Thursday, November 20, 2008


Secret Services: Q

Forgive me, internets, it's been nearly a month since I posted the last entry in Secret Services, but I promise I have a good excuse. Two weeks lost to traveling to and from Calgary for WFC (and WFC, of course), and another week and a half of downtime waiting for my new computers to arrive, and then getting all my files reinstalled from backup, etc. I'm meant to be writing the fifth issue of Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love, but having had this interminable silence in the Secret Services series hanging over my head for weeks, I figure I'll get this out of the way first.

For those of you who've been following along at home, I'm using "secret services" to define those ubiquitous clandestine government agencies that investigate the supernatural and the occult. I've been tackling them more or less in chronological order based on first appearance (though I'm fudging a bit with a few notable exceptions, as will eventually be seen). We're now up to those halcyon days of 2000, when an eager world got its first glimpse of Paul Grist's Jack Staff.

Now, as I've told you, and told you, and told you (and told you and told you) before, Jack Staff is the best superhero comic on the market today, and that everyone who doesn't hate goodness owes it to themselves to pick it up. But I won't retreat what I've already said before about the unremitting awesomeness of Jack Staff. Instead, I'll be focusing on one particular aspect of that awesomeness--namely, "Q."

Who, or what, is Q? Well, here's how they were first introduced, on page 17 of Jack Staff Vol 1. #1.
Helen Morgan
Ben Kulmer
Harry Crane

Three unusual people caught up in a world where the bizarre is commonplace.

They are the guardians of the gate between reality and unreality.

They are the investigators of the unexplainable.

The question mark crimes.

They are Q.

(Make a note of that letter, will you? It will turn up quite a few more times in future Secret Services entries.)

One of the things that Grist does in Jack Staff that makes the book so good is the dense layering of story, with breadth--a large cast of characters and many ongoing plotlines--and depth--backstory and flashbacks that reach back decades, centuries, and longer. This is in evidence from the very first issue, which introduces the patriotic working class hero Jack Staff, his WWII era teammates in the Freedom Fighters, "girl reporter" Becky Burdock (soon to be vampire girl reporter), Tom-Tom the Robot Man, vampire hunters Bramble and Son, and the members of Q.

And like those other characters, the three members of Q feel somewhat familiar, even in that first appearance. That's because the world of Jack Staff is peopled by types, characters that can be boiled down into brief Homeric epithets. "Vampire Girl Reporter." "Working Class Superhero." "Victorian Escape Artist."

But more than that, the characters are, by and large, analogues of specific characters from British popular culture. Most (but not all) of the referenced characters are from mid-20C British comics (though Bramble and Son, for example, are vampire-hunting variations on Steptoe and Son, the British comedy about father and son rag-and-bone men that later inspired the junkyard father-and-son pair in Sanford and Son), in many cases being virtually identical to the originals. (If you can slide a piece of paper through the original Spider and Grist's version, I'd be surprised.) But in the case of Q, Grist has done something a bit more interesting.

(And as a brief caveat, I'll point out that a reader's enjoyment of Jack Staff doesn't depend at all on familiarity with the characters being referenced. There were quite a few references that shot right past me when I first read the book, Anglophile that I am, but I was still hooked from page 1. The characters are recognizable as types, and in fact work on their own as fully-formed characters in their own right, even if the reader has no notion that they're analogues for other characters. Contrast that with Leah Moore and John Reppion's Albion, which depended entirely on the reader's familiarity with moribund British comics characters. Ian Edginton's Establishment, on the other hand, used a very similar approach to Jack Staff, employing figures from 60s and 70s genre television, primarily, to good purpose; well worth hunting down.)

Helen Morgan, Ben Kulmer, and Harry Crane are not analogues for any specific characters that have previously appeared. Instead, they are new characters that have been impacted by analogues for previous characters.

Let me try that again, from a different angle.

In the 60s there was a British strip entitled "Kelly's Eye", about a guy who finds the "Eye of Everlasting Life" while traveling in South America, a gem that protects its wearer from any and all harm, rendering them effectively immortal. Around the same time another strip featured the "Steel Claw," a superhero able to turn invisible and channel electricity thanks to the metal claw that gave him his name.

In the world of Jack Staff, the "Eye of Everlasting Life" is known as the "Valiant Stone," and it was once worn by an adventurer just like Kelly of the strip. But that adventurer came to a messy end when the Stone itself was shattered, broken into tiny shards. One of those shards came into the possession of Helen Morgan, who is now cursed with immortality until she can gathered all the scattered shards together again.

And a small time thief named Karl Stringer steals a steel claw from a museum, only to have it bond directly to his hand. Unable to remove it, he finds that he can turn invisible and channel electricity. Recruited by Q, he is given a new name and identity, but as time goes on, he finds himself drawn inexorably back to his former ways.

Harry Crane, for his part, is a former policeman who receives psychic visions of past events. (If he's related to any previous character, it's not been revealed yet.)

As the storylines in Jack Staff have progressed, it has been slowly revealed that while Q is recognized as some kind of official body by the police and other authorities, it doesn't seem to be directly affiliated with the government. For example, when Helen encounters Colonel Adam Venture ("Britain's first man in space--not that you'll find that in any official record!" -- see what I meant about types?) and the rest of the Starfall Squad (Their motto, "If it falls from the sky, it stays on the ground!"), Venture has no idea who she is. In the best tradition of clandestine secret services, though, Helen doesn't even bother to explain, but carries on with the investigation.

It's been gradually revealed that there are two supernatural forces at work in the world, the "Green" and the "Red." It was Mister Green who set Helen the task of recovering the pieces of the Valiant Stone (and who tried unsuccessfully to recruit Jack Staff as one of his agents). Just what the Red is, we've not yet discovered.

I should probably stop now, before I start recounting the plot of the entire series to date. In short, Jack Staff is the best superhero comic currently on the market, and the cryptic adventures of Helen Morgan and the rest of Q are a key ingredient in that mix. Check it out, unless you hate goodness.


I completely agree with your points on JACK STAFF, and heartily recommend the book as well. The only problem with the series is that Grist is rather uneven in his completion of the issues, so it often makes it a challenge to keep up with all of the storylines. I often have to go back and re-read issues just to remember where a storyline began, who a specific character is, etc. I'm sure that this would be solved by reading the trades, but Image makes you wait a bit too long for those to be released.

Anyway, JACK is a great series with terrific characters, excellent subplotting and a sense of fun that is not present in most comics today.
You're definitely right that the book reads better in trades (or at least a bunch of issues at a time), which is possibly a function of the sprawling nature of the book with its myriad sublots and huge (and growing!) supporting cast. That said, I haven't minded at all going back and rereading it in big chunks once or twice a year. But I've been endlessly impressed that since the book "relaunched" as a monthly a while back it's been coming out with startling regularity. I'd have to go back and check the release dates, but if it's not actually monthly in actuality I doubt the delay between issues has been longer than a few weeks beyond a month at most.
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