Written and drawn by Paul Grist
Published by Image Comics
It’s time to continue my focus on black & white books by writer/illustrators with this appropriately titled collection of the early adventures of Jack Staff. Originally published by Grist’s own Dancing Elephant Press, the book was later picked up by Image Comics.
Jack Staff is a British superhero active at least since WWII but who has gone into hibernation since the 70’s. Turns out he is working as a builder called John Smith in Castletown. Staff is a hero in the Captain America mode, very athletic and acrobatic but his only superpower seems to be moving energy around, often through his staff. Well that and the fact that he doesn’t appear to age.
Grist is a fantastic and innovative comic artist. The line of his art is thick and solid with little cross hatching or embellishment and he makes great use of negative space on the page to create depth and tone. He draws solid, strong characters and the directness of his art is very appealing. The seeming simplicity of his line work belies the many interesting aspects to this comic.
The lettering is an integral part of the story. Each scene is introduced and titled in its own way and new characters will get their names titled in their own unique style. The sound effects and captions add up to a very dense comic as every page delivers a ton of story through both art and words.
Structurally Grist uses flashbacks to fill the reader in on Jacks past and the enemies he once faced. It works well to provide depth and wonder to the world, and his habit of titling every scene helps the reader to know where he is in the narrative. He also uses snippets from the local newspaper and radio to frame the action and ground the story.
The use of panels catches my eye, always reaching for a different way to tell a story rather than just left-to-right and then repeat downward. Early on John Smith vaults off a collapsing scaffold and tumbles downward through the page while around him the lyrics of a song on the radio keep playing. Grist is also very aware of comics history and draws homages to great creators, like the Will Eisner-esque title below.
Jack Staff is a very ‘British’ book and it is all the better for it. Many of the characters Jack comes across are based on classic comic characters from Britain. The most well-known being the Spider, an elderly master thief with a harness full of gadgets. But there is also the Claw, Tom-Tom the Robotman, and American pastiches Sgt. States and the Druid. Grist used these characters well and I would like to learn more about them. I hope this book has helped stir some interest in these old gems.
With such a large cast it often feels like an ensemble rather than solo book. Sure Jack is the star but there are long sections where the focus shifts to other characters. Q squad become important, a strange trio of police officers charged with investigating ‘Question Crimes’. And Becky Burdock Girl Reporter helps and hinders Jack in his adventures.
Should I buy it? If you want to read an interesting, and refreshingly non-American take on the superhero you won’t do much better than Jack Staff. I found the art fascinating as it constantly strove to tell the story in new ways. Very cool stuff and I promptly went out and bought the other volumes.
Next time: Keeping it black & white and creator owned with the revelation that is Finder by Carla Speed McNeil.