GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "U" - Page Two

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cover by CassadayUnion Jack 2002 (SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Ben Raab, John Cassaday. Illustrated by John Cassaday.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting: the first, three issue Union Jack mini-series (1998-1999)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

British super hero Union Jack was introduced in the retro, WW II-era series, The Invaders, where the concept of a costume passed from one generation of the Falsworth family to the next was established. Then a Captain America story (circa the early 1980s) introduced the modern Union Jack, who was Joey Chapman -- not a Falsworth, but a friend of the family. And Joe is the star here.

As Union Jack's first time headlining, there is an explanation of this background in the story for newer readers -- but not fully. I'm not sure how much writers Raab and Cassaday are bringing to the mythos, and how much might have been established in some other series where Jack might've been featured (nor what those series might've been -- though I think he was part of The Knights of Pendragon). He has an ex-girlfriend here, but whether the writers just thought it would be a quirky relationship to have an "ex", or whether there had been previous stories showing them as a couple, I don't know. Or at one point Joey thinks about the "power of pendragon"...when originally, Union Jack had no powers other than natural strength and athleticism.

Anyway, Union Jack spends a lot of time fighting vampires -- that seems to be his raison d'etre heree. As well, he continues to hang about with the Falsworth family, including his best friend, Kenneth. And, again, I'm not sure whether Raab and Cassaday are reinventing the characters, because here Kenneth is a sickly, embittered anemic...which wasn't how he was depicted in that old Captain America story.

Anyway (part II) Jack discovers a cult of vampires are up to no good, with a plan that seems to involve the Falsworths...and a Quest for the Holy Grail which the vampires believe will give them great power.

And it's not that this is terrible...but it does seem rather thin and undeveloped. And that's frustrating given it was presented with a certain prestige (each issue 32 pages, without ads).

You might assume this was intended to test the waters and possibly kick start a monthly series...but if so, Raab and Cassaday do very little to establish a foundation for an on going series. There's little effort to create a reality in which the character lives (what does he do for a living?) or a supporting cast of the kind that would sustain an on going series. Characters here are either pre-existing...or exist just enough to satisfy a plot point. Identifying Kenneth as his "best" friend doesn't quite convince since Kenneth spends so much of the time bitter and snarky, you hardly get a sense of camaraderie. And are there really enough vampires running about that Union Jack can devote all his time to hunting them...and if not, what other crimes does he involve himself with?

And Joey's personality doesn't really distinguish him from any other hero-in-tights. An underlining theme (as the two American writers attempt to portray British society) is Joey as the working class hero among the blue bloods. But they don't write Joey's dialogue with much of a working class lilt -- which might've been because they felt it would slide into camp ("wot 'er, guvnor -- blimey!"). But as such...we don't get much of a visceral feel for the class contrast they're talking about. They're better at describing the themes than depicting them.

There are meant to be deeper themes and emotional undercurrents, especially revolving around Kenneth's frailty and bitterness. But though you understand they are there, you don't necessarily feel them, the emotional/character bits -- like the characters themselves -- bare-bones-serviceable, rather then artfully realized.

Which then brings us to the plot, which is likewise pretty bare bones. When dealing with a semi-established hero and his pre-existing lore, and with vampires, there's a tendency to be referential. But there's a fine line between "tradition" (the title of the opening chapter)...and cliche. So once again the spectre of the Falsworth family's nemesis, Baron Blood, is evoked. Once more we are treated to scenes and imagery evoking previous adventures (in Invaders #7-9, Captain America #253-254, but not as effectively)...not to mention just vampire stories in general, like "Dracula". And, of course, there's the Holy Grail itself. I had initially assumed they had come up with this because of Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code" but realized the mini-series was actually published a few years earlier (though around the same time as Batman: The Scottish Connection which, though not utilizing the Grail, was nonetheless playing in a similar sandbox of British history and Templar lore). But still...the Grail? And which, quite conveniently, is kept on public display in a British museum!?! Why not throw in Excalibur while you're at it mining British cliches?

