It is often said that Watchmen is the most influential comic ever to be released. That comics wouldn’t be where they are without it, for good and for ill. But how did we get here, exactly? More to the point, just what influence did Watchmen provide to the larger world of comics? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Watchmen? Who watched the Watchmen?
It was inevitable that someone would create a map for a post-Watchmen world, in comic form. And that’s exactly what Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt (2019) is: not an exploration of what Watchmen is or means, but a rebuke, a retort, and above all else, a set of instructions that direct artists out from under the “iron hand” that Watchmen has on the medium.
Our story starts with the man they used to call “Daredevil;” created by Jack Binder for Lev Reason Publications’ Silver Streak Comics #6 (1940), before being taken up by Charles Biro in a 16-year run, starting in Daredevil Battles Hitler #1 (July 1941), which was then retitled to Daredevil Comics starting from its second issue (1941-1956).
In the early 1960s, Peter A. “Pete” Morisi (pseudonym “PAM”) – a comic book writer, illustrator, and NYPD officer – approached Lev Gleason and offered to buy the rights to Daredevil. However, Morisi withdrew the deal when Biro requested a percentage of future profits, which led Morisi to create Peter Cannon (Thunderbolt) for Charlton Comics’ “Action Hero” line.
Charlton Publications began to suffer in the beginning of the 1980s and sold off all its superhero properties to DC Comics. When Alan Moore began his proposals for a superhero murder mystery a few years later starring the Charlton cast, DC editorial accepted… on one condition: that Moore use original creations that resembled the Charlton Action Heroes – as DC wanted to fold them into their mainstream superhero universe with the Crisis on Infinite Earths event.
And the rest – as they say – is history: Moore created Doctor Manhattan, Nite-Owl, Silk Spectre, Comedian, Rorschach, and of course, Ozymandias, while Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Peacemaker, the Question, and Peter Cannon (Thunderbolt) joined the DC Universe. Many of the former Charlton Action Heroes became beloved mainstays in such titles as Justice League of America or even headlining their own contemporary projects, like the 2022 Peacemaker show for HBO Max.
To recap: our protagonist is a copy of a copy of a copy. Isn’t that fun?
As discussed previously, our protagonist Peter Cannon is based on Morisi’s creation, but his story is mainly about Watchmen’s Ozymandias, with a dash of Thor. But where Thor has his all-powerful thunderous hammer – Mjolnir – Peter’s hammer is his mind, his wisdom, his very self. In Dharmic religions like Hinduism and Buddhism (likely what inspired Morisi in the first place), the lightning bolt vajra is the weapon of the storm-god-king Indra, but also a symbol of power and inevitability. Many Buddhas and bodhisattvas wield vajra-weapons, symbolizing enlightenment/awakening; axes that can cut through anything, swords that can cleave ignorance itself, thrown missiles that strike the mind and illuminate the soul with wisdom. This is also exhibited in Peter’s motto, which goes all the way back to his first appearance by Morisi: “I can do it…I must do it…I will do it!” I can, (so) I must, (so) I will. It’s a nice little mantra.
But for all his godlike wisdom and power, Peter cannot tap his hammer on the ground and go back to being Doctor Donald Blake, immediately humbled by human worries and frailties. And this failing is exhibited with his relationship with Tabu, who in this version is his ex-boyfriend and current “friend” (as well as aide and confidante). He’s curt and brusque, kind of an asshole, and refuses to even acknowledge anything that isn’t part of his current mission. While it’s clear Peter is fond of Tabu and appreciates his service, perhaps Peter’s fear of his own humanity is what compels him to push Tabu away and be emotionally constipated. As Tabu says in #2: “It was always easier for you to be superhuman.”
