Not all Black and White?

The Union issue one

Writer – Paul Grist, Pencils – Andrea de Vito with Paul Grist, Inkers – Drew Geraci and Le Beau Underwood with Paul Grist, Colourist – Nolan Woodward, Letterer – VC’s Travis Lanham, Published by Marvel Comics’

The Union Paul Grist variant cover
Paul Grist variant cover for The Union

I have never reviewed a Marvel Comic before. That is not because of some kind of snobbery, on the contrary Marvel are my first love in comics and I still read many of the new releases albeit digitally these days and with a gap of a few months via the Marvel Unlimited app. Marvel’s cultural pull has arguably never been greater. The blockbuster movies have ensured that and their current position in the IP hoovering Disney empire appears to solidify it, even if it remains to be seen whether their empire is Rome or Carthage.

I have read and appreciated Paul Grist’s work for many years. As well as being a talented writer and artist he has an excellent sense of how comics fit into British culture, and what comics mean in a British context. Paul would have been a great fit for the recent resurrections of  Death’s Head and Excalibur. It was not to be, but we now have something which may be even better, a brand new British superhero team created by Paul and set in the Marvel Universe…The Union

Jack Staff
Jack Staff on Dancing Elephant Press

Dancing Elephant Press was the self-publishing imprint that Paul Grist used to put out his critically acclaimed comic Kane and it was also this label that first saw the adventures of Jack Staff. Jack Staff originated from a pitch for Marvel’s character Union Jack. Marvel didn’t pick that up but their loss was our gain as it led to Paul developing the Jack Staff character.

Jack Staff had its own world which drew heavily on classic characters from British comics like Victor and Valiant. This was not a world of skyscrapers and spandex, but one of rainy afternoons and Noggin the Nog. As Paul himself noted when Jack Staff was relaunched in full colour by Image, “British comics have never really ‘done’ Superheroes…the traditional British weekly comic would feature stories of huge robots, men with steel hands or working class runners who worked on the building site in the morning, raced in the afternoon and had a fish and chip supper on his way home. This was the British comic world I grew up with.”

Kane on Dancing Elephant Press
Kane on Dancing Elephant Press

The Jack Staff comics world had its own versions of those classic characters, so Tom Tom the Robot Man was a version of Robot Archie (a character who clearly cast a spell on many creators, he was also seen as Robot Andy being destroyed by the Fury in Alan Moore’s Captain Britain and in the cast of Grant Morrison’s Zenith.) The book also saw rifs on some classic Marvel stories like John Byrne’s great Captain America stories featuring Union Jack battling the vampiric Baron Blood. This wonderful mixture was topped off with tips of the hat to TV greats like Steptoe and Son and Dr. Who and ended up feeling a bit like the inside of my head.

Jack Staff on Image Comics
Jack Staff on Image Comics

With the release of The Union Paul has once again created his own world of British superheroes. He has also finally had his chance to write Union Jack. Those heroes are drawn from all four nation states of the United Kingdom. Led by Britannia who is joined by The Choir from Wales, Snakes from Northern Ireland and Kelpie from Scotland. 

Times article on The Union from Marvel comics
The Times singing to the choir

The announcement of this title by Marvel, back in the pre-covid days when we got upset about comics, triggered an online storm. Since the 2014 referendum on independence, politics in Scotland has become polarised around the national question. In this context The Union seemed to be a provocative title and there was no shortage of condemnation without a page being read. The Times ran an article entitled ‘Union superheroes do battle with the cybernat horde”.

 There is a great tradition of British comics writers using their books to take pokes at the darker sides of the British state.

The covid outbreak meant that this explosive publicity was wasted as Marvel schedules were shifted and The Union was put on the back burner. Now finally in December the book is out and the delay enables us to take a rather calmer perspective. 

Flag waving is a tricky thing in a world where walls are going up and national identities are hotly contested political battlegrounds. But there are good examples of these themes being dealt with thoughtfully. Think of Captain America’s ‘Nomad’ identity which he took on in the midst of the Vietnam War and Nixon government. 

Closer to home there is a great tradition of British comics writers using their books to take pokes at the darker sides of the British state. Dave Thorpe, who was the first to write the resurrected Captain Britain, left the book when a proposed story set in the ugly war in Northern Ireland was spiked.

So, what about those national heroes? Both Union Jack and Britannia represent England. These characters strongly symbolise Britain so why use them for England? Well, this reflects exactly how our political system is currently set up. We have a central government based in London and devolved governments with varying levels of powers and different constitutional statuses in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There is no ‘English’ parliament. Labour proposals for regional assemblies to bridge that democratic gap in England were vetoed in a low-turnout referendum. 

The Union art by Andrea de Vito
Beware of fiendish tech bros

So the imbalance and real-politik of the UK state is reflected in the structure of the team itself. The spin and media management that is central to politics is also present with the team being carefully crafted to send just the right political message. The sinister influence of big tech is also there…with a CEO whose social media posts have 2000 likes before he even posts them. A shadow there of the facebook manipulation by the likes of Cambridge Analytica that delivered a catastrophic victory for Brexiteers.

The Union promises to be a more nuanced book and critical book than the hype suggested.

The team has come together because of a UK government project to use a new hero team to try to unite the nation. Bringing reality TV together with national security seems like a winning move but the intervention of something nasty from space, courtesy of Marvel’s latest crossover The King in Black sees events take a darker turn.

The variant cover above is by Paul Grist but there is a bigger team working on the interior art with penciller Andrea de Vito and inkers Drew Geraci and Le Beau Underwood alongside contributions from Paul himself. Some of the panel sequences are clever, switching between a ‘Britannia’ animated cartoon on TV to the news playing on a mobile phone. Action scenes are of the high standard you would expect with stand out panels of Britannia in battle with a giant space Dragon. 

The Union main cover
The Union main cover

The character designs are impressive with the elements of earth, air, fire and water seemingly influencing the design.

The Union is topical but maybe not entirely original. Many of the ‘public domain’ ideas like Britannia have been seen before. Jonny Cannon’s The United is a title that springs to mind. The United not only has a similar title but also a heroine called Britannia and a British superhero team caught in a web of political manipulation. Books like Captain Britain, Zenith and The Authority have also gone down similar routes.

There is nothing wrong with working with familiar tropes and themes and for most readers outside of the UK in particular much of this will be new. The interesting element is how these characters and the ideas thrown up will mesh with the rest of the Marvel Universe.

We will need to wait for the rest of the limited issue series to be released to see exactly which direction The Union is going but I think that anyone who is expecting some kind of British Unionist propaganda is likely to be in for a surprise. Comics, especially from the ‘big two’, rarely reflect these complex social issues so Paul Grist is to be congratulated for stepping into this arena. The Union promises to be a more nuanced book and critical book than the hype suggested. It’s not all black and white.

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