Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #5 Review: Better Is a Direction

Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #5 brings the series from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Caspar Wjingaard to an end. The issue puts a punctuation mark on the series' stirring thesis about the history and future of comics. The series examines a medium and industry still living in the 30-year shadow of a single great work, offering those imprisoned a means of escape.

Gillen's work often concerns itself with turning something modern into something magic. His Journey Into Mystery for Marvel Comics saw Kid Loki turning stories into magic. His co-creations Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine treat music as magic. His most recent project, Die, does the same with the rules of tabletop RPGs.

Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt takes a similar approach and applies it to comic book storytelling. Thunderbolt finds power in formalism, a style that is as interested in the artifice of comics as it is in the stories they tell. Through that power, Gillen and Wjingaard address Watchmen, the elephant looming in the comics room for three decades.

Peter Cannon Thunderbolt 5
(Photo: Caspar Wijngaard, Kieron Gillen, Dynamite Entertainment)

That Peter Cannon is the basis for the character Ozymandias in Watchmen offers Gillen and Wjingaard a unique angle of approach. Throughout the series, Cannon uses the power of formalism to traverse the multiverse. Each universe he encountered represents a different comics era, alternate history, or future. It begins with an assault by a version of Cannon that is Ozymandias in all but name. This Cannon was still repeating all the tropes, going through all the clockwork plotting that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set in motion in 1986. In another universe, Cannon encounters the polar opposite. It's a black-and-white world, a pastiche of the kind of slice-of-life indie comics that are now a dying breed. It's devoid of superheroes. Instead, it's inhabited by everyday people leading interesting, but still ordinary, lives.

With the power of those humans stories fresh within him, Cannon has his final showdown with his Ozymandias-self. It's near allegorical combat in which Gillen exposes the problem with Watchmen. For too long, too many have accepted that Watchmen is the best comic. Full stop. Forever. But as Cannon and the creative team asserts here, "Better is never static. It's a direction."

"You mastered this story, but it is only one intricate lesson," Cannon accuses his doppelganger. Gillen's dialogue conflates comics with the mystic scrolls from which both Cannons derive their knowledge and power. "There are so many other lessons from so many other scrolls...so many other scrolls yet to be written."

There is no more succinct symbol of Watchmen's ubiquitous influence than the nine-panel grid. Watching Wjingaard play with it, subvert it, weaponize it, and dismantle it is a small marvel. It's a unique pleasure to anyone who has borne witness to its use and overuse over the years, as Gillen claims to have through Cannon ("I know. I was there...You did it thirty years ago. Please. Let's try something else")

The Watchmen-like reality begins to fracture as flaws in its structure become evident. Third-person narration crowds a single panel, flattening its colors, and the not-Ozymandias Cannon notices. This blending and disrupting of the visual narrative are effective because of the talents involved. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou's versatile lettering turns style into a weapon, and Mary Safro's iridescent colors are the perfect aesthetic reflection of bleeding realities.

The issue's ruminations aren't limited to Watchmen alone. There's some wider questioning of comics' reliance on the superhero genre. It's examined through Cannon's relationship with ex-lover and assistant, Tabu. The Ozymandias Cannon transformed his Tabu into unfeeling machinery. But in this issue, the prime Cannon makes a point of collecting his superhero mask to face his other self. He later removes it, shedding the genre. He admits "[i]t was always easier for me to be a superhero," and puts a renewed focus on human relationships. It's a way of asserting that superheroes have their time and place, while also urging spreading attention to "less easy" territory.

Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #5 is reminiscent of Planetary #7 in how it prods comics to move past its arrested development. It begs comics to free itself from the trap of never-ending deconstruction and constant imitation. It inspires comics to move forward into an uncertain future full of potential. This is hardly the first commentary on that endless untapped potential, yet it may be the most willing to acknowledge and wrestle with the icons weighing comics down. That is, before it knocks that icon on its side and steps over it in triumph. Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is a wake-up call for comics readers and creators. Stop worshipping at the altar. Get up off your knees. The future is waiting for you.

Published by Dynamite Entertainment

On May 29, 2019

Written by Kieron Gillen

Art by Caspar Wijngaard

Colors by Mary Safro

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Letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Cover by Kevin Wada