There's little in the way of surprises or twists or turns throughout. Or even much logic, even aside from the Grail-in-a-museum thing (which might not have seemed so banal if Raab and Cassaday has used it as part of some grand, pulp fiction-style quest -- but, dude, the local museum???) There are also things like the vampires staging an attack on a society party...for no reason that seems apparent by the end. Or the fact that sickly, anemic Kenneth is seen hanging out with a vampire queen (which takes us pretty much where we expect it too) -- but doesn't really seem to prod Jack into any more drastic an action than to have a talk with Kenneth's mum!

As an artist, Cassaday can be quite impressive, with realist faces and figures -- and with hints of John Byrne's early style that may or may not be deliberate (Byrne having drawn the Captain America story that introduced Joey/UJ). At the same time, I did find it a little unsatisfying at times. It can be a bit stiff and though he tries admirably at times, I didn't think he quite evoked the spooky/horror tone that a story about vampires kind of demands (the colourist's decision to use a lot of dull and sombre colours makes the images bland rather than sinister). And often his figures will be placed against rather nebulous, Spartan backdrops. And given that an American comic about a British hero should kind of milk the "exoticness" of the environment, he didn't conjure up a sense of Merry Old England as a result.

Also frustrating is the way the story builds to a bit of a non-ending. Oh, there is a climax of sorts. But it leaves some stuff dangling, as if Raab and Cassaday were intending to follow up on it. But whether they did somewhere, I don't know. The next Union Jack mini-series was about seven years later, by another writer, and billed as "re-defining the character for the 21st Century", implying this story didn't necessarily establish the template for the character's future adventures.

Cover price: $__CDN./ $11.50 USA.


coverUnion Jack: London Falling 2007 (SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Christos N. Gage. Pencils by Mike Perkins. Inks by Andrew Hennessy.
Colours: Laura Villari. Letters: Cory Petit. Editors: Andy Schmidt, Daniel Ketchum.

Reprinting: Union Jack (2006 mini-series) #1-4 - with covers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

Union Jack is I believe, technically, Marvel's first British super hero, having premiered in the pages of The Invaders a year or two before the debut of Captain Britain -- albeit, that Jack was an earlier generation version. And the fact that Marvel has two flag-themed Brits is a bit awkward, as adventures featuring them seem to involve an inordinant number of characters waxing on about how he alone (substitute Union Jack or Captain Britain) represents the soul and heart of England!

Anyway, the modern Union Jack is working class Joey Chapman, who fights evil with skill and athleticism, as well as a dagger and a World War I era pistol. But despite the concept having originated over three decades ago, Union Jack has remained a peripheral player, cropping up as an occasional guest star. His only previous self-titled mini-series (the TPB collection is reviewed above) emphasized him as a vampire hunter.

Clearly that didn't really register much with readers. So this story -- which the back cover proclaims "redefines Union Jack for the 21st Century" -- acknowledges the vampire background with a perfunctory opening scene where Jack, apparently, rids London of its last vampires. Thus making way for the more political/espionage/TV's "24" style adventure, which is "London Falling" (a play on the title of an old Clash album...or British radio broadcasts during WW II -- take your pick, depending on how far back you figure Marvel's collective memory goes).

A new terrorist group, RAID, is looking to make a name for itself with a series of attacks on London, spearheaded by a bunch of second string super villains. MI5 gets wind of it, and recruits Jack to thwart it. Most of the obvious super heroes are unavailable, so Jack is teamed with an unlikely crew -- American SHIELD secret agent (and Nick Fury's sometimes girlfriend) Val, Israeli heroine Sabre, and Saudi Arabian hero the Arabian Knight -- all minor characters who have appeared before in Marvel comics (well, this is a new version of the Arabian Knight).

Things don't quite go as planned and instead of preventing the terrorist attacks, they're more just trying to limit the destruction of them, while battling a succession of villains.

And the result...is mixed.

On the plus side, it's certainly an okay, fast paced page turner. The dialogue is decent enough. American writer Christos N. Gage does a fair job of evoking a sense of the English milieu, in dialect and scenes, without sliding overmuch into corny caricature. And after all, what's the point of British-set American comics if they don't feel like they're set in England? He also evokes a sense of the social-thematic undercurrent, of Joey as the working class hero. Joey/Jack is a perfectly agreeable hero, smart and principaled, with do or die determination. The art by Mike Perkins (and inker Andrew Hennessy, aided a lot by colourist Laura Villari) is attractive and realist, anchoring the tale in real world feel without sacrificing mood and atmosphere. It reminds me a bit of Steve Epting or Jackson Guice (Perkins inked some of Guice's stuff on the old Ruse series). Admittedly, at times the figures can seem a bit stiff, or awkward, but mainly it's nice, effective work.

With all that going for it, London Falling is still more okay rather than anything greater.

I think super hero comics are fine if they just want to be fun fantasies about heroes and colourful villains. I think they can be equally fine if they want to tackle serious real world issues. And I'm also happy if the writer tries to stake out a middle ground, wrapping a real issue in a fantasy metaphor. But sometimes it works better than other times. I suspect the decision to jettison the vampire angle, and to tell a story about "terrorist" attacks, is meant to give the story a grittier, weightier edge. But by making the "terrorists" an apolitical organization (when terrorists usually have ideological motivations), and with costume villains (who seem to have no motivation, despite all the destruction and murder), it just seems to swipe terminology from the headlines...and apply them rather superficially to the same old comic book villainy. Here WMDs...turn out to be robots! Even the idea of having Jack teamed with an Israeli and Arabic hero, though leading to the inevitable tension and bickering between the two, never really raises the story to any particular heights of political insight.

Jack, though a likeable enough lead, isn't especially charismatic or interesting...yet he's in no danger of being overshadowed by his co-stars. Val, Sabre, and the Arabian Knight are perfectly okay characters...but a touch bland and non-descript, in personality and costumes (even the powers of Sabre and the Knight -- the only two super beings among the four -- aren't really articulated). In fact, given the Knight wields a sword, and Jack and Val guns, it's unclear how come they aren't apparently killing anyone!

At one point Jack encounters Batroc, a super villain with a conscience who wants no part of the terrorist villainy. Batroc's part is pretty minor, but it might have made an interesting dynamic if he had actually stuck around, reluctantly joining the heroes.

And maybe the thin characterization is betrayed by the plot -- 'cause there isn't much of one. It's fast paced with lots of action and running about, but that's all it really amounts to. A lot of action and running about. There's no plot that has to be unfolded, no mystery that has to be puzzled out, no motivation that has to be understood -- even with a final act revelation. A bunch of one note villains start blowing things up and a bunch of two-note heroes spend eighty pages stopping them. It's like an old movie serial...except we aren't even waiting for some hooded mastermind to be unmasked (like you had in dozens of old serials).

That isn't to say there aren't some nicely staged action scenes, sequences where Jack -- who, after all, has no super powers and so might seem like an odd guy to lead the charge in this situation -- has to out strategize his foes. The action keeps you turning the pages, even as the lack of a greater plot doesn't exactly have you flipping eagerly forward, to see where the story's headed. Even the idea of Jack and his team being put through the wringer doesn't really form a narrative arc. We're told they're getting banged about, and bruising ribs, and occasionally take time out to lie on medical gurneys, but there's little demonstration in how they act that they're any less fresh and fit by the final fight than they were at the first fight, despite the whole adventure taking place over just a few hours..

I'd argue that this Union Jack story probably does a better job of establishing the character and his personality than had the previous (reviewed above -- remember?) -- but better isn't quite the same as great. Though substituting terrorist super villains for vampires may be an attempt to make the character more mainstream...it might also rob him of his own particular sandbox of the Marvel universe he could play in.

