Comics: A look back at Phantom Jack

From the cover of the 2005 Collector's edition of Phantom Jack
Reporter Jack Baxter standing in a media storm on the cover of Volume 1 of Phantom Jack

Sometimes, something forgotten and flawed is just as interesting as, if not more interesting than, something new and perfect.

Case in point, the 2005 Speakeasy Comics edition of Phantom Jack I found on the benefit table outside The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City. I’d never heard of the title, but a quick examination revealed that Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) and Brian Michael Bendis (Powers, Ultimate Spider-Man) each had positive things to say about it.

Written by Michael San Giacomo with art by Brett Barkley, Mitchell Breitweiser and Sam McArdel, Phantom Jack relates the adventures of Jack Baxter, a newspaper reporter who can turn himself invisible. The bulk of the book is the story of his efforts to a rescue his brother, a hapless soldier, from the clutches of Saddam Hussein in early 2003.

The collection also includes a wide variety of additional material: scripts for future comics, written short stories, vignettes featuring supporting characters, and a preview of a different project. These extras contribute to the sense that Phantom Jack, at least in 2005, was still a work in progress. Sure, there was a five issue, coherent arc, but there were also all of these ideas that didn’t quite fit into the main story, sometimes because they were still in a preliminary form.

The primary story is well told, though there is a little bit of macho wish fulfillment in the treatment of Saddam Hussein (I can’t say more without spoiling the moment in question). Breitweiser — who drew the original story arc — has a tendency to pose his characters like mannequins, with their arms seemingly always in unnatural positions. But colorist Jamie Jones employs a warm color palette that takes advantage of light and shadow, and this give a depth to the story’s visuals that compensates for the stiffly drawn characters.

As the introductory notes explain, Phantom Jack had a bumpy road to publication that included an aborted relationship with Marvel Comics. The edition published by Speakeasy is rife with problems — typos, repeated pages, misplaced pages — and San Giacomo and his artistic partners don’t always shine. For example, early in the story Jack and a military officer are shown shaking hands with their left hands. A character said to look like Robert Redford turns out to look far too much like Robert Redford. San Giacomo’s short stories are awkwardly written and would have been better rendered as comics.

But for all of these problems, there’s a pluckiness to the book that kept me reading. Baxter is a fairly complex character, neither wholly noble nor consistently courageous. He makes some moral choices that threaten to make him unlikeable, but which also ring true. Meanwhile, in this collection, San Giacomo lays the groundwork for a second story arc in which things are more complex than they might initially appear.

The second volume of Phantom Jack is more widely available than the book I happened upon. Phantom Jack: The Nowhere Man Agenda is, for example, available online, whereas the first volume is not. Still, I’d recommend hunting up a copy of these foundational stories before jumping into the second book. Phantom Jack may be imperfect, both as a guy and as a comic book, but that seems to be part of his charm.

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