“Enemies of the Crown”
Writer: Christos N. Gage
Artist: Mike Perkins (p), Andrew Hennesy (i), Laura Villari (colors)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Editor’s Note: The first issue of the Union Jack limited series will appear in stores this Wednesday, September 20.
SPOILER WARNING: The following reviews discuss plot developments of the issue.
The new Union Jack joins a hastily-composed team to fight a new terrorist threat that’s employed supervillains. Jack, Sabra, The Contessa, and the new Saladin must stop the bombing of Parliament. Although successful, they learn that wasn’t the only target. Jack tries to save the common people ignored by the aristocracy but only puts them in further danger.
Couple of great things about this comic. First, Gage makes the threat of terrorism scarier in the Marvel Universe than in the real world. The terrorists employ villains with a variety of deadly skills, as well as a man made of electricity. Think about it: a man able to disrupt security checkpoints, cameras, metal detectors, and computer systems to enable criminals to enter the country armed and undetected. Now imagine that those criminals have superhuman strength, reflexes, exotic weaponry, or mystic talismans. Kind of makes Al-Qaeda look like pikers, doesn’t it?
Second, there’s a great twist on the old “protecting the rich and ignoring the poor” plot point. Jack is driven by his defense of the working class. This helps make him uniquely British. His desire to help people evacuate is noble, but it only leads to further death. His boss had secretly told politicians and other wealthy people to leave the city quietly. Jack is understandably upset that the lives of the wealthy would be valued more than the lives of regular people. But when his boss said he wanted to avoid a panic, he might have meant it. That’s exactly what happens. And the terrorists were counting on it.
Finally, Union Jack brings back The Contessa, long-time girlfriend of Nick Fury. Nice to see her back in action. There’s also the beginnings of a new character arc for her. We may see more of her personality than we have in years. In fact, all these characters work great on the team. Sabra and the Arabian Knight have the typical Jew/Muslim hate, plus the Knight’s sexism. But there is the seed of respect between the two.
So Union Jack is like an international 24 with superpowers and a bit of British flavor. Great dark art from Andrews and Hennesy. Action, drama, class warfare, irony, a few twists, and even a couple of vampires. Definitely worth the 3 bucks.
A B-lister from humble beginnings, Union Jack is one of Marvel’s few Great Britain superheroes. So what happens when a new terrorist organization is about to flex its muscle on the shores of this island nation? You call the Avengers.
But if the Avengers are involved in a “Secret Infinity War,” you call anyone you damn well can. That’s the setup of Union Jack. Spinning out of his recent appearance in Captain America, Union Jack has to be one of the most unknown of all of Marvel’s heroes. I mean, if you’re second fiddle to Captain Britain, you should know something’s up. However, we get enough backstory and exposition here to adequately introduce the character to new readers, while not making older readers (I would say both of you, but that would be overestimating) yawn and wonder why they wasted money on this issue. The writing is solid, the characters are somewhat memorable, to the extent that you don’t have to go back every few pages and find out who that girl with the big boobs and spandex is. Sure, you can rack it up to stereotypes, but no more so than any movie or TV show around these days.
One thing about this issue that pleasantly surprised me was the quantity, and quality, of the action. Usually the first issue of anything has a bunch of talk, some vague threats and tells you to come back next month. Here though there are several scenes of action, some of which are even related to the main plot! Congratulations Marvel, finally you realize that I buy comics for entertainment (and that means stuff getting blown up) and not just to hear people tossing paragraphs at each other. It’s also nice to know that the narrative flows at a good pace, and I am actually somewhat interested in what happens next. A rarity for a new series, much less one starring a rarely used character.
The art in this issue is solid in-house Marvel style, which suits the book just fine. Characters are expressive, the inking is bright without loosing mood, and is much more realistic than say, the DC in-house style. Sure, you aren’t going to remember the art as some masterpiece years from now, but it does its job admirably with relatively few complaints.
It’s nice to see a genuinely fresh new book on the market, one not relating to some mega-crossover event, or reeling from it. Union Jack is likable and reminds us that it’s okay to have a little fun reading your comics instead of analyzing them for Shakespearean references and cameos. Union Jack is a rare treat from a publisher so obsessed with a Civil War that it can barely give the time of day to anything else, which makes it just the more satisfying.
