Friday, May 16, 2014


Writers: Ben Raab & John Cassaday | Artist: John Cassaday
Colors: Dave Stewart | Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft/OS
Editor: Tom Brevoort | Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras
With Acknowledgment to the Work of Roy Thomas & Frank Robbins

In the final few years of the twentieth century, Marvel put out several mini-series which read like "pilot episodes" for revivals of various series. There was a WARLOCK series by Tom Lyle. Two MOON KNIGHT series by his creator, Doug Moench. But the brightest gem among these, so to speak, was UNION JACK by Ben Raab and John Cassaday.

Raab seems to have a rep as a typical hack writer from the nineties. While I was not enamored with his one ongoing series, EXCALIBUR, I found his numerous limited series and one-shots to range from good to great. His dialogue is fine -- I would go so far as to say a cut above some of his contemporaries from this era. And the trait I value most in any comic book writer -- his knowledge of past continuity and/or developments in concurrent series, coupled with a great ability to use that knowledge for springboards to new stories -- is outstanding.

Teamed with the brilliant John Cassaday on co-plot and artwork, Raab turns in a wonderful continuation to the legend of Joey Chapman. Joey has not changed much since we last saw him in CAPTAIN AMERICA -- a nice benefit to picking up a largely neglected character even after a decade-plus. He's certainly become more comfortable in the role of Union Jack, and he got a haircut at some point, but that's almost the extent of it. The only other change is noted via a throwaway line, as Joey remarks that he now possesses the "Power of Pendragon" -- a reference to the super-strength he gained in Marvel U.K.'s KNIGHTS OF PENDRAGON series. It is this power which allows Joey to survive battles with vampires.

And there are vampires aplenty in this series! Raab and Cassaday have essentially created a new status quo for Joey as "Union Jack: Vampire Hunter", a role which fits him unexpectedly well. Joey notes via narration that he has killed "hundreds" of the undead creatures since taking up the late Lord Falsworth's superheroic mantle.

The vampires in this story are servants of the Baroness, revealed as the heretofore unknown second daughter of Doctor Cromwell, the village physician who Baron blood had impersonated in CAPTAIN AMERICA #253-254. Blood had turned the girl on the same night he killed her father and sister, and she has laid low ever since. But now she is intent on carrying on his legacy. She begins by turning Kenneth Chrichton, who we learn now suffers from a rare form of anemia and is desperate for a reason to live. The Baroness gives it to him -- he may have lost his chance at upholding the family legacy of Union Jack, but he can still become the new Baron Blood.

The story born from this plot gives us two friends, who were once like brothers, at each other's throats (literally). Ken was originally fine with Joey becoming Union Jack, but resentment has simmered for years. He wants to be strong like Joey, and accepts the Baroness's offer of immortality. With Ken's help alongside her vampire hordes, the Baroness procures the Holy Grail and drinks from it, an act which removes her vampiric limitations, allowing her to move freely during the day. She then crushes the grail before any of her vampires, Ken included, can take a sip of their own. The last time we see the Baroness, she is pregnant with Ken's child, hiding out in the Mojave Desert.

The story is dark, moody, and ultimately tragic, as Ken crumbles to dust in Joey's arms, declaring with his last breath that he is finally strong. Cassaday's artwork is downright amazing, delivering the emotional resonance one would expect from such a tale, and he excels at the all-out vampire-slaying action sequences as well. There are a number of gorgeous splash pages throughout the series, always slotted in just the right spot for maximum dramatic effect (almost all come after a page turn, which adds to their impact).

Raab provides Joey with a supporting cast beyond Ken, including Jaqueline Falsworth-Chrichton, Ken's mother. The retired Spitfire is a young woman again -- younger than her son -- thanks to a second blood transfusion from the android Human Torch in John Byrne's NAMOR series. This second chance at youth has turned her into a social butterfly, throwing lavish parties and entertaining the local ladies at high tea. She stays mostly out of Joey's way, allowing him to headline the book, but she does have one nifty Spitfire moment as she saves our hero's life when the vampires invade Falsworth Manor.

Rounding out the cast, via Raab's afore-mentioned ability to tie concurrent continuity into his own work, is Romany Wisdom -- sister of Warren Ellis's pet character, Pete Wisdom, and created by Ellis for his PRYDE & WISDOM limited series a year or two earlier -- as Joey's I.T. support, and former romantic interest.

As I said previously, this is really a great series. It's easily the highlight of the mini-series Marvel released around this time -- and it had, in my opinion, some stiff competition. The story is poignant and gripping, and the artwork is amazing. If any of the late nineties mini-series deserved to become an ongoing, it would have been UNION JACK. But sadly that was not to be. This was the only work by Raab and Cassaday on the character, and the Marvel Universe is slightly poorer because of that.

Note: My review copy, the trade paperback compilation released in 2002, omits the covers of all three single issues. I own the issues anyway and the series is available on Marvel Unlimited so I'm not too torn up about it -- but it's worth mentioning. Thankfully, Marvel has become much better about including all covers, including applicable copy, in more recent years. At any rate, the story is so good that I deemed it worth owning on my bookcase even with this imperfection.

No comments:

Post a Comment