Ask Chris #219: If You Haven’t Read ‘Jack Staff’ What Are You Even Doing With Your Life?
Q: What's the best modern comics run that not enough people have read or talk about? -- @talestoenrage
A: It's a sad fact of the comics industry, but there are a ton of great stories out there that never really get the recognition that they deserve, to the point where every time something new and exciting comes out, I always end up thinking something along the lines of "they better not Thor: The Mighty Avenger this one up." But while there are comics that get canceled too soon and long-running epics like Usagi Yojimbo that never seem to hog the spotlight, there's only one that really comes to mind when I start thinking about the truly buried treasures.
I wrote a little bit about this one about four years ago here at ComicsAlliance, but in case you missed it then, here's the short version of what I said then: Jack Staff is my favorite comic book, and it's not even close. There might be characters that I like more and there might be stories that have had a bigger impact on me as a reader -- I'm pretty sure I've spent more time thinking about Batman: Year One than I have on literally any other single action in my life, up to and including breathing -- but there is nothing I've ever read that's as close to being perfect, that nails everything, as well as as Jack Staff. It's the kind of comic where reading it makes you happy and angry at the same time, because you're seeing ideas that you wish everyone was using to make their stuff better.
I mean, did you know Jack Staff is the only comic that has Tom Tom The Robot Man in it? What's everyone else even doing? Besides not putting Tom Tom The Robot Man in their comics, I mean.
And yet, nobody ever really talks about it. Or at least, I don't see anyone discussing it when it's time to list off the all-time greats. In a just world, it'd at least be up there with, say, Sin City, and we'd have a terrible movie adaptation where Channing Tatum tried to do a British accent, but as it stands, it remains pretty firmly under most folks' radar. And that's a shame because... well, you get the idea. It's pretty great.
And the thing is, it's great on every level. The story's engaging, the art is fantastic, the twists are clever, the jokes are funny, the action is thrilling, and on top of that, it's a technical masterpiece that oughtta be taught in schools. And just to make it even more impressive, he was doing it at the same time that he was producing another underrated classic, Kane, a crime comic about a detective returning to duty after killing his partner, and the cloud of suspicion that hangs over him even after that partner's corruption was brought to light. My preference skews towards Jack, but Kane uses a lot of the same narrative tricks, and for any other creator, it would probably stand out as the best thing they'd done. But for Grist, it's just the warm-up. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's talk about Jack Staff.
Here's the high concept: As Grist's tagline sums up so neatly, twenty years ago, Jack Staff was Britain's Greatest Hero, with a crime-fighting career that started in World War II. Then he vanished, and everyone just forgot about him. Now, after two decades living as a civilian with the imaginative name of John Smith and a career as a construction worker, he's brought out of retirement by a series of strange events, all of which have some kind of connection to his past and the people around him.
But right from the start, Jack himself is only part of the story. The real brilliance of what Grist does in this comic is that he brings Jack back into a world that's fully fleshed out, teeming with heroes and villains and other assorted weirdness.
The series as a whole is actually pretty short -- the original twelve-issue miniseries that started in 2000, 20 issues at Image that are available at Comixology, and a six-issue spin-off -- but in that time, Grist throws out an incredible number of comics that make it feel like this is a world where anything can happen, and everyone gets the spotlight. There's Helen Morgan and the Agents of Q, who investigate the Question Mark Crimes; there's the corrupt Detective Inspector Maveryk and optimistic partner, "Zipper" Nolan; the Freedom Fighters, Jack's old team from the war that hides a terrifying secret; Bramble and Son: Vampire Hunters; Tom Tom; and, most importantly, Becky Burdock, Girl Reporter. No spoilers, but by the time the second arc starts, she's Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter instead.
And that's just the characters that show up in the first arc.
While everything revolves around Jack and his return, all of those characters have their own distinct arcs, relationships, motivations and mysteries, and they all interweave with each other in a way that's jaw-dropping when you stop to think about how complex it is, and how neatly it's all pulled off. There are single issues where the focus will shift five or six times, rotating between everyone as their stories converge and break off, where every panel advances both the larger plot and the individual storylines, and it's breathtaking.
I've sat down with these things and tried to reverse engineer them to figure out just how it is that Grist manages to pull it off, but it never works -- it's all done so neatly that I just end up reading the whole thing again and coming away thinking that he had to have had the entire story in his head, planned out in detail for a cast of a couple dozen characters, before he made the first line on paper.
Speaking of lines on paper, that's where the book really shines. Nobody in comics uses the page as well as Grist does in so many different ways. For starters, there's a lot of it that just comes down to solid layouts and a grasp of visual storytelling that's almost unmatched. There's an arc were one of Jack's old enemies, a master thief who goes by the suitably dramatic name of Alias The Spider, recruits him to clear his name after someone starts committing copycat crimes, and the layouts Grist uses even for the simplest scenes are just ridiculously engaging.
This sequence in particular jumped out at me:
It's just two characters talking to each other, getting the necessities of the team-up out of the way. Grist even puts the motivation for his main character right there in the dialogue, bluntly and smugly stated by the villain. But the way it's done... Jack turning away in distrust, the close-up on the single arched eyebrow, the way he pulls the reader in and out of the scene and ties it all together with the spider-web motif in the background before ending the page on a full-body shot of Jack, trapped in the web of his own morality and the fact that it is the right thing to do. It's masterful visual storytelling.
I posted that one on Twitter last night, complete with a cussword about how good it is, and someone pointed out that earlier in that same issue, when Jack arrives at the Spider's home, Grist sets them on an empty page where the objects in the room define the space without actually drawing any walls:
It's a simple trick, but the contrast of the openness of that first hallway to the Spider's basement lair, where everything's pitch black and hemmed in by spider-webs, gives the entire issue a sense of place that outdoes any background Grist could've drawn.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Grist has a knack for visual trickery that's completely off the charts, and it comes through best in how he presents words and pictures together. There's an arc about a series of murders that mirrors the events of a popular novel that changes how it presents the story on almost every page, going back and forth from comics to excerpts from the novel to transcripts of a police interview to a living collection of words with legible caption boxes hovering in the physical space. And then you get stuff like this:
There's a fluency to it, not just with language -- although there's proof of Grist's incredible talent there, too, like when a psychic visually based on Alan More shows up and has a conversation with Becky where his dialogue is always one panel ahead of hers -- but with the unique visual language that you get with comics, putting words and pictures and sound effects together and laying them out in different ways to change what they mean to the reader.
In a lot of ways it becomes a comic about all of the things you can do with comics, like having a full-color character burst through the pages of your black-and-white book and start admonishing the readers for turning the pages:
But at the same time, it never stops being a story in its own right. All the visual trickery and weird meta structural gags never detract from the core concept of clever superhero action. It's a fantastic superhero story that's told in the best way possible, and if you haven't read it, you need to.