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Comics We Love: ‘Jack Staff’ By Paul Grist

It probably goes without saying, but here at ComicsAlliance, we love comics, and occasionally, we like to our spotlight onto a book that we especially enjoy in the hope that you’ll love them just as much as we do. This week, with the fourth volume hitting shelves as a paperback on Wednesday, we thought it was a good time to have Chris Sims take a look at one of our all-time favorite comics, Paul Grist’s Jack Staff!

“Jack Staff” is hands down one of the best comics ever printed, but there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve never read it. If you have, you don’t need us to sing it’s praises, because you’re already part of the all-too-small in-crowd that flips out every time a new Paul Grist comic hits the stands, and if you’re not, well… you need to read it.

Right now.

We’ll wait.

Okay, okay, we understand that the skeptics out there might need a little more convincing, and the first question you’ll want answered is probably “just who is this Jack Staff guy, anyway?” We get the feeling Grist gets that a lot, which is why he provided this page in “Jack Staff” v.2 #1:

And that is your premise. As for our version of the answer, it’s a little more complicated, but no less awesome.While the comics have never really shown Jack’s secret origin, he actually got his start as another character entirely: He has his roots in a story Grist pitched for Marvel’s vampire-fighting British hero Union Jack that would start in World War II and reunite the Invaders.

As you might expect from the fact that we’re not writing about our love for Grist’s landmark ten-year run on “Union Jack, ” his pitch was rejected, but rather than scrap the entire thing, Grist reworked the story and the characters, gave the hero a killer new asymmetrical costume and a new weapon and did the story (“Yesterday’s Heroes”) himself.

For most books, this is where the story would’ve ended. Comics are full of analogue characters, and while they’re neat, very few of them can sustain themselves for very long, and even in great books like Alan Moore’s “Supreme,” most never escape from the shadow of the characters they’re standing in for. But with “Jack Staff,” Grist allowed the characters to grow, diverging — and in some cases even surpassing — their counterparts.

We think it’s fair to say that for the most part, Grist trades in influences rather than stand-ins. Take the characters introduced in “Yesterday’s Heroes,” for example: Sgt. States is a carbon-copy analogue for Captain America, but Tom Tom the Robot Man, while clearly filling the role of Marvel’s Iron Man (and modeled after the role of British hero Robot Archie), is markedly different.

Rather than being a billionaire playboy technologist — or even a straight riff on Robot Archie’s creator, Professor C.R. Ritchie — Tom Tom is actually a twelve year-old disabled girl who used her super-genius to build a suit of robot armor. Instead of making copies, Grist discards the details and keeps the themes of the characters so that he can throw them together in new and exciting ways.

And it doesn’t stop there: Almost every character in the series, with the notable exception of Becky Burdock, is built to be a reference to something else, mostly classic British comics characters like the Steel Claw or the Spider. There are even references to other British comics creators, like comics writer (of “Dandyman”) turned novelist Iain M. Angel (an anagram for “Neil Gaiman“) and psychic horoscope writer Morlan the Mystic, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain “Watchmen” writer:

Essentially, Paul Grist has created the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” of super-hero comics, but the brilliant thing about it is that he does it so well, with such amazing skill and economy of storytelling, that you don’t need any prior knowledge to get what he’s doing. We certainly didn’t grow up reading the British adventure comics of the ’60s, after all, but that doesn’t stop us from loving the Claw, the Spider, Bramble & Son: Vampire Hunters and Helen Morgan and the Agents of Q.

Which brings us to another great thing about this book: There’s just so much in it. Grist’s Specialty, both in “Jack Staff” and “Kane,” his almost equally awesome crime comic, is in loading his books up with multiple plot threads that dovetail into a single climax at the end. He rarely stays with any given scene for longer than a few pages, instead jumping from scene to scene with masterful cuts at the perfect moment to build tension, juggling five or six simultaneous plot threads but never feeling hectic or rushed. Instead, it comes off like the greatest ensemble cast ever.

Because of this, it’s not uncommon for Jack to appear in only a few pages of his own comic, and while that’s usually a Very Bad Sign, it works here because Grist is just so good at characterization. You could even argue that out of everyone in the book, Jack’s mysterious past makes him the least fleshed out of anyone in the book — even his secret identity, John Smith, is a pretty generic question mark — but as the mystery behind his life is one of the driving forces of the series, even that’s been meticulously crafted. Either way, between the characters we’ve already mentioned and Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter, who is easily one of the best female characters in comics history…

…it’s fair to say that “Jack Staff” has one of the best supporting casts in comics.

And to match those interesting characters, Grist has created a book that’s visually interesting too. To say that his page layouts are innovative is underselling things by a pretty huge margin: Flip through the first “Jack Staff” collection, the appropriately titled “Everything Used To Be Black and White,” and you’ll find pages that dispense with panel borders entirely, pages where a character yells at the reader for turning the pages (the most fun mess-with-the-reader moment since Grant Morrison’s “Animal Man”), and pages that are laid out like illustrated novel excerpts, notes, and sequences of Becky Burdock’s “photographs”:

There’s even a page that’s entirely text, a transcript of a police interrogation that looks like Grist typed it up, printed it out, and then scanned it back in.

So many creators try to capture the language of cinema on the printed page, but it’s obvious that Grist intends to use the comics page to tell stories in ways that could only be done in comics. He even pokes fun at himself for it in a scene where he pulls off a riff on Will Eisner’s classic “Spi
rit” title pages…

…and then chides himself through Jack for being obvious.

But again, that bit of self-awareness aside, Grist’s skill — and perhaps the nature of writing and drawing his own comics — allows him to pull these varied, innovative layouts off without drawing so much attention to them that they distract from the story. Instead, they do what they’re supposed to do and create a unique storytelling experience where everything blends together into something great.

The only problem with “Jack Staff” — and even die-hard fans have to admit that it’s a pretty big one — is its infrequency: Only one issue shipped in 2009. If we had to, we’d guess that this is a purely economic function, as writing, drawing, inking, and lettering your own critically-acclaimed but low-selling independent comic isn’t exactly the easiest way to make a living. Lately, however, we’ve seen Grist’s work in the “Doctor Who” franchise (doing the art for the “Time Machination” one-shot and covers for Tony Lee’s ongoing, as well as “Torchwood” strips), so hopefully, Image’s new “Weird World of Jack Staff” series will have a more regular schedule. Either way, we realize “Jack Staff” is a labor of love for Grist.

And we love it right back.

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