I wish I were knowledgeable enough to be able to identify more than the tiniest fraction of the influences which Paul Grist has called upon and fused into the idiosyncratic and highly entertaining style and content which he uses so effectively in "Jack Staff". But that particular task is quite beyond my expertise. (*1) I can identify the likes of characters inspired by the casts of classic BBC sit-coms such as "Dad's Army" and "Steptoe And Son", for example, and my limited experience of the British comics of my youth allow me to recognise a shameful few of Mr Grist's purposeful homages to classic characters such as the Steel Claw, but that's as far as my painfully thin knowledge extends. I always was a US cape'n'chest-insignia man, or rather boy, which makes "Jack Staff" all the more interesting for me. After all, it's undoubtedly a superhero book, and yet the pop culture it's nurtured by is only in part grounded in the American tradition.
I regret my younger self's decision to marinate himself so utterly in American comics while seasoning his reading experiences so lightly with the British weeklies of the Sixties and Seventies. Why did I
ever think that there was a choice to be made between the comic books of these two cultures, when I could have been enjoying them both? Yet Metropolis and Gotham City always seemed so much more thrilling than London, and even the very sound of "Pittsburgh" and "Akron, Ohio" carried more of a seductive thrill than that of "Sheffield" or "Leicester" or "Coventry".
Yet had I come across Mr Grist's "Jack Staff" during my more pimply years, I strongly suspect that my bias for any and all of those comics from the other side of the Atlantic would have been substantially tempered. For in hybridising the still-predominantly American sub-genre of the superhero with such a distinctly British, and indeed European, approach to pop culture, Mr Grist succeeds in demonstrating just how invigorating and fascinating the mass-market comics of these islands once were. It's something of an irony that he achieves this through the transplanting of such a profoundly American form into the midst of a particularly British narrative, but then one of the many joys of "Jack Staff" stems from the frissons and frictions created by Mr Grist's playful and unpretentious fusion of elements from two still somewhat-distinct pop-graphic cultures.
*1:- There's surely a need for a site which offers informing annotations for Mr Grist's work on "Jack Staff". Guido Weisshahn does however run the splendid Paul Grist Comics Index, which is well, well worth a visit.
A great deal of the atypical nature of "Jack Staff" when compared to the American superhero tradition lies in the way in which Mr Grist chooses to solve the creative challenges which he sets himself. It's as if he's constantly and consciously setting himself the task of not accessing the common store of storytelling options established by seventy years of comic books in the USA unless such provides the very best solution at hand. In essence, he repeatedly presents the superhero on his pages in an un-American, if never anti-American, context. And in using a host of creative options rarely present in the standard-issue superhero-creator's tale-telling tool-kit, Mr Grist shows us how the superfolks sub-genre can only benefit from being approached in a less conventional fashion. Whether he's intended to do so or not, Mr Grist's work on "Jack Staff" draws our attention to the fact that, for all the innovation that's occurred within the superhero tradition over the decades, it still remains a relatively narrow and too-often self-referencing form.
Yet to suggest that "Jack Staff" draws off of the heritage of Brit pop-culture isn't to suggest that the comic is either regressive or parochial. Readers of Mr Grist's work would immediately recognise any such contention as completely inaccurate. In truth, "Jack Staff" isn't just a book which reflects a modern, if independently-minded, approach to storytelling, but it's also a comic which draws off a broader set of influences than simply those of the UK and the USA. There's clearly a love of Ligne Claire tradition of Franco-Belgian comics informing Mr Grist's work, for example, although his pages in "Jack Staff" and elsewhere are far more dynamic and innovative than any carelessly narrow application of that term might imply.
But then, as I said above, the fine detail and the complex ancestry of Mr Grist's highly individual work is well beyond my capacity to deduce. What I can attempt to do is to sign up my admiration for and enjoyment of "Jack Staff", and then move on to taking a look at one single and yet quietly remarkable panel in "Jack Staff" (volume 1:1) and the elegance of the storytelling choices it embodies.
There's a great deal that's at first sight counter-intuitive about the design of the third page of the first "Jack Staff" comic, "Good Morning Castletown". (See above.) That page-deep vertical panel on the left hand side of the page is, I'm sure you'd agree, an audacious way of holding the reader's attention while furthering the purposes of the story. For we just don't usually see such a design in the superhero comic, and that deep vertical panel threatens at first glance to derail the normal progression of the reader's eye across the page. We're trained, after all, to read from left to right, and, under the typical conventions of the superhero narrative, we expect to be guided at speed down and through tiers of panels to a page-closing, and hopefully page-turning, enigma of one sort or another. Yet here, the reader's eye is strongly encouraged to plummet from John "Jack Staff" Smith's presence at the top-left hand of the page right down to the bottom of the page, which might, we could surmise, run the risk of stranding the reader in a touch of confusion about where they ought to look next. This is simply not how these things are usually done.
There's also a cluster of unfamiliar components in that single panel. Even if we ignore its domination of the left-hand side of the page in a medium where it's the right-hand side of things which is nearly always the immediate focus of reader's attention, the panel itself is by typical standards distinctly odd. For example, it's a comparatively still composition, marked by relatively small figures presented against a predominance of negative space. Furthermore, the scene itself is presented from front-on, as if we were looking at a stage-set which exists only in two dimensions.This is surely the antithesis of the action-packed, faux-realistic American superheroic tradition, wherein we would expect to find such a tableau presented at the very least with a measure of some attention-grabbing foreshortening, with a drama-intensifying choice of extreme high or low angle shots, and with an eye-catching blur of movement of one sort or another to snare the reader and propel them further into the page's design.
So, what is that page-deep, vertical, right-hand-side-of-the-sheet panel doing there?
