When I was a kid growing up in the 70s, Western comics were among my favorites. I was a huge fan of characters like Two-Gun Kid, Kid Colt, and The Rawhide Kid. In a lot of ways, these heroes were Lone Ranger knockoffs; masked do-gooders who were usually misunderstood as outlaws. They were basically good guys who always had the pretty girls flocking around them whether they were in “costume” or hanging out in their secret identities (you know, as doctors, lawyers, whatever). My friends and I used to tear-ass around playing cowboys and Indians, shooting the hell out of each other and then getting back up for more. I even had a little cowboy vest I wore until it fell apart; I tore through my share of western snap-shirts too.
The first time I saw the character Jonah Hex, he scared the hell out of me. A friend of mine’s old brother collected the Weird Western Tales comic, and had continued with the character when Jonah got his own ongoing series. These were western stories with a supernatural theme to them, and to me they were just . . . bizarre. And then there was the man himself. Hex was no do-gooder. He was ugly, with a horrific scar on the side of his face that I still get kind of grossed out about. He fought for “the bad guys” in the Civil War. He just wasn’t the kind of guy that a naive little punk like me really related to at the time, but I always remembered him. By the mid-80s his book was canceled, though he popped up in the 90s when I wasn’t reading comics.
Fast forward to 2005, when DC Comics took a chance on a new ongoing Jonah Hex series, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, with art by Luke Ross. Over the years different artists have contributed to the book, but this week DC’s committment to the hard work of Palmiotti and Gray pays off with the release of the special, double-sized issue #50. For fans of the series, and for people who know the comics business (i.e. make money now or get dropped!), this is a certifiable Big Deal. Four years is a helluva run for any book that doesn’t include a lead character that has been around for 30, 40, 50 or 60 years! And a western? Please.
This is a series I hold pretty close to my heart, because it’s one I jumped on board with right from the get-go, which has never happened before, at least not in any sustainable fashion (if only I’d held on to Peter Parker the Spectacular Spiderman issues 1-20 or so!). As comics go, at least a comic from one of the Big Two (DC and Marvel), Jonah Hex is anything but typical. Hex isn’t really a “good guy.” He is a former Confederate soldier turned infamous bounty hunter. He doesn’t speak much. He doesn’t seem to care for anyone, but one expects a dark history, especially when it comes to the horrible scar. We do see glimpses of his inner humanity, but they are fleeting. When Hex is broke, he’s on the trail of a face on a poster. When he’s flush, he wallows in booze and hookers until he’s broke again, piling up more bodies than a Stallone character.
Hex has a moral code, of course — I see him as something of a cross between Clint Eastwood’s western archetype and Omar from The Wire. He is a guy who won’t mess with you if you don’t cross him, but if you do it’s game over. He knows right from wrong and will stand up for it, regardless if that puts him in line with the letter of the law. For those who know his name, he is almost a mythical character.
What I enjoy about the series is it reads like a collection of flash fiction. Each issue of Jonah Hex — with only a couple exceptions (including a recent 6-issue run titled “The Six Gun War”) — has been a standalone story. That isn’t something you see in mainstream comics these days, where it seems every book is part of some sweeping drama that crosses over into every running series. It’s nice to get these tight little stories, and that in itself is a reflection on Palmiotti and Gray’s writing, because 22 pages ain’t much to tell a story that begins and ends all in one shot. I’ve probably re-read more Hex stories than any other, just for that reason. There’s never any question about what has been happening for 10 issues prior to a given book — what you see is what you get. I like that.
I remember reading an article — I think it was during the promotional lead up to Kevin Costner’s Open Range film — where the Western as a film genre was discussed. The films used to be ubiquitous, but you don’t see them much anymore. The premise of the piece I read is that they have been replaced by the cop/crime show, which makes sense to me. I think fans of crime stories would enjoy much of what Palmiotti and Gray are doing with this book. The things I’m enjoying about crime fiction, a genre I’ve only recently immersed myself in, are the very elements I enjoy with this series. Dark themes, multi-dimensional characters, moral quandaries . . . and a lot of fast-paced action and gunplay. Unpredictable women. The stranger riding into town. Crooked law enforcement. Vengeful villains. I mean, it is all here!
Another bonus with #50 is that the art has been provided by Darwyn Cooke, with colors by Dave Stewart. Cooke is arguably my favorite artist in this medium. His interpretation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter via graphic novel was my gateway into crime fiction, and I haven’t looked back. Darwyn has a blog of his own about Jonah Hex #50 that is well worth checking out, where he discusses how it came to happen and where his artistic inspirations for the work came from.
As for Dave Stewart, he’s just the best there is at what he does. Considering the work he’s done on Dark Horse‘s Conan series (simply one of the Greatest Things Ever), you know the man has my eternal worship. Cooke’s thoughts on Stewart’s work on this issue make me all the more excited for this issue to arrive in my eager hands come Thursday.
Buy the Damn Thing Already
So besides the opportunity for me to gush about something I think is cool as hell, what is the point of this particular blog post? I am of the opinion that all things awesome, especially creatively, should be rewarded. People love their entertainment — art, movies, books, TV, video games, et al — but unless you are someone who has a runaway blockbuster hit, the money sucks. So getting the word out about significant benchmarks is important to me.
This series is an example of an artistic endeavor succeeding in the face of steep odds. It’s like seeing an underground band I love getting a great opening spot on some huge band’s tour and then blowing the headliner off the stage night after freakin’ night. I love Batman, but there are about 10 Batman books and only a couple of them are worth a shit. Non-superhero books don’t live long these days, and this story ain’t no superhero book. It succeeded on the merits of everyone involved sticking to their guns (pun mostly intended), and I commend that and feel it deserves notice to people outside of the comics community.
Looks like the effort is going to pay off in other ways too, because the Jonah Hex movie starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich and Megan Fox is scheduled to open on July 12th, 2010, and it looks awesome. Seeing Josh in No Country for Old Men and picturing him as Hex pretty much makes this film my most anticipated watch of the summer. So suck that, Iron Man 2!
Do yourself a favor and get on board, so that when the movie comes out and is a hit you can be all smug and act like you’ve been a Hex fan for years. Go out to your local comic shop and buy a goddamn comic book this week. While you’re there, pick up a couple more. Take a look at these preview images from #50, for crissakes; you know you want this thing!