Jack of Hearts #1 - cover by George FreemanThe Jack of Hearts

(1983-1984 - 4 issues, published by Marvel Comics

Writer: Bill Mantlo. Art: George Freeman.

Jack of Hearts was a super hero who contained vast energy-powers, but could only keep them under control via his costume. Knocking around for a few years as a perennial guest star, he finally landed his own mini-series.

A morose Jack is kept confined as people (S.H.I.E.L.D., actually) try to figure out ways to prevent his ever escalating powers from destroying the world. But then he learns startling things about his origins -- like that his dead mother was actually from another planet, and said planet is in desperate need of a new energy source. Jack decides to leave for this new world with ex-girlfriend (and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man supporting character) Marcy Kane, who reveals she's more than he knew. However, there are some Shakespearian-like agendas and betrayals being pursued by various factions on the planet in question, building to a cosmic -- but downbeat -- resolution.

Written by Bill Mantlo who, I believe, created Jack, the story isn't so much a showcase for the character as a possible wrap up. And Mantlo, a writer I have mixed feelings about (I've liked some of his stuff, other stuff, not so much) seems into the thing, crafting a kind of atypical tale (for a super hero) with lots of high drama and big ideas, told with decent dialogue. He juggles the earth-based scenes of the first few issues, with its colloquial dialogue, and the later, more portentous speech patterns of the aliens (though makes the mistake of having Jack slide into similar language). There's some nice attempts at character complexity, and the story even takes on aspects of a parable. At the same time, like with some of Mantlo's other stuff, the pacing can lag at times, with characters seeming to repeat the same conversations, and the story not boasting as much complexity as it maybe thinks it has. Although one can appreciate the parable nature, it also makes for a story that seems, at first blush, as though it's straining to create conflict, where no conflict is necessary (but I realize that's kind of the message).

The art by George Freeman is enormously effective. In fact, when I first picked this up it was because of Freeman's art (having been a fan of his Captain Canuck work). Freeman's an unusual artist, at once strange and stylized, while also being atmospheric and evocative -- like an Impressionist, he captures realism through the backdoor. There's a breathtaking mood at work throughout, with Freeman having a great eye for scenes, selecting the right close up, or long shot, to capture a moment (though sometimes his action scenes can be a bit confusing). A panel of Marcy speaking to Jack in issue #1 while, in the same frame, we see her image on a monitor screen, nicely captures the sense that, even during their intimate moments they have no privacy -- a sense aided by letterer John Morelli''s decision to show her dialogue emerging from both her and the screen. Granted, Freeman's use of a thin and light inking style can render some of the backgrounds as almost ghostly impressions, but re-reading the series recently, I know it's Freeman's art that contributes to the story's success. I liked him as a kid but, as an adult, I'm inclined to nudge him into the circle of the truly greats.

Ultimately, thanks to Mantlo's seeming conviction, and Freeman's atmospheric art, Jack of Hearts is a pretty good read. Although the story was maybe intended to be a finale for the character, I think he's still around in Marvel continuity.