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American Journalism Review
Comic Relief  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2004

Comic Relief   

A Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter on the comic book beat is now the author of one, Captain Jack.

By Judson Berger
Judson Berger is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


A reporter for Cleveland's Plain Dealer who's written about comic books has penned one himself--about a reporter.

For what is likely the first time since Superman scribbled notes for the Daily Planet, a comic book is depicting the exploits of a journalist. An invisible journalist. Holy nutgraph, Batman!

Phantom Jack, the monthly series by Mike Sangiacomo, hit comic-book stores nationwide March 17. A longtime general assignment reporter who now has a nationally syndicated comics column, Sangiacomo, 51, has finally turned his hobby--one that filled his house with 30,000 comic books and taught him to read when he was 4 years old--into a career. But, at least for now, he'll keep his day job.

"Newspapers report the world for what it is," says Sangiacomo. "Comics report the world for what it could be.... Comics are newspapers with a lot more freedom." Sangiacomo is reporting the world for what it could be through Image Comics, the third-largest comics publisher in the country.

Sangiacomo's lead character, Jack Baxter, works for a paper called the Clarion and can become invisible at will. This unique attribute aside, Sangiacomo says Jack is a composite of himself and fellow journalists. "Any reporter who reads it will kind of see his own newspaper," he says.

Sangiacomo first launched his column, On Comics, in 1993, analyzing everything from the business to character development to design. Years later, in November 2002, after other writers followed with similar columns, Marvel Comics challenged the comics journalists to develop characters and plots of their own.

Marvel agreed to publish two of the 150 entries. Sangiacomo's comic, a winner, was the only one about journalism, he says. (He later switched to Image because of differences with Marvel.)

Asked why he picked invisibility as his special power of choice, Sangiacomo says it suits a reporter. "We tend to think we're not part of the scene, that we're ethereal observers." (He recalls a hostage situation he covered in the early '90s in the suburbs of Cleveland. Sangiacomo arrived at the scene and began taking notes, oblivious to any consequences. A bullet whizzed by him. Reality check.) Jack, he says, takes a journalist's often-false sense of transparency to the next level.

But the power comes with responsibility--and ethical dilemmas. Sangiacomo says Jack will have to make a scrupulous decision every time he wants to employ his invisibility. The first five issues take place in his newsroom in New York City and the deserts of Iraq in spring 2003, as part of Jack's mission to save his brother, an imprisoned soldier.

Of his protagonist, Sangiacomo says he intends to cast Jack not as a pack scavenger, but as a human being. One who makes rational decisions but is imperfect. "I'm really getting tired of the negative portrayal of journalists," he says.

As with many superheroes, there seems to be, however, one fatal flaw in Jack's powers: How does an invisible journalist, with an uninvisible pen, take notes without being noticed?


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