Jonah Hex

[16 January 2006]

By Neil Kenyon

Seems to me that DC is on top of their game at present. Sure, Marvel may still have the majority share of the top 20 comic books but DC’s the one to watch.

Miller’s writing All Star Batman, Morrison’s writing All Star Superman (as well as the excellent Seven Soldiers), we have the monster machine that is Infinite Crisis with it’s genuine threat to shaking up the DC Universe, Vertigo’s titles are in good shape, and now the DC label has come up with this gem of a comic.

Westerns: tricky subject matter these days in both the film and comic medium. In recent years western movies have slumped again. For every Open Range we have had The Alamo. Television has bucked this trend with various mini-series and also had great success with Deadwood, a foul mouthed interpretation of the West (as only HBO could). Masterly plots are a combination of politics, the grime of living in the old west, standout characters and moments of explosive violence.

When Brian Azzarello brought out Loveless for Vertigo last month, you could see the stamp of Deadwood all over that title. A title with its fair share of violence and foul language in abundance (the first words in the comic are the typical variation from the normal mother-son relationship).

For Jonah Hex though, there’s a different vibe (and not just because of the absence of the Vertigo imprint), it’s the Leone westerns and in particular the melancholy of the Unforgiven that immediately springs to mind.

A moonlit night and Jonah Hex the mysterious bounty hunter and killer stands in the midst of a massacre, he’s just about to go head to head with James Ronnie, who he rode through town with earlier. The reason: an apache killing that Hex does not take to.

As Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti beautifully observe, Hex does not ride with people, but has only two companions “Death and the acrid smell of gun smoke”.

Fast forward two weeks (Not spoiling anything by telling you he survives the gun fight!) and Jonah becomes embroiled in trying to track down the 10-year-old son of a wealthy family who fear a kidnapping. This leads Hex to a circus (of sorts) where an extreme version of dog fighting is the main entertainment and the mystery unfolds further as to the fate of the missing boy.

What’s evident away from this main vengeance story is Jonah Hex confronting his own feud within himself as the tale reaches an emotional and tragic denouement. There’s a humanising of Jonah Hex which takes him away from being a brutal killer to a character that I’m sure will become quite complex as the series progresses.

The script is great, the single narration introducing the legend (or myth?) of Hex, then taking us to some supreme dialogue:-
“jezus! You shot my ear off”
“I’ll even it out for ya unless you start talkin’.”

Luke Ross’ painted artwork is excellent for this gritty script. Hex is suitably grotesque (at one point a worried woman cries “Who the hell are you, ugly?”) and the introduction of chapter titles to the story works really well to the atmospheric settings (A cemetery without crosses, the crippled hunter). Oh for the action fans, don’t worry as there’s plenty of room for some imaginative killing.

I read that each issue will be self contained, my only reservation at this stage as I’m the type who likes to read intertwining story arcs but I’m more that happy to read this in any format.

What’s my reference to this much loved character? Well I have never read the old All Star Western or Weird Western Tales of the 1970s, but caught all the more fantastical (but more adult treating) Joe R. Lansdale stuff for Vertigo which began with Two Gun Mojo in 1993. Based on Issue One alone, it’s better than the Lansdale material which in itself was pretty good. Heck this is worth buying for the Frank Quitely cover alone (future issues promise famous artists Phil Noto and Howard Chaykin on cover duty).

What’s the final word in contrasting these two new western titles? Loveless, I’m leafing through the second issue in my local comic shop before I decide to buy. At this stage the story, in the typical multi-issue arc structure, needs more time to develop, though Marcelo Frusin’s sombre artwork does a splendid job of setting a tone. Jonah Hex is on my regular order as of now. It provides the kind of immediate action and reader satisfaction that many comics, and many Westerns, just don’t.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jonah-hex/