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Monday, June 12, 2017

One-Eyed Jack

(* To celebrate the release of One-Eyed Jack by Rebellion, I'm happy to present the following abridged extract from my upcoming Valiant index; the text will almost certainly be revised between now and publication, but this will give you a taste of the book.)

But it was the third strip that readers really responded to. One-Eyed Jack was a police officer the likes of which had never been seen in British comics, where readers were more likely to be offered ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ or stories in a “spot the clue” format—‘Brett Marlowe, Detective’ (Lion) or ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’ (Eagle, Swift), for example. The only American cop in British comics at that time was Zip Nolan, a motorcycle officer with the Highway Patrol who had been appearing on and off in the pages of Valiant since it merged with Lion in 1974. In fact, Nolan was one of the characters dropped to make way for newcomer Jack McBane, although he reappeared, albeit briefly, a month later.

Jackson Delaware McBane (to give him his full name) was a no-nonsense cop with the 94th Precinct who has played by the rulebook his whole career until he and his partner, Willy Novak, answer an emergency call about an armed robbery. A shot creases Jack’s face and he loses an eye. Now wearing an eye patch, he storms into the office of Lieutenant Carelli at the 94th and angrily confronts his boss after reading that the kid responsible has been acquitted. “Someone got to the jury,” growls Carelli. “The punk must have friends.”

McBane attacks the boy in a pool hall and learns that Tony Valenti was responsible for buying the jury. The mobster springs a trap for McBane in a warehouse, but McBane kills him without mercy.

McBane sums up the credo of the strip in the final frame of the first episode: “I was a good cop. I played it by the book for ten years, but not any more. As long as there are scum like Tony Valenti about, there’ll be a place for one-eyed Jack.”

The strip was contemporary—the very first caption read “New York, December 1975”—violent and fast moving. It couldn’t be anything else if it was to fit a story with a beginning, a middle and an end into three or four pages. Of the 38 McBane stories in Valiant, 33 were complete stories and the longest serial ran to three episodes. This didn’t leave any space for characters to be developed, so making McBane a single-minded, justice seeking missile side-stepped the problem of also trying to make him human, or even likeable.

John Wagner would later say he was inspired by “every American cop show I’d ever seen, but Dirty Harry was the main one.” The look was also based on Hollywood’s depiction of New York. John Cooper had never been to America but had watched “millions” of American films. “That’s where I got most of the look from. The film Bullitt with Steve McQueen – he had a Mustang. I based his car more or less on that, something similar.”

Despite his lack of first hand experience, Cooper was called upon to depict real life locations, from Manhattan apartments and Central Park to Hell’s Kitchen’s back alleys and the docklands along the East River. The 94th is a real NYPD precinct, based at Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How true to life Cooper made any of these was immaterial to Valiant’s readers, whose own experiences of New York were almost certainly limited to the same movies Cooper was watching.

The attraction wasn’t the realism but the frenetic and violent action. In his second outing, McBane connects the deaths of a seemingly random pair of people killed by a sniper to the trial of an ex-Vietnam Marine Corps. marksman, Charles Edward Vosper. By using another witness as bait, McBane draws out Vosper and kills him. “You call it murder, friend… I call it justice,” he tells a shocked civilian.

Murder was not always McBane’s end game: when he lures the leader of a Brooklyn bike gang into an ambush, he begins beating him ruthlessly but Novak warns him: “Easy, Jack. We want him in one piece for the trial.” “Yeah… you’re right, Novak,” replies Jack. “No sense soiling my hands. Book him!”

The stories were written by John Wagner, M. Scott Goodall, Gerry Finley-Day and possibly others. Some of the most notable stories included the tale in which McBane was framed for the death of informant “Gimpy” Kowalski; McBane tracks down the real killer, Manny Zeigler, but his plan to rattle him to get a confession backfires when Zeigler dies and he is found kneeling over the dead killer’s body by a patrolman.

The Jigsaw Killer was a 2-parter which began with the discovery of a body in a classy Manhattan apartment, the only clue a jigsaw piece. Over the next two days, two more bodies are found with jigsaw pieces which begin to build into a picture of a face.

Other stories involved bombing campaigns in Chinatown as part of a protection racket and in Madison Square and Broadway by a bomber demanding a ransom of one million dollars; bank, jewellery and security van heists; McBane takes down crooked financiers, plane hijackers, corrupt labour unions and a gang of enforcers who call themselves the Donald Duck Wrecking Company.

One of the most intense stories was the final serial to appear in Valiant before it merged with Battle. It begins with a robbery at a fur warehouse, McBane nad Novak arriving just in time to be rammed out off the road by the robbers’ truck. McBane shoots one of the crooks and when his mask is removed it reveals Nicky Cantrell… his nephew!

The measure of the strip's success was that it had started as the third of three new strips, tucked away in the back of the paper. Two months later, when Valiant was again being promoted through a toy bargains collecting scheme and adding another new strip, ‘One-Eyed Jack’ moved to pole position and remained as the paper’s lead story for the next eight months. “Jack was an instant hit,” recalls John Wagner. “The first week he appeared he leapt to the top of the readers’ poll, scoring twice as many votes as the previous regular top story, ‘Captain Hurricane’. It was a position he never lost in my few remaining months as Valiant editor."

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