Jack-in-the-Box (Astro City)
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Jack-in-the-Box II (Zachary Johnson) and his wife, Tamra Dixon
Art by Alex Ross
|First appearance||Astro City #3 (1995)|
|Created by||Kurt Busiek
|Alter ego||Jack Johnson (I)
Zachary Johnson (II)
Roscoe James (III)
Fierce hand-to-hand combatant
Use of inventive equipment (including telescoping gloves and boots)
Jack-in-the-Box is a fictional character in the comic book series Astro City. Created by writer Kurt Busiek and artists Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, Jack-in-the-Box is a prominent superhero of Astro City. He is motivated by a powerful desire for justice based on his own family history, with a strong sense of responsibility to society based on his expertise, capabilities and the sheer enjoyment of being a superhero. A conflicting sense of responsibility to his own family, however, combine with reminders of his own mortality to make him question his superheroic mission.
Origin and History
Jack Johnson, an inventive genius, was one of the first African Americans to break the color barrier in the toy manufacturing industry in the early 1960s, winning a job with the Whamco corporation. Though he faced pay discrimination in comparison to his white colleagues, his true disillusionment came with the discovery that Whamco was exploiting his inventions for criminal purposes. His protests merely resulted in the termination of his employment in 1964, together with the kidnapping of his father to ensure his silence. Jack fought back by adapting his inventions into a personal arsenal and taking on the secret identity of the clown-costumed hero Jack-in-the-Box, in which guise he freed his father and other hostages and eventually exposed Whamco's criminal operations. By this time an established superhero, he continued his double life.
Over the years, Johnson fought supervillains such as Steeljack, organized crime figures like the Underlord, and common criminals. Meanwhile, in civilian life, he established his own independent toy company, married and had a son, Zachary Johnson. For several years, he balanced his responsibilities to his family, career and heroic mission successfully, keeping his son and possibly even his wife ignorant of his secret identity. But his luck ran out in 1983, during a conflict with the villainous Underlord. He ended his career as he began it, rescuing innocents held hostage by criminals, knowingly entering a trap set by his enemy to do so. Caught in an explosion, his fate was a mystery, with the authorities and media speculating both that he might have been killed and that he might have escaped. As time passed and Jack-in-the-Box did not reappear, hope for his survival dimmed, though it was thought that he had at least taken his enemy down with him.
In fact, Johnson had indeed perished, while his foe survived, retiring his villainous identity but continuing his nefarious activities in secret. In the Johnson home, Jack's wife held a funeral for her missing husband, and their son Zachary was traumatized by his father's mysterious disappearance. Only years later, after his mother died of cancer and he was settling the estate, did Zachary discover his father's paraphernalia and journals and discover that Jack Johnson had been the missing superhero Jack-in-the-Box. His father's journals also revealed the Underlord's civilian identity, from which Zachary learned that the villain was still alive. Determined to bring his father's killer to justice, Zachary adopted the Jack-in-the-Box identity and set about taking him down. Thus, in 1989, the harlequin crime-fighter returned. Despite speculation, the public at large remained in ignorance as to whether this was the original Jack-in-the-Box returned or a new one. Zachary purposely maintained the pretense that he was indeed the first Jack-in-the-Box come again.
Zachary did indeed take down the Underlord, proving his ability to fill Jack Johnson's shoes. He continued to do so both as a superhero and a toy company owner, and later married television news personality Tamara Dixon. Mindful of the turmoil and stress his father's secret and disappearance had put him through, he was careful to make her his complete confidant.
After many years as Jack-in-the-Box, Zachary was led to reassess his priorities and heroic career by his wife's pregnancy, coupled with visitations from the Box, the Jackson and Jerome Johnson, three alternate future versions of the child she might bear. Zachary's visitors indicated that he was soon to be killed in action, leaving his infant son to grow up fatherless as he had, but with far more tragic results. In two of the possible futures they represent, the boy becomes an insane super-vigilante; in the third, the "best" alternative, a lonely, emotionally crippled college professor. Zachary, unwilling to subject his family to a fate similar to what he had endured, ultimately decided to give up his role as Jack-in-the-Box. Equally unwilling to leave society defenseless against the threats from which he protected it, he simultaneously groomed Roscoe James, founder of the Trouble Boys, as his protégé to take over from him and become the third Jack-in-the-Box.
In all his incarnations, Jack-in-the-Box has been a loner hero, commonly working solo and declining membership in such high-profile superhero teams as Honor Guard. He has, however, worked with other heroes in the course of various cases, natural disasters, and other crises. On one such occasion, he worked with the Astro City Irregulars to prevent a future ecological catastrophe referred to as the Wasting. Other sometime allies include the Trouble Boys, a street gang devoted to emulating and tormenting Jack-in-the-Box.
Jack-in-the-Box has gone up against a colorful assortment of antagonists. His most persistent foes have characteristics and noms de guerre complementing his own. Notable antagonists include the Junkman, an inventive genius like himself, forced out of the workforce by age discrimination who turned his fertile mind to crime to seek vengeance on society; the Human Weasel, a wiry athletic thief who does indeed appear to have weasel-like characteristics, including fur and teeth; and the Brass Monkey, a metallic simian statue possessed and animated by the mind of a deceased janitor, who uses his new body to steal.
