Friday, August 29, 2014

CANNON

I've apparently been a fan of Wally Wood for far longer than I realized. I admit that I've read very little of his output -- he did some Silver Age DAREDEVIL for Marvel, but that's probably about all I've looked at. However he was a mentor to many comic professionals I enjoy, such as Larry Hama and Bob Layton. And he co-created Power Girl with Gerry Conway over at DC, so we have him to thank for that fantastic costume. As many know, the legend goes that Wood incrementally increased the size of Power Girl's breasts from issue to issue until his editors told him to knock it off. I've never seen this story confirmed, and I've seen it disputed more than once -- plus the artwork itself does not support it -- but the simple fact that it persists and is considered something Wood might have done is enough to make me a fan.

Which brings us to CANNON. Sort of. First, an anecdote to set the stage -- I distinctly recall, when I was about eleven or twelve years old, flipping through a SALLY FORTH collection some degenerate had left lying around in easy reach at a local comic book shop. It was black and white, it appeared to be a comedy, and it featured a buxom blonde girl soldier who wound up naked or topless every other page. I thought it was awesome. But I forgot about it pretty quickly after that chance encounter. It was years later that I discovered SALLY FORTH was created by Wally Wood -- who I had learned about through the Power Girl connection in the interim. From there, I disovered CANNON.
Art by Steve Ditko & Wally Wood
I've seen bits and pieces of both SALLY and CANNON -- which were produced as comic strips by Wood and his studio for U.S. soldiers stationed overseas -- online over the years, but never read either in its entirety. From what I gathered, though, CANNON appealed to my sensibilities more than SALLY. I like a good comedy, but none of the SALLY material I saw struck me as especially funny.

CANNON, on the other hand, is played entirely, gloriously straight. And maybe it's my reptilian brain at work overriding good taste, but I've always enjoyed a story about a rugged man who kills with impunity and beds women with regularity. That's the root of my affection for the Bond films, especially the ones starring Sean Connery. I love James Bond, and CANNON is Bond with less sophistication but lots and lots of nudity to replace it. So when I learned that Fantagraphics was collecting the entire run of CANNON strips in a single hardcover volume, I pre-ordered immediately.

The volume arrived earlier this year, and before I speak to the stories inside, I will offer a quick thought on the book itself: it's a hardcover with nice thick pages and absolutely beautiful reproduction. There are plenty of bonus features in the back, including a reprint of Cannon's first appearance in a color comic book of Wood's creation, with artwork by Steve Ditko and Wood. But for all its positives, there is one negative regarding the book -- the way it's formatted makes it extremely wide and very cumbersome to read. I can lay down while reading a six pound Omnibus, no problem. But this book, a piddling three pounder, strains my wrists when I try to read it in a horizontal position.

That said, on to the story. To quote the publisher's own description for the book:
"Undercover and under the covers, Cannon endures nude torture by beautiful women, explosive gunplay, naked catfights, bone-crunching plastic surgery, nudity, Hitler, nihilistic lovemaking, Weasel the spy, naked women, death from above, and more naked women!"
All the above happens in only about the first quarter of the series! Though there's a reason for that, as we'll cover below.

The story's central character is John Cannon, a U.S. agent brainwashed by Soviet China and then re-brainwashed by the U.S. to the point that, when our story begins, he is little more than a cold, remorseless killing (and sexing) machine. The perfect agent, according to his superiors. Cannon's adventures follow him from the Pacific Rim to the United States to Central American republics and beyond. Along the way he is assisted by "Weasel" Warren and Hurley Simms, a pair of fellow agents, and takes orders from "the Chief". Later story arcs introduce another agent named Finn O'Hara and a second chief, Max Schneider. Other recurring characters include Cannon's only living relative, Uncle Fred, and seductive antagonists Sue Smith, a Soviet deep cover agent, and the Chinese interrogator who helped to brainwash Cannon originally, a sexy "Dragon Lady" type with the delightful name of Madame Toy.

The strip starts out strong, with Cannon emrbroiled in several adventures rife with sex and violence. The artwork is absolutely gorgeous, whether lovingly rendering a nude woman or showing a dogfight between fighter jets and rugged men in hand-to-hand action. I've heard before, and the introduction by Howard Chaykin hints at this as well, that Wood used several ghost artists on the CANNON strip for penciling, then inked their work himself -- or sometimes even let ghost-inkers get in on the action as well. There definitely seems to be some truth to these rumors as, about a third of the way through the book, the artwork changes subtly. There is still a uniformity about it, but the figures become stiffer and cruder, and the nudity quotient drops significantly. Fortunately the art recovers nicely later on and remains strong through the rest of the series.

