[13 August 2010]
Forget the movie. By all accounts, Warner Brothers’ summer “blockbuster” Jonah Hex was a fairly awful mess even by Hollywood standards. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen it.) Hex, a character who has been around since the early-‘70s, has been a perpetual second-string CD Comics property, a scar-faced, gun-totin’ vigilante with a heart of gold who shoots first and—aw hell, shoots is about all he does. Despite the mediocre movie, he’s had his moments of on-the-page cool.
No Way Back aims to continue the slow resuscitation of Hex into a more than second-tier character. Writers Gray and Palmiotti have released a series of graphic novels charting his adventures, with titles like Face Full of Vengeance and Lead Poisoning. Readers new to the series who wish to get an idea of how things kicked off could do worse than picking up the Origins graphic novel which collects a group of 2007 comics to clue the reader in to some early events in Hex’s life. That volume has the added advantage of some fine pencils by Jordi Bennett.
Which brings us to No Way Back, a book which aims to expand on the events of Origins and reveal how Hex’s early childhood set the stage for a lifetime of cold-blooded outlawry. Unfortunately, these revelations are hardly unique or even unusual; in fact they’re quite typical. One might have expected something more singular, given the way lil’ Jonah turned out.
The story opens with Hex saving a Nevada town from a pack of bank robbers, and rewarding himself with the cheerful attentions of the local harlots—an oddly discolored group of women, one of whom resembles a sand-filled sausage tube. His relaxation is interrupted by news of a newly-levied bounty, which sends Hex into a shooting spree (admittedly not too difficult). It’s a bit surprising that the bounty has been levied, not on Hex, but on a member of his family.
This leads to the most important thematic thread in the story. Family crops up early and often in No Way Back, and it’s clear that the writers link Hex’s crippled family background with the shambling wreck he has become. Flashbacks fill in the gaps competently if unsurprisingly, while the present story presents a series of revelations that confront Jonah with family members he didn’t know he had. One of these encounters is genuinely moving; the longer of the two, which takes up much of the book’s second half, is primarily a way to keep the action galloping along.
The reader is also treated to the origin story of El Papagayo, a longstanding nemesis of Hex’s and the leader of a band of vicious outlaws. El Papagayo has caused Hex problems before, but here we get an account of his own youth, which is linked to Hex’s and which explains his apparently irrational hatred of the man.
It’s worth pointing out that Papagayo is Mexican, as are the other significant outlaws in the story, while the victims are overwhelmingly white. While there are various Anglo scavengers and badmen scattered throughout the story—Hex’s relatives among them—the Mexicans are portrayed with particular disgust, with spittle flying as they abuse women and so forth. Conversely, the only town of devoted pacifists is populated by God-fearing, Christian white folks. This is not a particular pattern in the other Hex books, but taken in isolation here, the ethnic division is disturbing.
Tony DeZuniga was the penciller for the very first Jonah Hex comics way back in 1972. His style has been descrtibed as “love it or hate it”, which seems fair. His sketchy style utilizes a great many short fine lines, which end up confusing the eye and tend to make characters look years older than they should. Worse, he is an uncommonly poor draughtsman. Besides the harlot-who-looks-like-a-sack-of-sand, there are many panels where human figures appear grotesquely distorted or clumsy.
One might defend the artwork by saying DeZuniga’s “primitive” style effectively mirrors the Old West milieu it portrays. Fair enough; certainly a slick, brightly-colored portrayal of Hex’s world would seem surrealistically wrong. Still, some middle ground between slick and sketchy might work better. Rob Schwager’s colors deserve a mention, as they improve the artwork noticeably. Working with a muted selection of grays, blues and browns, Schwager effectively conveys ruggedness and earthiness, while occasional splashes of color—a twilit sky, a woman’s dress, the feathers of a parrot—add visual depth and interest.
One final note: this is a very violent book. The first image is of a pile of corpses, and leafing through the pages, I count 26 murders, plus various beatings and slaps, an arm hacked off and sundry acts of violence against women, against children, against animals. Obviously all stories contain conflict, and Westerns as a genre are known for explosive violence, but this fairly slim volume packs in an awful lot of bloodshed with only slight pauses in between.
Ultimately, there is not a great deal new, here. This is a book which will appeal mainly to existing fans of Jonah Hex, which is no doubt exactly what the publisher expects. It’s hard to see this title having a great deal of crossover appeal for an audience of non-comics readers, though perhaps fans of the genre will be intrigued enough to follow up with the other volumes in Hex’s continually evolving catalogue.