I was prepared to dislike this comic, because as a Brit, my nation is usually quite ill-served by Marvel and DC. Seeing yet another non-Brit writer assigned to a British character, I assumed more of the same would be forthcoming. But while this comic has numerous quite damaging flaws, none of them are due to dodgy Mary Poppins-esque portrayals of British life. Instead, this comic suffers from gratuitously inept characterisation and ugly plotting. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
The supporting cast, particularly Sabra and Arabian Knight, seem to be included only so Christos Gage can strive for literary relevance by indulging in some political commentary; the problem being that said commentary is heavy-handed and superficial and is more of an embarrassment than a feature of which to be proud. Gage seems to see nationalities as a handy characterisation shortcut, apparently unaware that this approach reduces the characters to (occasionally insulting) stereotypes and ciphers, so we get another tiresome portrayal of the French as traitors and cowards, and of Islam as a religion of misogyny and violence. Gage’s attempt to define Union Jack in terms of the British class system is similarly clumsy and wrong-headed; if nothing else, the character is wrapped in a symbol of the establishment and the ruling classes, so all his talk of the plight of the common man would come across as hollow and confused even if it weren’t so inconsistently handled. It’s lazy and cheap writing, and when the whole premise of the series is based around international political intrigue, the writer needs to do a much better job.
The plotting, while not quite as egregious as the characterisation, is nonetheless clunky and illogical; I suppose that it’s just about feasible that Gage is going for some kind of clever satire when he has MI5 send a man wrapped in a somewhat famous flag and another dressed like Sinbad on a “secret” mission in the centre of London, but if so, the point of it escapes me. Also somewhat perplexing is the same agency’s assertion that Jack is the only one who can save London, followed by a threat to arrest him until after “the crisis has passed” unless he agrees to do the job. Quite who will be doing all the saving if the only people available to do it are in jail is a question that is, lamentably, not answered. It therefore comes as no surprise that the villains of the piece belong to a “terrorist” group with no discernable social/political goals beyond proving how tough they are, which they do by avoiding the US and picking on a weaker nation instead. There is precious little evidence that any of this has been thought through in any particular depth.
The art team does a considerably better job, maintaining a style that’s just realistic enough to suit the espionage angle but that can also comfortably accommodate the costumed theatrics later in the issue. That said, it may have been a good idea to either redesign the Union Jack suit or use one of the other previous versions, as Mike Perkins’ realistic style does make it look a bit awkward, particularly on the title page, which appears to depict some form of superhero wedgie. I think Cyclops finally has a rival for gimpiest pervert suit in the Marvel Universe.
I applaud the attempt to do something different with Union Jack and distance him from his well worn vampire-hunting roots, but due to the simplistic and naive approach taken, the Tom Clancy shenanigans come across as ill-fitting and unconvincing. Ed Brubaker is having a much more successful go at the spy/superhero sub-genre over in Captain America, Union Jack has had more entertaining, albeit vampire-soaked, outings in the past, and the story of a broadly similar character is told in an infinitely better manner in Image’s Jack Staff; only a Union Jack completist need bother with this, and I doubt there are many of them around.
Following his guest spot in the most recent arc of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, Union Jack gets his own miniseries by newcomer Christos Gage (Law and Order). All in all, it’s an impressive debut both for the character and for Gage.
My knowledge of Union Jack can be summed up in four words: “wears flag, kills vampires.” The bastard child of Captain Britain and Blade? Maybe, but Gage does away with that whole premise in the first few pages. It’s a rather clever sequence where Joey Chapman, our protagonist, destroys the last vampires in London; this both acknowledges Union Jack’s past while effectively making way for more “earthly” concerns. And in keeping with the tone established in Brubaker’s “Twenty-First Century Blitz,” the problem of the day is terrorism: a group of Z-list supervillains have banded together to launch attacks on London, and MI-6 gathers a bunch of international superspies to counter the threat.
I imagine the more conservative fanbase will frown on this intrusion of reality into the Marvel Universe…, but I think this is one instance where it doesn’t feel bolted on. In my opinion, there’s always been a bit of “friction” when the MU or the DCU attempt to tackle real-life incidents; Straczynski’s 9-11 tribute in Amazing Spider-Man, however well-intentioned, came off as rather silly, especially when Doctor Doom and Magneto stand at the ruins, bawling their eyes out. There’s no real meaning in that, because these fictional universes are not mirrors of our own world. But Gage has found an intriguing way around that - rather than pit superheroes against the Al-Qaeda, as a certain misguided ex-legend plans to, obscure supervillains are being repositioned as mercenary terrorists themselves. That makes enough sense to pull off the parallel.
Interestingly, Gage doesn’t seem to be approaching this as a Union Jack story, as Joey Chapman is only a single figure in an ensemble cast, comprised of such bit characters as Sabra, Contessa Valentina Allegro de Fontaine and a new Arabian Knight. On the one hand, it’s certainly a diverse bunch, and there’s so much that can be done with that, but I’m a bit concerned Gage might be overreaching; given the relatively limited length of this miniseries (four issues), it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be able to balance everything out. Then again, maybe he will - we’ll probably know for sure next month.
In any case, the dialogue is tight and effective (aside from two clumsy exchanges between the Arabian Knight and Sabra), and Gage does an excellent job in setting up the dominoes. Based on this opening chapter, Union Jack has the potential to offer an exciting action story, with a threat that’s extremely credible without being too over-the-top.
