ 2019 miniseries, is phenomenal. In five issues, the creative team tells a story that’s both massive and intimate in its scope, at once the story of a hero who realizes he must also be a man, and simultaneously a commentary on the stranglehold the influence of Watchmen has held on comics as a medium. The oversize hardcover of Kieron Gillen and Casper Wijngaard’s miniseries presents the five issues of the book in a single hardcover volume, along with special bonus materials from the creators, collecting one of the best comics of 2019 in one place for the first time.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt- Watch Oversized HC
Kieron Gillen (Writer), Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (Letterer), Mary Safro (Colorist), Casper Wijngaard (Artist).
January 8, 2020
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt opens “35 minutes into the future,” with three splash pages of carnage. Things are dire: Los Angeles is under alien invasion, and this world’s greatest hero, Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, isn’t doing anything about it. The rest of the world’s heroes must come to his lofty Hollywood Hills mansion to convince him to help save the city dying around him. They implore Cannon to call on the ancient scrolls of the lost civilization that took in a young, orphaned Cannon, and which have given him the knowledge and power to become the world’s greatest hero and the smartest man in any room. Cannon has no interest in saving Los Angeles and has active disdain for the very institution of modern society, but he knows there is only one way a new, better society is achieved: through people. Worse, he realizes there is only one person capable of staging this attack: himself. So if he is not responsible, than there must be another Peter Cannon somewhere, the Peter Cannon of a different world, who is responsible for this. And so, he chooses to act.
This is the Peter Cannon introduced to readers in the first pages of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, but the Peter Cannon of the final page is a changed man altogether. Over the course of this book, Cannon meets two Peter Cannons from different worlds. Thunderbolt, the mastermind behind the attack on Cannon’s Los Angeles, is a megalomaniac playing god, killing worlds one by one as tests in his attempts to galvanize a perfect society through an act of crisis. And Pete, a curator at the British Museum in the 1990s, lives in a proxy of the real world, where things like superpowers and aliens are so impossible to this reality that in their intrusion they become nearly obscene. It’s through meeting these men that he could have been that Cannon undergoes a radical journey of self-reflection and character growth. He sees the way two other versions of himself have lived their lives and then looks inward and finds his own life wanting. Cannon is transformed by the horror of seeing the conclusion to Thunderbolt’s genius and by the envy he feels looking at Pete’s human life and, therefore, must choose to change.
This is a brilliant comic in multiple ways, but there are two significant strengths that elevate the book. The first is the interior depth of Cannon as a character, along with the focus on his character growth as a central element of the story. The second is the book’s underpinning critique of the stranglehold Watchmen’s influence has held over the comics medium, as it advocates for the fundamental importance of new narrative and tone. The two ideas are interwoven; Cannon isn’t necessarily a proxy for comics as a medium, but it is only through his journey of growth and ability to change that he is able to succeed. His evolution is what allows Cannon to triumph. He only beats the stronger Thunderbolt by disrupting the repetitive perfection of Thunderbolt’s design, by calling on creativity in formalism that emerged only from his personal, emotional growth.
Cannon develops an internal monologue in Pete’s world that exists in the gutter space between panels, forcing the shape of the nine-panel grid, looser in Pete’s world, to shift to accommodate the presence of Cannon’s thoughts. This internal narration that follows Cannon home from Pete’s world is what threatens Thunderbolt; the emotional interiority that Cannon learns from Pete and the desire to change because of that is what gives him strength. As his monologue forces the gutter to expand to accommodate his hand lettered internal thoughts, the rigidity of the nine-panel structure wobbles, threatening the sanctity of Thunderbolt’s studied design. The intrusion to the page structure of the hand-lettered monologue stops Thunderbolt in his tracks, unable to adapt to the innovation Cannon learned from the mundane humanity of Pete’s world, and the internal growth it prompted.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt doesn’t leave the idea of genius alone. Cannon may be the smartest person in every room he stands in, but he is reminded over and over, by his fellow heroes, by his closest companion and former lover, Tabu, by the very existence of Thunderbolt and Pete, that it is not enough to be smart if you are removed from humanity. As Supreme Justice, an American hero Cannon has open contempt for, tells him, “There’s always another room with another smart guy in it.” Cannon’s genius is a defining character trait, as tied to his identity as the ancient scrolls from which he learned, but the idea that genius is enough to make him a hero or a good man is unpacked and dismissed over the course of the run. Cannon ultimately has to decide that he isn’t concerned with power or wisdom and choose to prioritize humanity and empathy, which is radical in a genre as focused on the feats and abilities of geniuses and soldiers as the superhero genre is. He must choose to see and acknowledge his own failings, his own self-described lack of personhood, so that he might overcome them and grow into a better man.
