‘All Star Western’ Is at Home, Back East

Choice, Greil Marcus reminds us, is always steeped in questions of geography.

Marcus speaks on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” about his then new book, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. He reiterates what would come to be hailed as the central thesis of his book; that Highway 61 is at once Dylan leaving one kind of music for another and the moment of Dylan transitioning from folk singer to rock star. It might be a case of becoming too pretty for LA after being too smart for New York for just the longest time.

“When I first turned my car onto Highway 61 I expected visions”, Marcus confesses, “I had no idea it was a real place that people used as a road”. But it’s also a choice, Marcus explains. Cutting the country almost exactly in half as it does (from “Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico”), Marcus reminds us that Highway 61 is about the courage to head towards the new (geographically, the West Coast) or head Back East where it’s safe.

Marcus articulates the challenge presented by Highway 61: “Do you have the guts, do you have the strength or the imagination to think in a new way?” And in this way Highway 61 takes on a mythic quality. It becomes a metaphor for Robert Johnson and an entire generation of blues performers from the 20s and 30s who “at the crossroads, (have) to make a question of whether they’re going to commit their lives to the blues and really a life of self-destruction and loneliness and wandering, or if they’ll turn their backs and go home and settle down and disappear into the anonymous life that most of us live”.

It’s an easy sort of logic. The Boomers have inherited from the mythic fabric of the nation itself; that you head Out West to embrace the new. It’s a transformation that takes courage. But where do you go once you’ve gone as far West as you can? The problem that plagues Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (rejuvenators of the Jonah Hex character) is reinvention.

How do you reinvent yourself, once you’ve seen the full geography? Palmiotti and Gray suggest a seductive answer.

Reinvention has always been the bugbear of Jonah Hex. The character doesn’t have that historical pedigree going back to the early days of Action, Adventure or Detective. But even if the character had been a darling of those early 30s and 40s pulp books, the 1880s that provides the setting for the Hex character would already have been generations after the fact. Jonah Hex made his character debut in the 1970s, in All Star Western #10 (1972, when I check to make sure). He’s more in common with Clint Eastwood’s unjaundiced reenactment of the meanness of the Old West than any kind of historical accuracy of early pulp comicbooks.

By the mid-80s, in the wake of DC’s cleaning house that was Crisis on Infinite Earths, writer Michael Fleisher took Crisis as an invitation to reinvent the flagging Jonah Hex title as Hex. The strength and imagination to transform, Fleisher tore Jonah away from his Old West milieu and dropped him into a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The Fastest Gun became a kind of Mad Max meets Snake Plissken in a savage, brutal world.

The early 90s would see horror writer Joe R Lansdale return Jonah to the Old West. But, writing for the newly minted Vertigo line, Lansdale would introduce a West that was a supernatural freakshow. Encounters with zombies and worm-creatures and bear-human half-children born of back-alley carnival romances were the order of the day with Jonah’s foray into Vertigo.

The books were entertaining enough. Lansdale had pushed the strength and imagination needed for transformation as far as he could. And Jonah Hex had lost any connection to Fleisher’s Hex of the 80s or the original Hex that appeared in the ’70s’ All Star Western.

But Vertigo Hex did pave the way for Gray and Palmiotti’s sublime reboot of the character. The package was simple. Take Hex back to the Old West. No gimmicks, now scifi, just solid storytelling. And the genre would be the Western.

Just four pages into the first issue of the 2005 series, and the mini-story “Cemetery of Crosses” made things absolutely clear. Here was a Hex that was about living through those hard moral choices. The new Jonah Hex would be fueled on the drama of making tough choices, but not necessarily liking them. This wasn’t the self-censoring Hayes code of Hollywood Westerns, it wasn’t even the lyrical fortitude of David Milch’s magnificent Deadwood that premiered a few years prior.

For the past six years Gray and Palmiotti had Hex stalk the Old West mercilessly. But like Fleisher before them, they used company-wide shift to find the strength and imagination to produce a radical transformation.

And what is this bold new reinvention that Gray and Palmiotti undertake? The simple idea that, as Howard Chaykin put it in American Century, “America is everywhere”. Maybe not so much America in the case of the new All Star Western but urbanization. With the New 52 reboot of Jonah Hex Palmiotti and Gray take the chance to tell the story of Jonah Hex confronting the city.

Jonah returns to Gotham, where we last saw him in “Dark Knight, Dark Rider”, the issue just past the mid-point of The Return of Bruce Wayne. Hex heads Back East, a place we’ve never seen him before, and embroils himself in a criminal investigation involving deduction and reasoning. The characterization of Hex’s knuckles-first thuggishness contrasted against the overrefined Amadeus Arkham’s is a delight. But there’s a deeper project at work here.

After unfolding the Old West for the past six years, Gray and Palmiotti brush up against a very different grand narrative than the one Greil Marcus suggests Bob Dylan reenacts for us. This is not about the courage to head Out West and undertake self-transformation.

This is about uncovering the dark truth at the heart of the glamour. Palmiotti and Gray find Raymond Chandler, and James Ellroy and every Noir writer worth a damn who saw their hopes for better things simply defeated. They find Philip K Dick, whose paranoid scifi was our first brush with the self-surveillance culture of Twitter and Facebook, (God help us) Sonar. And they find Howard Hughes, a lesson in the ambition of visionary grandeur stifling unbridled genius.

There’s disillusion that swells up in Hex, and anger that cannot be properly articulated. This feels like a crossover event. What if Wyatt Earp were hunting down Jack the Ripper. All Star Western simply defeats expectations. It is the most resounding response to “why reboot” that DC has yet produced in its New 52.

There’s only one way to end any good meditation on All Star Western, with Hunter S. Thompson’s “Postscript” to Hell’s Angels, the book that had launched his literary career. “It had been a bad trip… fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer. On my way back to San Francisco I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original but there was no escaping Mistah Kurtz’s comment from the heart of darkness: ‘The horror! The Horror!… Exterminate all the brutes!’ It seemed appropriate if not entirely just… but after getting such a concentrated jolt of reality I was not much concerned about justice”.

RATING 10 / 10