The Weird World of Jack Staff #1, by Paul Grist (Image)

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A certain timelessness is all part of the point, of course. The strange temporal affect it evokes is probably the weirdest aspect of his weird world, drawing on a strange nostalgic longing for a here-and-now that isn’t but should be available to us. In-story, the thoroughly explored but continually surprising terrain of time travel, of men and women out of time, blessed and cursed at once by the ‘gift’ of immortality, or who’ve hibernated through a century that changed your world out of all recognition, is very much the ground that this comic walks on. Jack Staff’s winking evocation of the world my mind lives in is frighteningly close to reality sometimes. The last time I dropped this book, which I’ve done a few times, only to happily pick it up again later (comic book version of a hot potato that cools down, only to heat up once more. The Lothian question?) was when the vampire-hunting Bramble family were introduced. I am acutely frightened of anything that reminds me of Steptoe and Son, always struck by a bone-deep evocation of temporal claustrophobia – the feeling of being stuck in an era you desperately want to escape from, Harold.

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Timelessness shouldn’t mean deja vu. Why is it that every time I pick up a Jack Staff comic, it feels like I’ve read this comic – this very same issue – a good few times before?

Here’s the opening splash of this issue. It’s a perfect establishing shot (it’s important to stress Grist is an absolute master of the funnybook form, apparently effortlessly capable of innovative layouts and storytelling fireworks work as anyone within miles of the supergenre), but perhaps gives away a bit too much of itself.

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It shows us Castletown, the crucible of Grist’s ongoing experiments to turn some superhero gold out of empty, leaden British skies. It’s spacious and unbounded. Its roads are not laid out in concrete, but full of the conceptual openness offered by endless alleys of unclaimed, unbordered panel guttering. It’s a great place for a fresh start. But it’s also completely ungrounded. You can’t walk it and be sure that your feet are going to touch something solid, or anything but the thinnest air. You can drop right out of it, landing somewhere else entirely before you’ve even noticed that Castletown’s disappeared. Castletown isn’t just fictional, it’s unreal. And I say this – look at this picture of Burrow Mump, just a few miles from Grist’s home, by way of illustration -

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as someone who knows full well that elements of Castletown, the space it is trying to clear, are entirely real, solid and important. In potential.

Grist then, is a genius, but he sometimes gets things wrong, as this umpteenth relaunch of his pet project demonstrates. What’s the matter with Jack Staff? Is it too much fealty to the source material, a superstitious fear of the ghosts of comic artists of years past, or their actual spectral influence,  ice-and-iron fingers seizing the new narrative’s throat at inopportune moments, choking it dead  – the umpteenth iteration of the Steel Claw in the darkened museum or vault, discovery, pursuit, unconsciousness, change scene.

Or is it the central figure, the persistent modern incarnation of that eternal  oxymoron the ‘British Superhero’ who this issue sidelines in its title, while focusing on indoors? I can’t remember how many issues of Jack Staff I’ve read the past decade – it’s a lot, going  back to the first black-and-whites, and I can’t once remember Jack Staff doing anything out- there and superheroic, surprising me, surprising the baddie, kicking serious arse and saving the day. That needing my supercharacters to do this makes me a moron I can shoulder, that’s all in the game. And I can get with any amount of ironic undercutting, British diffidence, apologetic all-a-bit-silly’s, because it is and you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? But I need to be hooked in first, I need to root for this ineffective fucker in the too-scary balaclava before I can feel comfortable laughing at him. Because it’s obviously silly. Silly goes nowhere, because no we don’t wear our pants on the outside, silly isn’t an adventure, a challenge, something to bravely face. Silly is just the normal state of normal things – I don’t want a superhero comic to be about that.

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That’s a bit more like it Jack Staff. That’s what you’re good for. There’s plenty of time left on the clock and all to play for. I’ll see you again next month, or in another decade, but I will be seeing you again.

I give this comic a lot of brains, and one encouraging sign of thickening brawn.

17 Responses to “The Weird World of a short Tuesday review”

  1. Matthew Craig Says:

    I believe it was Alan Moore who said that Silly should be a verb, not a destination.

