Superhero visual media—television and movies—is so ubiquitous that it has become its own genre, separate and apart from the comic books and action movies it’s derived from. James Gunn’s Peacemaker is one of the first entries in this genre that uses its narrative conventions in a similar way to the comics that first got me interested in superheroes. It was the first one that made me actually want to pick up a comic.
My experience of reading comics began with DC’s Vertigo imprint. When my local library started buying graphic novels as I was growing up, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was one of the first things they put on the shelves. Gaiman came from a particular class of comic book writers, one that became extremely popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These were lifelong comic readers, most of them British and inspired by the legendary comics writer Alan Moore. They wanted to plumb the depths of DC’s second- and third-rate characters in the same way Moore had when he turned the absurd Swamp Thing character into the star of a horror comic of unparalleled intensity. They wanted to, as he had, transform hokey old concepts into something new.
Gaiman’s Sandman was first conceptualized as a revival of the 1974 Jack Kirby comic of the same name, before becoming entirely its own thing. (The original character did make a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance early on, and Gaiman’s efforts to weave his whole-cloth inventions together with some of the more obscure corners of DC continuity became one of the series’ great charms.) Gaiman’s contemporaries, like Grant Morrison, would actually end up reinventing older characters that weren’t being used and radically transforming them. Morrison’s Animal Man was written with a unique approach: Well, no one’s going to care what happens to this character, are they? They won’t mind if he meets Wile E. Coyote, or dies and meets God, or if Grant Morrison literally becomes a character in this story, will they?
Peacemaker was created by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette for Charlton in 1966, but has hardly been a significant player in DC’s shared universe, and is in fact best known for inspiring the Comedian in Moore’s epochal Watchmen; this guy is the definition of a third-stringer. Peacemaker’s approach to its titular character is far more similar to Morrison’s and Moore’s approach than it is to the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe doles out obscure characters for points from the fandom. Using Peacemaker as the central character isn’t about gaining fanboy points from everyone, especially considering that Gunn made some definitional changes to the characters’ backstory for the series; it’s more about making the foibles of a superhero, their day-to-day life, emotionally accessible for the viewer. Peacemaker isn’t an everyman in the sense that Clark Kent is—an idealized version of an average guy, showing that anyone can be a hero. Peacemaker, who was born as Chris Smith, is a superhero who also really is just a guy.
Peacemaker goes to work every day and doesn’t always feel appreciated. He’s a bit of a bully, but doesn’t like that he acts that way. He likes music like Wig Wam or Hanoi Rocks, glam rock that’s all about how cool it is to be a dude. He has an origin story, a focal point of trauma that made him Be Like That, but it’s far more mundane—and relatable, exaggerated as it is—than those of his superpowered peers. In a world where losing your parents can inspire a billionaire to dress up like a bat, Peacemaker had a relatively average upbringing in that it was imperfect, and taught him some thorny lessons on what it means to be a man. The series is as much about untangling Peacemaker’s worldview—and his fumbling but earnest efforts to overcome an upbringing that didn’t give him the tools to do so—as it is about the world-ending threat he and his friends end up facing.
The way that Peacemaker deals with its characters’ existence in a shared universe, though, is what most ends up making me think of Animal Man or Sandman when I watch it. This tension was always central to the work of the Moore-inspired DC writers. Moore himself, in a legendary proposal for a never-to-be-written crossover series called Twilight of the Superheroes, mused at some length on the central problem: “Creatively, there is an immediate aesthetic problem in the multi-title crossover in that, baldly put, it is very easy to strain the credibility of the entire universe by putting certain characters next to each other. Swamp Thing and Blue Devil spring immediately to mind, or Sgt. Rock and The Legion of Super-Heroes. In such juxtapositions, the flawed seams of the illusion of unity that we're trying to create become most apparent.”
In Moore’s comics, as well as those of his disciples and heirs, tugging at those seams was a powerful dramatic device. (What happens if Batman turns up in Swamp Thing’s Louisiana? Won’t he seem a bit absurd?) The supernatural or absurd becomes a pretense to start exploring the psychology of grounded characters. When you push your characters to extreme moments of drama, and put them in situations in which their existence makes no sense, it feels less and less unrealistic when they start literally expositing on all their mental health issues. It’s the same narrative effect as when a later Morrison comic tasked Frankenstein (yes, that Frankenstein) with going to Mars, explaining how he got there with the narration “All in a day’s work, for Frankenstein!”
There’s a level of spectacle and abstraction comic books can reach—premised on watching a character adapt to an environment in which they shouldn’t exist—that loops all the way around back into something adjacent to grounded realism. When Peacemaker is fighting mind-controlling butterfly aliens (or dealing with other heroes from the DC universe in a cameo as ludicrous as Batman’s in Swamp Thing), it’s almost a relief to retreat back from the absurdity and hyperviolence into the relative mundanity of his emotional life. In Peacemaker, saving the world doesn’t solely rest on feats of strength or character, but on whether or not a man can change.
James Gunn, as a writer and director, has been asking in his work whether or not a man can change at least as far back as Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s also been forced to confront his own less-than-stellar past as a Troma edgelord in the form of a right-wing harassment campaign that got him temporarily fired from work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Like all cancellations, it was brief, and Gunn has since been un-fired, but you can see some of its impact—and the ways it forced Gunn, who took ownership of his own past when it was used against him, and publicly wrestled with how to be accountable for views he’d since outgrown—in Peacemaker.
Chris Smith is a guy who was taught that a dangerous ideology was an acceptable worldview by his father, and has spent a lot of time trying to figure out different ways to be his own man. Some of those ways, like his creed of killing in the name of peace, have actually made him a worse person. Now that he knows more clearly how his actions affect the people around him, can he make amends? Is that possible, when your sins feel so great? Forget if anyone else can forgive you—can you forgive yourself?
In lesser hands, Peacemaker’s reflexive or metatextual nature would be the same kind of rote fanservice that other comic-book media offers its viewers. In Gunn’s hands, it’s simply a means to the end of raising questions about erring and forgiveness. The comics I’ve always loved, like Animal Man or Sandman or Watchmen, also want to ask these same dramatic questions of the human experience, using the tools afforded to pulp and genre fiction. In the moments where Smith realizes that he can’t atone, but can simply do right as best he knows how, it doesn’t feel that far away from Grant Morrison appearing as part of the text in the final issue of their run on Animal Man, telling the reader about their long-forgotten imaginary friend.