Take Peacemaker, mix him with the Comedian, and divide by Ultimate Captain America, and the sum might resemble Supreme Justice. Described as “the walking magical embodiment of the greatest nation on earth,” this Supreme Justice is the latest bearer of the legacy, a mantle that the government grants for life, similar to the Supreme Court Justices with which he is named after. “Which Captain America do you think Trump would pick,” Gillen writes in his pitch notes. As such, he is a jingoistic and blustering xenophobe who thinks with his fists, expressions of his belief in American Exceptionalism.
But Supreme Justice is not without good points. He is intolerant of the Thunderbolt’s pure evil, the first to strike the divine monster, and his courage is later noted by Peter; although in the end, it does him no good.
Like Supreme Justice, Baba Yaga is a bearer of a magical title, although this one seems to be selected from a coven of Russian witches. Employing witchcraft and spycraft in defense of the Russian Federation and its interests, Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged prosthetics also imply a background in ballet dance and a measure of practiced grace.
Nucleon is the biggest “gun” of the group and represents the People’s Republic of China. A radioactive powerhouse capable of flight and projecting nuclear energy, she contains her massive power within a bulky yellow hazmat-like containment suit. In the pitch notes, Gillen speculates that the character “spends most of (his) time inside a sealed vault with (his) energies running cities and unleashed only when absolutely needed” (Note: as this was the initial outline, neither the character’s nationality nor gender had been finalized).
Like Dr. Manhattan, Nucleon shares a somewhat fatalistic outlook and states things in a very blunt matter-of-fact manner; she nonchalantly predicts the deaths of the entire team, and then when Peter declares that he won’t leave Robo-Tabu alone, she prophesizes that he will. And she’s right every time. Maybe like Manhattan, these are a result of a repression of emotions through a depressive state, ultimately stemming from being able to see the future but unable to change it at all. But that is just my speculation.
Also, look at her. She’s so handsome. Woof.
The Test is a joke about Rorschach. A Rorschach test analyzes a subject’s perceptions of inkblot patterns; similarly, Watchmen’s Rorschach tests humanity by throwing up shapes written in blood, brutality, and vigilantism, and asks what meaning they can derive from it (and in doing so, tests himself). The Test then, is an analysis of the stuff of humanity itself, our biology, our psychology. Where Deadpool cannot die, the Test is condemned to constantly die either by violence (instigated by his rotary-barrel machine-gun-hands), or by his 12-day-long lifespan, before he is resurrected again. A sort of Groundhog Day Frankenstein. Was this universe’s Weapon X-equivalent tinkering with human mortality, or our mental resilience? Who can say.
What we do know about the Test is that because of his mayfly-like lifespan, he has an incredible hunger for new experiences, at one point shoving as many raspberries as he can in his mouth before spitting them out, just to see. And we also know that the Test is completely incapable of taking anything seriously, which becomes a point of pride when he goes up against Thunderbolt: “Even in the face of Armageddon, I will not compromise my absurdity,” which is a riff on Rorschach’s own black-and-white philosophy. But even so, the Test is compelling. They all are.
Pyrophorus is a genus of bioluminescent beetle, also known colloquially as “fire beetles.” A red beetle instead of a blue beetle. A billionaire in a suit of advanced powered armor filled with destructive munitions. And a huge nerd. The second “meta-agent of unfettered capitalism” (besides the Test), Pyrophorus comes off as brilliant and inquisitive but also socially awkward, an avid consumer of geek media; he knows what a multiverse is because he read it in sci-fi novels and saw it on TV and talked about it on forums. The kind of person who still gets into flame wars despite being incredibly rich and literally powerful.
All the meta-agents are powerful and distinctive superheroes, with distinctive iconographies and strong implied backstories. I could certainly believe each of these characters could sustain their own years-spanning ongoings in some universe’s publishing company. But while their efforts are fatally futile against the all-powerful Thunderbolt (who brutally kills them all without breaking a sweat), the story portrays them as ultimately brave beings fighting for what they believe to be the greater good, and true to themselves to the end. And that matters. All if it matters. We read them strive and fall, we believed in them, and we – like Peter – will remember them.
