As someone who thinks that Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the single greatest piece of sequential storytelling ever, I’m always very skeptical over the idea of other creators tampering with this alternate world of nuclear paranoia and costumed vigilantes. I haven’t read any of Before Watchmen, for instance. However, 2019 was an intriguing year for us Watchmen fans, from finally getting the finale of Doomsday Clock, to Damon Lindelof’s television continuation on HBO, to Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, Kieron Gillen and Caspar Wijngaard’s five-issue limited series that paid homage to Moore and Gibbons’ storyline. All three works put their own spin on stories that are rooted in the history of Watchmen.
(Want to know more about the comparison between all three, check out AIPT’s Watching the ‘Watchmen’!)
Created by Pete Morisi in 1966, Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt was originally published by Charlton Comics and although he made a number of appearances in the DC universe, arguably his greatest contribution was being the inspiration for the character Ozymandias in Watchmen. Owned by Morisi’s estate since his death in 2003, Dynamite breathed new life into Peter Cannon starting with a limited series a few years ago. Gillen himself has been very vocal about his love for Watchmen, as is evident in this five-issue series.
Opening with an alien invasion causing death and destruction in the streets of Los Angeles, six superheroes, including the highly intelligent but reluctant Peter Cannon, take their stand. With his level of intelligence, Peter realizes that the alien invasion is actually a hoax in order to bind a divided world together. Only someone as intelligent as Peter could’ve conceived this, specifically a Peter Cannon from an alternative universe. Right from the start, the actions of Ozymandias from another canon becomes the touchstone for this story, which celebrates and dissects the comics medium through the legacy of Watchmen.
Despite the huge impact that Watchmen has left, co-creator Alan Moore has distanced himself from the success, which contributed to the rise of the dark deconstruction of superheroes as opposed to continue experimenting with techniques that you can only achieve in the medium. Kieron Gillen acknowledges these issues and embraces them, which are embodied through the central character arc of Thunderbolt. Although Gillen retains the character’s pulp-inspired origins, such as the possession of the Ancient Scrolls, the writer ages up the character to be this cynical figure with a superiority complex who doesn’t believe that the world is worth saving. Easier for him to be superhuman, he doesn’t experience the simple human emotions or indeed connection, as his ex-lover Tabu keeps saying.
Although Watchmen is a major inspiration towards this new take on Thunderbolt, it’s far from a carbon copy. Gillen uses the history of comics in general in order to tell this story through a meta subtext. The use of alternative universes feels more akin to DC’s use of multiversity, while the heroes themselves are amalgamations from various sources. One can argue that Gillen is rather self-indulgent in showcasing his love towards Watchmen and other works, most notably in the fourth issue, where Peter hangs out in a pub in another reality that looks like a black-and-white indie comic. More as a tribute to various British comics creators, this sudden shift achieves more than just being artistic experimentation, as it is funny and oddly uplifting.
As complex as Gillen’s writing can be here, credits go to artist Caspar Wijngaard who keeps up with the writer’s ideas. Best known for his trippy illustrations on Limbo, Wijngaard’s art is a spectacular mixture of the old and new, lifting many visual cues from Watchmen such as the ongoing use of the traditional nine-panel grid, which is constantly being reinvented through numerous pages. Issue #2 in particular uses the nine-panel grid through a moment of extra-dimensional travel, leading to one of the trippiest sequences in recent comics history. With a story jumping from one reality to the next, Wijngaard alters his style from the few pages, showing a classic drawing style, to the fourth issue that mostly comprised in a black-and-white sketchy style.
In five issues, Kieron Gillen and Caspar Wijngaard present a masterpiece that celebrates and dissects comics through the legacy of one of the greatest titles in the medium. Far from merely a carbon copy of Watchmen, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt uses its ideas and techniques to craft its own narrative that is meta, potent and trippy.