Union Jack: London Falling

National-themed superheroes have it tough. Anybody who slaps a flag on their chest and fights evil comes with built-in audience limitations, plus the creeping threat of getting dismissed by fans as corny and uncomfortably Capra-esque. Marvel has worked very hard to make Captain America into something more than a jingoistic throwback, but many other characters have not fared so well. So the deck is stacked against any creator that takes up a character like England’s Union Jack.

Which is precisely what makes London Falling such a triumph. Writer Christos M. Gage serves up a tale that makes you wonder why Union Jack shouldn’t be as big as Wolverine, writing Jack as a picaresque, working class champion who faces impossible odds with grit, moxie, and the stiff upper lip historically prized by the English. If James Bond can win international hearts, why not this bloke? He’s even got a dead cool costume, and one-ups Bond and his gimmicky Beamer by tooling around London in a series of disposable flying convertibles.

The miniseries chronicles an international team-up tasked with stopping a conspiracy of C-list villains organizing simultaneous terrorist strikes on London. Our hero (actually the third character to be called Union Jack) joins forces with the formidable Israeli superheroine Sabra, S.H.I.E.L.D. siren “Val” de la Fontaine, and the new (Saudi) Arabian Knight — who, in a comic twist, had his magic carpet sewn into an indestructible vest (but he keeps the magic scimitar). Fists nearly fly between the Knight and Sabra, while Jack and Val are united by the kind of no-nonsense pragmatism in the face of evil that classically allows England and America to overlook their differences. And by the end of the series, all of these decidedly obscure personalities seem as dear and familiar as the Avengers, or at least one of the X-teams.

Gage performs an extremely deft balancing act, mixing high-wire superheroics with subtle political commentary much more gracefully than Civil War ever did. London Falling touches not just on the challenge of fighting terrorism, but also on England’s simmering class conflict: Union Jack stands for the proletariat rather than the Queen, fighting to make the world safe for the common man — even if only in spirit, since he spends most of his time tangling with vampires (Union Jack’s classic arch-nemesis was Nazi nosferatu Baron Blood). We even discover that his relationship with fellow Invader Spitfire — daughter of the first Union Jack — dissolved because of the divide created by “estates, servants and titles”, and Jack’s interactions with MI5 Deputy Director Gavin smolder with the kind of quiet class antagonism familiar to fans of English literature and film.

Union Jack also emerges as an endearing underdog. Lacking superpowers and armed with only a dagger and an antique pistol (plus, admittedly, several flying cars), Jack has to skate by on his wits and determination. Throughout the story, he gets dumped on by allies and enemies alike — at one point, Jack O’Lantern mistakes Union Jack for Captain Britain, and after being informed otherwise, he remarks: “Oh good. For a second there I was worried.” Later in the story, Jack calls Avengers Tower, saying he’ll speak to “Jarvis, the cleaning lady, anyone who’s available.” But when he gets no less than Captain America himself on the line, Cap gets relegated to the role of Oracle, providing information so that the humble Jack can win the day.

Superhero comics have struggled to confront the war on terror in a variety of ways, and everybody from Batman to Deadpool has grappled with the issues faced by a post-9/11 world. But few recent series have done so as elegantly as London Falling, which doesn’t force its social commentary and doesn’t disfigure its characters in order to fit them into a political framework (although most of the characters are so obscure that few readers would probably notice if they had). The miniseries is also one of the best revitalizations of a character in years, almost reaching the level of quality seen in Doctor Strange: The Oath — it’s the kind of read that leaves you wishing for a regular Union Jack series. What do you say, Marvel? Like John Lennon said: “A working class hero is something to be.”