When the patriotic vigilante Jack Flag showed up in Thunderbolts post-Civil War a few years back, I imagine many figured the red, white and blue-haired hero with the American flag Grifter mask to be a cobbled together Warren Ellis creation dreamt up for the purpose of giving the T-Bolts a disposable “good guy” to demonstrate their new status quo against. I was among those who not only recognized Mr. Flag, but both gave Mr. Ellis a serious kudos for raiding Marvel’s truth depths obscurity and smiled a bit to see the return of a character from my youth who both seemed ridiculous at the onset and yet to possess some intangible coolness about him.
The year was 1994, I was 12, and it was tough to ignore the dude with the jingoistic dye job wielding what appeared to be a boom box leaping at me from the cover of Captain America #434, particularly with his name emblazoned graffiti style to the side. The introduction of Jack Flag was part of the year-long “Fighting Chance” storyline by Mark Gruenwald and Dave Hoover that saw Steve Rogers’ super soldier serum begin failing on him and Cap embark upon a mission to settle his affairs before he had to hang up his shield.
“Fighting Chance” was an extremely 90’s storyline that certainly seemed to sit in the shadow or the Death of Superman or Knightfall, taking another iconic hero and doing the previously unthinkable by laying him low and potentially putting him out to pasture. There were some eye-rolling moments like Cap’s battle vest or his Iron Man-designed armor, but because it was Gruenwald, who loved the character like few others and always tried to have fun with whatever he did, there were quite a few bright spots and cool stories too. One promising aspect was exploring how the idea of the America hero had changed with a new Super-Patriot, the ultra-violent Americop, the female-empowering Free Spirit and, finally, Jack Flag.
Jack Harrison was introduced as a guy who was a member of Captain America’s computer hotline network—a Gruenwald creation established in the 80’s as a sort of nationwide Bat Signal or network of informants for Cap—and alongside his brother Drake decided to take a more active role, forming a citizen patrol. Hard times fell on the Harrisons when Drake got crippled attempting to break up a robbery and then the Serpent Society moved into their hometown, buying off local law enforcement and forcing folks out of their homes, including Jack’s parents. Inspired by Cap, Jack began wearing a costume and went after the Serpent Society; he ended up not only helping his hero and Free Spirit take down the Serpents, but helped save Steve Rogers’ life when his super soldier serum finally crapped out.
For a few issues after “Fighting Chance” wrapped, Jack Flag and Free Spirit hung around as Cap’s support squad and possible successors, but then vanished after Mark Waid took over for his own acclaimed run, shuffled off to limbo with hundreds of other characters from the 90’s.
As I mentioned up top, Jack Flag returned over a decade later in the pages of Thunderbolts, where Norman Osborn had just taken over the team and populated it with super villains who were responsible for enforcing the new Super Human Registration act. Jack surfaced as a street level hero who continued to do what he felt was his duty despite it now being against the law because of his innate goodness as well as a lingering obligation to and admiration for Captain America, who had opposed the Act and then apparently been assassinated. He saves an innocent girl from a gang attack and then is swarmed en masse by the T-Bolts.
Two things from this story are a testament to strengths in the Jack Flag character I didn’t even really know existed despite getting a tingle of excitement at seeing a trivia question I knew the answer to resurface on the national stage: First was that he represented the type of unfettered hero with a Cap-like strength of character Ellis needed to hold up against his new Thunderbolts and demonstrate how nasty and immoral they were. The respect Ellis showed by having Jack tear through his more powerful pursuers, including Moonstone and Venom, before being felled and paralyzed by nothing less than a Bullseye sneak attack makes a statement of legitimacy for somebody who could not have been reasonably considered anything but D-list to this point.
Second, cover artist Marko Djurdjevic and interior artist Mike Deodato do not change Dave Hoover’s original costume design even a little bit, they just do it up in their respective ways and show that it was a bold, memorable collection of stylistic choices; I kinda want to start a Jack Flag sketchbook.
Most would assume that would be it for Jack Flag—and for a character who only had a few appearances to his credit prior, taking on some of the Marvel Universe’s bigger bads and getting nailed by Bullseye while doing the right thing wouldn’t be a shabby send-off—but he would return in of all places Guardians of the Galaxy, courtesy of my pals Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. When Blaastar attempts to take over the Negative Zone prison where Jack is being held, despite being wheelchair-bound, he leads the other inmates to resist the alien tyrant, impressing Star-Lord in the process; Peter Quill gets Jack the heck out of jail and has the science whiz types on Knowhere fix up his spine so he could join the Guardians.
It always blew my mind a bit reading Guardians of the Galaxy and realizing that among cosmic powerhouses like Drax and Adam Warlock there was this footnote of a character from when I read Captain America as a kid standing shoulder to shoulder, but so much of the joy in reading DnA’s work is they love comics minutiae as much as any fan and jump at the chance to elevate characters with potential. They made Jack a fairly integral member of the team, even having folks who would know like Kang tout his grand potential in the universal scheme of things.
That a guy who called Captain America’s hotline in the 90’s and took the time to evenly separate three bizarre colors into his hair would eventually become an intergalactic champion for good is pretty much as good a representation that anything can happen in comics as you’re going to get; it’s also proof in point that the best creators in our industry not only make their own mark, but are never bashful about going back into the seemingly infinite backlog of those who came before to mine everything they can from the most forgotten of creations.