Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, is in the odd position where more readers are likely familiar with what he inspired than any of his actual stories. Like many other characters from Charlton Comics, the Thunderbolt was the direct inspiration for a character in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen; in Thunderbolt’s case, it’s the genius manipulator Ozymandias.
But now he's coming back - the original - in a new Dynamite Entertainment five-issue series from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Caspar Wijngaard that is described as a "dark, humorous, and relentless love song to the genre."
With Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #1 due out January 19, Gillen sat down for a long conversation with Newsarama to discuss his return to superheroes after several years away, the changes he made to Cannon’s canon, and his complete inability to resist really obvious puns.
Newsarama: Kieron, Dynamite sent me your outline and the script for the first issue.
Kieron Gillen: What’d you think? I mean, it’s a weird one.
Nrama: So you’re going all the way back to the original Golden Age comics: a fresh start without stuff like the DC run. It feels like a straight-up Golden Age character interacting with a superhero universe.
Gillen: Being me, I always over-research stuff anyway. This is kind of one of the motifs in my work, but with Peter Cannon, the canon [clears throat] isn’t really big. You’ve got his original issues from the 1960s, and there are eleven of them. You have the DC run, which is 12 issues; you have the Dynamite run; you have occasional guest appearances elsewhere, but not very many of them, to be honest.
And obviously, in terms of cultural impact, you have Watchmen, which is influenced by the existence of this character. The actual core canon is less than 40 episodes. So in other words, I read everything and looked for interesting elements in it. Part of the revival job is to say, okay, what’s interesting about this character? What makes him different from everybody else? How can I make those elements close to the surface?
So at least part of it is that I’m taking it 20 to 25 years on from those initial Peter Cannon comics. You’ve got Peter Cannon as a guy in his early forties. The phrase: "dream daddy" has been used repeatedly as an artistic note. [Laughs]
Gillen: Have you seen Tabu? Tabu is really a full-on Dream Daddy character. Wow, that guy. He’s hot.
…where was I?
Nrama: You were talking about gay romance visual novels.
Gillen: Ah, yes.
Nrama: As you do.
Gillen: As a design aesthetic, both Peter and Tabu have got kind of Dream Daddy looks in that way. Almost everything I’ve got, I’ve taken from the original run, or on some level, touching on the other two runs. You can imagine all of those runs having happened about 15 years ago.
I’ve tweaked a couple of things in the background, but the thing I found most interesting, especially about the earlier run, is how little interest Peter Cannon has in being a superhero. He’s been given these ancient scrolls, and what I think actually separates him from a lot of white-savior type of characters is that he’s really not - and I’ve made this even more so - he’s not worthy of this gift.
The society has chosen to give it to him, not because he’s better, but because of something his parents did. I thought that was kind of interesting, that the monks’ culture led to this.
Nrama: He didn’t actually do anything to be granted this particular gift.
Gillen: Yeah. It’s not like Iron Fist where he’s the greatest martial artist, or whatever. It’s that they’ve raised him, and due to the rules of that civilization, he’s been given these scrolls. I’ve done a couple of tweaks on that, to be honest, to make it even more so.
What interested me is that Peter Cannon, in the original comics, really didn’t like the world. He was raised in a more enlightened way of living, and was like, “Why the hell should I be involved with this society? These guys suck.”
The basic dynamic of those original comics is that Peter Cannon kind of gets tricked into saving people. Tabu, conversely, is always saying, “You should be Thunderbolt more,” and Peter’s saying, “No, I don’t wanna.” It’s weird because he’s semi-motivated. Imagine a Peter Parker who never had an Uncle Ben moment, but had more social responsibility beforehand.
When we meet Peter Cannon, the Earth is being attacked by aliens, and he’s like, “Well, why should I save you?” Of course, he knows the answer. He really doesn’t want to have much to do with humanity, because he doesn’t think much of Western civilization. He’s really kind of prickly. I referred a lot in the pitch to Sherlock Holmes, in that he’s the smartest guy in the room but not necessarily likable. It’s one of those things where Tabu, his companion, is the heart of it; he’s the thing that grounds Peter Cannon and his brilliance.
