As a general rule of thumb, any comic that has someone vomiting on the first page is a winner in my book. Bearing this in mind, the first issue of Jack Hammer: Political Science – by writer Brandon Barrows and artist Ionic – gets off to a promising start, soon followed with a grisly discovery to get the ball rolling with the story. Played as a cross between a gritty superhero tale and an old film noir gumshoe mystery, Jack Hammer wears its numerous creative influences on its sleeve, and so its success or failure was always going to depend on how much the creators could place their own authorial stamp on the material.
Fortunately, Barrows has an ace up his sleeve in the form of his title character: grizzled private eye Jack McGriskin, formerly the superhero known as Jack Hammer. The character carries himself with pride and a swagger, in stark contrast to the hard times and financial dire straits he finds himself in behind the scenes. We get the most fleeting glimpses of past glory, which serve to make his current fall from grace seem all the more humbling. But despite his harsh temper and gruff demeanour, in small moments such as his narrated thoughts on various supporting characters, or his fruitless attempt to give guidance to some kids who couldn’t care less about who he used to be, we see that – much as he denies it – he still wants to be a hero.
However, I’d say the plot doesn’t quite manage to keep up with this compelling lead protagonist. Not that it’s a poorly-written comic at all. Barrows is a sound craftsman when it comes to pacing and structure, with dialogue that is both functional and believable. The story is classic P.I. pulp, with our underdog hero stumbling into a murky underworld and a conspiracy much bigger than him. But with the way this larger story unfolds in this issue, we’re presented with the worst of both worlds, where (at first glance, at least) the bad guy is immediately obvious, but the exact nature of the wrongdoing is left rather vague and indistinct, meaning our investment in the mystery is undercut on two fronts. It’s a tricky balance in storytelling, trying to pitch a mystery just right between keeping your cards close to your chest and giving your reader just enough meaty nuggets to keep following you down the trail. With Barrows’ strong writing and characterisation, this first issue certainly makes for an interesting read, but it could really use that extra hook to guarantee that we return for subsequent issues. Still, I’d call Barrows’ writing strong enough to suggest you give the title the benefit of the doubt and stick with it.
But as strong as the writing is, I think it’s the art of Ionic that really steals the show. Now I may be wrong – and someone can correct me if Ionic is in fact the name of a studio of artists working in tandem – but I like to think that Ionic is a lone artist who chose to give himself a single name, like Madonna or Prince. His rough, sketchy pencils are reminiscent of Alex Maleev, but the precise inks and crisp colours (also provided by Ionic) make the style a lot less messy than Maleev’s work can often appear, giving Ionic his own distinct visual imprint to put on Political Science. Ionic works with the kind of tight angles that make the characters seem massive on the page, often with their heads jutting out of the boundaries of the panel, making their actions seem larger than the comic page can contain, like they’re jumping out at us. It also really puts a focus on the nuance of expression, letting us enjoy every furrow of the brow and upward curl of the lip in detail. From the grungy, battered appearance of McGriskin, to the weary eyes of embattled detective Charlie Martin, to the sleaze and yellowed teeth of the seedy bar patrons, the art really helps bring the cast of characters to life, even when the plot sheds little light on their world and their place in it.
As a brief aside, since I’ve been quick to criticise subpar lettering in recent reviews, I want to acknowledge the good job done by Brant W. Fowler here. Even with many sequences with multiple characters having back-and-forth discussions and throwing a lot of exposition back and forth, Fowler always manages to keep things clear, leading the eye in the direction it needs to go, guiding us through the dense conversations while also positioning his bubbles in a way that best compliments the artwork.
Jack Hammer: Political Science takes the slow-boil approach with its plotting in the first issue, but there’s enough intriguing character work to suggest the story is worth following further. And the art is incredible. So, this comic is definitely worth a look.
Jack Hammer: Political Science #1 and #2 are available from IndyPlanet.