    I…I’d invite you to have a shufti at some of my comics, Bobsy, if you’re of a mind to. I’m not the draughtsman that mine hero Grist is, no. But I do have something of a line in British Superheroes (albeit of the small-b variety), and…and I really do not think that phrase an oxymoron.

    To elaborate, seeing as I’m being a naughty link-o: take Spider-Man. Good oul’ Spidey. Noo Yoik is almost a character, ain’t she? Spider-Man’s REAL One True Love. With her rectilinear skyscrapers, gigantoquench watertowers and rabbit warren streets, she’s veritably livid with occult menace, and the loam of infinite possibilities.

    …okay, I’ve had too much tea.

    But there’s nothing – really – about Peter Parker (the character) or Spider-Man (the situation he finds himself in) that couldn’t, in one way or another, be transplanted to…say…Sheffield?

    I mean, I love me some Sheffield. Fell in love, there (at, rather than with, but t’was ever thus). Learned to stand on my own two feet, there. Brilliant town, all tall buildings and plumb, industrial lines. All those hills and leafy streets and fluid population. All those places to find, or be lost in. From the back of the train station, the model village skyline could almost come out of Ditko.

    (Pointless aside: I always assumed that Grist’s Castletown was based on Sheffield. Guess I was wrong and a half!)

    (Pointless aside: James Mason in SPRING AND PORT WINE = Uncle Ben Parker UK)

    What I’m saying is, British doesn’t have to equal pastiche. What a superhero is – what that means – isn’t, or at the very least doesn’t have to be, inherently American. Not in the same way as The Western, say (or maybe Noir is a better comparison? Ri Runno). To me, the superhero is…god help me…an avatar of Reinvention, and that isn’t an inherently American thing.

    Quite coincidentally, I found that Duncan Fegredo pic of The Leopard From Lime Street on another blog, and having read up on the character, I instantly wished that a) I’d thought of it first and b) I had the rights to remake it.

    I’m similarly fascinated by the notion of large-B British Superheroes, inasmuch as I think that national identity is pretty much one of the most interesting things one can look at with the genre, and I’m not sure anyone has really, really done a first-rate Captain America-style Spirit of the Nation character. But I’d like to. Try, at least. Someday.

    I should warn you that some of my stories are, essentially, non-violent. But monsters get squished, hearts get broken, and millenigenarian misanthropes get their beadle-eyed fizzogs thumped.

    The three books/series I’m thinking of, specifically, are Trouble Bruin, Trixie Biker and Bostin Heroes. I hope you (all) enjoy ‘em (all). There’s loads of other non-superhero stories, as well, just in case.

    //\Oo/\\ (apologies for the linkspam)

  2. Zom Says:

    Linkspam is only bad if you don’t put proper effort into persuading the spammed to go and have a look. You did and I will.

    What Bob’s saying is that British superheroes are all well and good, but we kinda like the “super” bit (and the “British” bit for that matter) to be worried somewhat, because we don’t really believe in it. The problem with Jack Staff is that perhaps it’s worried a little too much – Jack being rather too spectacularly good at being a rubbish superhero.

    What bothers me is that Grist possibly hasn’t noticed how bad at the job Jack is.

    (Just so we’re clear, I absolutely love the comic to death but I think Jack needs to step up his game)

  3. bobsy Says:

    Don’t apologise Matthew, and thanks for the links.

    You’re right about Sheffield (Castletown, certainly, but for the odd detail).

    And, I kind of think, wrong about Sheffield. I’m impressed y your powers of imagination, that can transplant Spidey into Sheffield without a significant loss of contrast, but… I dunno, I love the dissonance in the idea, but I think it would take a lot of heavy industry on someone’s part to make it work. Can I make the engrimmed North work as the home of the webspinner? I think I can, the notion is growing on me. Soot in the webs. Aunt Mary’s small house out in Dore. Jonah Jameson sucking furiously on his pipe. It all fits quite nicely actually.

    I appear to be choking on clichés. But I think the root problem is that interpretation takes a lot of work – effort is required to make the two previously separate element fit. America, to go back to cliché pie again, has built into its imaginal fabric the space for the impossible to happen, has since the start. We can turn this wilderness into the greatest nation on earth. We can build towers that pierce the sky itself. We can battle the existing population until they feel like aliens in their own ancestral homelands. We can go west until we have to stop.

