Sunday, July 08, 2007

Now I know Jack

Before I begin to go on about Jack Staff, I want to recount this anecdote: I was in my LCS and my partner, a female-type person, met me there before we went off on a mutual errand. As she scanned the titles on the shelves, she saw this issue of Green Lantern. Her response to it was to point and say "Ah, boobies!" We talked about it later and it turned out that while she wasn't particularly offended (although she did find the female figure somewhat objectified), she presumed that the breasts were supposed to be the focal point of the picture. Let me say that again: an intelligent woman (a poet and artist), more or less unfamiliar with the conventions and tropes of superhero comics, thought that a cover containing a (to my eye) fairly typical representation of a female character indicated that the story was somehow about sexual themes, not heroism or adventure or villainy or conflict. I would say that this was food for thought, but really it's just another example of an issue that has been well-proven but which is still not accepted as a "real" issue by significant portions of comics readership (and creatorship). Le sigh.

Well, since I don't read mainstream superhero comics much anymore (because of that very kind of stuff), what I left the shop with was Jack Staff Volume 1: Everything Used to Be Black and White by Paul Grist

This was more like it. The volume collects the first twelve issues of Grist's British take on the superhero genre, which he maintains is mostly unexplored in British comics. I found this approach to be refreshingly rich; although Jack Staff is clearly a superhero figure, he inhabits a world that is both quirkier and more familiar than most comics worlds, making him not so much a unique figure as someone is just one more standard deviation off the mean than most people.

From the get-go, the book is a clear bargain that confirms my choice to "wait for the trades." For a double sawbuck, I got almost 350 pages of story; if I had spent the same money for five floppies, I would only have a had a third of that. Granted, this collection is in black and white, but since that's how the stories were originally presented, there's no content lost, and Grist is a master of the black and white idiom anyway.

In addition to the sheer number of pages, Grist just packs the book, first with characters. In addition to Jack, we have Becky Burdock, Girl Reporter (who becomes Vampire Reporter in short order); an hommage to The Invaders; a robot man; an old-fashioned copper (who could have been the inspiration for Jerry Lynch in Intermission); agents of a special branch, supernatural-type; agents of a special branch, superspy-type; in-story parodies of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore; a Victorian escapologist; a retired super-thief; and many more.

The characters propel a narrative that is complex and layered, and Grist relates it in an overlapping, non-linear style that requires full engagement on the part of the reader but which never quite crosses the line into confusion or obscurity. There are no real sub-plots; there are multiple plots playing themselves out simultaneously. One sequence in particular, involving the intersection of the main protagonists at bank robbery, pulls off the shifting between multiple points of view exceptionally well.

Grist's layouts are as dynamic as his narrative structure; he uses lots of panels per page and some innovative sequences. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, but they are always interesting. Check out this sequence in which Burdock finds herself an unlikely ally; see how it stacks up using Skipper Pickle's methodology for examining page composition.

There was so much to like in this collection. Many of the characters are take-offs from established television or comics characters. I knew some of them and got a sense of some others, but the references never detract from the story and anyone could have a great time without "getting" any of them. Grist re-imagines the familiar through his working-class British lens and makes everything fresh for all readers.

Another thing that every reader will come away with is the sense that Grist can write strong female characters. There is no T&A in the book, no damsel in distress, no woman-in-peril, no "the girl." The lead agent for Q, the supernatural cops, is the tough-as-nails Helen Morgan, a sort of Stephen Strange in a green trench coat. Becky Burdock is another great example: her "rescue" by the affable vampire-hunter in the sequence above presents him as the romantic naif that he is; Becky may appreciate assistance but doesn't need rescuing. She is tougher and smarter than Lois Lane, even if she is stuck at a tabloid.

I would compare this shot with what passes for images of "realistic" women in mainstream comics, but I don't have it in me to heave another sigh.

Not too long ago, I expressed frustration at trying to find "robust, intricate stories, set firmly in the [superhero] genre, that engage my imagination, intellect, and emotions." I was looking for stories in which "maturity" meant emotional complexity, not gratuitous sex; in which the action didn't necessarily have to involve dismemberment and torture to be "serious"; and in which the characters act in ways that human beings that inhabit the actual world would, no matter how fantastical their circumstances. Jack Staff gives me all that, and I can't wait for the next installment.


Unknown said...

I've really meant to pick this up.

Instead, for whatever reason, I keep torturing myself by reading Supergirl.

Will Shetterly said...

If I'd known you hadn't read Jack Staff--

Well, I don't know what I could've done. But I'm glad you found him. Now buy the next two volumes to support Grist!

The color isn't necessary in the next volumes, but it works. I found the third volume a bit less exciting than the first two, but I think that's simply because I was beginning to know the world.

It's the only superhero comic I still buy—also as graphic albums.

Walaka said...

Keep: Your loyalty to Kara is commendable. But do pick this up.

Will: I wanted to see you at the U Book store here in the Emerald City next week, but I have to teach from 6 - 9 pm that night. I don't know if you have an entourage or retinue or posse or what, but if you're free, Otis and I would love to have late coffee or an early dinner or something. Email me, okay?

Steve Flanagan said...

For any Brit reading it, Jack Staff is a non-stop parade of comics and pop culture references (Oh, look! Steptoe and Son! Oh, look! Adam Eterno!) I'm glad to see it works without those references. Indeed, in some ways, you may have it better, because you aren't pulled out of the narrative by sudden flashes of nostalgia.