Skills and abilities
Jack-in-the-Box is an extraordinarily accomplished athlete and acrobat, capable of midair maneuvers to combat flying opponents, and even to dodge aerial explosions. He displays a deductive mind and a talent for invention, able to maintain and augment the arsenal of gimmicks and devices inherited from his father and to utilize them expertly in furtherance of his crimefighting career. He is also fond of wisecracks and wordplay.
Jack-in-the-Box's basic arsenal consists of his "footapaults", "handsprings", entangling streamers and "electro-noses". His footapaults are telescoping boots capable of catapulting him into the air and leaping him rapidly through and over a variety of terrains and urban environments. (Sometimes, covers will show them also acting as stilts, while the actual stories only portray them as being used to make leaps.) Similarly, his handsprings are telescoping gloves which extend his reach and grip (and punch). He can also project from them a multicolored plastic solution which solidifies on contact with the air into streamers, and can be used to impede and ensnare his foes, much like the web-fluid of Marvel's Spider-Man. His "electro-noses" are rubber clown noses which, when deftly applied to an opponent's face, delivers a jolt from a built-in electroshock weapon, knocking the recipient unconscious.
Jack also carries a purse-like satchel which may carry other devices or equipment as necessary, such as a freezing device he once jerry-rigged from some air compressors and cans of refrigerant. While the first Jack-in-the-Box stories always showed both Jacks with this satchel, current Astro City stories show the original Jack without it, suggesting a retcon which makes the satchel an add-on by Zachary.
- The Brothers of Trouble - devotees of Jack-in-the-Box from the future who have made him the basis of a religion. A possible future version of the Trouble Boys.
- Jerome Johnson - a possible future son of Jack-in-the-Box II, an alternate version of the Box and the Jackson. A college professor in his time-line.
- Roscoe James - leader of the Trouble Boys street gang, recruited by Jack-in-the-Box II to become Jack-in-the-Box III.
- Tamra Dixon (viewpoint) - anchorwoman of Channel 3's Morning News, married to toymaker and entrepreneur Zachary Johnson (a.k.a. Jack-in-the-Box II).
- The Trouble Boys - a Bakerville street gang athletic group founded by Roscoe James to keep himself and his friends out of real trouble. Imitators and tormentors of Jack-in-the-Box.
- The Box (featured) - An insane cyborg vigilante character and a possible future son of Jack-in-the-Box II, an alternate version of the Jackson and Jerome Johnson. His main weapon is Justice Jacky, a robotic jack-in-the-box in place of his left arm that murderously wields a multitude of weapons, including a chainsaw, daggers, etc.
- The Brass Monkey (featured) - a living metallic simian statue with a human mind.
- The Deacon - Head of the crime families of Astro City; despite years of investigation, has never been convicted of any crime.
- "Eyes" Eisenstein (viewpoint) - a small-time crook who discovers Jack-in-the-Box II's secret identity, but flees town when paranoid fantasies of what may happen if he told anyone get the better of him.
- The Gorilla Troops - henchmen of the Brass Monkey who wear gorilla masks.
- The Human Weasel - a short, wiry villain with weasel-like physical characteristics. His status as a Jack-in-the-Box villain inspired by the lyrics of Pop Goes the Weasel.
- The Jackson (featured) - A fanatic feral vigilante and a possible future son of Jack-in-the-Box II, an alternate version of the Box and Jerome Johnson.
- The Junkman (viewpoint) — an aged villain seeking vengeance on society for age discrimination. Recycles and enhances his weaponry from discarded trash. His closest analog, interestingly, is his primary antagonist, Jack-in-the-Box, whose origin, inventive genius, and use of gimmicks parallel his.
- The Middleman - a smuggler and gunrunner specializing in acquiring the weaponry of defeated villains and fencing them to other villains.
- Prospero - a past opponent of Jack-in-the-Box II, currently incarcerated.
- Smoke & Mirrors - villain with illusion-casting powers, a past opponent of Jack-in-the-Box II; as a hireling of the Conquistador, created an illusion of a city-wide conflagration. Currently incarcerated.
- The Underlord - a past opponent of Jack-in-the-Box I and II, active in the 1980s.
- Steeljack (viewpoint) - a past opponent of Jack-in-the-Box I, active in the 1970s, since reformed. As a super-villain, he was a member of the Terrifying Three. After serving his time, he was tapped by former associates as a private investigator to solve a string of murders in the super-villain community.
During the "Dark Age" arc of Astro City, it was revealed that one of the original Jack-in-the-Box's enemies had somehow acquired blood samples of him, and at one point attempted to grow a clone, hoping to create the perfect henchman. Instead, the result was Gloo, a green, amorphous blob with vesitigal heads/limbs. Possessing a twisted sentience and memories of being a hero, Gloo was feared by criminals as an unstoppable killing machine, attacking anyone it could discern as an armed and dangerous threat. Gloo would often use powers and tactics which morbidly copied old comedy tropes, such as exhaling acid onto his victims much like a slapstick comedian would spray people with a seltzer bottle, or crush gangs together to fit them into a compact car, forming a gruesome clown car. Gloo was operating up until 1984 at least, but when, how, or even if Gloo was destroyed, or if Zachary Johnson ever encountered it, has not yet been shown in the series.
- Astro City
- List of Astro City characters
- The Creeper
- Green Goblin
- "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman