By Eric Kripke and John Higgins
Does anyone actually care about Jacked? Sure, it’s a release from a major brand and is written by Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural, but everything about this comic just screams disposable. It’s a Vertigo Comic, which is already a red flag given Vertigo hasn’t really had interesting comics since DC took all their interesting writers away, but really everything you need to know about this comic is right there on the cover. It’s about a middle class white guy who’s become disinvested in his family and stalled in any kind of life goal, retreating into genre effects as a means of reclaiming some aspect of agency and power in terms of classical masculinity. In the case of Jacked, the wacky spin on things is that our middle class schlub decides super-steroid drugs are the answer to his midlife slump.
There’s really nothing else to this comic beyond those elements. We spend the first half of it diving into the deeply uninteresting life of schluby McLoser before his shady dentist brother hands him a bottle of brain boosters that randomly grant him super-strength. You’d think that given half the comic is devoted to getting to know the ins and outs of this guy’s terrible life there’d be some level of empathy or detail to the character, but there really isn’t; he’s just every emotionally impotent and personally stagnant white guy from the past 20 years rolled up into one dude. If you’ve ever seen Breaking Bad or Falling Down you’ve basically read the first ½ of this comic. Actually, that’s a bit unfair because the protagonists of those stories were always shown to at least be capable men trapped in an incapable situation.
There you could at least argue the problem was society’s dedication to the nuclear family as the ideal life goal when it really isn’t suited to everyone, so the real reason folks like Breaking Bad’s brilliant chemist or Falling Down’s weapon designer are so miserable is that they’re defining “success” in terms that aren’t actually applicable to themselves. At the same time a lot of other versions of this story at least try to develop the main character as someone beyond a very non-specific loser.
Stuff like Foxcatcher, Breaking Bad again, and even Prisoners to some extent are all about men trying to live by classical iterations of masculinity who’ve been rendered stagnant by a changing society that has no place for their obsessions seeking some means of agency, but we also learn about them and their stakes. Breaking Bad was about destructive hubris, Foxcatcher is all about privilege and self-loathing, Prisoners is about the myth of the American father. Jacked isn’t about any of those things, it’s about nothing.
The schlub doof posing on the cover isn’t some telling critique of masculinity in an age beyond its usefulness or an exploration of trying to conform to standards of success and gender that aren’t suited to your identity, it’s about a guy who’s a loser. Even loser characters have a place, but it’s just not at the forefront of the story. Josh, the protagonist, feels like he should be a side character rather than the focus. He’s more or less written as an exaggeration of most Patrick Wilson roles, a caricature of neutered ineffectual 21st Century masculinity who was laid off from a good day and now lounges around the house when he’s not failing at job interviews. He’s essentially every dad from every formula haunted house movie in the post-recession era only without the ghosts and snap-to mom to make the story around him interesting.
The artwork is the poster child for passable, but that’s a theme to be discussed in more detail later. John Higgins is doing his best Chris Burnham impression, but where Burnham’s art is forceful and jagged on purpose here it just feels like ugliness without depth. There are some worthwhile sequences, like when Josh trips out after taking his super power drug there’s some good psychedelic illustrations there, but it’s 2 pages among 28. There’s also a very well realized car crash at the start of the comic with a great amount of detail that the rest of the book really could’ve used. Higgins is also doing the coloring for the book and there he actually shines pretty well. Admittedly, everything looks flattened out and gray, but that’s accurate to the tone of the story. There’s actually the sense Higgins is a more interesting artist in his own righ,t there’s just not much for him to work with here.
For a comic with such aspirations (this book is getting a TV series because there’s no justice in the universe) it’s amazing how fundamentally empty Jacked really is. There are brief stabs of actual meaning, predominately an opening monologue about how wanting to be a superhero is impossible in the real world and the ending hinting at Josh abusing his new-found drug power, but it’s all just so much garnish. This isn’t a series that’s setting out to make a meaningful statement about anything; it’s got one job and that’s to fill up space while affording the reader the comforting illusion of depth and meaning. That’s why Josh exists as a sort of platonic form of loser devoid of any reasoning for being such a schlub beyond “these things happen.” You aren’t meant to glean an epiphany from his failings, he fails simply so he can rise and fail again. That kind of empty, nuts and bolts plotting is fine for characters who are actually fun to be around like Superman or Captain America, but Josh, the jobless loser who equates employment and sexual prowess as the end-all be-all of male vitality ad human achievement, is the opposite of fun. So you’re left with a dull slog of a comic that’s all fundamentals and no ideas or style wrapped in a very ugly package.