The Grey Area: Jack Hammer - Justice Demands Punching / by David Anderson


Dick Tracy. You remember that stuff? I do. I had this read-along comic book that was really cool. And the wristwatch! So awesome. You had a tape you could play and listen to that narrated the book. That thing was terrifying though because it had a real gruesome scream and sound effect that played at the point in the story where the bad guy gets thrown into a clock gear mechanism. Also the look on that guy's face is still pretty distinct in my memory... do we still agree that violence is more acceptable to show kids rather than nudity? I forget. I may have PTSD from that comic, I don't know. Well, once I got the opportunity to review Jack Hammer Vol. 1: Political Science, I realized that it was memories of Dick Tracy that gripped me as I read it. In a good way, though. It's another Action Lab piece, a lot less cheesy and a lot more gritty than the last piece I reviewed from them.

You have to love the trench coat and fedora. Not just because it's illegal to hate it, but because it looks so damn suave on the right person.

So the guy who wears this outfit, private detective Jack "Hammer" McGriskin, is the protagonist of a story that begins with a drunken couple stumbling on the corpse of a rich man in one of Boston's many unnamed alleys. Since rich people typically don't die in alleyways dressed as hobos with foot-wide holes in their chests, it's up to McGriskin to figure out who decided to kill him and why. Along the way he's got to deal with a rivalry from the police chief and attempts on his own life.

The plot's pretty much boilerplate in this regard, but they mix it up with a setting where superhumans exist, and McGriskin is one. It's an election year, and discrimination against superhumans is a topic as hot as it was in the X-men movies. As you might be able to tell from the title and cover art, this becomes an important plot point.

Jack's character is a walking anachronism, a throwback to the good old days of Dick Tracy, but a little more modern; he's got a bit of a violent past, he's hard boiled like any respectable PI, and he prefers pay phones and paper to cellphones and computers. His buddy/rival cop, Charles Martin, is a career cop who doesn't like working with Jack. Pretty typical archetypes in this genre and they're executed well. I like Jack's techno-luddism too, there's something special about using a payphone in this day and age. Like that George Carlin quote about weeds growing through asphalt: so f***ing heroic.

The dialogue is great, with the speech patterns of each major character being distinct. Of course, Jack's character comes through the best, but Charles and a supporting character, Stu, also benefit from the writing. The plot's good even if it seems slightly complicated, but I think they wrap the ends up well. The political connection could have used more emphasis but the action is great and so are the twists and turns.

Now, the art, well, that's another story.

It's great. I mean, really great. Sure, at lower resolutions the characters look like bathroom door icons but it's a moot point. The vivid colors, especially the reds? I friggin love it. I don't know if it's cel-shaded, but it looks like it is, and it's great. That art style seems to work pretty well for urban themes. And "A Scanner Darkly". Anyway.

I like how lines are used too. They work together with light shadowing to make each character a little more stylistic. In the beginning half you see a much denser collection of lines, as if the artist did a minimal job of erasing his anatomy lines before coloring. That might sound lazy but I like how it looks. He still manages to keep his lines from aging faces, too, which is impressive. His faces are very good, especially in close ups, although he could expand the range of emotions they can express. It's the only minor point I take issue with, besides wanting maybe an extra panel for some action scenes to make transitions look less jarring.

I really like the idea of a superhuman Dick Tracy grumbling and punching people in a quest to crack cold cases (heh, alliteration). And I would love to see more of it. So why don't you buy this so Action Labs can make more stuff like this?

TL;DR: Jack Hammer has an interesting premise mashed together with a great theme, and its art is even better. Give it a look-see, won't ya?

Jack Hammer Vol. 1: Political Science is by Brandon Barrows and Ionic, and published by Action Lab Comics. Coming in June, you can preview it here and ask your local comic book shop to pre-order it with Diamond Order Code APR120744.