Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White

Paul Grist’s introduction to this monster TPB (reprinting 12 comic issues) establishes two important elements that went into making this book what it is: the historically wide variety of British comic types — he lists “humour”, sports, war, adventure, girl’s (because appealing to females is one little area in itself) — and the lack of superheroes. He thus set out to create “a British Super Hero in a British setting”. The result is Jack Staff, a man wearing a Union Jack spandex suit and carrying a big stick.

Not mentioned is how this series originally began as an idea for Marvel Comics’ Union Jack character. Grist turned it into something else, something uniquely British, as he aimed to. Jack Staff, “Britain’s Greatest Hero”, is the title character, but also featured are Tom Tom the Robot Man; a group called Q that investigates unexplainable “question mark crimes”; Becky Burdock, Girl Reporter; and a rogue detective named Maveryk. (I took a potshot earlier at Grist’s genre listing, but he does feature nearly as many female characters as males, and the women are all different types, none representing simply The Girl. Plus, I get a giggle out of how he subverts the stereotypical approach with Becky.)

Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White cover
Jack Staff:
Everything Used to
Be Black and White
Buy this book

Mimicking anthology comics (another way the UK comic market was different from the US one), the book consists of a large number of short chapters, each focusing on a different character. The result is very episodic; like the weather some places, if you don’t like what you’re getting, turn a couple of pages, and you’ll be in something different. The switches often take place just as something curious or shocking is revealed, increasing the suspense through forced delay in revelation.

It’s almost like channel-surfing would be if all the pieces worked synergistically to make one big show. I’m told that many of the characters are nods to British television, but I’ve never found the in-jokes to get in the way or even call attention to themselves. Without knowing the references, it just seems that there are lots of colorful minor characters populating this world. Splash pages reintroduce the characters and situations frequently, and the plots all wrap together in clever ways.

Whether to read Grist’s work in collections or as individual issues is a tough choice. He’s one of the slowest creators out there for releasing work — the most recent series issue was eight months late — so the delay can be maddening. However, his cliffhangers and chapter structure are suited for serialized release. Read all at once, the reintroductions can seem repetitive, although he revisits scenes and actions we’ve seen before in ways that put them in new light. (I think of his plot style in these cases as a spiral staircase, winding back over the familiar but with the reader advanced through the circuit.)

Overall, the theme is that of differences: between then and now, British and American, life and death. It’s all told with a very clean art style with open page layouts. Often figures extend outside of panel borders, or the borders are left out altogether. A lot of content is contained in relatively few panels, giving an uncluttered look. Even when he uses lots of text, it’s incorporated clearly into the layout.

His use of black, especially for backgrounds, is one of the defining characteristics of his style, and it makes him ideally suited for black-and-white work. He’s a master of simple lines, silhouette, and shadow. His selection of poses and use of body language are excellent, providing a strong sense of cinematic movement throughout. Grist’s one of the best draftsmen working in comics today, a spiritual heir to Alex Toth, and the beauty of his art make the sometimes long waits worthwhile.

He’s also very talented at choosing the right type of shot for the setting. Obvious examples include long panels of action for the superheroics or drawing panels as though they were photos taken by an on-the-scene reporter. More subtly, when the lead character is questioned by police inside the jail, the panels are divided by thick, bar-like lines, contributing to the prison atmosphere. Another striking panel choice is Jack Staff and the American hero Sgt. States meeting again after many years. The single-panel page resembles an ad poster. Since it’s impossible, at this point, to do the scene in a way that isn’t a cliché, Grist plays up the obvious and adds a new level of insight into the manipulation of patriotic symbols.

I just realized that I haven’t said much about plot. That’s because I don’t want to spoil any of the many surprises, but also because it’s not really the point. As the book opens, Becky’s working on a tabloid story about what happened to hero Jack Staff, who disappeared 20 years ago. Meanwhile, Q is investigating a series of killings where women are found with all the blood drained from their bodies. The discoveries related to those two events and their ramifications make up the first third of the book, during which authority is healthily disrespected. Maveryk is frequently made fun of for being more concerned with closing cases than getting the right result. He also tends to show up after all the important things have already happened. US authorities throw their weight around, and cover stories are released to the public to cover up corruption.

