Written by the future co-creator of Judge Dredd, John Wagner, “Blackjack” told the story of Jack Barron, a black heavyweight boxer from the East End of London. The story came in two parts, as at the midpoint, Wagner decided to leave, having told his boxing tale. He wrapped up the story with a solid and upbeat conclusion.
Unfortunately, it was decided to continue the strip, which seems a serious error of judgement. The first half of “Blackjack” concentrated on the boxer’s quest to win the World Heavyweight title before he went blind. Initially it was drawn by Leopoldo Sanchez, who completed three issues before being replaced by Gustavo Trigo, whose work was heavily sub-edited in its first week, with most changes obvious in Jack’s appearance. Trigo remained as regular artist throughout the initial story, although the 15th May issue featured some inferior work by F.A. Philpott.
Many of the names of Jack’s opponents are either comic creators or thinly veiled parodies of great boxers of the time. There was some graphic content too, Trigo’s art often vividly depicting the blows, blood and spit flying around as faces were beaten to a bloody pulp. However, with the title in the bag and Jack now completely blind, both Wagner and Trigo moved on.
From June 26th, Chris Lowder bravely took on the next part of the story, writing under one of his many noms-de-plume, Jack Adrian. Unfortunately, the story dramatically changed style, from a gritty boxing strip to a ridiculous, musical, martial arts murder mystery. The second chapter of “Blackjack” was drawn by regular Luis Lorente agency artist Josep Gual. “Blackjack” dragged on for too long in this new guise, losing fans along the way. Prologues to the strip, featuring Jack’s early adventures, appeared in both the 1976 Summer Special and the 1977 Annual.
Amazingly, the strip was accused of racism, depite being a story whose primary character was a black man striving to overcome his impoverished background and the bigoted attitudes of others, tpwards him. Barron was a hero to the people of the East End of London and ultimately achieved his goal at great personal cost. There were characters in the story who make racist remarks to Jack, but given that Action strived for realism, this was something that Jack would have faced.
If anything, there would probably have been more obstacles that his working-class and ethnic origins would have placed in his path, but Jack, who was both an achiever and a hero, was the lead character, which for 1976 was almost unheard of. At that time, strong ethnic characters in comics were the exception rather than the rule. Yo-Yo Devine from “Death Game 1999” is notable for the same reason, however the stereotyping of the island natives in Hook Jaw can be regarded less favourably, as can the editorial top and tail pieces to the later “Hellman” stories. The degeneration from ‘Can Hellman survive? Find out next week!’ to ‘More from your favourite Kraut soon!’ perpetuated the kind of jingoistic fervour more commonly associated with tabloid newspapers.
Like all boxers, Jack Barron wants to win the World Heavyweight Title. He has the talent and the speed to do it, and an army of loyal fans from the streets of East London. Jack’s ambition looks doomed to failure when, during the fourth round of his seventh fight, a bout against Irish heavyweight Tom Tully, Jack is given a serious blow to the side of the head which affects his vision. His eyes clear and he goes on to win, but decides to pay a visit to a Harley Street doctor for some tests. The news is not good, the blow has dislodged a fragment of bone which is now pressing on his optic nerve. Despite the anatomical impossibility of this occurrence, the doctor tells Jack that he must stop boxing now, or risk going blind within a year. Devastated, Jack walks away from the clinic, but a mugging in the street outside soon calls for Jack’s intervention. He is spurred on by some young fans who recognise him. Realising he cannot let down the people who have such faith in him, and look up to him as one of their own who is making something of himself, Jack ignores the doctor’s advice, vowing to fights on. He keeps his injury a secret from everyone, including his trainer Yank Kreski, and his manager Solly Levine.
The story now falls into a pattern. During each bout, Jack takes a bang to the head and goes blind for a short time before coming back to win. Through a mixture of luck and sheer hard work, Jack gets a crack at the British crown and wins the fight, having gone through his moment of blindness. As the fighters prepare to leave the ring, Jack is disqualified for allegedly using a ‘rabbit punch’, hitting a fighter who is already falling down. This halts Jack’s campaign in its tracks. It will be months before Jack can come back for another shot at the crown, time Jack doesn’t have. He decides to sell up and fight in America. Once Jack is established, he will bring Solly and Yank over to him. Sailing out of England on the QE2, Jack gets into a card game against the southern states American Charles D. Bowinter. Bowinter is an old-fashioned southern racist and cheats Jack out of all of his money. Jack soon realises he has been taken for a sucker and beats Bowinter at his own game. Bowinter sends some heavies after Jack, but finds himself treading water as Jack throws him overboard. Jack now has enough money to fly Yank and Solly to the States, and they meet him at the docks when his ship comes in. The Blackjack campaign starts again in earnest ,and Jack signs a contract with New York promoter Big Bill Yancy. Yancy is a crook and orders Jack to lose a fight, kidnapping Solly and cutting off his finger as a warning. Jack refuses to lose, frees Solly and has Yancy locked up, but now no promoter will touch him. Jack embarks on his ‘bum-a-week’ campaign, which grabs the public’s attention and soon finds him fighting in the big time again, allowing him a shot at the crown. He fights Malcolm Dali in London, in front of his home crowd, and having gone through the blind phase, this time caused by a bottle aimed at Dali by a member of the crowd, he dispatches his opponent and takes the world title. As Jack leaves the ring, he collapses and is rushed to hospital, where it is revealed that his optic nerve has been severed and he is completely blind. The title is vacated, but Jack pictures the crowd cheering him, an image he will carry with him to his dying day.