There is a possibility, of course, that this particular panel, and the complex page design that it's part of, is simply there to serve as novelty for novelties sake. And it ought to be said that a novelty which doesn't impede a story's progress is a potentially very fine thing indeed, offering the reader at the very least a break from the rote presentation of genre-formula storytelling.
But, and of course, that panel is far too deliberately and skilfully constructed to stand as nothing more than an indulgence. In truth, it serves a whole series of purposes in the narrative, combining a string of functions in one single and concise design. And the key to how that composition works lies in the triangular relationship of the objects one to the other in the panel, in a progression of visual staging points which guides the reader's gaze around the frame without ever calling attention to itself.
At the apex of the organising right triangle is John Smith himself, our eye guided to him by the first word balloon in the panel, a sequence which prevents us trying to read the page entirely from left to right as is normally our want. His stare downwards takes the reader down the triangle's vertiginous hypotenuse to Becky Burdock, and the obvious distance our eye has to travel accentuates how high above her John Smith is. (The negative space in the panel also forces us to focus upon that key issue of distance rather than any distracting background details, an absolutely central establishing point because Becky is, as is her luck, about to have a billboard fall upon her, and John is about to heroically and impossibly save her.)
The wind-thrown nature of Becky's hair and coat then pushes our gaze along the narrow base of the triangle to the point at which the pavement meets the building, which serves as the triangle's left-bottom vertice. (*1) And once there, we follow Becky's gaze and the straight sides of the building upwards again, the speed of that journey emphasised by the presence of the boredom-breaking diagonal pieces of scaffolding. Finally, as our eye reaches the top of the page again, we find we've been pushed by the scaffolding and the building's edge to come to rest not on John Smith again, which would only cause us to wonder if we should repeat the original process of reading the panel once more, but onto the narrative captions carrying the inane words of the Radio One-Oh-Three Castle FM station DJ, pushing our attention instead into the second vertical column of five panels on the right-hand of the page.
And that sequence of five panels arranged vertically on the right-hand side of the page will, with its cross-cutting and its variety of camera angles, cause the process of reading the page to speed up and become more kinetic, as we're shown the very-newly minted relationship between Becky and John taking shape at a distance and at cross-purposes. By the time the final panel is reached, and as the DJ starts shouting the title of Slade's "Mama Weer All Crazee Now", and as those of us who know the song start to imagine the Glam-Metal rush of its first chords, and as the billboard snaps from its supports behind Smith, and as Smith braces himself and turns in shock, the whole page has taken us from an exceptionally quiet beginning to an extremely nervous, page-turning close without ever taking the reader down over-familiar storytelling roads.
*1:- My maths, or rather my geomatry, is terrible. Please feel free to correct this undoubtedly cack-handed description.
So, the form of this panel is anything but indulgent. Both in terms of its own content, and in the context of its placement on the page as a whole, this panel serves to manipulate the reader's reading experience so that the visual information at hand is perceived at a pre-determined pace and in a quite specific sequence. And in doing so, that rather unique panel elegantly and surreptitiously serves a whole host of narrative functions too;
- it sets up the coming scene of jeopardy by establishing how high above Ms Burdock the billboard and John Smith are, making it just - just - possible that Becky might believe that John could survive a fall from that height while emphasising just how capable this Jack Staff character must be if he can deliberately jump such a distance and emerge none-the-worse-for-wear.
- it creates a sense of drama-intensifying unease by showing the two characters situated at such a distance from each other while being constrained in a deep, narrow and untypically placed frame.
- and yet, by contrast, the design of this panel also obscures the fact that the billboard precariously attached far above Becky's head might possibly tumble onto her. By presenting this scene from side-on, the billboard fades into just another component of the design, which nullifies any kind of looming presence on its part in the panel. In essence, tension and unease has been created while the source of the coming jeopardy has been hidden in plain sight, meaning that the accident when it occurs is a surprise and a shock while still being a believable occurrence.)
- it establishes the coming relationship between John "Jack Staff" Smith and Becky "Soon-To-Be-A-Vampire" Burdock in visual terms, establishing how very far away from each other they are as individuals. Smith is an apparently laid-back, salt-of-the-earth builder, albeit one who carries "all (his) files and papers" to work, which Burdock is a forceful, and defiantly brave, middle-class reporter who refuses to avoid conflict just for the sake of a quiet life. It's a screwball comedy clash of personalities and self-defined roles which will drive a great deal of the comic's most amusing moments, and it's here established from just about the word go, or, at least, from the word "Red".
There are no exploding galaxies here, no stadium-filling gatherings of super-people, no reality-rescuing showdowns between one army of the be-muscled and be-spandexed and another twelve of the same. But so often the superhero genre is one whose traditions of how to represent events on the page leads to strings of apparently high-intensity events being pelted out one after the other in a commonplace sequence at the reader, who may often respond with a mixture of big-deal whiplash and the ennui inspired by over-familiarity. What Paul Grist often displays in the pages of "Jack Staff" is a different way of dealing with the traditional concerns of the sub-genre. He regularly lifts the givens of the superhero narrative out of the settings that we'd expect to find them in, presents them in a way that calls upon broader-than-typical traditions in addition to his own exemplary creative capacity, and in doing so, he lends to this seventy year-old sub-genre something of a gentle and even youth-restoring kiss of life.
In "Jack Staff", Mr Grist has produced a comic book which is in its own unaffected and modest way as modern as it is retro, as innovative as it is reverential, as forward-looking as it's undoubtedly in parts nostalgic. The tension between past and present, between over here on this side of the Atlantic and over there, makes "Jack Staff" a subtly compelling superhero comic book, showing us elements of the costumed crimefighter's lot in ways which are in part unfamiliar, unexpected, and extremely enjoyable.
A splendid day is as always wished to all. If I may; "Stick together!"
Coming soon; something else!