Monday, November 07, 2005

Guest Entry/Act 1 - This Comic Could Be Better: Jonah Hex #1

I don’t usually review comics as others do it better than I and much faster. However, I am making an exception for the new Jonah Hex premiere issue. I am an unabashed Jonah Hex fan from way back. And by way back I mean from the era of All Star Western & Weird Western way back. Like some I am not a big fan of the cinema and television Westerns and many of the comic books of that genre seemed derivative of Maverick or The Outlaw Josey Wales. To me, Jonah Hex was the standout character of the comic Western lineup. Not so much for the visualization of Jonah, who was not at all pretty. No, it was because Jonah Hex was really not a very nice guy. He was an early anti-hero who appeared long before it became a cliché. So it was with much anticipation that I waited for the new Jonah Hex series and I was not too disappointed in the effort. It’s a good reintroduction for a niche character. Westerns, cable television’s Deadwood aside, are a hard sell in today’s market.

For those not familiar with the character, Jonah Hex is an ex-Confederate soldier who makes his living as a bounty hunter in an idealized, mythical Wild West. Jonah is a result of horrible nurturing and has had a hard, difficult life. He is pretty broken as a human being and he spends all his time dealing with broken people. His back-story can make for some interesting tales.

To coincide with the re-launch of the Jonah Hex title, DC has collected some of the early stories in a relatively inexpensive format to enable new readers to realize a greater depth of the bounty hunter. Most readers today are only familiar with Jonah from his recent appearances on the JLU animated show or the Lansdale/Truman mini-series from a few years back. Those are all good entries in the Hex mythos, but also have the elements of the fantastic. In my opinion the Horror and Science Fiction genres are not really what Jonah Hex is all about. Jonah is a classic western anti-hero in the style of L'Amour and men's adventure serial novels. For years the character (like Mike Grell's Warlord), with only a few exceptions, avoided interacting with the mainstream DC Universe and Jonah Hex was all the better for it. His story is told best when it is about the mundane and hopelessness of life that you continue just because of inertia. While the cross-genre stories have their place and I enjoyed them I do not think they are the best fit for the character. One possible exception was the Swamp Thing time travel stories of the 80's that included the western hero Tomahawk, who, for those familiar with that characters' Silver Age run, fought dinosaurs and giant apes almost every issue. That story perfectly meshed several genres by being both subtle and crazily overt just when necessary.

The 1985 Hex series where Jonah was transported to the future did not actually happen, by the way. Think of it like the Clone Saga and just ignore it.

Jonah Hex works best when grounded in the comic book reality of a Wild West bounty hunter trying to make his way in a post-apocalyptic America. Jonah's Mad Max adventures did not need to take place in the far future because, when you think about it, he already lived in a nightmare world. Jonah fought for the South, accidentally killed Stonewall Jackson during a critical period of the war and with his fellow soldiers suffered the humiliating loss of what he considered his country. For him, the post-civil war United States was already Road Warrior country! No time travel required.

The 2005 first issue reads very much like classic Michael Fleisher in that Jonah exacts his notion of justice on the people who crossed him. The Fleisher issues are full of such examples. To my own disappointment, the plot was very familiar and seems to be taken almost directly from the 1977 Jonah Hex #1, "Vengeance for a Fallen Gladiator." This unfortunately dovetails statements I have seen that the new series will be most like 'Tales of the Legend of Jonah Hex'. To me that just screams of cannibalizing past books that readers will not be familiar with to write the new stories of today. Ironically, this writing tactic most resembles long-time Hex chronicler Michael Fleisher, who often did variations of a theme (a Marvel story penned by Fleisher would have the same plot as a Warren story he also wrote) during his comic work of the 70's.

I found that the art was reminiscent of the average yet competent work of late 1970's Nestor Redondo in that it was serviceable and helped to tell the story, but I do not consider it to be anything very special. A couple of things about the art I’d like to mention is that channeling Clint Eastwood was a nifty idea back when it was done on Marvel's Caleb Hammer in the 80's, not so much now in 2005. I also question the fear inability of a comics company to produce a comic without Wolverine making an appearance in it. I can just imagine some young fan reading the new Jonah Hex #1 and thinking "This guy...he's like Wolverine, cool. I'll buy issue #2 for sure now because he might show up again.” Meanwhile, an Editor and Junior Marketing Exec high-five one another over the idea.

New readers, though, will probably enjoy it because they are not bogged down with the knowledge of 13 years of steady Jonah Hex tales in mind. As an example to that, I can't read the Hush story arcs in the Batman titles without thinking of Detective Comics #131 or the 80's Crime Doctor.

There are a few dangers in the production of this new series that I anticipate and dread. One is that Palmiotti acknowledged pitching the series as Jonah being the "Punisher without Kevlar." That is all well and good for the sales meeting, but the character has always been more than about street revenge. Hopefully the creative team will not stay with that formula. Many tales of that sort are little more than filler leading up to the payoff scene about what new gruesome way the villain will meet an end. The other danger is Editorial Desperation. Tie-ins, crossovers and the fantastic...the panic in the sales department could hamstring the direction of the book and kill it fast. In seeking a wider audience the book could lose focus.

So I liked the new Jonah Hex #1, but I also wanted to like it more than I did. I see the first issue as an introduction to the character and a good but safe start.

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Blogger joncormier said...

I have to say that the opening scene in this issue is probably my favourite scene of the year. I was just gruesome, tense and fantastic all mixed together.

That being said I've noticed a lot of luke warm response to this book. Myself included. I am a minor fan of westerns (what red blooded male isn't) but there was something just slightly off for me. I think it's the "moral ambiguity." To me it wasn't too ambiguis. I felt like there was too much of a comment on current affairs - but I could also just be reading things into the text. I'm unsure and I'm unsure if I agree.

Whether I agree or not shouldn't be the point if the story is good. This story is just okay to me and when the "moral ambiguity" is such a big selling point I feel it needs to be dealt with a bit better. I don't need to agree with every stance a character takes but this was as subtle as a 300lbs wrestler kicking you in the crotch with figure skates.

11/07/2005 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I Liked Hex, its what introduced me to the character, though I love all the Jonah Hex stuff that came before and after Hex, and pretty much agree with everything you said. I just wanted to give a shout out to Hex.

11/07/2005 08:12:00 PM  
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