Then there’s the story of the Spider, a retired super-thief, and a stolen occult artifact. There’s more focus on Q and the mystical events surrounding them, and also appearing is the Druid, who speaks directly to the reader in a way that reminds me of Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book. Next comes another serial killer, only this one is basing his crimes on a novel by a former comic writer, and the return of Charlie Raven, the “greatest escapologist of the Victorian Age!” It’s all very imaginative, and just the tonic for those finding the American supers a bit too familiar these days.

This article discusses the superhero nostalgia of Jack Staff, identifying the original Marvel story that inspired the Sgt. States showdown as Captain America #253-254.


11 Responses to “Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White”

  1. Matthew Craig Says:

    I’ve never found the in-jokes to get in the way or even call attention to themselves.

    I know all these characters – well, the TV series they are derived from – and it’s never jarring. Unlike certain lists of names that appear in movies/novels I could mention.

    Incidentally, Sandford and Son’s progenitor, STEPTOE and Son, were tapped for Jack Staff.

    I’ve long had a bee in my bonnet about Patriot Heroes. I’m finally going to put my money where my mouth is, this summer. Grist’s book will be a hard act to follow. Jack Staff easily makes my Top Ten Superhero Books (your tallest shortarse metaphor may vary).

    …I’m not sure I enjoyed the first trade from the colour series as much, though….Hmm…

    //\Oo/\\

  2. Johanna Says:

    Interesting article, Matthew, thanks for the link. I think you and I have similar opinions about the second trade.

  3. Matthew Craig Says:

    Cheers, Johanna. Yeah, I’ve got SOLDIERS on the pile next to me, and I keep avoiding it, for some reason.

    Re: the article,

    If I’d written it a year later – i.e., last year – I would have had to confront Millar’s concept for Ultimate Captain Britain, who was bioengineered in a laboratory in…wait for it…Brussels.

    People underestimate Mark Millar sometimes.

    //\Oo/\\

  4. Johanna Says:

    On the bright side, the as-yet-uncollected issues #6-10 seem to be closer in style to the original series. Or maybe it’s just jumping around enough to confuse and mislead me. :)

    I don’t get the Brussels joke… ?

  5. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Grist makes the point in the afterword that superheroes, especially red-, white-, and blue- costumed ones, need color, but I never thought of Jack Staff as a traditional superhero comic. (In my review of the previous collection, I praise the black-and-white art as best-suited to Grist’s style.) Along with the color seems to have come more direct punch-em-up stories, which I found a little disappointing. [...]

  6. Matthew Craig Says:

    Brussels being the home/captial of the European Union, it plays off the often ambiguous, often conflicted feelings that some Brits have towards the whole European Project to have the iconic British superhero cooked up in a laboratory outside the UK.

    I mean, how can he be Captain Britain if he’s got “Made In Belgium” tattooed on his Richard Harris?

    He’s not the quintessential British superhero: he’s an entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, somewhere between Bucks Fizz and Samantha Janus.

    //\Oo/\\

  7. Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] For more Grist, try his other series, Jack Staff. He illustrated Phil Elliott’s stories in the Slave Labor graphic novella Absent Friends and contributed to Bizarro World, an anthology with twisted takes on DC superheroes in which Grist writes a Batman story and illustrates a Flash story written by Eddie Campbell. [...]

  8. *Superhero Comics Worth Reading » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Jack Staff: Everything Used to Be Black and White [...]

  9. Giving up on Grist » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] talk about Paul Grist. I used to love his work, but the newer books aren’t as entertaining to me. They certainly aren’t worth the [...]

  10. Jack Staff Fails at Monthly Goal » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] in October, Image announced that Paul Grist’s Jack Staff series would be going monthly starting January 2008. The Jack Staff Special would appear January [...]

  11. How Much Does Schedule Matter to an Ongoing Comic? Jack Staff News and Opinion » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] plugging the four collections available so far for the title (start with Everything Used to Be Black and White), and announcing that the next book, Old Beginnings, New Endings, will reprint the six issues he [...]




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