If it’s not the newest social experiment on the Survivor reality show, it’s the newest Marvel series about Great Britain. There must be something in the water that’s making all of the creators delve into the depths of social stereotypes such as putting an Israeli woman who lost her son in a Palestinian terrorism attack on the same ad hoc team as an unknown male chauvinist Saudi warrior with a chip on his shoulder about not being anti-terrorist enough for the Israeli.
Anyway, the basic premise is that the JV superheroes are called in when the British Empire needs them most. Everyone else is on assignment elsewhere, and it’s up to Union Jack and his rag-tag bunch of B-listers to get the job done. It seems that Hydra is no longer the threat it once was due to Wolverine and Elektra, so a new group, R.A.I.D., had come to London to make a name for themselves by wreaking havoc on a wide swath of the city.
Unfortunately, the book really just doesn’t have anything to offer me. The artwork was descent enough, but there was just too much clumsy dialogue sprinkled with pseudo-British jargon. The worn conflict between the hero of the commoners and the mouthpiece of the rich and powerful where too little information is given to our band of heroes just plays into the sense of “how many times have we been here already?” Save your money and buy just about anything else. You’ll be money ahead…
Now this is what I’m talking about!
Union Jack has knocked it out of the park with this first issue. I was truly surprised. I mean, I’m familiar with the character thanks to his guest starring role in Ed Brubaker’s recent and excellent “Twenty-First Century Blitz” story arc in Captain America, but I never really considered him that interesting, nor did I think he could support even a miniseries. Boy, was I wrong.
This issue is fast paced, quick, and engaging. After disposing of some vampires the Marvel way (Silver bullets. That kills werewolves, not vamps! Sorry, pet peeve.), M15 agent Joseph Chapman, Union Jack, is called into help counter planned terrorist activities on London. He’s put in charge of an international task force of heroes and has to find a way to not only stop the terrorists, but save his people. Yeah, that doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, this issue is jam-packed with a ton of great features. Gage uses the first few pages to provide some insight into who Joseph Chapman is as a person before kicking the story into high gear.
Gage has created an awesome cast for this miniseries. Carrying over from his recent appearance in Captain America is Chapman’s boss Gavin, who maintains the same dry humor and sensibility that I enjoyed when Brubaker wrote him. You’ve also got none other than Nick Fury’s love interest the Contessa acting as Shield’s liaison to the UK. Meanwhile, there’s the visiting heroes of Israel and Saudi Arabia: Sabra and a new Arabian Knight, respectively. Yet, the best thing is, even with this great cast, none of the focus is taken off of Chapman. He’s still the working class man of the British people, and his determination to save his fellow Brits provides a strong motivation that looks to have caused quite a problem by the end of the issue.
Now while the main plot of the story is this make-shift team going up against terrorists, Gage manages to throw in plenty of great subplots and fun bits to keep any skeptical reader satisfied. Gavin and Chapman are constantly bickering, and it’s not really annoying. Gavin’s got a more political approach befitting his position, and Chapman’s more concerned about the safety of his people. Meanwhile, some extremely amusing jokes are made about the Marvel Universe’s USA, as Gavin throws out a great reference to the “Infinity Gauntlet,” and the Contessa and Chapman muse on Nick Fury’s continued absence from the current world. Then of course there’s the arguments between the Israeli Sabra and the Arabic Arabian Knight. Now I’m not trying to get political or anything, but this idealogical difference was handled perfectly. I’m half Israeli, but I’m not anti-Palestinean, so I was extremely pleased to see both characters portrayed in a positive light, and not as a generic stereotype. Both of them have reasons for what they do, and it’s believable.
The art in this issue is outstanding. Perkins has great talent. His characters look realistic. Union Jack doesn't look like he’s the Hulk or anything, and even the more “wild man” type Arabian Knight is muscular enough to believe. He bears a good resemblance to Oded Fehr, not that I mind. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell the Contessa and Sabra apart, considering that they are both long dark haired women with no real distinguishing features. Still, Perkins pulls through. His faces are also enjoyable. Gavin comes off as stressed out with a nice cold and calculating manner. Even Union Jack, who wears a full face mask, is able to convey expression. And the backgrounds are great too. I don’t really like it when an artist skimps on the details in the setting, but Perkins delivers the goods.
All in all, this is the most enjoyable comic I’ve read all week, and certainly the second best title Marvel has put out after Captain America. For a first issue, this not only catches the readers’ attention, but keeps them entertained. There’s no gimmick or crossover here, just straight forward, exciting story telling. There’s a great cast of characters, a spy-thriller feel, and some wonderful action. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a new book or some butt-kicking-Brit action.
What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!