Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #3
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Caspar Wijngaard and Mary Safro
Lettered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Published by Dynamite Entertainment
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
“I have transcended your genre.”
Formalism can be a prison. This was an underlying idea behind the recent Mister Miracle series from DC in terms of the book’s very layout. Nine-panel grids with gutters like bars of a prison cell, page after page. The endurance of this three-by-three layout owes much of its continued relevance to Watchmen’s legacy and how its publication shaped the trajectory of comics. You need to look no further than Doomsday Clock to see DC commenting on a previous iteration of itself, but what it ultimately forgets is that there have been other influences that have affected comic books in the 30-plus years since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons collaborated o nthat.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, on the other hand, hasn’t forgotten, and its midpoint is an issue that delves deeper into the idea that formalism can instead be freeing when you read between the lines and know how to manipulate it. The characters involved go one step further than they did in #2, in which they drew their own in-story nine-panel grid in order to transport themselves through space. Yet the first page of the issue is made up of just four panels.
Kieron Gillen’s script picks up in the immediate aftermath of an homage to one of Watchmen’s most iconic moments, but this layout made up of a tier of three panels followed by one large one that takes up the space that six would otherwise fill is an example of the world opening up. Caught between the nine-panel grid and widescreen comic books, this hybrid form is something that feels like an acknowledgement on what Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s work on The Authority did to shape comic books as it moved into the current century.
“We don’t attack him yet.”
Much of this issue is occupied with a fight between the evil Peter Cannon and the team who think they can stop him. The comment from Nucleon above works to build up suspense, as it implies an implicit form of sequencing to the order. Filling the role of being a Dr. Manhattan analogue, she too can read between the lines, beyond the sequential order, and know what happens further down the line. Yet her character is designed so that we cannot see their face or body, as they wear a hazmat suit. Something brilliant that letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou does with the character can be seen on the second page when she says “I know” twice, the second time being made up of bigger and bolder letters. The difference alone is enough to tell the difference in tone, but he’s aided by how well artist Caspar Wijngaard and colorist Mary Safro render this tale.
In these smaller moments, they prove themselves as able to capture the more subtle character acting – the tilt of a head, a knowing glance, a deep sigh as things become clear. In a retro sequence, complete with lurid, pulpy colours (described as such in-story by the antagonistic Cannon), Safro alters the vibe of Wijngaard’s linework and turns it into a throwback with thick, heavy shadows. In the ensuing frenzy, where Cannon starts using the battleground of the book to his advantage, the art team handles some tricky layouts with ease and dexterity. The standout page of the issue subverts the traditional reading structure of nine-panel layout, as a character wields form as a weapon, showing another way to move through it.
At one point, the issue takes a moment to reference Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates, with the page once again being a middle ground between widescreen and grid-based, only to quickly shift back to fully grid-based in order to drive home the brutality on display. Rather than hoping the reference works from just the dialogue, it becomes enveloped in the book’s ongoing narrative visually as well. If there’s a main reason to why Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is so eloquent in how it speaks about comics and comics discourse without becoming didactic, it is because none of this is delivered in purely monologue form, how it looks and plays out on the page is just as important. Gillen, Wijngaard, Safro and Otsmane-Elhaou aren’t just telling us about all these grand ideas — they’re showing us what they mean.
There’s even a moment that plays to this reviewer as a reference to Jonathan Hickman’s work with the Avengers, and as with all these references, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt balances a deep respect for these iconic tales and what came before with a story that’s directly about the breaking of rules. Though even with these grander allusions at play, it never forgets the humanity at its core, brief moments of mourning and melancholy; what our protagonist version of Cannon doesn’t say to this other dimension’s version of Tabu. Instances like this make the characters more than just mouthpieces, and it’s a miracle that Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt packs as many ideas as it does into 20 pages and still has space for beats like this.