This is Comics in Conversation with Comics, a blog about comics and graphic novels that highlight, challenge, and celebrate the works that came before them, or say something about comics as an art form overall.
Today we look at the recent miniseries Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, written by Kieron Gillen, drawn by Casper Wijngaard, coloured by Mary Safro, and lettered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.
Originally appearing his self-titled series by publisher Charlton Comics in 1966, Peter Cannon is an orphan raised by Himalayan lamas who trained to peak physical and mental perfection, enabling him to accomplish superhuman feats of strength, speed, and agility. Upon returning to the United States with his friend and confidante Tabu, he dons a red and blue costume and fights crime as ‘Thunderbolt’. While he has only had intermittent appearances since the 60s, Thunderbolt is best known in the comic geek circle as the character who inspired Ozymandias, the Egyptian-themed acrobat hero from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s renowned superhero satire/deconstruction Watchmen. And it is on this rote item of trivia that Gillen and Wijngaard build their story.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is a comic in conversation with both Watchmen and the books it inspired, for better or worse. While Watchmen is admired today as one of the comics that made readers and critics take comics seriously as a art form and as literature (it did win the Hugo Award, after all), it also inspired several imitators who see the book as the only way to write a superhero story. Each issue explores a different approach to the superhero story, systematically building its case issue by issue through the story of a superman who needs to learn to experience life rather than obsessively study it.
We’ve made a list of the comics referenced in Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt if you want to get the context (and understand the many in-jokes). If you’d rather go in cold and don’t want to be spoiled, you can reserve Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt here.
Analogue Time – Watchmen / Moore, Alan
As Watchmen is the main comic that PC:T is responding to, Gillen and Wijngaard adopt the techniques of the original comic, including the nine-panel page and the use of characters as analogues, a superhero writing trope where a writer creates a separate character to serve as a stand-in or commentary on another character. For instance, Peter Cannon’s teammate Nucleon is an analogue to Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, who in turn is an analogue for the Charlton Comic hero Captain Atom, all playing on the idea of a nuclear-powered hero. To complete the illusion (or rather, allusion), Safro and Otsmane-Elhaou mimic the colouring and lettering of Watchmen as well.
On Whose Authority? – Absolute Authority. Volume 1 / Ellis, Warren
Issue one is a deliberate homage to the ‘widescreen comics’ popularised by writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch in comics like The Authority. In a pre-MCU world where superheroes were only occasionally the focus of movies instead of the dominant genre, ‘widescreen comics’ aimed to be dream blockbuster superhero movies in print form, with wide panels to better resemble a movie screen and short clipped dialogue like an action film. It’s also effective in setting up how superheroes operate in Peter Cannon’s world as efficiently as possible.
I’ve Never Metafiction I Didn’t Like – Animal Man by Grant Morrison. Book one / Morrison, Grant
In issue two, having established that their threat exists in another universe, Peter Cannon transports his team there by turning them into a comic page, in a technique referred to as ‘formalism’ (which in real life is a kind of literary criticism). This nod to metafiction (fiction about fiction) and characters becoming aware of their fictional existence is a regular fascination in comics starting with Grant Morrison and Chas Truog’s Animal Man.
The Blue and the Morally Gray – Civil war / Millar, Mark
It’s in issue three where Peter Cannon and his fellow heroes confront the book’s antagonist, a morally grey supervillain who destroys whole universes to save countless others and calls the heroes out on their lack of perspective. This theme of moral ambiguity and debating the nature of heroism, rather than the clear cut good-versus-evil narrative of most superhero comics, is another holdover from Watchmen that has gone on to influence later superhero comics like Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War.
Pub(lic) Defender – Bacchus. Volume one of two / Campbell, Eddie
Issue four takes a big tonal and artistic swerve, as Peter Cannon finds himself in a universe without superheroes and meets his non-superpowered equivalent, who takes him out to the pub to meet his friends. The art and tone of this section is a specific nod to the works of Eddie Campbell, author of the autobiographical Alec MacGarry comics and god-in-the-mundane-world story Bacchus. By deliberately throwing a superhero into an ordinary world, Gillen and Wijngaard serve to complete Peter Cannon’s arc of recognising that the best inspiration comes not from mimicking other art (in this case, other superhero comics), but from life and the people around you. It’s a somewhat ironic message given what the comic has been up to that point, but it’s one well-earned.
Meet the Team
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt isn’t the first time Kieron Gillen has written comics about how art affects people. His works with artist Jamie McKelvie, Phonogram and The Wicked + the Divine, explore the relationship people have to music and artists and how both influence you, for better and worse. Casper Wijngaard has recently drawn for the Star Wars Doctor Aphra series. Colourist Mary Safro co-writes and draws the webcomic Drugs and Wires. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou has lettered for many recent hit comics such as Shanghai Red, and also runs a comic-centric Youtube channel called Strip Panel Naked.