It’s tough to unravel the two big mysteries at the heart of the creation of Cannon, but the strongest clue to solve one of them arrives shortly into the run. Is this wild, macho story meant to be taken straight and seriously, or with a bit of sugar to sweeten the blow? The titular character finds himself stranded behind enemy lines with a comely female double agent, who lost all of her clothes along the way and then never bothered to try to recover a top, her perfectly formed and lovingly drawn breasts on full display. This kind of thing happens very frequently to every female character, so she’s content with a small Sheena-style bit of cloth tied around her lower half. Although she will go on to be beaten (and worse) several times by various villains throughout the narrative, she will remain beautifully bruiseless and chipper. For his part, Cannon has killed and will kill many men, in ever-more-imaginable ways.
Things seem prosaic and easy, a respite for the characters on the run after wall-to-wall graphic violence up to this point. Gender roles are fulfilled to the tee as the macho Cannon fishes with a makeshift rod, waist deep in a river. The lady cooks over a fire that, no doubt, Cannon started off panel with a rock and a stick.
Suddenly, Cannon grabs a knife and gashes himself. The woman exclaims “CANNON! What are you DOING? You’ve cut your face!”
“I must start changing my appearance… I’ll have a scar and a beard…” Cannon replies, in what one would theorize is a matter-of-fact voice like the way a person might state that they brush their teeth twice a day. He goes on to demand that the lady bust his nose with a stick and then shave his head with a knife. Then, with all his manly might, he grows a jet black Van Dyke beard in the last panel of the strip.
This is what fans of the similarly wired 1966 Batman TV show might think of as the ”BatShark repellent” moment. If you had been trying to divine, to that point, if the over-the-top nature of Cannon was intended as a tongue-in-cheek parody or expected to be read straight… you might just have your answer. Throughout the rest, the strip presents its story straight, like a sock in the jaw, and never once winks or nods to let you know it’s OK to be amused by the way it takes action story cliches to the Nth degree. Today, satire must be obvious, or it will hardly be allowed to exist. The jokey animated television series Archer feels like a dumbed down, considerably less risky version of Cannon, which is several decades its senior. Cannon simply doesn’t let up on the throttle, it’s gloriously illustrated Id running roughshod over its pages.
History will remember the mind that created this work as “Wally Wood,” but after word emerged a few years ago that his nearest and dearest called him “Woody” (which he liked) and never “Wally” (which he hated), his true fans and supporters of his legacy refer to him with respectful reverence as “Wallace Wood.” Wood’s most famous work would be his science fiction and horror at E.C. and superheroes for Marvel and Tower, then his later forays into actual pornography, but he is perhaps best known for being one of the greatest practical pragmatists ever to work in the medium. His “22 Panels That Always Work” demo of solid shortcuts is legendary among artists and those aspiring to be, and his mantra of “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up” belies his true nature; Wood was no hack. He was brilliant.
There’s no greater proof of his mastery than Cannon, which feels like the perfect and most truly, thoroughly “Wallace Wood” product imaginable. In lesser hands, the material could’ve sank into seedy Tijuana Bible territory, but the work is so beautifully rendered and put together that it’s impossible to assail the craft involved. There are those who will call these drawings on paper misogynistic and gratuitously violent, and it’s hard to argue that it is not, but the tightly rendered imagination on display will tell you what you need to know. Wood could make ugly things beautiful and beautiful things gorgeous.
If you’re considering picking this up and are married to or living with someone squeamish, it’s not recommended that you leave it anywhere it might be too heavily investigated, as you might find explaining away the implied sexual violence every ten pages or so as part of some kind of higher intellectual pursuit. It’s also not recommended that you read it all at once, as the barrage of destruction and degradation begins to feel like the “reform exercise” Alex went through in A Clockwork Orange, but that wasn’t the way Cannon was meant to be consumed, anyway. It originally ran from 1970 to 1973 in Overseas Weekly, a newspaper produced for American servicemen abroad.
The other great mystery: What in the world was the rest of that newspaper like?
Cannon is currently available, collected complete in hardcover from Fantagraphics Books.