Morisi’s Tabu is firmly in the mold of the orientalist “loyal Asian manservant” trope, notable examples of which include Kato (Green Hornet), Wong (Doctor Strange), Wing (Crimson Avenger), and many others, including Ozymandias’ three nameless Vietnamese refugee servants. As you can see, this trope is dominated by east-Asians, but loyal south-Asian manservants aren’t out of the ordinary. When Peter Cannon is orphaned in the “Himalayan lamassery” by the Black Plague, his first friend his age is Tabu, another orphan, although Tabu is a local. After Peter completes his training and is compelled to return to the States by the lamas, Tabu accompanies him back, becoming not only right-hand-man, but also a cricket-y conscience for Peter, convincing him to go into action as the Thunderbolt.
Meanwhile, Gillen reinvents Tabu from a devoted platonic valet to an ex-boyfriend who chooses to tend to the needs of someone he still deeply loves. While this undoubtedly still has orientalist aspects (which I believe to be unavoidable), I think the story does the best possible job to minimize these aspects. Care and dignity is given to Tabu to make him more fleshed-out and believable. We see his persona as a server (but not a servant) with a wry sense of humor that obscures a passionate man who cares deeply for others, particularly Peter. We see how Peter hurts Tabu a little every day through neglect and distance, and how Tabu continues to stay with him regardless. It isn’t abuse, but something much more complicated; human failings.
In summary, while Tabu is undoubtedly a supporting character, he is the one that is closest to the story’s heart.
Ozymandias Unbound. This is a “Silver Age” Peter Cannon who has cast off all his humanity and embraced divinity, as embodied by his abandonment of the domino mask, and being referred to as “Thunderbolt” exclusively in the outline. The Thunderbolt was initially conceived as an Ozymandias with the powers of Doctor Manhattan, and indeed, still has echoes of that intent; where Doctor Manhattan painlessly burns a hydrogen atom to represent his neutral, aesthetic-less self, the Thunderbolt has a cog tattoo, a symbol of the clockwork glass castle mechanism he has made his reality and his omnipotence within it.
But he has flaws, in spite of his efforts. He garbs himself in heavy imperial purple armor (a color historically reserved for royalty as well as the combination of blue and red pigments), while wearing his old superhero costume underneath. Through the Thunderbolt’s understanding of the ancient scrolls and outward expression of its teachings, he has become powerful beyond belief, able to surmount time, space, and even capable of manipulating the nine-panel grid. He’s a perfect god, but not a super-man (like Peter is), or even a better man (like Pete is). Within the nine-panel grid that is his perfection, he is incapable of improvement, of change, of even seeing beyond it.
By constantly reusing the Ozymandias plan of presenting nations in conflict with an extraterrestrial threat to unite over, the Thunderbolt embodies the countless number of creators who took the wrong lessons from Watchmen (and by extension, all comics) these past thirty years. Misunderstanding what it was trying to teach, only interested in the prestige and power it could confer to those who studied it. Deluded into believing that their perspective and theirs alone could save comics. Trapped in a miserable box of their own creation, unable and unwilling to look beyond their own nostalgia and their own egos to try to be better. These statements probably sound like an attack on this or that infamous creator, but trust me; there are scores of these people.
And that is exactly how the Thunderbolt dies; mutilated into nine pieces as he attempts to use Peter’s universe-crossing skill. But Peter’s skill requires a capacity – and, more than that, a desire – to change, and the Thunderbolt is completely incapable of it. This echoes even more Buddhist teachings; while the goal of Buddhism is the transcendence of attachment (the source of desire, as well as joy and suffering), to first start on that journey requires that one has to want it.
