Thursday, February 26, 2015

Jack Staff: Yesterday's Heroes

This article was originally published in the Bullets section of The Comics Journal #244, in June of 2002.

Jack Staff:
Yesterday's Heroes

Paul Grist

Dancing Elephant, ISBN: 0954226402

Paul Grist is a one-man band. He single-handedly creates and publishes two regular comics series: Kane has been running for about 10 years now, and in 2000, Grist launched the lighthearted superhero yarn Jack Staff. The first Staff collection, Yesterday’s Heroes, collects issues 1-4 of the series with some new art as well as a new story page.

Staff is a superhero book. I realize this genre can be quite off-putting to some people. It shouldn't be, particularly in this case. Grist's skill is that of a great storyteller in the tradition of C.C. Beck and, like Beck, no matter what genre he picks, the work itself stands on its own.

Yesterday’s Heroes is based on an issue of Captain America from 1981, featuring the British superhero Union Jack. Grist says in the introduction to Staff #4 that he never found out how that story ended, thanks to Marvel's spotty English distribution, but that it had stuck with him for years. In an effort to fairly judge the new work, I looked up the original comic, Captain America #253, written by Roger Stern and penciled by John Byrne. It's a fun comic, but what's amazing about rereading that 20-year-old comic is how much Grist has done with such a simple pulpy idea. Your time is better spent on Jack Staff than on the Marvel comic.

This series is lighthearted in much the way the best Hammer films keep you watching in spite of their silliness. It's a classically fun page-turner. The story twists and turns between the present-day hunt for "Albert Bramble, vampire hunter" and World War II, where Jack Staff and Sgt. States (who bears a passing resemblance to Captain America) battle a Knight-Templar-turned-Vampire. All very pulpy and fun with no hint of "higher meaning," but plenty of entertainment.

Grist's art really stands out. He draws in an immediate, calligraphic style, like reading a diary comic that happens to be an exciting story. His composition is exciting but subtle and only veers into the highly graphic use of shapes, at which he excels, when it suits the story. Even the slow pages are exciting to look at. Using only black-and-white linework on the interior pages (with a few color pages in the original serialization, but not the collection), Grist manages to come up with page after page on par with the best in classic Japanese printmaking and the great film noirs. His color work manages to achieve the same immediate calligraphic sense the black-and-white work has, but done with the practiced skill of an accomplished watercolorist.

Grist has taken the sensibilities of an idiosyncratic and personal storyteller and then applied them to a comic form known for its adherence to conventions. The pacing of each issue reminds me more of Love and Rockets or the comics of John Porcellino and Kevin Huizenga work than it does of a conventional superjock comic. Like these artists, he has taken the conventions of a specific genre and made them fit to his own vision. Grist expects the reader to keep up with quick changes and jumps in story threads that no conventional hero comic would allow. Not to say that it is overly complex; it is more that he recognizes his adult reader doesn't need to be led by the hand through a story.

Paul Grist, with both Kane and Jack Staff, is making well-crafted pulpy entertainment, the kind of stuff comics used to be known for. At the same time he is also doing some of the best and most subtle graphic design in any field.

- Dylan Williams