Nrama: Yeah. The way that you described it in the script, I was already thinking of the way Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes on Elementary.
Gillen: The “genius as prick” trope is problematic - I sound like the kids on the Internet now - but there’s an unpacking of that idea, of brilliance being meanness. I’m not quite as sympathetic to it as you may think. The thing about being the smartest guy in the room is that there’s always a bigger room.
Nrama: That’s an interesting approach to take with it. I went back and read the DC run, where he’s just a low-powered hero in the post-Crisis DC Universe. He’s okay with being a hero in those, but he’s also very aware of how limited he actually is.
Gillen: The first thing that happened in the DC run was that he got beat. He was in a coma, and when he came out, he said, “I’m not really a good hero. I’m not really up to it.”
I imagine my Peter may have gone through that period. He said, “I’m not good enough. I’ll study some more.” Now he is. When we meet him, he’s like, “I know a lot about these scrolls and now I’ve mastered lots of different techniques. I can do stuff that no one else can even understand.”
If you go back to the original Peter Cannon, half of it is him just training his willpower so he can reach maximum human potential, but then there’s a bit where he actually materialized as a dragon. [Laughs]
That’s a thing they use in the 2012 Dynamite book, and rightly so, because it’s a really interesting, weird thing to do. But the idea of reality manipulation weirdness, that’s certainly something I touched on as well.
Nrama: You’ve been referring to this as your big response to superhero comic books after a few years away from the genre, but you’re writing about a character who was an extremely reluctant superhero. When he gets to DC, he thinks he’s awful at being a superhero. Then, he gets to Dynamite, and in the first issue, he faces a newscaster with his mask off and says, “I’m not a superhero.”
Gillen: He doesn’t really want to do it. I never thought about it that way. Maybe that’s something I empathize with. [Laughs]
What I think is interesting, about my take, is that I go hard into the utter reluctance. I’m not afraid to make Peter Cannon unlikable. I think he does it with some charm, but a lot of this stuff is about the stuff around him.
One of the things about Peter Cannon, when people read the issues, they’ll see different trends in superhero comics being reflected and critiqued and understood. The first issue is very much like how I came into comics full-time, kind of obsessive about stuff like the Wildstorm books and The Authority. So in some ways, this is me doing a proper city-destroying epic in an issue. Then we take it elsewhere.
The interesting thing about The Authority is that it kind of gave birth to the current wave of superhero comics we’re dealing with, because it was clearly used as the inspiration for the Ultimates, and the Ultimates were basically superheroes as paramilitary.
Nrama: Right. The “widescreen” trend.
Gillen: Not just widescreen, but also the idea that you embed superheroes inside a government organization in a realistic and grounded way. There’s an idea across the 2000s, and into the 2010s as well, that heroes are less likely to have a private identity. The idea of having an alter ego, as mild-mannered Peter Parker, became a lot less common. Superheroes kind of became procedurals, like a cop show. In fact, superheroes in many ways became cops, or even military. That’s a trend that went through a lot of books, and you see it in the movies as well.
So that’s where we start. A lot of my book is about different ways to approach the superhero, and especially where all that came from, the realist trends of superheroes of the 1980s. Obviously there’s a Watchmen connection emotionally, because that’s the thing about Peter Cannon, the only thing almost anybody knows. Most people, if you asked comic book fans to tell you something about Peter Cannon, they’ll say, “He was the character who inspired Ozymandias.”
So the idea of this character, who had such a small canon, to be so influential in the larger scale of things... it’s like having that really obscure band who were ripped off by a bigger band who became really famous.
One of the other things I find really interesting about Peter Cannon is that he’s creator-owned. Pete Morisi has died, unfortunately, but Cannon is owned by his estate. It’s really interesting, the idea of a 1960s creator-owned superhero that’s in the hands of its creators, as opposed to what happened to Watchmen, for example. A compare and contrast between the two is an interesting one, and all that sort of stuff feeds into my thinking. All that kind of meta stuff feeds into the book in lots of different ways.