Nothing here makes me say Jack is a bad character or would be incapable of carrying his own series. But as with the previous series, little here makes me say that he could, either.

London Falling is an okay page turner...but given it's been three or four years since it was released, and no follow up Union Jack series has hit the shelves, one has to assume that as an attempt to "redefine" the property for the 21st Century...it didn't quite hit the target.

Cover price: $__CDN./ $10.95 USA.


coverUntold Tales of the New Universe 2006 (SC TPB) 158 pages

Written & illustrated by various.

Reprinting: Untold Tales of the New Universe one-shots (Star Brand, Justice, Nightmask, DP7, Psi-Force) plus short tales from Amazing Fantasy (2000+ series) #18, 18, New Avengers #16 featuring Spitfire, Marc Hazzard MERC, and Kickers, Inc. (with most covers) (2006)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: July, 2011

Additional notes: a two-page overview of the New Universe universe and series.

Published by Marvel Comics

The "New Universe" was an audacious project in the 1980s done to coincide with Marvel Comics' 25th anniversary (well, the 25th anniversary since the start of the "Marvel Age" -- Marvel having existed since the 1940s, but under different names). A series of new comics were started, set in their own universe separate from the regular Marvel one populated by Spider-Man, the X-Men, etc.

And, at least initially, it was regarded as mainly a critical and commercial failure.

Yet clearly nostalgia has softened the initial negatives, as within the last few years, Marvel has released a few TPBs collecting some of those old New Universe comics. And then it released a series of one-shots revisiting the characters and concepts by new creators -- those one-shots, as well as a few short tales, being collected in this TPB. In fact, pretty much the whole of the New Universe line is represented here -- despite a back cover that only refers to five of the series (Star Brand, Psi-Force, DP7, Nightmask and Justice). That's because those five each got their own full length one-shot, but Spitfire, Marc Hazzard and Kickers, Inc. appear here, too -- in short, 8 page stories.

I've read issues from four of the eight series -- so for me this collection is a mix of familiar characters and unfamiliar ones. As mentioned, the New Universe was mainly a failed experiment. Part of the problem was many of the series were rushed into production before they were ready. So the comics (many only running a year or two) were plagued by changing creative teams, aimless storylines, or premises that seemed to change direction in mid-stride. Part of the point was to take the "realism" of the Marvel Age of super-heroes and ratchet it up to the next degree, where the characters didn't wear costumes, and spent as much time brooding about their place in the world as they did fighting bad guys. The early Star Brand was written by then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and it seemed, in a way, the most sure footed and comfortable with this conceit -- but that may've been because Shooter was the only one who really "got" what the New Universe idea was about.

Anyway, now jump ahead to these batch of "untold" tales. The intents vary from story to story -- some are just meant to evoke the old series, some are meant to literally fill in gaps in the old plots. Some treat the properties seriously...some spoof them.

In the case of Jeff Parker's Star Brand, it seems like he's spoofing the whole enterprise. Admittedly, humour is a hall mark of a lot of Parker's stuff, even when sent in the regular Marvel Universe. But in this case he presents a story where Ken Connell (Star Brand) encounters an inter-dimensional researcher who explains how super heroes are real in other dimensions, and teases Ken for his ineffectiveness and dithering, the story self-reflectively commenting on how odd his supporting cast was, etc. Parker doesn't seem to realize that the "oddness" of the supporting cast, the aimlessness of Ken, the often anti-climactic stories was kind of Shooter's point originally -- to present a "real" super hero comic where everything doesn't fit easily into familiar, convenient narrative grooves. As such, it's a kind of odd tale -- not really interesting as a stand alone plot, mainly aimed at people familiar with the old series...even as it just exists to mock the old series.