    No doubt the Northern industrial heartlands were built on such ambitions once upon a time, but that was a momentary explosion, and has in 200 years retreated far back into legend. Could it be the land of anything’s possible again? Why not give it a try?

    What can I say? You’ve won me over. I’ll be checking out your comics shortly, and the endless possibility is probably the missing thing in my mind that brings me back to Jack Staff. There is something inherently American about superheroes, I would argue, but there is something that is inherently America about everything when it is looking at itself with the right rosey glasses.

  4. bobsy Says:

    I just reread my original post – not my keyboard’s finest hour, far more a splurge of stillborn thoughts than a proper thesis or review. I was watching the Chris Pettit thing on telly as I was writing, and the alienated spatial absences appear to have pervaded my fingers .Still, that’s how we do I suppose, and I’m glad Matt at least was able to sift it for some meaning.

  5. Zom Says:

    I thought I saw more than a little Petit in there…

  6. Jonathan Nolan Says:

    It’s just semantics getting in the way. Robin Hood, Merlin, Doctor Who, Lady Penelope- lots more too, the Ro-Busters, whoever- they’re just as superheroic as septic tank heroes, just a different flavour.

    Change of flavour doesn’t invalidate supeheroics. What sits uneasily in the UK is transplanting american look and feel instead of keeping it UK style. That is fusion cuisine, and thus inherently risky.

    Iron Comicbook Chef UK must bring his A game if he or she is intending to use fusion cuisine. If they stick to UK comicbook style, all is well.

  7. amypoodle Says:

    Yeah, the key to doing it right is to do it with as much certainty and conviction as the american stuff. You can still have tons of action, myth and adventure without skyscrapers.

    Matt, le Mot Faux is a fantastic idea. I need me a story engine that strong.

  8. amypoodle Says:

    And that really is a flaw with Staff, isn’t it, Bob? I think last time I read it I had similar thoughts. Shame because in every other way it is a fantastic comic – one I’d gladly shell out for.

    I think another problem with brit heroes is overemphasising the britness. It becomes a schtick, and very limiting. For my Knight and Squire scripts I’ve played them as superheroes first, Beryl and Cyril second and somewhere down the bottom of the list they’re british.

  9. Lanmao, the Blue Cat Says:

    I’ve thought of picking this up many times, but never have. Even if it’s as flawed as Bobsy says, it still sounds worth checking out. Any recommendations as to which trade would be best for a first taste?

  10. Zom Says:

    Bobsy loves Jack Staff, Lanmao. We all love Jack Staff. It has its problems but it’s a much, much better book, and about 100x as fun as most titles on the racks.

    Get it, and start with the first trade: Everything used to be Black and White

  11. rev'D Says:

    I’ve never read JACK. It’s probably a lovely book, but I can’t bring myself to pick it up because… KANE’s replacement on the racks by yet another fella in a full-body union jack when my superhero cup was already slopping over? Came as something of a disappointment, to say the least.

    I’ve never heard word as to why KANE stalled out. From what’s been said above, J.S. has seen umpty startovers, which leads me to wonder if finishing a grand tale isn’t Grist’s weakness. Not a judgment against the man, mind– comix are hard work, and I’ve hardly finished anything worth a damn myself so it isn’t as though I can point fingers. It’s just the eternal frustration of the indy fan: the unfinished symphony.

    Zander Cannon’s THE REPLACEMENT GOD, Lapham’s STRAY BULLETS, PeePee’s THB, Rick Veitch’s RAREBIT FIENDS… So many grand comix that’ve stalled in their final(?) stretches. It seems a shame to think that KANE resides beside ‘em.

    Then again, if TANK GIRL can pull a Time Lord, surely KANE can.

  12. Zom Says:

    What what what? Surely if you liked Kane you’d like JC? Surely it’s just madness not to pick up a book by a creator you really like?