At this point, writer John Wagner decided that enough was enough, Jack’s story was told and he was off, handing the seemingly impossible job of continuing the story over to Jack Adrian, who took “Blackjack” in a new direction. That direction was downhill, fast. Back in New York for some reason, Jack saw a news item about a surgeon who he believed to have the skills required to help regain his sight. Solly informed him that he was virtually broke, after shelling out for hotels and the costs of staging the title fight in London. To add insult to injury, the surgeon was critically injured in a car smash.
The story took on several poor-quality aspects as Jack attempted to raise money. He became an expert at Hapkido, got a recording contract, was accused of murder, went on the run and squeezed in a bit of amateur crime fighting. The singing, martial arts aspect made Jack seem like 70′s one-hit-wonder Carl Douglas, when added to the Hong Kong Fooey style crime fighting, the only decent thing to do was end the story fast. Jack was cleared of the murder rap and everything looked rosy. With the surgeon recovering, the chances of the miracle operation to restore Jack’s sight happening looked good, but the big idiot immediately expressed a desire to return to boxing, suggesting only a temporary reprieve.
Jack was an up-and-coming fighter from the East End of London, with a reputation that earned him an army of loyal fans from the very streets where he was raised. During a fight with Irish Tom Tully, Jack received a blow to the head which ultimately cost him his eyesight. Jack battled on, facing and overcoming many obstacles on the road to the World Heavyweight title. He was driven by a need not to let down those fans who look up to him, mainly the kids of the East End. Jack won his world title, but paid the price and was vacated from the crown within hours of securing it. He then had a series of unfortunate Kung Fu and pop music based adventures on the wrong side of the law, whilst hoping to get his sight restored by a miracle operation.
Jack’s manager and perpetual worrier, Solly was the guy who would throw in the towel if Jack looked like he was in trouble, and tried to think of the welfare of his boy over the progress of his career. He also kept an eye on Jack’s financial well-being. Solly lost an finger when he was kidnapped by Bill Yancy, but pragmatically said it would make it easier for him to give the victory sign after fights. After Jack had the title taken from him, Solly worried about money and eventually legged it back to Blighty, leaving Yank and Jack to sort themselves out.
Jack’s trainer and probably the most level headed of the bunch. Yank didn’t really do much, but helped Jack out with a few tricky problems, like getting round fight doctors and staying one step ahead of dodgy promoters, and was normally the voice of reason whenever some mad scheme or other was suggested. Yank stuck with Jack after the boxer was framed for murder, and eventually aided Jack’s triumph against all odds. The two were still together at the end of the story, discussing Jack’s future career.
Big Bill Yancy was a bent New York fight promoter. Yancy told Jack to lose a fight, and when Jack refused, he had Solly kidnapped. Yancy was eventually locked up for this crime, but vowed that Jack would never get another fight in America.
The opponents Blackjack faced gave a bit of space for writer John Wagner to lampoon his fellow comic creators, casting a few of them as Jack’s early foils. As the title fights progressed, Wagner gave us thinly veiled substitutes for some of the great fighters of the time, if not all time. Jake La Morta for Jake La Motta, Joe (or Jim) Fairman for George Foreman and Malcolm Dali, the world champion, standing in for Muhammad Ali. The problem with Blackjack was that nearly all his opponents needed to cheat to try and beat him, rather than relying on their own obvious prowess. Every fight had at least one additional obstacle added on to Jack’s continuing fight against blindness, normally overcome just before the knockout blow.
The Kung Fu Soul Singer era Jack was accused of murdering a music agent having been framed for the crime by the true culprit, music business crook Tony Pirelli. He hung around with a band, an East End singing star with an accent more badly written than Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a girl called Cas and some martial arts sensei geezer. The whole thing was rather implausible and wholly unconvincing.
Text © Moose Harris
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