“What is it with you damn British? Don’t you have the sense to know when to give up?”-Sgt States, Jack Staff #4
If you’ve heard of Paul Grist, you’ve heard of Jack Staff, Britain’s Greatest Hero – his superhero comic that started self-published and moved to Image, his signature work after the moody crime tale Kane. Of course, it’s also possible that you haven’t heard of Grist at all . As he wrote in his coming-of-age teen superhero story Mudman #3, “the problem Jack Staff had was, despite its popularity amongst those who read it, there just weren’t that many people actually buying the comic.” And most people probably didn’t read that, because they didn’t buy Mudman either.
Even in 2021, Marvel Comics had him create The Union, their latest try at a not-Excalibur all-Brit superhero comic, with Andrea di Vito on art, and the same low sales again.
However, I bought all of those comics, and so we’re bloody well going to talk about them because Paul Grist is a bloody good cartoonist. He has mastered the use of negative space, panel constructions, and pacing. His character designs are grand. In Jack Staff, he pulls off delightfully comic-book logos and names like nobody else: Detective Inspector Maveryk! Becky Burdock, Vampire Reporter! Special Military Intelligence Lethal Executive (S.M.I.L.E.)!
He’s also set all his superhero comics in Britain and gave one the rather tall order of being about “Britain’s Greatest Hero”. It’s an even taller order when Jack is wearing the British national flag as his costume. So what does he think it means to be Britain’s greatest hero? What is Britain in the world of Grist’s superhero comics?
Jack Staff is set in the fictional northern city of Castletown and is structured as a homage to old British anthology titles such as Future Tense, Forces In Combat, and Buster. Each scene change pretends to be an entirely new strip with all those delightful names and logos; our title character is the straight man of a large cast. He’s often not the main character in the stories, nor, despite his flag costume, is he an outwardly patriotic superhero. He doesn’t fight metaphorical representatives of British issues. Sure, he had a punch-up with Captain-America-but-a-vampire Sgt. States but it was a story about a vampire who hates him, not a metaphor for Anglo-American relations.
Mudman is a British superhero too but he’s not even wearing the flag, he’s fifteen-year-old Owen Craig with the power of being made out of mud. His stories are recognisably the tales of a teenage superhero doing a coming-of-age story – training, failing a big fight, having school bullies and being forced to save them, sneaking around his dad – and not an explicitly British Coming-of-Age ™.
Is nothing being said about the country in these comics? Or is there, and we just need to look harder?
Now The Union is much more loudly about the country. The hero Union Jack (who Jack Staff is visually based on) is the English member of a team of heroes from all four home nations, united under the walking national symbol Britannia. Representing the other nations, we have Kelpie for Scotland, the Choir for Wales, and Snakes for Northern Ireland – two of which are named for stereotypes and one is a joke that Saint Patrick missed a few serpents. When the comic was first announced, Wired dourly said the comic seemed to have “no hint of irony”, that R.B. Silva’s designs felt “feels curiously over-patriotic”, and the characters seemed “potentially nationalistic”.
In The Union #1, there is indeed no irony, and the heroes are indeed nationalistic – by design. Symbols of unionist patriotism are being forced because the government wants to bond the country together in the post-Scottish indie referendum, post-Brexit, post-Johnson, post-Northern Ireland Protocol world. None of the new heroes want to be involved. Very quickly, readers learned that under their enforced patriotic kitsch, these heroes don’t really symbolise anything. Kelpie is an amoral water demon, she’s not even a kelpie.
The Choir is a former low-rent supervillain covering up her cybernetic implants and she burns with self-loathing. Snakes is a bunch of snakes in a trenchcoat. Their rejected member Bulldog is a really grating symbol of Englishness but the bigger problem is he’s short, hairy, and loud; he’s implicitly off the team because we’d rather not look at him, he’s not the right image.
When the public actually sees the Union outside of curated photo ops, they’re horrified and disgusted. Union Jack’s usual role as a national symbol is undercut from the start, with the Choir explicitly questioning his right to hold it: “Call yourself Union Jack? You don’t represent us. Do you even know where Merthyr Tydfil is?”
So, if the nature of Grist’s Britain isn’t one of unthinking symbols or the state or enforced nationalism, then what is it?
In the ‘Echoes of Tomorrow’ story, Jack Staff has a final battle with his old wartime foe Kapitan Krieg, thrown into the modern day and being used as the host for a demon. The battle happens while our hero is doing his shopping and takes place in the carpark at Tesco. Outside of one joke, this isn’t much humour and no winking irony. The story isn’t going: whoa! A superhero fight in a Tesco car park! Isn’t that ironic? The demon in Tesco is the culmination of a dramatic, brutal fight and a multi-part story, and the story ends with Jack Staff making a grave for an unloved villain.
This is part of the nature of Britain: all the weird and fantastical is grounded in the banal and normal. Becky Burdock has been turned into a vampire and is subject to a mystical destiny! Does this change anything? No, her newspaper renamed her from Girl Reporter to Vampire Reporter and she still goes out to the shops. The evil Spider has retired, he still has a 1960s spy-fi lair and a load of trophies but it’s hidden away in a normal old man’s house. Mudman’s first fight was against two normal human bank robbers, his second is against an attack during detention, and he really only wants to graffiti stuff with his mate. DS Nolan’s childhood imaginary friends are crossing over into his normal crime stories, and then crashing on his sofa and ordering pizza. Bramble & Son, Vampire Hunter file taxes on vampire hunting (“we don’t earn enough to pay tax!”) Morlan the Mystic can see the future and writes horoscopes to pay his bills.