  13. rev'D Says:

    Genre snobbery, I know. Sophistry. I’ve read Eddie Campbell & Paul Pope’s and even Warren ‘ScatDaddy’ Ellis’ takes on Batman because my general weariness with the character aside, I love the creators involved…

    (speaking of unfinished symphonies, Ellis deserves at least seventy cockslaps for letting DESOLATION JONES drift)

    But I felt kinda cheated. KANE dipped into superhero silliness once or twice, but I was reading it because it -wasn’t- about tights. That the fickle finger of the industry seemed to dictate J.S. was worth dosh & distribution & KANE wasn’t– at least, that’s how I read Grist’s decision to focus on one and not the other –that’s part of what’s seriously soured me on supes for something close to seven years. It took Morrison to re-invest me in superheroes as a worthy genre.

    So, yeah, I’ll probably get into JACK soon. S’pose I’ve mourned more than enough.

  14. The Beast Must Die Says:

    The main reason I buy Jack Staff is that Grist is flat out one of the most original and satisfying comic artists working today. There’s something so chunkily satisfying about his work….you could sink your teeth into it.

    Agree with all criticisms raised, but I dearly love his method of re-imagining the episodic Boys Weekly as a single narrative.
    He also shits out great characters like a trouper.

  15. rev'D Says:

    God yes. The man’s a graphical genius. The fact that he managed all the chronological / narrative shifts in KANE using little besides -borders-…!

    You know what I miss? The lovely hand coloring over his work, as with the Trident print of ST. SWITHIN’S and Grist’s stint on GRENDEL TALES. GT: THE DEVIL INSIDE was particularly tactile & painterly. I wonder, did he handle all the art chores himself?

    Useless internet. I can’t find colorist credits for either project.

  16. rev'D Says:

    No, wait, that dessicated neuron in the back finally fired. It was Bernie Mireault who colored DEVIL INSIDE. I should’ve remembered straight off. Bem makes the goriest ‘splosion look like a beautiful banquet by Peter Greenaway.

  17. Matthew Craig Says:

    Could (the North) be the land of anything’s possible again?

    Here’s the funny thing, though: that’s exactly how I felt about Birmingham when I first started making comics.

    I’d just quit my PhD, and I’d gone for a commiserative slouch around Brum with me Da. They had been digging the foundations of the new Bull Ring and the back of New Street Station was the best place to stand and watch them work. Archaeological layers of bedrock and sediment had been revealed in the process, cranes loomed overhead like great metal vultures, and the whole place looked like the set of a new Indiana Jones film.

    My initial thought had been “I remember when this was all ring roads.” But the sight before me, combined with my already…deformed emotional state set me to thinking: what are they going to find down there? What horrible secrets will they uncover? An unexploded bomb, from the Blitz or the ’70s? The Ark of the Covenant? Noddy Holder’s original sideburns?

    It was then that I looked up.

    I looked up, and saw her, standing guard overhead.

    I looked up, and the scales fell from my eyes, and it was like looking into the face of Wonder Woman, or Freya, or that one nurse that looked after me Mum and always seemed just a little too happy to see me.

    I looked up at The Rotunda, and I thought, “That’s where the superheroes live.”

    I was twenty-six years old.

    …and that’s why my first British superhero idea was called NEWSTREET.

    (Well, “Streetwalker,” originally. Like I say, I was in an odd place.)

    A friend of mine, the bast, took one look at the new Selfridges building, the sod, and said, UNTO ME, “don’t you think it looks like a nest of giant robot spider eggs, getting ready to hatch?”

    I haven’t spoken to him since.

    I would encourage anyone and everyone to try EVERTHING USED TO BE BLACK AND WHITE. I used to say that it was right up in my Top Ten Superhero Comics Ever, and while I’m sure that’s still true, I have no idea what else would be there anymore. I’ve fallen behind on both Jack Staff and Kane, I’m sorry to say. Something always seems to hold me back when I pick up that copy of BROTHERS that’s sitting on the shelf in Forbidden Planet. Hmpf.

    Oh, and thanks for the kind words, re: teh Linx. Amypoodle, I’m especially glad you liked Le Mot Faux. Secrets revealed: I wanted to do a superhero comic using a combination of Denny O’Neill’s Foolproof Plot Structure Thing and Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work. But that was too hard, so I did LMF instead. Hooray for lazyitis!

    //\Oo/\\

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