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, rather in the vein of Spider-Man and the Creeper. He is motivated by a powerful desire for justice based on his own family history, a strong sense of responsibility to society based on his expertise and 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.
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 as well as 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, walking knowingly into 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 Tamra 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.
In all his incarnations Jack-in-the-Box has been a loner hero, commonly working alone 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 are 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 used his new body to steal.
Recently, Zachary has been 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 insane super vigilantes; in the third, the “best” alternative, a lonely, emotionally crippled college professor. Zachary, unwilling to subject his family to a fate similar to that 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 has protected it, he simultaneously groomed his protégé Roscoe James to take over from him and become the third Jack-in-the-Box.
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 Jack with his satchel, current Astro City stories show the original Jack without it, suggesting a retcon which makes the satchel an add-on by Zachary.