On the opposite extreme, perhaps, is the Nightmask one-shot. Nightmask apparently changed direction in mid-stream...literally leaving a storyline unresolved and ignored as the comic moved in a new direction. So this is meant to act as a "lost" tale, resolving a 25 year old cliffhanger and explaining what happened between issues #4 and #5. The story has Nightmask -- who can enter the dreamplane -- having a final showdown with a recurring enemy. Though no doubt fun for old time fans frustrated by that editorial omission, the story itself isn't much more than an extended fight scene -- it's a little more than that, but not much. Kind of bland for something more than two decades in the making!

The better tales are the ones that evoke the old series but with stand alone plots that don't require overt familiarity with the series. Though even here, the plots are a bit thin. In DP7, the heroes come to a Native Indian reserve (where, in true comic book fashion, these 20th Century Indians still dress in buckskin and beads) which is being over run by zombies. Yes, it's nice that it's a stand alone plot, but it's a pretty thin plot -- it's not even clear what the villain's motive is, or her goal! Psi-Force, likewise, certainly provides a decent sample of the old series, but, of course, as mentioned, these old series weren't that well regarded anyway, so is a "decent" example enough? Justice, about a vigilante anti-hero (essentially The Punisher with super powers) is written by Peter David, who had written for the old series. Basically attempting to explore the morality of the hero's actions (or the immorality) it more ends up an okay vignette rather than truly justifying the feature length treatment.

The short tales are more of the same, though the Kickers, Inc. one maybe works the best, being fast paced and with adventure -- though whether the story, in which the heroes battle demons in hell, is really true to the spirit of the New Universe, I'm not sure.

The New Universe series underwent various changes in direction, with changing creative teams and editorial edicts. At the back of this collection is a text piece outlining the whole of the New Universe continuity...indicating it really did go off in radically different directions (even eventually being folded into the Marvel multi-verse). But most of these tales are set mainly amid the earlier issues of the various series -- perhaps suggesting that for all the changes, the lingering affection is for how the series started out. In the case of the Spitfire story, I think it's actually set just before the series proper started (though I'd have to check my old issues). Though the lion' share of these stories are readable for casual fans, or even those unfamiliar with the New Universe -- most of the plots self-contained, and origins recapped -- there are still the occasional cryptic references that I suspect are meant to have resonance for fans, maybe foreshadowing later issues (in the Spitfire story, her father remarks flippantly that something will only happen over his "dead body"...and, as I recall, he was dead in the regular comic).

The "retro" aspect of the stories, set in the 1980s, can make sly social and political points. When the Psi-Force issue (written by Tony Bedard) opens with Afghan warriors firing at a helicopter it's supposed to be a bit of a surprise when we realize these are the "good" guys shooting at a Russian helicopter. Later in that same issue, a CIA agent refers to America's ally, Saddam Hussein. It's a clever way of using the readers' hindsight/foresight to add layers to the story.

The art in this collection varies, from the deliberately rough and cartoony art of Javier Pulido on the Star Brand issue, and other artists with a modern, cartoony look (like Arnold Pander on Nightmask) to artists with more realist styles that evoke the realist art styles used on the old series, including Russ Braun (who has a slightly John Severin-ish vibe on his Psi-Force issue) and old pro M.D. Bright on the DP7 issue (though he seems to have developed a slight cartoonish aspect over the years, with disproportionately big heads). Some artists I was unfamiliar with, others are old veterans like Marshall Rogers (on the Spitfire short).

Ultimately, as a sample of the old comics, this is a decent enough collection, covering most of the New Universe range -- albeit evoking mainly their earlier incarnations. It gives you a feel for the old series, with mainly self-contained stand alone plots. Yet maybe it just draws attention to the problems of the old series -- because not too many of the stories actually kindled any interest on my part to seek out the series I was unfamiliar with, and, indeed, reminded me of some of the problems with the series I had read. And Star Brand -- the best of the old New Universe comics I had read -- here is actually treated the least respectfully!

Cover price: $15.99 USA.


Unity
   see review here
 

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