But at the same time, it’s also a state-of-the-art superhero comic. That’s the push and the pull between it. Superhero comics can be like this. There’s a page I wrote today for the third issue, that was pretty much, “My God, this is me showing off. This is really having some fun.” My aesthetic has always been tongue-in-cheek, like I will do incredibly serious things and then wink. This is a nine-panel grid comic, this is formalism, and we’re playing with the grid in quite aggressive ways, but at the same time, the tongue is in its cheek and that’s the joy of it. It assumes that the readers are smart and up for fun and also up for extremes of every single kind. This is a wide palette. We’re not being subtle in this book.
Nrama: Being subtle is contrary to the genre’s strengths at times.
Gillen: I agree. Superheroes don’t have to be, but I do love playing it rock and roll. I think part of the appeal of this book is going to be that it completely gives you all the superhero beats you like; there’s character interactions, there’s weird characters, there’s fights and weird trippy ideas …
I’m very angry with a lot of things with superhero comics. This is a comic about how we could be better than this. [Laughs]
That’s one of the driving things, and it doesn’t do it in any kind of a woe and despair way. It does it with kind of a gleefulness.
Part of the thing about Young Avengers, when me and Jamie McKelvie did that, was that it was a book with many strengths and faults. But the idea was, okay, let’s try to imagine like we’ve never read a superhero comic before. Imagine if we’d only ever read the titles of the classic Avengers stories. We’ll do a kind of miniature Kree-Skrull War where they’re basically like the Sharks and the Jets now. They’re space gangs, with cars that fly through space or whatever. This is the closest thing I’ve done to something that has the same level of formalist attack that Young Avengers did.
Nrama: And the formalism is why you’re sticking so close to the nine-panel grid.
Gillen: Yeah. I’d never written anything that was solely in a nine-panel grid, which is weird because Watchmen was a big influence. It felt like this was a good thing to do it with, especially with the themes of the book and where we take it. It has some interesting opportunities in it. The main thing is that I knew it had to be nine-panel all the way through to do what I wanted to do.
I was actually chatting with Caspar outside London Comic-Con and he said, “Oh, I’m going to have a little gap shortly.” I said, “Oh, well, that’s interesting.” I just started waving it in front of him.
And Caspar is an incredibly ambitious artist. I mean both in terms of his desires of what he wants to be able to do and he’s very adaptable. He’s very clean, romantic, and high-action, in the line work he’s doing for the superhero stuff in Thunderbolt. It’s very different from Angelic, from Limbo, from the issue of Doctor Aphra he did… that level of adaptability and aggression is really interesting. This book would not work with an artist who was not hungry. The thing about the nine-panel grid is that it only really works if the artist wants it, and Caspar said, “No, that sounds like a really fun idea. Let’s do it.”
That’s another thing that reminds me of Young Avengers. This book is very much a gang thing. I mean, Mary, who’s coloring it, Mary’s never colored anyone else before. She does her own stuff, mainly cyberpunk comics. We approached her because we really liked what she did with her colors, and she said, actually, she was interested in coloring. This is her chance to color someone else and see how it feels. She’s got the real energy of someone who hasn’t done this before.
And Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, who is one of my favorite new letterers. People know him from Strip Panel Naked, his YouTube channel. He’s a hardcore formalist, somebody who is really into the idea of what comics can do, and oh yeah, that’s the letterer we want for this. Especially since, you know, he’s somebody who hasn’t done many big books, I think, so he’s also interested in showing off. All of us are having kind of a gang mentality there. It’s a really good way to do a book.
Nrama: It’s seldom that you see somebody who goes out of his way to give a shout-out to the letterer.
Gillen: Thank you. It’s weird, with me and Jamie, we’re very egalitarian with the idea of sharing the means of production. In The Wicked & The Divine, we credit our flatter Dee Cunniffe, and not many people credit flattery even now. We just quite like making sure people get their due credit.
You know, in this industry, it’s quite easy for the writer to get all the credit, because we are usually more talkative, and we’ve normally had more practice. An artist normally has a different kind of deadline, so we do most of the talking. Then it becomes this cycle, and also, most of all, writers tend to do more books. You know, an artist has a book a month tops, whereas I’ll have four books out in a month. It’s four times as much of a chance to get people used to my name. So I think it’s quite important for creators to do that.