The stories, on the other hand, are a mixed bag and seem to ebb and flow with the art. As noted above, everything in the publisher's description is from the first quarter of the book -- easily the most consistently strong material to be found in these pages. After the excellent opening arcs referenced above -- Cannon in Asia, visiting his Uncle Fred and then traveling to South America -- the entire tone of the strip changes, almost to something like a romance comic. Cannon, his brainwashing wearing off to the point that he has regained much of his humanity, pays another visit to Uncle Fred in Iowa and gets involved with a farmer's daughter, whose ex-boyfriend is married to a two-timing harlot that puts the moves on both Cannon and his ally Weasel. It's a sudden and strange change of pace for a strip which was previously straightforward action.
Even after this arc ends, the soap opera action continues as Cannon takes up with the Chief's secretary, Elena. The strip never quite returns to its original form, spending the remainder of its run balancing between action and soap more than ever before. In some ways this is a welcome development after the initial one-note outings, but the soapier the story gets, the more human Cannon becomes -- even to the point of getting engaged to Elena. Cannon's character evolution in a weekly newspaper strip is admirable, but by the final third of the book he bears absolutely no resemblance to the guy we started reading about initially.

The book's back cover copy states that "before Jason Bourne, before Archer, before Heisenberg, there was Cannon!" And while that may be factually true, Cannon bears little resemblance to most of the mentioned characters. Heisenberg is a criminal mastermind. Archer is a secret agent, but in a farcical way. Bourne is the closest to Cannon in terms of profession, skills, and even background -- Jason Bourne was mentally programmed, as is Cannon. But if there is any fictional character to whom Cannon bears a resemblance, it is 24's Jack Bauer.
Both Cannon and Bauer are expert killing machines. Both work willingly for the government and fight for their country. And both live in worlds where anyone, even other main characters, can die at a moment's notice. Through the course of CANNON's run, we meet several characters -- some endearing, some not so much -- but all high-profile protagonists right behind Cannon. Of these, no fewer than four meet sudden and violent ends as the story progresses. Some survive story arc after story arc, but fate catches up with them eventually. No recent fiction has captured this side of covert government work better than 24.

And it's right about the time these characters start dying that the series takes a turn for the less enjoyable. Madame Toy departs the strip around the same time, which is no coincidence either. Her recurring presence as a seductive wild card was a highlight of the early portions of the story. The remaining adventures of Cannon are not bad, but they never live up to the precedent set by the initial stories. The first adventures are totally absurd, but played straight. Cannon is a remorseless machine. Women lose their clothing constantly for no decent reason ("We need to tie these logs together to make a raft -- take off your shirt!"). As we approach the story's end, Cannon has emotions and the only nudity tends to be within the context of a bedroom. A lot of the wonderful insanity has drained from the strip -- however I will note that the series is redeemed somewhat with a return to form for the final story arc, in which Cannon returns to the Middle East for a follow-up to the book's first mission -- but this comes too little and too late, as the strip is abruptly cancelled following the arc's conclusion.
There is also, even discounting the copious amounts of gratuitous nudity, a troubling depiction of women to be found in CANNON's pages. The female characters are all either enemy agents or two-timing, cheating connivers. There is perhaps one completely pure woman in Cannon's life, and so naturally she is killed off. At the same time, however, most of the women in the strip are incredibly canny and very good at what they do. From Madame Toy down to Elena, they are all strong-willed and competent. I know very little about Wood's personal life, but if he's projecting anything of himself into CANNON, he must have had an interesting relationship with women.

So when it comes to CANNON, I would say that if you don't mind the often highly negative portrayal of women as both scheming shrews and sex objects, it's a decent read. The initial action-packed stories are just crazey enough to work, and are a far sight superior to the later, more subdued outings -- but the lush artwork is mostly strong throughout the entire book. Plus if you hold out long enough, you'll encounter a Japanese assassin, drawn with the face of Wood's assistant, Larry Hama, with the name "Big Hama". That alone is worth at least a look.

All images above taken from Fantagraphics' PDF preview of the CANNON collection, and therefore are representative of only the first twenty-some pages.

Available now from Amazon.com

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