In 1986, DC Comics integrated the Charlton “Action Heroes” line of super characters into its own universe…at least they did for most of them.
Outside characters like the Blue Beetle and Captain Atom, Charlton had one more mainstay who remained in the hands of his original creator: artist Peter Morisi’s “Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt.” Morisi spent his career between two unlikey jobs: cartoonist and New York City police officer. When he created Peter Cannon, Morisi’s interest in Eastern spiritualism made for a hero who fell far outside the “beat ’em up” he-man types often associated with the form. Since then, the Thunderbolt character found its place in comics history as the basis for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Ozymandias in “Watchmen.”
However, since the early ’90s when DC briefly licensed Thunderbolt from Morisi, the hero has been unseen on the comic racks. That changes this September when Dynamite Entertainment relaunches “Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt” under the creative direction of Alex Ross alongside his friend and “Uncle Sam” writer Steve Darnall as well as interior artist Jonathan Lau. CBR News spoke first with Darnall about his plans for the character including how taking on one of the earliest creator-owned superheroes impacted his work on the book, what Peter Cannon will do after he saves the world and how “Watchmen’s” Ozymandias does and doesn’t inform where the original goes from here.
CBR News: Steve, aside from your past comics work, you’re a pop culture buff. Was there something about the history of Peter Cannon or your experience with the character that made you want to take on the task of reviving him?
Steve Darnall: You know, in the sense that I’ve always been kind of fascinated by those who we would call the underdogs I do. I came into Peter Cannon via the mythology explored in “Crisis on Infinite Earths” by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. One of the fascinating things about that -Â and Alex will probably tell you the same thing, though he was into comics before I was -Â is that it featured a lot of interesting-looking peripheral characters that hadn’t suffered from over-exposure. And I remember seeing the “Who’s Who” issues DC put out and seeing “Crisis” and this book called “DC Challenge” where Dave Gibbons drew Peter Cannon. I was really intrigued by that.
So when this particular project came around, I was interested in somebody who hadn’t been done to death and somebody who held a really significant place in comics history as only a prototype. I thought it would be great fun to write that character, and I had a lot of love in general for the comics of the 1960s. That was a great time of transition before the market had become so entrenched and codified. You could still create off-the-wall characters like Thunderbolt or Captain Atom, and you stood a pretty good chance of creating something that if not wildly successful would still be pretty unique.
One of the very interesting things about Peter Cannon was the background he came from. Creator Peter Morisi had worked as a police officer aside from his cartooning work, and aside from working in a lot of unique elements like Eastern mysticism to the strip, he also had the foresight to keep and control the rights to the hero. Did any of that history from on or off the page impact how you approached this book?
I’ve always admired the fact that Pete Morisi made a point of owning this character. I can’t say that’s dominated my mind except for maybe the fact that when I first started talking to Dynamite about this, we talked about the fact that since the Morisi family owned the character, what would we do if we created a new character for this book? In effect, would the Morisi family own that? And as I thought about it, I realized that was okay with me. Heaven forbid, if I create something for this book that had a shelf life beyond what we’re doing now, I’d just assume it went to the Morisi family.
I did also appreciate the fact that I wasn’t just one more link in an endless chain of people exploiting a character from 70 years ago. That’s not to take away from the people who work for the Big Two, but I was quite happy to say, “If I do something that ends up paying back Pete Morisi for his efforts, for his creativity and for his business acumen, that’s great.”
Did you have any contact with the Morisi family to hear what their expectations for the book would be, or has this been largely like other licensed gigs where all that’s done through the publisher?
Mostly the latter. I haven’t had any real contact with the Morisi family. I think that’s largely the publisher’s domain, and that’s fine. If the Morisi family had decided that I need notes and the artist needed notes and Alex needed notes and the publisher needed notes, we’d probably never get on the same page. [Laughs] To their credit, they trust [Dynamite Publisher] Nick Barrucci, and I trust Nick as well.
Creatively, what was your launch point for the series? Are you just taking those original Charlton issues as the, pardon the pun, canon and continuing from there?
Alex had come to me originally with something he felt would be an interesting idea, and it was based somewhat on the history of the character as we know it in 2012. The character thankfully has a lot of history behind him, but he doesn’t have a lot of baggage. And one of the concepts that always kind of intrigued me was the idea of a villain deciding to “take over the world,” because it seemed to me that once you did that, you’d have to spend the rest of your life wondering about whether everyone on earth had gotten the message. One of the things that intrigued me about the “Thunderbolt” idea that Alex and I discussed was the notion that we could start the book by having our hero succeed at saving the world -Â and what happens when some people decide, for whatever reason, that they don’t want to be saved. Some have lived in perpetual fear for so long that they don’t know any other way to live. Some react violently and they know who they think is to blame.
