by Kenneth Kimbrough
Wally Wood’s provocative secret agent strip, Cannon, is perhaps one of the manliest comics ever created. Reading it induces the compulsion to shave, down a bottle of Jack, and wrestle a crocodile — or any combination of the three. And on the surface, that’s the initial appeal of Fantagraphics’ newest collection of the strip, which was originally serialized along with Sally Forth in The Overseas Weekly, a military periodical for soldiers abroad. One of the most fascinating qualities about the aforementioned publication is the fact that it wasn’t regulated by the stifling restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, giving Cannon the leeway to depict a world where women’s clothing flies off at the slightest breeze and casual murder is merely frowned upon.
And perhaps that’s the best mindset to take when reading Cannon, which borrows its name from its main character, the cold-blooded assassin, John Cannon. For anyone familiar with spy fiction, the stories serialized in this collection are fairly standard, often serving as political mirrors that reflect the disillusionment felt by soldiers and veterans exiting the Vietnam War. In the course of the book, Cannon fights South American insurgents (led by Hitler in disguise, of course), domestic terrorists, right-wing militias, emasculated conmen, and neo-Nazis (but not the ones led by Hitler in disguise).
Although the stories are riveting, they’re not really the strip’s main draw. That, of course, would be Wally Wood’s art. The craftsmanship is one of the more interesting features, considering that the comic is assembled from Wood’s various clippings by his numerous assistants, which he would then tie together with his skill as an inker. Eagle-eyed readers will be able to spot some of these re-used panels, which can turn any reading into a fun activity in its own right. But of course, Wood’s drawn subjects were probably the hugest attraction for its original readership. It’s hard to miss the butts and breasts that contribute to the strip’s cheesecake factor. Another great game to play with this volume is to try to randomly open the book to two consecutive pages without bared breasts. It’s harder than you’d think.
On the subject of women in Cannon, it should come as no surprise to Wood enthusiasts that women are one of this volume’s more problematic aspects when viewed through the lens of present bias. There are numerous scenes of violence against women and a healthy use of the word, “bitch.” Even the women with agency — namely the spies, Madame Toy and Sue Smith — are rarely clothed and sometimes even threatened with rape, which is handled with all the grace and maturity one would expect of ’70s exploitation fiction…which is to say, none at all.
Though it’s difficult to defend Cannon’s overt misogyny, the comic does stand as an interesting artifact in the way male characters assert their masculinity through acts of violence. As a point of contrast, take Superman’s World War II strips, in which he would answer soldiers’ real-life letters in order to boost morale. It wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to ask Superman to check in on a significant other and to allay fears of infidelity back home. And after driving the tempter or temptress away, the comic would usually end with Superman giving a speech about how everyone needed to stop creeping on soldiers’ boyfriends and girlfriends. Cannon, on the other hand, makes no such promises of fidelity. Instead, men and women are often seen cheating, usually receiving some form of violent comeuppance via a bullet or a slap that sends them sprawling across a room. As a reader whose tastes encompass many decades of comics, I live for these types of contrasts and what they might suggest about the eras or creators that produce them. Taken in context, it’s difficult not to see Cannon’s misogyny as a response to postwar anxiety and fears of the feminist movement which was at this time rapidly gaining traction. But maybe I’m just jumping to conclusions.
Moving beyond the strip itself, the latest Cannon hardcover merits some attention as an art object, given the rapidly shifting landscape of digital and print comics. It’s easy to imagine Wood’s approval of Fantagraphics’ most recent edition — the entire series was originally collected in a paperback edition in 2001 — which has a handsome sewn binding with large pages that lay flat and comfortably. Other notable features are Roger Hill’s essay, “The Overseas Weekly Discovery,” about finding Wood’s original pages in the OW warehouse. Also included in this edition are two full Cannon stories drawn by Steve Ditko, which originally appeared in the short-lived Heroes, Inc. and and which serve as a more fitting ending than the strip’s actual abrupt stock ending.
Avid fans of Wally Wood and spy comics will definitely find something to like in Cannon. And despite some of the more skewed gender politics, the strip’s sheer excess becomes bizarrely humorous, sometimes going so far as to become self-parody. It’s like From Russia with Love, only with more sex and exploding helicopters.
Discover the fun of Cannon, and then build your Wally Wood library: