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Peter Cannon & Tabu

Dr Richard Cannon and Mary work together as a medical team providing treatment and aid to people affected by disease outbreaks across the globe. A plague outbreak leads them and their infant son to Tibet and a lamasery offers to become a base for the Cannons to provide treatment. While their efforts are successful they themselves contract it and die, leaving their young son an orphan and in the care of the lamasery’s high abbot who promises the dying doctor to teach the infant both Tibetan and American cultures. The same abbot then decides to afford young Peter that privilege of training him and eventually entrusting the complete “knowledge of the ancient scrolls” to the orphan; a decision to which the currently designated monk, referred to only as the “Hooded One,” strongly objects to no avail. Years of successful learning and training on physical, mental, and spiritual levels pass and meet the abbot’s approval who then grants Peter access to the lamasery’s scroll repository that “reveal the mysteries and power of the mind” to unlock Peter’s full potential. Cannon’s frequently quoted power mantra is: “I can do it! I will do it! I must do it!”

Looking back on the origin and adventures of Peter Cannon Thunderbolt it’s difficult to ignore what seems today as Orientalist ideas and the White Savior theme. However, in the context of the mid 1960s and the content of the typical comic book this origin may have been the first time kids and teens who read the comic had encountered any mention of Tibet. Marvel’s Ancient One in Dr Strange notwithstanding as the character was never tied to a specific country.

Mike Collins, the writer and artist of the DC run, made Cannon critical of the Chinese government’s occupation of Tibet and wrote a subplot about the lamasery being endangered by the Chinese government. Collins also changed some details of Peter’s origin. In this version the Cannons were brought to the lamasery after helping villagers to avoid being arrested or attacked by soldiers of the occupying Chinese army. Mary is pregnant when they arrive at the lamasery and delivers Peter shortly before her death. In issue #10 Collins gives the name Djedi to the high abbot. Collins also tied the abbot character to elements of the Arion the Immortal series.

Certainly Collins didn’t avoid other tropes in his storytelling. In fact he added one with the character Cairo DeFrey whom he created as a romantic interest for Cannon. That isn’t to say that romantic interests are a bad trope. However, Collins made DeFrey appear to be a wealthy business owner to the public while she secretly headed a criminal organization. With Morisi having steered clear of any hint of romance in his stories this is the first romantic interest shown for Cannon. This trope is used in a similarly uninteresting fashion in the 2012 Dynamite series written by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross. And this brings us to Tabu.

Tabu first appears as a youth in a flashback scene of Peter’s training in Charlton’s issue #1. Tabu is described as “an orphan of the Himalayas, a fast and true friend”. That theme of Tabu and Peter training together, whether sparring in a boxing ring or against each other in martial arts, reappears frequently in the Charlton and DC series. Tabu often lost to Peter though in #54 Tabu delivered a surprising kick to the side of Peter’s head sending him to the mat and remarked with deadpan style: “I can recommend from experience that the portion of canvas to your left is somewhat softer!” One of the constant traits given to Tabu is his ability to affect Peter’s conscience especially when Peter is reluctant to act or involve himself with Western culture. Take this line of dialog from issue #54 as an example: “Civilization means a high level of intellectual, social, and cultural development! I’ve found no trace of it here!” Often the writers used a gentle but firm tone with Tabu in these frequent situations. Collins often added a bit of tension to their exchanges when a difference of opinion occurred.

Throughout the eleven issue span of the Charlton series Tabu’s dialog references “friend Peter” rather than simply “Peter”. Thankfully this affectation was used less often in the DC issues and the first Dynamite series and not at all in 2019 mini. In researching for this profile I noticed speculation about Tabu’s ethnicity since he wears a turban which is not traditional to Tibetan culture. The turban remains constant until the Kieron Gillen mini series in 2019. For the first time Tabu is given a last name in DC’s issue #7 when a woman house sitting for Cannon refers to Tabu as “Mr Singh.” It should be noted that the name derives from the Sanskrit word for lion, simha, and it is a somewhat common family name among North Indian Hindus as well as being used as a name suffix by Sikhs. At one point Mike Collins simply alludes to Tabu being Indian.

In the Charlton, DC, and first Dynamite series runs Tabu was depicted primarily as the constant, loyal companion who at times is mistaken as a butler or servant as happened in a Collins story. The strength of their friendship is highlighted in the Darnell & Ross scripted 10 parter when Peter is construed to have hallucinated conversations with Tabu.

Kieron Gillen had the good sense to read into Tabu’s character and the depictions of his relationship with Peter. Gillen’s Tabu has agency and a life of his own. In his second issue Gillen rather beautifully and wistfully tells readers that the two men were once lovers and are still the closest of friends despite the failed relationship.

Objections are often raised when once straight, or presumed straight, comics characters are reimagined with a different sexuality, gender identity, or gender. They’re familiar enough that they don’t bear either repeating or reply. Reading into decades old media with contemporary views sometimes presents problems. Morisi did not give either Peter or Tabu any romantic relationship. However, in issue #54 Tabu inexplicably contracts “sleeping sickness” from which the doctor informs Peter may very well die as there is no none cure. Peter pointedly rejects the prognosis and goes on an obstacle filled quest to the Cave of the Peaks back in Tibet to retrieve indigenous flowers referred to in the ancient scrolls for their curative powers. Whether or not Gillen read the original source material I can’t say but if he did I can imagine panels like these (the first and second panels are consecutive while the third is from another page) and extrapolating a romantic relationship between the men. Whatever may lie ahead for these two will have to wait for future stories.

Assigning a sexuality to both characters may be problematic given two series showing Cannon romantically involved with women. Are they bi, pan, possibly gay? A definitive answer may be unimportant or left up to individual interpretation.

Thanks to rigorous studies and training Cannon’s intellect, strength, endurance, speed, healing, reflexes, and agility are greatly enhanced. He’s also highly skilled in a number of martial arts as is Tabu. While Tabu possesses no superhuman ability he has a much higher than average intellect and perceptive skills.

Cannon’s rogues include the Hooded One from the Tibetan lamasery (renamed Havoc in the DC series), Evila, strong man Krater, Trydan, among others.

Peter Cannon Thunderbolt and Tabu created by Peter Morisi, aka PAM. Their first appearances are in Charlton’s Thunderbolt #1 (March-April 1966). The series then took over the numbering from Son of Vulcan. Son of Vulcan was the title for issues #49 and 50 only, having taken over Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds.

Art by Paulina Ganucheau (first image), Caspar Wyngaard (second) and Peter Morisi (third).

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