So, to sum it all up; Watchmen has an awful lot to answer for, and Peter Cannon and Tabu were shagging.
… What, you expected more?
Honestly, so did I.
The Tabu/Cannon reveal comes as no shock. Even my ten-year old self purchasing the odd Charlton when there was nothing else left on the spinner racks below the physique magazines, realized that Tabu spent what seemed an inordinate amount of time gazing adoringly at ‘Friend Peter’ while they took long post-workout showers together.
But winding it all back, for new readers: Thunderbolt was the creation of Peter A. Morisi, an NYPD officer who ‘moonlit’ as writer/artist ‘PAM’. Having unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the rights to the Golden Age pre-Marvel Daredevil, Morisi used an abbreviated version of DD’s red & blue quartered costume as a template for his hero, and gave him the exotic backstory of being orphaned in the Himalayas when his parents, medical missionaries, fell victim to the very plague they were combating. Raised in a lamasery, young Peter was trained to the peak of mental and physical perfection, then allowed to peruse the sacred scrolls which enabled him to harness the power of will and perform amazing superhuman feats.
After Charlton’s ‘action heroes’ line faltered, Thunderbolt spent almost two decades in limbo before being revived by DC when they bulk-purchased the Charlton properties. His solo series there, and a subsequent one at Dynamite in 2012 when the rights reverted back to Morisi’s heirs, both failed to catch fire, leaving the field open for this reworking.
But enough preamble; what’s this series like?
Very clever. Too clever by half, frankly.
Writer Kieron Gillen (acclaimed for Phonogram, Young Avengers, and The Wicked + The Divine, among others) produces essentially a sequel to Watchmen (in which the Big Bad, Ozymandias, was a Thunderbolt expy, all the protagonists therein being the old Charlton heroes with the serial numbers filed off.) and an excoriation of the recursive loop in which much of the comics industry has been held since Watchmen’s debut.
Peter Cannon is a recluse; largely despising humanity, he holds himself withdrawn from it except when absolutely necessary, but has a reluctant alliance with the other super-beings of his world. When the thwarting of an alien invasion brings together the disparate nations of Earth in a fragile unity, his suspicions are aroused. It’s the sort of thing he would do. In fact, it’s the sort of thing he did – just not the ‘him’ that belongs to this particular universe.
Together with carefully-curated taste-alike versions of the Avengers, he travels to the parallel inhabited by his other self, architect of not only his own Earth’s misfortunes, but the demise of countless other Earths, all in the name of creating an enduring Paradise for the bulk of humanity – by testing a certain percentage of humanity to destruction. This doesn’t work out well for ‘our’ Thunderbolt’s comrades in arms.
There’s then a lengthy digression into a further parallel which may leave many readers unfamiliar with Eddie Campbell’s early ‘Alec’ stories banjaxed. Done in black & white with scratchy illustration and scratchier lettering, it’s charming for a few pages, but like so many things in this saga, it’s overplayed.
Throughout, there’s a self-conscious air which leaves one unsure whether Gillen is inviting his audience along for the ride, or mocking them. It reads well though – largely through the efforts of artist Caspar Wijngaard, who evokes both the technical tropes of Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen work, but, unlike other emulators, also achieves the emotional resonance behind it. (also doing a skilful and nuanced Eddie Campbell riff, which is quite a trick given the structural and technical differences between Gibbons and Campbell.).
This emotional resonance is particularly evident in the subplot, addressed only in a handful of pages in this close to 150-page tome. Tabu has been with Peter Cannon for many years, as trusted ally, closest confidante, and, at one time as lover. Cannon’s progressive withdrawal from humanity stifled their romantic relationship, but love and devotion is still there, skillfully expressed in the subtlest of ways, an unspoken yearning and regret which is virtually a third presence in all their scenes together.
While accepting that I may be a prejudiced witness, these handful of pages are more interesting and heartwarming than all the undisputed cleverness of the main plot, because all that is, is ‘clever’. You’re too distracted by the multiple continuity tributes, the ‘homages’, the endless nod-nod-wink-wink barrage of ‘see what I did there? ’ to actually engage, in any meaningful sense. It’s pretty, competent, entertaining, but it fails to touch, move, or more than superficially interest.
There’s an old piece of advice about packing clothes and money for a trip which could well have been adapted for this story; pack half the style you think you’ll need, and twice the substance. Please.
There’s a bunch of ‘Special Features’, as always in these oversized hardcovers, outlines, sketches, character designs, and so on. For those of you who like this sort of thing, here’s more of the sort of thing you like. Personally, I generally avoid ‘Making Of’ features on DVD and elsewhere – to quote ‘Mr.J.’, if you’ve got to explain the joke, then there’s no joke – but if this sort of thing floats your boat, good on you.
Summing up, then; Do I regret having taken the time to read it? No.
Will I ever read it again? No.
But will I pick up any projected future series by the creators? Probably no.
Will Morgan was hit around the head with a copy of Metal Men #1 as a child. His mother then had to buy it, and it was downhill from there. He began writing for fanzines in the 1970’s while at reform school, and hasn’t stopped, his work (under his birth name of Howard Stangroom) appearing in Amazing Heroes, Comics Journal, Comics Buyers’ Guide, Fantasy Advertiser, Comics Forum and myriad others. His first pro comics story appeared in Charlton’s Scary Tales, and other stories have been seen in Avalon, Gay Comics, Heartbreak Hotel, Sideshow Comics, Meanwhile…, Six Degrees, Genus Male, Meatmen, and elsewhere. Other credits include lengthy freelance gigs for Star Trek Fact Files, Marvel Figurine Collection, and Marvel fact Files. Currently, he can be found most days behind the counter of 30th Century Comics in Putney, London.