I first encountered Sam Guthrie, aka the once and future member of the X-Men known as Cannonball, in the pages of X-Force circa “The X-Cutioner’s Song.” The paramilitary teen X-team was in the process of being ditched by their mentor figure, Cable, and young Sam had already begun seizing the reins of leadership.
The Cannonball I met back then was a Southern gentleman to be sure, but more he was a self-assured youngster with strong convictions and a chip on his shoulder; he was a nice guy, but not too nice, and that quickly made him one of my favorite characters.
At the time, I had no idea that Sam Guthrie had not always been this way. As I was still a kid and yet to really delve into the dense forest of continuity, I had a passing awareness that Cannonball had been part of a younger, less intense team called the New Mutants at one point and from early issues of X-Force I found at my local store, I gathered his confidence and poise with his own powers was a relatively new developments, but I was certainly more familiar with Fabian Nicieza’s “angry young man” take on Sam than any other.
This is why I was so disappointed when Sam joined the X-Men post-Age of Apocalypse and somehow became this wide-eyed rookie in awe of his teammates and incapable of any real sort of competence. This was not the Sam I knew and loved.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know where Cannonball came from a little better, most significantly via the New Mutants Classics trade collections, and while I still don’t buy that Sam should have been quite such a screw-up during his first run in the big leagues, I get where it came from, and also see how the character’s evolution makes him somewhat unique in the Marvel Universe while also instilling him with a huge amount of potential that writers have only scratched the surface of in the three decades or so that he’s been around.
Chris Claremont’s original take on Cannonball in those first several years of New Mutants is one I look back at and can barely recognize as the hero of my youth. In his early days, Sam Guthrie was an awkward, overeager, clumsy and often downright nerdy country bumpkin who seemed in way over his head as a world-class hero. However, while Sam may have been gawky and not quite oozing cool in those initial appearances, the core characteristics that would make me a fan years later were there from the start: he was a true blue hero whose motivation for doing good came from the most pure and unselfish of places, and despite the fact that he may have been crashing into walls half the time, he was a natural born leader who commander the respect of his peers.
In re-examining the trajectory of Cannonball from wide-eyed New Mutant to almost world-weary X-Force leader and beyond, I realize that Sam Guthrie represents perhaps one of Marvel’s best examples of a character who has actually grown up over the years.
Over in the DC Universe, you can look at Dick Grayson and Wally West in particular as well as the original Teen Titans in general when seeking out examples of one-time youngsters who have grown and changed over the years, but there are fewer examples of that path at Marvel, with Cannonball being among the more pronounced. For those who have followed his entire comic book “life,” they’ve seen Sam Guthrie go from an awkward boy to a teen struggling to prove himself and most recently witnessed him blossoming into adulthood as a responsible soldier who guys like Cyclops put total trust in. Cannonball’s progression has been pronounced yet for the most part natural, and it’s neat to see the seeds that were planted way back when and the fruit they have born.
Dick Grayson and Wally West both grew up and assumed the mantels of their respective mentors; while Sam has yet to become the new Professor X--and likely never will--he has ascended from teen sidekick equivalent to fully-realized adult hero.
Another aspect that makes Cannonball so cool is something that used to get brought up a lot back around that era of X-Force I loved so much: unlike pretty much any other character in the X-Men Universe, Sam is a guy who received the tutelage not only of Professor X and his opposite number in Magneto, but Cable as well, providing him with training and a cumulative knowledge that could perhaps put Scott Summers to shame. There was always something neat to me that Cannonball is a character whose power is fairly pedestrian, but the strategic skills and ability to lead instilled in him by the most impressive and diverse collection of teachers any Marvel mutant could accumulate distinguish him. Again, there is so much potential in exploring a protagonist who has been exposed to three incredibly differing philosophies and perhaps is the only person able to balance them into the best possible course.
I really dig what Zeb Wells is currently doing with Cannonball in the current New Mutants series, highlighting him as, again, somebody Cyclops really sees the worth and value in as he works to safeguard the mutant race--and as a possible heir--while also showing he’s a strong leader who is not without imperfection. Surrounding him with his old friends adds an element I also enjoy as while Sam may be a soldier and a hero, there’s certainly a human element you never want to ignore.
I do still think there is much ground to be mined when it comes to Cannonball, not just in a team setting, but maybe as a headliner in his own limited or ongoing series. Really dig deep into the stuff I’ve written about here in regards to his evolution as well as his stance on his various teachers and I think you’ve got a strong foundation for something that could really take off (pun intended).