The second of Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt- Watch’s two remarkable strengths is the deft commentary on the Watchmen generation. In Gillen’s initial pitch document included in the oversized HC’s bonus features, he wrote “The story is about how Watchmen’s tone infected the entire genre,” and with the context of Gillen’s story notes, it’s clear how deep his intention for commentary is embedded in the bones of this book. Thunderbolt, wearing Ozymandias-esque robes over his original Thunderbolt costume and with a mark in the shape of a watch gear at the center of his forehead calling Doctor Manhattan to mind, has been repeating the same grim experiment for over thirty years. Over and over, he finds earths he could save, embarks on the exact same acts of destruction in an attempt to galvanize a new society, and when the story turns out the same, he starts again on the next earth. “You did it thirty years ago,” Cannon says to him in victory, “Please. Let’s try something else.”
It’s galvanizing: it’s been three decades of comics that have all been trying to live in Watchmen’s shadow, reselling the same crossovers and invasion stories because they sell predictably. Cannon learns one, overarching lesson in this book: that you never get better if you never try to change. Cannon’s newfound strength comes from an embrace of humanity and new ways of reading and understanding the stories in his scrolls. And ultimately, it is Thunderbolt’s unwillingness to change that ruins him. Just like comics as a medium have lived over thirty years in the shadow of Watchmen, evoking its tone and themes and leaning on the nine panel grid, Thunderbolt has been trying to make a “Stronger Loving World” of his own over and over and over, without stopping to reflect or evolve. Faced with the rigidity of the nine panel grid, Thunderbolt is spread across a grid and torn apart, experiencing firsthand what Cannon calls “the dangers of unrelenting deconstruction.”
The book also addresses the tonal precedent set by Watchmen that the comics industry embraced in the form of darker, grittier superhero stories. The book steers away from the reliance on combat and dour violence that has been a staple of superhero comics of the last few decades to intentionally refocus from a fights between characters to dialogue between them. After the hyper-violence of Thunderbolt’s precise, brutal slaughter of heroes, near all of the book’s violence slips into the margins. Hand lettered arrows point to panel margins to tell readers a fight is happening in the invisible places. Messages like “It’s all kicking off…But Cannon counters! Oof!” imply violence, but refuse to depict it. When Cannon reaches Pete’s world, so unfamiliar to him, there is less room for violence; this is a world without heroes or super powers, and the theatricality of violence is an afterthought on this Earth. Much more important to the story are the conversations that happen in The Clock, Pete’s bar of choice, and Cannon’s internal monologue that dominates the issue as he looks at the ways Pete’s life is so different from his own.
Also in the HC’s exclusive pitch document and commentary from writer Kieron Gillen, he discusses the role of formalism and the nine-panel grid in this book. The nine-panel grid had quite a moment in 2019, but it doesn’t feel overused in Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, because of its intentionality. “I see nine times as much as you do,” Cannon tells another hero at one point, in a page that Gillen described in his pitch document as an early example of Cannon’s formalism allowing him to weaponize the nine-panel grid. Cannon and Thunderbolt each play hopscotch with nine-panel grids, using their signature formalism to move through negative space that doesn’t exist to other characters, or to slip through panel borders, in a way that the mundane Pete cannot. Very literally invoking Watchmen, Cannon is able to travel between alternate Earths through a trick of formalism, that replicated the layout of Watchmen’s title pages as Tabu lays out a banner to separate six cells from the bottom panel of the page.
