By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
Ever heard of a band called The Housemartins? They formed in the early 80s, with most of the band’s members coming from around Yorkshire – Hull, in particular, was home ground for them. Their songs combined socialism, Marxism and weirdly enough strong Christian spiritualism, although perhaps not actually advocating for that there Jesus feller. Their biggest song was called “Happy Hour”, a blend of 60s pop-rock and soul with a jangling feelgood vibe which hid the bitter little satire that spilled out across the lyrics, jabbing at the very drinking culture their pub-friendly vibes supported.
When the band split up, two of their members – Paul and Dave – moved on to form The Beautiful South, who continued in a similar but more powerful form with the same music they’d been making before, expanding in size and strength over the course of nearly twenty years of existence. None of their songs ever really took over the world, but they were an ever-present form throughout British life across the 90s and 00s. When they released their best-of album, it was claimed that one in seven households owned a copy. They were low-key one of the most important bands in the history of British music, although you’d be hard-pressed to name anyone who does what they do or outright claims them as an influence.
A few years ago they released an album called “Soup”, which took the most popular songs of both The Housemartins and The Beautiful South and formed a compilation album with them. It was a peculiar creaming off the top of everything that made this particular brand of bittersweet northern soul so popular. A condensed version of the long-form cross-band brand, essentially. When The Beautiful South eventually split up, they cited the reason for the split to be “musical similarities”.
Oh, I should add that the other member of The Housemartins was a bloke called Norman, who changed his name in 1996. He decided he wanted to give himself a new identity away from his grounded musical roots. A name which would symbolise something that was antithetical, oxymoronic; two concepts living inside the same body.
He decided to call himself Fatboy Slim.
He had a lot of success doing something very different to either The Housemartins or The Beautiful South.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt wants to be a lot of things across the course of five issues, and a lot of those are things I don’t fully understand and won’t pretend to. The fourth issue is a tribute to the work of Eddie Campbell, whose comics I’ve never read, and there’s a lot of characters who have names which are presumably meaningful, but fly over the top of my head. For a lot of people it’s aimed as being a follow-up, tribute, and takedown of Watchmen, often all three things at the exact same time. It follows the eponymous superheroic lead, Peter Cannon, as he realises that the apocalypse he and his team have just averted was actually a ruse, a hoax created by a second version of himself from another dimension. By giving everybody on earth an apocalypse they could fight together, his villainous variant Thunderbolt feels that he can bring the world together as one and avert political infighting and global war.
“Our” Peter Cannon, worried that this might not be the end of all, y’know, the world’s problems, decides to travel over dimensions to express his concern. In the process, you’ll have already realised how the series overtly references the story of Watchmen, which ends at the same point that issue #1 of this miniseries does: with an averted apocalypse, and the hope that all will be well. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Anyway. The final issue of this series sees Peter Cannon and Thunderbolt, two forms inhabiting the same body but embodying very different ideals, go face to face with each other once more. The Peter we’ve been following has spent the last issue in a different dimension which he accidentally fell into: that Eddie Campbell one I mentioned, where he goes drinking with presumably a bunch of people whose names are important. I imagine he listens to The Housemartins as he sits there and has a nice, reaffirming time and gets to understand what life might be like if you weren’t always busy being a superhero and instead tried being a white guy’s semi-autobiographical version of himself. In this alternate dimension he learns that he doesn’t have to just be another Moore/Morrison/Millar/Grant/Ellis/ deep breath Milligan/Delgado/Gaiman/Ennis character. He doesn’t have to fit into any particular form, and he doesn’t have to fit into the constraints that Thunderbolt believes define him.
There’s a lot of formalistic stuff going on here, yeah? But the main thing for me was the creative team’s interest in showing you how the work of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins led many people within the comics industry to spend the subsequent decades trying to put as many comic books as possible into a little box. And when you add in the work of the men I mentioned in that last paragraph, and the boxes the industry built in tribute to each of them… you’d have nine little boxes, all lined up neatly to formally sum up what comics could, should, and would be. Perfect. In the face of that critical, editorial, and creative interest in repeating those same nine comics in that same order for years upon years, deconstructing nothing from nothing each time, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt encourages readers instead to just cut up that whole experiment and do what they want to do.
Issue #5 sees the villainous Thunderbolt learn the secrets of formalism from his heroic doppleganger, which enables him to travel dimensions. Unable to look beyond the format, however, he is cut to pieces by a nine-panel sequence and is himself deconstructed into his constituent parts… none of which are particularly functional when they float through space by themselves, it turns out. His inability to change or adapt means that everlasting godhood only takes him so far.
By contrast, Peter Cannon learns to adapt and experiment with his form, which allows him not only to defeat Thunderbolt in an off-panel fight which punches in the gutters between the nine-panel format, but also to travel back to his home dimension where his ex-lover, Tabu, is waiting for him to return. They reconnect and kiss, which is followed by Peter pushing his way through the barriers of the very last page of the series – which was threatening to turn into a nine-panel sequence.
By doing so, he gets to spend more of his remaining time with the man he loves. His adaptation to whatever comes next, and disinterest in setting his story into perfect formality, is what gives him his potentially happy ending. Or… an uncertain future, if that’s how you want to read it. Interpretation is open.
As a writer, Kieron Gillen likes readers to work through their critical stuff at the same time he works through it – some people really enjoy that shared act of dissection, and others don’t get too fussed about it. I’ve seen articles about this issue which proclaim it kills Watchmen and all its successors dead in the water, and other articles which say that it gives Watchmen a new sense of legacy to help it escape the grave which a lot of jaded readers wished it could be buried deep into. If it’s open to interpretation, then I imagine that the creatives will be happy. Even if that does mean some people write extensively about 1980s rock groups from Hull and don’t ever properly elaborate on why.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #5
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciller: Caspar Wijingaard
Colourist: Mary Safro
Letterer: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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Hey, Steve. Nice article. I’d say comics criticism is all the better for folks engaging with texts through unexpected avenues like citing semi-obscure musical acts.
Minor correction: “(T)he work of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Mike Higgins”
The colourist of ‘Watchmen’ was John Higgins.
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Ah! What a silly mistake – thanks so much for pointing it out, I’ll correct that!