The Weird World of Jack Staff #1 & #2 by Paul Grist

Posted by on April 17th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Image Comics, 28 pp.; $3.50; full color

If superheroes were ever to move from being something other than contemporary cash drones propping up publishing arms of giant leisure conglomerates, Paul Grist’s Jack Staff could nicely serve as the personal, creative, expressive, idiosyncratic and entertaining evolutionary forerunner.

With the Staff character, Grist routinely ignores genre customs, stymies ingrained expectations and defies industrial conventions encrusted on the form. He seemed hellbent on telling very much his own type of story in a way that — plainly — tickles him. Whether self-publishing a black-and-white in 2000 or moving the full-color title to Image in 2003, Grist has never appeared interested in compromising, diluting, dumbing down or deviating from his vision in order to attract the larger paying audience who relishes its superheroes like platters of overcooked pasta, differentiated only by variations in their fast-food toppings.

This year Grist has again relaunched his hero, now under the title The Weird World of Jack Staff. In the inaugural issue’s editorial, Grist grants he’s heard that first-time readers have trouble following his story. He attributes this to the fact that, unlike the standard industry product, his titular hero is only the nexus for an ensemble cast of distinct weirdos and distinguished stereotypes.

Grist has fashioned Jack, “Britain’s Greatest Hero,” as a singularly English conception of the Eternal Warrior, protector of the realm and the guardian of the destiny ordained for the Sceptered Isle. But he’s hemmed in by a flock of players that act for all practical purposes as if they have no idea how supporting characters are supposed to behave. That crew starts with Betty Burdock, Vampire Reporter; Charlie Raven, The Greatest Escapologist of the Victorian Age; Detective Inspector Maveryk, a copper’s cop; and continues through a host of intriguing, decisively delineated figures that are seemingly being added by the issue. The title change to Weird World … is intended to alert readers that this is not your typical one-superhorse comic.

However memorable each member may be individually, this large a cast can still represent a daunting multitude for the pasta-eaters, especially as characters shuffle in and out of discrete arcs with their origins, roles, relationships and fates never fully explicated in a continuity-conducive way. It’s very clear that Grist has all this worked out and straight in his head but it’s a complex, interwoven narrative told in its own inimitably staccato fashion.

In that same editorial, Grist traces his interlaced narrative style back to British action weeklies, collections of assorted two- and three-page segments of ongoing stories (maybe one on vampires, another on Victorian exotica, a third on flatfoots, etc.). Only here such segments are conjoined as pivotal moments within a single tale. Consequently, the 28 pages of the first Weird World … has no fewer than seven separate sections, the smallest being a single page and a prolonged epic being 10. This rapid shift in narration allows scenes to be broken off not so much at dramatic cliffhangers but at every intriguing bermhanger.

It all adds up to tremendous fun for those with patience and a little faith, who can go with the flow, take pleasure in rereading and aren’t categorically opposed to superheroes but do not depend on their conventional pleasures. Grist is even less qualified in his invitation: “Stick with it, you’re probably the type of person that would fit right in.”

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