On multiple occasions, the nine-panel grid directly mirrors a nine-screen bay of surveillance monitors Thunderbolt uses to watch the worlds he toys with from his perfect, diamond fortress, suggesting Watchmen’s Ozymandias watching news of the world from his own citadel. The storytelling form serves an in-story function; a meta-textual reminder that we see what we’re being shown, and an implicit commentary of the formal precedent Watchmen set for the medium. Comics, mired in Watchmen’s legacy, are trapped or penned in by the nine-panel grid, and the use of the grid in Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt points directly to that. On the final page, Cannon breaks the nine-panel grid. He reaches through a panel boundary and shatters it, so that he and Tabu can try something new they’ve yet to experience or know. And finally, the nine-panel grid is replaced with something new and experimental.
Wijngaard’s art and Safro’s colors are just phenomenal. The new heroes Wijngaard and Gillen designed all have such coherent designs that their backstories almost speak for themselves, and the detail included in each character is painstaking. There are three Peter Cannons in this book, and yet there is never a moment when one of these ostensibly identical men could pass for another. Wijngaard distinguishes each man through costume design and the details of character acting, facial expression, and they way the three Peter Cannons carry themselves on the page. Bodies are lively while faces are expressive, the shift from panel to panel in characters’ facial expressions looks genuine and organic. And in Pete’s inked world, with its half tones and wavering panel borders, Wijngaard does a fantastic job working in black and white to convey a range of detail that’s distinct from the detail Safro’s colors bring pages set on other earths. Every page of Wijngaard’s art and Safro’s colors is a delight to look at: illustrative and clean, while being emotive and lively.
Letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou similarly does incredible work. The importance of Cannon’s monologue to the plot cannot be understated, and Otsmane-Elhaou renders it so well. Particularly when Cannon is in Pete’s world, speaking with the lettering style of his own world but thinking in the lettering style of Pete’s world, the way Otsmane-Elhou letters each piece of text instructs readers on how each panel should be read and reflects the changes Cannon undergoes in a tangible way.
Not every story requires commentary or a director’s cut of some sort, but this is one that does benefit from it. Even the layout of the collected hardcover reinforces Cannon’s formalism: he announces the individual issues of the hardcover directly to the reader, and creates out of the negative space of formatted credit pages panel space for him to speak. Wijngaard’s character designs are lovely, and the process notes he includes point out details I missed that deepened my appreciation of his designs. The features also include a gallery of the series full array of covers.
It’s interesting to read Gillen’s plans for this book and to take note of what changed. Much of the Watchmen analogues have been softened from the initial pitch; the finished book still very clearly reads as a commentary on the Watchmen generation of comics and is a book clearly inspired by Moore and Gibbons’ classic work, but the book is all the more effective for its subtler approach. Alternately, Tabu took a much larger role in the narrative of the finished book compared to the initial pitch. Gillen was clear that in this Charlton Comics-inspired take on Thunderbolt, he was a gay man who had been involved with Tabu, his closest confidante, in the past, but Gillen didn’t envision huge importance for Tabu in his pitch. This change was a good one. Tabu’s presence in the finished series feels necessary. Cannon’s relationship with Tabu is what humanizes him; he not only owes it to the people who surround him to engage with a society he has always scorned as lesser, he owes it to the man he once failed to try and embrace the messy, emotional, mundane things that make him human.
In short, I loved this book. I was delighted by the focus on Cannon’s character growth and the decision to center self-improvement and accountability in the narrative. The idea that Cannon can never stop trying to be a better man, that the effort to do so is what makes him stronger, is such a powerful one, particularly in the ways it challenges the idea of virtue through intelligence. This hardcover brings together a comic book that could only have been a comic book, a story that utilizes the medium so cleverly and effectively that comics are in the story’s very DNA. This story could never have been told any other way, it’s so specific to comics as both a medium and as an industry with decades of history, and this is so well reflected in how the form is used for function, with the physical elements of the medium being used to further the narrative. As a piece of comic storytelling, this book excels in so many ways, and on the whole, is an achievement.