Thursday, June 23, 2016

Jack Staff - Everything Used To Be Black And White

One of the occasionally frustrating things about reading Jack Staff is how many plates Paul Grist has spinning at one time. Normally, this isn't the sort of thing that bothers me; I grew up on '80s Marvel comics with multiple subplots. But Grist moves back and forth between them so frequently that just as I'm settling into one thread, he jumps to another*.

What helped though, was an introduction Grist had on the inside cover of an issue of Weird World of Jack Staff. He explained his approach was the book was essentially a whole lot of different comic strips, which all just so happened to be taking place in the same universe, and all of them were kind of happening around the title character. So Jack isn't necessarily the main character, he's the lucky (unlucky) fellow who keeps getting sucked into other people's problems, in addition to some of his own. The structure of the story made more sense after I that.

That actually isn't an issue in Everything Used to be Black and White, which contains the first 12 issues of Jack Staff, those published under Grist's own Dancing Elephant Press. It's just a particular thing that keeps cropping up in my mind as I reread the issues. In those early stages, Grist has to go through the process of introducing these characters to us for the first time, sketching out personalities and quirks, backstories, making us care, and getting the ball rolling.

He's very successful at all that. He starts with a story that moves between a wartime adventure of Jack's and the present, when the threat seems to have reemerged. From there, some of the characters have to deal with the fallout of the battle, the injuries, changes, or even deaths they incurred, and then it moves into a couple of odder stories. One about a book actually coming to life and trying to construct a physical form for itself. Then one about a "time leech", which had tangled with a master escape artist a century ago, and is just now starting to get back into circulation (as is the escapologist).

I'm very impressed with how Grist weaves it all together, bringing in new characters, who end up starting their own arcs and progressions, but it doesn't feel forced. He introduces them smoothly, and then later starts devoting more page time to them. So we're introduced to the Q Branch (who investigate "question mark crimes") in the initial story, but we don't necessarily know that much about them. Then Grist gives them a little more page time, and we see how Harry Crane and Ben Kulmer got into it. If we don't learn the same about Helen Morgan just yet, we do learn about some of her abilities, and her personality**. Or we meet Detective Inspector Maveryck's partner, "Zipper" Nolan as they investigate a murder, and the story hints at something going on with Nolan, but that also won't come to the forefront until later. It's all very skillful, and I wonder at how mapped out Grist had all this beforehand, and how much he pulled together as he went along. Either way, it seems to run together very well, one story creating situations that lead naturally into another.

I think, on the whole, I prefer the book in black and white, compared to the later volumes published through Image in color. Not because the color work is bad - it's vivid and bright, and used effectively to create mood. Like I've said before, I'm a sucker for using negative space, or letting shadows or their absence suggest at things, and Grist does that quite well. And it seems more natural when the whole book is in black and white. Either way, Grist has a good sense of page layout and design, and he's able to create distinct characters who all seem as though they can occupy the same world, be it a regular cop, a demon, or a giant robot person.

I really like the page above, with the Spider's lair shown as this cavernous place where anything could be lurking, and you're stuck navigating by moving from the platforms. Which are in a web motif, so Jack is caught in the web, even when it appears his old foe is being entirely polite and open with his intentions. And the image of Jack on the monitors, which could be the appearance of him being a barred gate, suggesting the Spider's possible eventual plan (I'm not sure if he counted on Maveryck to that much of a crooked cop as to try burning evidence that exonerates a suspect).

* Also, coming to the series now, after the fact, there's the knowledge a lot of those threads are not likely to ever be resolved. Which, again, is something I should be used to from Claremont if nothing else, but it's still a little irritating.

** In general, Helen seems like the sort of person I'd want to trust, because she seems to be generally decent, but I don't think I could ever be certain she wasn't just setting me up to be used for something down the line. Has that air of constantly appraising whether everyone around her is useful or not. With reason, which makes her both a sympathetic and frustrating character, in addition to frequently being very cool.


Kelvin Green said...

Paul Grist is one of the great unrecognised comics geniuses; he does amazing things with storytelling and page layout and should be a superstar.

Jack Staff was designed to mimic the old British anthology comics, so that's why the stories-within-stories are only five or six pages long. Since North American comics don't have that same sort of tradition of anthologies -- at least not in recent memory -- I can see why the format would seem a bit weird.

CalvinPitt said...

Yeah, it was a little different, but he really did use it well.