THE BHAVACAKRA, simplified [pictured: the six realms of rebirth: (Manusya) Human, (Deva) Heaven, (Asura) Titan, (Tiyagyoni) Animal, (Naraka) Hell, (Preta) Tantalized Ghosts]
It is said that those born as deva (blissful godlike beings of great power and privilege) do not innately have this desire because they feel no suffering; those born in Naraka (a hellish realm of almost-eternal purgatory) have the opposite problem, in that they do not desire transcendence because they feel nothing but suffering. Those born in the middle – humankind – experience just enough suffering and bliss that they start to wonder if there’s something better, thus providing the ideal conditions for Buddhahood. As one drifting towards the deva state by being a “superior human,” Peter is working at a disadvantage, but because he wants to change, he can. So he must. So he will. But the Thunderbolt didn’t, so he couldn’t, so he wasn’t.
I don’t know what else to call this character so I’m just going to call him “Robo-Tabu.” But: where Peter has Tabu to look out for him, the Thunderbolt has Robo-Tabu to serve his whims, and the two of them are seemingly the last beings alive on their Earth. Made undying by the Thunderbolt’s manipulation of reality via ancient-scrolls-teaching (and thus preventing escape-by-suicide), Peter sees in Robo-Tabu what lies at one end of the road that is his and Tabu’s relationship: callousness, cruelty, bondage, and abuse. Like how Tabu was the heart of Peter’s universe – and story – Robo-Tabu becomes the heart of the rest of the story.
In the end, Peter returns, triumphs over the Thunderbolt, and brings Robo-Tabu back to his home universe. Not as a replacement for his regular Tabu (or even a third for a polycule), but as someone who needed help. Nucleon was correct, Peter did leave. But Peter returns, because he chose to. What’s done is done, but if we choose to, we can always move forward.
We don’t see much of the Thunderbolt’s Nucleon. We know that he was a man, an American, and the only superhuman of his Earth; all things that closely mirror Watchmen’s original setup. But by examining what the Thunderbolt had to say, we can see more about the Thunderbolt’s own contradictions. “A ‘super man’, Nietzsche’s fantasy in lurid pulpish colors.” But the Thunderbolt himself is an ubermensch, and wears bright red and blue, too. And: “A power fantasy. Simple, comforting, morality. Little else.” But isn’t the Thunderbolt’s dream of world peace through trickery its own form of comforting simplicity?
Ultimately, through the Thunderbolt’s strife with his opposite rival (perhaps mirroring the constant Batman v. Superman battles), we see the flaws in his thinking, and I believe these contradictions to be part of the narrative.
The Clock Crowd live in a world that is very similar to ours. They are drawn in a sketchy aesthetical style of monochromatic heavy pens and markers and irregular lines, in what I believe to be inspired by “underground” autobiographical comics, most notably Alec. And they’re also Watchmen characters, because this is still a Watchmen story.
They’re parallels to the Crimebusters, but also most heavily to the various “mundane” people the story had followed variously in the past 10 issues: “Joey” Josephine, the rough lesbian taxi driver; Malcolm Long, Rorschach’s therapist; Bernard, the newsstand owner; Bernie, the kid who frequents the stand; Detective Steven Fine; and many others. Messy, flawed, dysfunctional people, who hurt each other as much as they hurt themselves. But – in what I believe to be the most moving and beautiful sequence of Watchmen – when they hear someone call out for help, when they see others hurt, they drop what they’re doing and try to help.
They’re doomed, of course, because of Ozymandias’ plan, but still. It mattered. We saw them.
Doctor Cannon, curator for the British Museum. “Pete” to his friends, and everyone else for that matter. The first face Peter sees when he lands in the “mundaneverse.” Pete is, of course, the parallel of Ozymandias, a student of ancient philosophies. We don’t really see what Pete took away from the ancient scrolls, but Peter says before he leaves; “I studied enough. Thank you,” which implies that Pete expressed the teachings not in reality-bending power or superhuman minds, but more subtler, human lessons. He’s compassionate with strangers and loving to his friends. He is joyful and has fun but is also heedful of the needs of others. He’s not a better human being, but a good man.