From that idea, we could see a way to throw in some new characters and also throw in ideas that would build on the work that Pete Morisi did. Alex is the best kind of collaborator in that he can come in with very specific ideas and visual them, but he’s also got enough respect for the people with whom he works that if you’ve got an idea you feel strongly about, he respects that. I don’t think anyone in this process came in with anything where we said, “Here you have to tow the line.” And I don’t think there were any wrong answers in that. We were able to take some of what we knew from the character’s past and the Charlton books and utilize that. There were some very interesting and bizarre characters there that people haven’t heard of in 2012.
The preview art seems to split between a military action book and some of that ’60s view of what Eastern mysticism is supposed to be. Do those two polls from the basis for where the series goes?
That’s probably a good way to put it. I remember years ago when Alex and I had finished up “Uncle Sam,” and that had been a pleasure to collaborate on, but it wasn’t a fun book to put it bluntly. [Laughs] I remember saying even then, “I’m ready to do a big, splashy action book.” And Alex, bless his heart, keeps track of these stray comments, and now 12 years later, here we are. It’s kind of like back then, I had done something that was big and heavy, and now I’m just trying to write a hit single.
The fact is, part of what influenced the story was looking at all that had happened to it since the ’60s and saying, “What if Thunderbolt had achieved something momentous?” You then have the pressures that come with people who find themselves in a utopia and say, “This is not what we wanted.” That can be people who are sure the book of “Revelation” has come true or just people who wonder if this world is the first step on a path to the end of free will. There are plenty of stories written about people who try to do great things for society and are made into martyrs. We thought it was interesting to work something out where a character would not quite go that far. [Laughs]
Well, this all falls in line with something that Dynamite has pointed out – that this character of Peter Cannon is the basis for Ozymandias in “Watchmen.” You seem very aware of how potent that concept has become due to that book, and I was wondering how much that informed this series?
Oh yeah. Any book that’s come out in the last quarter century owes some debt to what Alan [Moore] and Dave [Gibbons] did. We were very aware that some of these elements might seem familiar because of the character of Ozymandias. But I also felt that there are a lot of people who have genuinely ripped off “Watchmen.” [Laughs] And the idea of a reluctant hero is something that started before Alan and Dave ever played with it. So I think Alex and I saw this as maybe having some similarities to “Watchmen” in its DNA. I mean, the character in “Watchmen” is based on this character. There’s no two ways about it. But we thought, “What if you took those traits and made them less of a plan and more of an instinct?” That is to say, “Suppose you never sat down and said ‘I’m going to save the world’ as Ozymandias did. Suppose you just did something that happened to bring that about with no intention.” Well, then you have a choice. You can say, “My work is done” or you can think, “My thumb is the only thing stopping this dike from bursting open, and so this gesture is now and obligation.”
It’s very tempting for any of us to turn our backs on the world’s problems and assume they go away. But in truth, ignoring those problems makes them worse. So what Alan and Dave did was fascinating and was a well-structures story, but I wasn’t interested in taking this character who’s ultimate motivation is that he doesn’t care too much for humanity. If you read the issues from the ’60s, Thunderbolt just wants to be left alone. He thinks humanity is barbaric and vulgar, and he’d be quite happy living in isolation. But he can’t of course because he has these remarkable abilities. Adding to that is the fact that he was gifted these abilities because of the sacrifice of his mother and father. So he’s in a position that a lot of the “reluctant hero” types aren’t in that he doesn’t want to desecrate the memory of his parents, but this was handed to him without him having a say in the matter. It makes him self-pitying until it’s time for action. That becomes the true measure of his heroism.
Finally, aside from Alex’s designs, the line work for the series will be done by Jonathan Lau. What’s been your impression of how he’s bringing your script to life?
I’ve seen a few pages and thought they were beautiful. This is probably the first time I’ve ever written a script going in where from the word go I didn’t know who was going to be drawing it. The last mainstream book I did was “Uncle Sam,” and I knew who was going to be drawing that. I was enormously pleased when I saw what Jonathan had done with the characters. He brought some personality to them – particularly ones who are making their first appearance. It’s fascinating to see what he’s done -Â some of which have succeeded my expectations and in every instance at least met them. We’ve been talking via e-mail, and he’s very gracious and looking for more information. So I’m delighted with what Jonathan’s done so far.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Dynamite’s revival of “Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt.”