Spencer: Making a good first impression is vital; this goes doubly so for new comic series, which often have just one issue to hook a curious reader on their story. That puts a lot of pressure on first issues — they’ve got to introduce readers to the series’ premise, to a new cast of characters, perhaps even an entirely new world altogether, and if they want the reader to come back next month, they’ve got to do so in a manner that’s both coherent and entertaining. It takes a lot of finesse to find just the right approach to a first issue, and while Ray Fawkes and Marco Failla make some smart choices throughout Jackpot 1, their approach may nonetheless be flawed on a fundamental level.
The first problem comes on the very first page, where Fawkes opens his story in media res. The overuse of this technique has turned it into one of my biggest pet peeves, but I’ll admit that it can be done well in the right kind of story; this, though, isn’t one of those stories. The biggest problem is that the audience just doesn’t know who these characters are, and thus, doesn’t have any investment in whether they’re shot or not; I mean, we don’t even know for sure which characters here are the “good” guys! Fawkes had a lot of opportunities to do something interesting with this set-up, but ultimately, it plays out in the most predictable manner possible, and it never feels like the characters are in any real danger (or, at least, any danger from Eduardo). It’s a rather pedestrian way to kick-off a first issue.
The rest of Jackpot 1 fares better, if not extraordinarily. Fawkes and Failla tell the story of a group of con artists who are attempting to swindle a crime boss named Eduardo Moreno; instead of exploring how these characters came together or any long-term goals of their group (both of which are important but not at all urgent), Fawkes makes a smart choice to focus on the heist itself. After all, Jackpot is a heist book, and throughout this issue Fawkes and Failla prove that they can spin a compelling yarn around their central scenario.
The heist itself involves several members of the crew distracting Moreno with a game of cards (I’m assuming Poker, though it’s never actually stated) while their safecracker, Felicia Hyde, makes off with the loot. There’s some genuine tension in the scene where Felicia attempts to sneak past Eduardo’s guards (it’s almost straight out of Metal Gear Solid), generated both by her attempt and by the sudden, magical arrival of the bomb. Tam, Dominique, and Josef’s card scheme, meanwhile, has enough twists and turns to satisfy any heist fan. There’s one in particular, though, that works specifically because this is the first issue.
This is a moment that genuinely surprised me, but it’s also one that could only work this early in the series, before Josef was established as a member of the team.
Fawkes also does some smart character work. The banter between Felicia and Forrest immediately establishes their close rapport, selling Forrest’s horror at her possible death later in the issue. Tam makes for a unique card shark; he’s described as the “poker face,” yet is high-strung and antagonistic throughout the entire game. Tam eventually flies off the handle when their plan calls for him to abandon the game, a trait that flies in the face of the typical “suave card shark” stereotype.
This moment is particularly shocking in hindsight, once we realize that Tam’s pointing a gun at his own teammate (and seems rather genuine about it). Tam’s temper could definitely be trouble for the team in the future.
Befitting the series’ lead, Dominique Vasko (the genius) is probably the issue’s most compelling figure. She masquerades for much of the issue as a flighty heiress, and it’s fun to look back and find hints of her true self hidden beneath the mask; at one point Dominique crawls over a guard to wipe up a spill, appearing to just be clumsy and perhaps a bit flirty, but we later realize that this is the moment where Dominique stole the guard’s gun. Fawkes and Failla never draw attention to it, allowing readers to come to the realization themselves, and I appreciate that kind of subtlety.
So I’ve found a lot of details that I liked about Jackpot 1 — why the negativity at the beginning of the article? The problem is that all these charming details are exactly that: details. What this issue is lacking is a strong premise to support them. The only elements here that stand out from a typical heist story are the faint hints of the supernatural (the spontaneous bomb, the council after Dominique), but they aren’t prominent enough to hang this whole series on yet. That’s a shame, because when Jackpot 1 was first solicited they seemed like they might actually be the issue’s strongest element.
Yeah, maybe I’m just bummed because that solicitation for this series sounded so unique. It promised a heist that would involve “ripping off the Gods themselves!” Now that’s a premise — heck, that premise alone was enough to land this issue on Retcon-Punch’s pull list. I can see how this story may be leading to that point, but what the issue actually gives us just feels so…mundane in comparison. I hate to analyze an issue by talking about what it should have done, but when you’ve got a premise this strong, lead with it.
By focusing on the heist and the characters and keeping the magic on the back-burner, Fawkes and Failla have created a charming, perfectly serviceable heist story, but also one that doesn’t have much of an identity; there’s little to separate The Jackpot from any other heist story yet, and of all the crucial things a first issue could get wrong, that may just be one of the biggest.
I dunno, Mark, do you think I’m being too hard on this one, or do you have similar problems with it?
Mark: Well, basically most everything about Jackpot 1 mildly annoys me. Like you said, Spencer, the main problem is right there in the solicitation:
Meet the World’s Greatest Con Artists on the eve of the greatest scam in human history…
Remember all of the LOST-inspired shows that flooded network television in the wake of LOST‘s outsized success? Invasion, Flash Forward, The Event, and on and on and on. None of them lasted long because they ignored that people liked LOST first and foremost because of the characters. The derivative shows thought that viewers just wanted more and more unsolved mysteries, and piled them on endlessly and teased viewers episode after episode until the audience lost interest and the shows were cancelled, each one inevitably collapsing under the weight of their own mythologies.
In that light, I can appreciate Fawkes taking an issue or two to introduce the characters of this world and setting the stage for future events, while only hinting at what I’m assuming will be the more high concept elements to come in future issues. But it only works if the world is compelling enough to merit a second visit, and meeting these characters “on the eve of the greatest scam in human history” is not enough for me.
The problem is not that anything in the issue is actively bad, it’s that it’s so bland as to barely be worth remembering, much less discussing. Opening in media res? Why? In media res always feels like a move of desperation to me, but at least when Batgirl 50 did it last week they had a visually striking image to go along with it. Here, Marco Failla’s art is as it always is: competent but uninteresting.
There’s a flatness to Failla’s work, accentuated here by Stefani Rennee’s colors, that’s reminiscent of web comics or TV movies from the early 90s. Again, I’d never describe it as bad, just unremarkable.
That flatness extends to the characterizations of our crack team. Tam and Dominique have the most personality, and like you mentioned, Spencer, their sense of shared history is one of the writing’s stronger elements. But I leave the issue still unsure how everyone fits together as a team. Fawkes makes sure everyone has a catchy name for their role: Tam’s “The Poker Face,” Felicia’s “The Cold Reader,” Forrest is “The Heater,” but the only one that makes sense at this point is Dominique as “The Genius.” Tam obviously doesn’t have much of a poker face, so are these names ironic? What does “Cold Reader” mean in this context? What is happening in this panel?
The preceding and following panels give absolutely no clarity. Is Felicia conjuring the piece of paper? Is it real or a construct? Where did it come from? What is its purpose? It’s not the code for the safe (Forrest is telling it to her over the radio) and it’s not the item she retrieves from the safe (since she proceeds to open it). It goes unremarked upon, unaddressed, so potentially it’ll be answered in a future issue, but for now it’s just a confusing moment. And confusing is not interesting.
Again, there’s something admirable in the idea of not teasing a mystery to death. That’s what eventually did in all of those LOST knock offs, after all. But Fawkes goes too far in the other direction and doesn’t address his most interesting elements at all. What then is left to bring us back for Jackpot 2? Only the promise of the solicitation.
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