The Doctor or “Doctor K”: in the outline, he’s listed as “Doctor Kovacs” once: which says that this character is meant to be Rorshach. Indeed, he talks about his motivations being the Kitty Genovese murder. But where Rorschach takes the cue to be a murderous executioner of criminals, Doctor K pursues the life of a therapist. Where Rorschach’s black-and-white thinking is rooted in his misanthropy (“I must kill all the bad people even if it does society no good because I have no choice”), Doctor K’s black-and-white thinking is rooted in the opposite: “We have to help each other because the alternative is worse and that’s no choice at all.” When aliens attack, he is the one that volunteers his help to Peter, even though it would probably do little material good. But it mattered, nonetheless.
Lauren and Danny are, of course, Silk Spectre and Nite-Owl II: Laurie Juspeczyk and Dan Dreiberg, respectively. Lauren’s mother owned the bar and has been training Lauren to do the job for years, mirroring the passing of the Silk Spectre Legacy. Danny is always on the “night shift,” appropriate for a creature of the night.
Johnny mirrors Doctor Manhattan (alter ego Jon Osterman). Like their counterparts, both Johnny and Danny have a sort of love triangle/isosceles thing going with Lauren. Not much else can be said.
Eddie (“The Comic”) parallels Eddie Blake, the Comedian. But Eddie the Comic is also based on real-life cartoonist Eddie Campbell, creator of critically-acclaimed slice-of-life autobiographical series ALEC, starring Alec MacGarry, a fictionalized version of Campbell himself (collected in massive omnibus form as ALEC: The Years Have Pants (2010)). Indeed, while much of the mundaneverse serves as homage to both ALEC and Watchmen, Eddie (the Comic)’s own story is inspired by Campbell’s experiences, as told in the later volumes of ALEC: money troubles, using alcohol as a painkiller and social lubricant, his fascination with comics as “the new literature” and his subsequent frustration with the medium that was consumed by superheroes…it’s no wonder he tries to take a drunken swing at Peter. Eddie the Comic here is embittered and at his lowest point, but that’s okay; he has friends to look out for him.
I think this is what Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is trying to say. Superheroes are great, but don’t forget the little people too. This is their story as well, because it’s also our story. So when you tell a superhero story, bring their spirit forward, and make sure they matter. And inject some of your own self and your experiences into it.
I liked Watchmen a good bit. I don’t love it the way others do, but I understand why they do and how it became so influential. I think Alan Moore’s body of work has more misses than hits for me, personally. And I thought that the everlasting praise it got as the final word on superhero comics from various platforms to be incredibly pathetic. Ironically, there are more important things for art to be than “important.”
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is a beautiful comic book, or so I believe. Not just in illustration and writing, but also in theme, in storytelling, in meaning. It is saying: “Watchmen was pretty great. But some of us have taken in the wrong lessons from it, and have been beating the dead horse for literally thirty-plus years. Look at other things Watchmen was trying to do and say. See how it was inspired by other things. Please.”
One final mention of Buddhism: the Buddha is often depicted as seated and pointing at the moon. This is in reference to an analogy, with the moon representing the wisdom of enlightenment/awakening, and the finger to the very teachings of the Buddha. If one focuses on the finger, one does not see the moon, and so wisdom is not gained. Follow the finger to see where the moon is. Watchmen was a map of what superhero comics could be, but the map was not the territory, and so we have been copying the same map over and over, as if it was holy. Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is a map for the map with better directions. A map with these added directions; “Don’t just look at the damn finger. Find the frickin’ moon. Write protagonists that take risks and love other characters, rather than just be emotionally-constipated assholes focused on the Mission. Etcetera, etcetera.”
It may not have the same significance to someone of passing familiarity with Watchmen, but I believe that Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt can remind them not to be stuck doing the same thing over and over. To create new ideas and to reinterpret old concepts. To want to change. Because better is never static: it’s a direction.