“What does this stand for?”
In what is proving to be one of the smartest and most engaging comic outings of the year, things get even more interesting. Kieron Gillen, Caspar Wijngaard, Mary Safro and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s examination of the superhero realms continues in this third installment, pushing forth to a new place. Picking up right where the last issue left off without wasting even a second (quite literally), the book cheekily asks the reader “…what happens now?” That sort of self-aware, metatextual grin is very much the spirit of the book. It knows precisely what it’s doing and much like its antagonistic character, Not-Ozymandias, or Thunderbolt, if you will, it’s proud, bearing a smug grin.
If #1 was Warren Ellis, with Authority-esque lines and the 3-panel grid (which is really a simplified 9-panel grid in its usage) and #2 was the Grant Morrison issue, with its weird and playful usage of the form and even a blatant Animal Man reference, this is very much the Mark Millar issue. Filled with excess violence, brutality and Millar references, the book continues to comment and have fun with the evolution of the superhero comic post-Watchmen. The approach of channeling or calling back to one post-Moore and Watchmen British creator of influence is an interesting choices and an understandable one, considering how all three of the above scribes are key voices in the path superhero comics would go onto take.
And since it is Millar, Supreme Justice, the book’s American super soldier gets a lot more to do. The vulgar, fiery soldier walks up to Thunderbolt, points to the gear insignia on his head and asks him “What does this stand for?,” making the most overt Ultimates reference in ages. Few can forget the now well-known moment with Captain America in that book with him pointing to his own head and yelling out “You think this letter on my head stands for France?” It’s all quite blatant, with Justice then going onto brutally headbutt Thunderbolt to make his point — something that is very, very Mark Millar.
The creative team then skillfully does something clever. Watchmen, ages ago, with Rorschach’s finger-breaking scene in its very debut issue, had a profound impact on comics and how they handled violence. This simple, blunt show of brutality struck with resounding impact. Gillen has consistently been drawing a line between Moore and the other writing voices and tying them all together and it’s fascinating to see how this issue pulls that off. Millar is a writer known for his love of super-violence and the extravagantly excessive, almost sadistic, brutality in comics. Tying that to Moore’s Ozymandias and Watchmen, the book has Thunderbolt respond to Justice by holding his finger and breaking it. And then doing it again and again, uttering the words “Excess brutality? I invented it,” then following that up with “And really? It seems that one finger would be sufficient. It’s also…never enough. There’s always more fingers to break.” Connecting Moore and Millar in such fashion (Moore is Millar’s key inspiration, with the latter dubbing the former his hero and even “Comics Dad” at one point), the book makes the point it needs to about just how much Watchmen‘s influenced the modern superhero comic book. For without Ultimates, which is a key step in the path of the superhero and a big source for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, things just might not be the same.
Going even as far as referencing Manhattan, through his pastiche in the form of Nucleon here, the book makes some specific choices. In this Watchmen-world, Nucleon, like Manhattan, can see the past, present and future and experience it all at once. There’s no real separation here and thus she’s able to perceive things in a way Peter cannot. At least, not yet. Otsmane-Elhaou’s choice of balloons with the white layer continue to be a stellar choice here, delivering precisely what the story requires. His letters, both contemporary and Gibbons classic, help build tension and contrast effectively throughout, giving the book a great deal of the weight it has.
The book’s dive into Thunderbolt here is also worth discussing, as it keeps with the Millar-ism motifs but also does other things. We’re shown his Watchmen-equivalent past and the book then radically shifts in style, from the colors to the paneling, the costumes and even the little bits in the way things are drawn, while keeping with the rest of the narrative. Wijngaard and Safro do fantastic work here and really deserve every bit of praise, being able to nail what they do. Wijngaard’s range and versatility as an artist really shine here, as does Safro’s ability to enhance every image and contextualize it perfectly. Safro’s modern palette shifts to retro and pulpy, with simple colors, far more shading and blacks, a lot more roughness and Wijngaard even gives us a pants-less Thunderbolt, again, to communicate that retro-sensibility clearly. The 9-panel grid becomes, once more, the simpler 3-panel grid, indicating a different, simpler time and all the while Safro evokes Watchmen with the blacks, yellow and pinks. “Lurid, pulp colors,” as the book puts it, is a pretty solid way of summing up the whole thing.
Going beyond Millar, Thunderbolt and the rest of the book is undeniably Kieron Gillen. He’s very much the sort of smug, cackling, cruel and evil foe you’d expect in a Millar book, yes, but he’s also the philosophising, metatextual commentator of genre and form. Throwing out lines like “No, I am free. I have transcended your genre. It doesn’t matter what I do,” and all the more listed above and even unlisted, he’s the cheeky figure only Gillen would come up with and use in such fashion. Thunderbolt is, above all, a creator, a master of formalism, much like Peter is. Both are people who’ve studied their “scrolls,” or “comics,” if you will. But he’s also very much a specific brand of formalism, the kind that really blew up in the ’80s, while Peter Cannon represents a different and more…open, all encompassing approach.
In an incredible sequence, one that feels reminiscent of Sienkiewicz’s iconic Moon Knight 9-panel page, Thunderbolt displays his formalism, creating an all white-panel in the middle of the page to, quite literally, ‘erase’ the powers of his foe and then run from his position to her’s in order to beat her. It’s a beautifully well-constructed page by Wijngaard, who leads the reader perfectly from one tier to another, going left to right, then right to left and then left to right again, in almost a perfect loop. It’s genuinely inspired comicking on part of the creative team. But Peter Cannon himself has tricks up his own sleeve to answer Thunderbolt. He tells him that his perfect 9-panel grid is but a prison he can’t escape and more importantly, it’s one he doesn’t dare to escape. He’s a creator who’s trapped himself rather than be open and venture out for possibility. Peter, however, differs.
While Thunderbolt cannot comprehend and demands to understand Cannon’s use of form, Cannon tells him of the key guideline all creators know: Show, don’t tell. Peter’s drawn up a grid to use as travel and Thunderbolt’s caught him there. Then, in a sequence of pages that evoke Watchmen‘s murder scene with The Comedian, from the fall and the opener with the cops looking down, Thunderbolt throws Cannon into the wall and thus out of his reality. It’s the escape Peter needed, even if not at all the one he’d planned for or expected. Wijngaard, again, kills it here perfectly mimicking the Watchmen composition, but for a vastly different context.
We see Peter fall, descending lower and lower. But where does that lead? Why, to the roots of the genre, of course! Cannon falls into the realm of pure black-and-white comic strips, which are, also, as you might expect, built around three panels. Put those in a tier and play around a bit and you get either a 3-panel grid or more importantly…a 9-panel grid. And so we’re here, at the very root of comics themselves as a form, the origin, the source and the place where the 9-panel grid emerged from, in a very real sense. And in this simpler reality of loose pencils, lines for balloon tails and a looser font, with square balloons or no balloons at all (Otsmane-Elhaou is brilliant), Peter discovers another Peter Cannon. A metatextual multiversal tale where in the hero must return to the roots of his form and learn from a good counterpart, the angel, if you will, to beat a bad one, the devil, if you like. Not so bad, is it?
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #3 is another stellar installment in a gleefully clever superhero narrative. It also represents the perfect synthesis of a creative team’s efforts. Gillen’s cheeky playfulness, Wijngaard’s skill with the form, Safro’s state of the art-colors and Otsmane-Elhaou’s ambitious and ingenius lettering decisions all play into making for a deliciously delightful and satisfying read.
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