Castletown is a city of standard two-story houses and shops rather than any fancy buildings, while Mudman’s home is the uncool seaside town of Burnbridge-on-Sea where outsiders say there’s nothing to do except visit the tourist traps. Important and fantastic things happen there anyway. When Venoms invade the Earth, the Union fight to save Weston-Super-Mare, the sort of seaside community that’s often ignored in national discourse and politics except to talk about how left behind they are. (Paul Grist grew up around Sheffield and moved to Highbridge, near Burnham-on-Sea.)
Grist’s crime comic Burglar Bill ran a few back-up strips in Jack Staff, and you can see the same sensibility. The incident that sparks everything off is a small-time loser stealing a car radio. All of the twists and turns and crimes are down to the cassette tape in that radio, which has blackmail material on the city council. All the murders have happened due to something banal. And the blackmailer is a wrestler unhappy that City Hall will stop hosting wrestling matches; he wants to keep the graps going. Something banal and daft. But that doesn’t make the crimes any less criminal and the dead less dead.
Becky Burdock’s running plotline is wanting to get away from the weird and get to the normal. Sorry, Becky, there’s no normal that doesn’t include the weird. Even outside of the superhero work, Castletown was the site of a major Luftwaffe bombing; the town remained in ruins for years. Nowhere is safe.
Looking at the lead characters, Jack Staff fails a lot. We’re told “they” call him Britain’s Greatest Hero but Becky’s “not sure who ‘they’ are”. He gets beaten and the bad guys get away, he does the wrong thing, he doesn’t know what’s going on, he’s often tricked and manipulated… and despite his (empty) holster and superpowers, he mainly fights with a breakable stick. Union Jack gets it even worse. His team don’t care about him until they trust him, but nobody else in Britain seems to care regardless. The media are openly disappointed they have to interview him and not Britannia.
Are Grist’s explicit symbols of Britain losers? No. What they are is working class men. Staff’s secret identity of John Smith is a bricklayer, who in #1 suggests Jack Staff disappeared to “go and get a proper job”; he has taxes to do. Joe “Union Jack” Chapman is flagged up (ho ho) as being the first working class holder of this identity, and he lives in a flat above a shop rather than in any Jack Cave. The media doesn’t want to talk to the working-class Union Jack when there’s cooler people.
And as they often have with the working class, the government is pressuring Chapman to do what they want. Similarly, Jack Staff was forced to be a soldier in someone else’s war, and even though the war as a big cosmic conflict where he’d work for a supernatural entity called Mister Green, Grist’s art still portrays a battle like the Castletown Blitz: it’s all shattered houses and lost children and rubble. Our hero is disgusted: “People have lost their homes, their businesses … for what?” In his last published story, a time traveller’s sin is that she considered the life of a bricklayer to be an acceptable sacrifice. It’s not acceptable for Jack Staff.
They really are just some guys. Mudman is just some guy too, a kid going to his local comprehensive school. Castletown’s vampire hunter Alfred Bramble is a pastiche of Albert Steptoe from the sitcom Steptoe & Son, a daffy ‘dirty old man’ rag-and-bone salesman, an old comedic take on a specific working-class profession. But for all the jokes, Alfred still fights murderous corpses. He was still traumatised as a child in the Blitz. One of his comedic arguments with his son takes a dark turn when Albert, whose wife we never see or hear about, says he once thought there could be love in his life: “And I was wrong.” Yet, he still goes out at night.
In Weird World of Jack Staff #3, Professor Fate witnesses a vision of a battered Jack Staff in the final battle, when (we know from an earlier comic) most other heroes are already dead. He says Jack can’t defeat the enemy. “No,” says Morlan. “But he’s going to try anyway.”
How does Union Jack finally defeat the main villain of the miniseries? Cut out the mystical empowerment by Britannia and really, he just gets back up and thumps him. Britons, we’re told by Britannia at the start, have a defining characteristic: “When it seems like there’s no reason to go on… We’re just too stubborn to give up!”
Symbolic of this is the presence of the Home Guard in Jack Staff’s WW2 flashbacks. They’re very clearly meant to be the cast of generationally loved sitcom Dad’s Army, about old men preparing for a potential invasion. The basic joke is that this group of daffy old men with cheap equipment and a pompous boss were the people we hoped could hold back invaders for a bit. The underlying darkness of the joke is that they would all have died in the first hour. And they knew it. They’re a modern British symbol and myth.
In ‘Echoes of Tomorrow’, the Nazis are going to invade by teleporter. The superheroes fail. The invasion starts. We’re told this will be “the most important battle of the Second World War”, that it “lasted less than five minutes”. We’re told this after Nazi soldiers are seen storming into Castletown with only Dad’s Army in their way.
Two pages later, the Home Guard has the villain at gunpoint. “Your greatest heroes couldn’t stop me. Now they send children and old men?” Yes, and they’ve won: the volunteer platoon held back the invaders. Some normal guys would not give up and they won by bloody-mindedness.
This is Grist’s dream of Britain in these comics. People can be a bit off-kilter, a bit weird, a bit silly, but they’re still people – even if they’re a bunch of snakes in a trenchcoat – who still have to work for a living. What happens to them matters. And when there’s a problem and someone’s in trouble, the working man and woman, be they brickie, schoolboy, old man, pile of snakes, or vampire journo, those stubborn disrespected backbones of Britain will step up and do something, even if they can’t actually win. That’s what they do.
So if some bastard decides they want to make a fuss, well…