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


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.


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.


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 –


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.


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.

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