January 24, 2010

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Jonah Hex Face Full of Violence (Vol 1)

Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray
Illustrated by Luke Ross and Tony Dezuniga
DC

A few months ago, I started picking up Jonah Hex in single issues, after giving it a try. I grew up on just about every western ever released to VHS, from Clint Eastwood to John Wayne, so the idea of a modern story in a western setting really appeals to me.

But I'm a slave to reading in order, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I opted to go back and see where this re-start of the old DC western began. DC didn't make it easy--they stubbornly refuse to put volume numbers on their Hex collections--so it took me forever to figure out which one had the right issues.

Once I got past that, I found a story that starts in the middle. Rather than try for an origin story, Palmiotti and Gray jump right into the action, providing six done-in-one stories that show Jonah Hex as a man with a single-minded determination to achieve his objective, regardless of the consequences to those around him. He's always on the side of right--but the right side might just end up as bloody as the foes Hex faces they aren't careful.

These issues, while not going back in time, do set Hex's world up pretty well. It doesn't take long to figure out we're in the late 1860s or so, given Hex's Confederate soldier history and the constant references to the spectre of Native Americans attacking Americans. It's the same world of the westerns of the youth, just darker and more realistic.

Hex's character, too, is set from the first story, about rescuing a missing child from a barbaric dog fighting ring. While he seems like an uncaring bastard to those who only see the bounty-grabbing side of him, Hex cares a lot more than he lets on and won't sit for any injustice, particularly against women or children. His idea of justice is swift, unmerciful, and singular. I can't speak for the original series, but in Palmiotti and Gray's hands, he's a bit like Frank Castle but with a dry wit that's usually lacking in Punisher books.

The stories themselves are refreshingly short for an American comic. None of the stories extend into the next, and I didn't think any of them needed to, either. There's the one about the dog fighting, followed by Hex's determination to return a cross to a poor town despite getting into quite a bit of trouble at another local village run with an iron hand by its founder, Ironside.

A corrupt Sheriff, perhaps my favorite western cliche, tries to take Hex out next, but he's soon rescued by another DC character, the natty Bat Lash. The banter between those two is a lot of fun, and I hope that Lash crops up periodically, since he doesn't have his own comic these days. The fourth story is probably the weakest of the bunch, with Hex bringing the wrong man in for a terrible crime. There's just not enough set up for me to believe the way events turn out.

After four issues of Luke Ross art, original Hex co-creator Tony Dezuniga takes a hand at the wheel, as Palmiotti and Gray show Hex on the losing end of a struggle. At least at first. The ending of the story is as much fun as it is unlikely, but it shows that Hex is not a man to be trifled with.

Ross returns for the final story, which reveals a bit of Hex's backstory as he ends up in yet another strange town (favorite western cliche #2) with ties to his past. But as with anything involving Hex, the results of any reunion are tragic.

The key to a good western is the characters, and the team of Palmiotti and Gray do a great job of filling the pages with interesting foes for Hex to fight. They're all villains, but their causes and reasons are different. They all say just the right things to trigger the conflict and each of them are just arrogant enough that, with a bit of luck, Hex can find a way to beat them.

What makes this work for a modern reader is the decision to make Hex a bit more modern than his setting. At first I was afraid that would seem anachronistic, but Palmiotti and Gray somehow manage to keep Hex grounded in his time without allowing him to carry the stink of the racist, greedy, evil people around him. Is this realistic? Heck, no. But this is a western we're talking about, where realism when out the window as soon as the first director said, "Action!"

The same is true for the plots. Hex's stories find him encountering familiar situations within the western as a genre, they are much more complicated and don't give us the black and white world of even the most shady Spaghetti Western. No one is truly innocent is the theme, and it works. After all, while I can read a 1950s comic that's got stereotypical Native Americans in it, finding the same in a comic written 50 years later would horrify me. I'm glad to see they didn't try for a retro feel, as I think that would have failed miserably.

About the only thing that didn't work for me is the art. Luke Ross's designs are far too slick and clean for a western. His Hex barely looks horrifying, which is supposed to be his trademark, and his facial features resemble Clint Eastwood far too much for my taste. Everyone's clothing is perfectly tailored and clean. Even Spider-Man gets rips in his union suit, but Hex must keep pressed pants in his saddlebags, at least with Ross at the helm. The colors are also far too bright for the dark stories being told here, but I'm not sure which of the to colorists (or both) are responsible for that.

When Dezuniga takes over for one issue the art improves dramatically. I'm not sure if it's his age or how he's always drawn, but Hex's face is a patchwork mess and all of the characters look like they've been through the wringer. There's strong characterization in the faces and everything has a fluid sense of motion, as opposed to the posing nature of Ross's layouts. By the end scene, Hex looks like a maniac demon from hell--and maybe, just maybe, he is. There are shadows everywhere, befitting the trapped nature of Hex and his small band's plight in the story. It has all the signs of a master artist at work that so much of comics is lacking today as computers start to dominate the work. I'd love to see future Hex stories follow that artistic path rather than the clean-cut rendition by Ross.

One last artistic note--the covers for these issues are pretty cool. Tim Bradstreet, who did some wonderful Punisher cover work, is on the cover of this trade, but you also have Frank Quietly, Howard Chaykin, and the ever-cool Brian Bolland, who manages to match his cover to the interior story--such a novel concept these days!

I think you have to have a strong love for westerns to enjoy Jonah Hex. After all, he's basically Punisher: Year -100, so if killer vigilantes aren't your thing, then it's not going to do anything for you, unless you have fond memories of the flawed but fun westerns of the golden age of Hollywood. Palmiotti and Gray have updated the genre and shown that a modern western can work.

I also think there's an audience for this (a topic that comes up from time to time on comics blogs that follow single issues), but it's rather specific and probably too small to support more than one or two comics at a time. As long as Palmiotti and Gray keep writing Jonah Hex, I'll happily go along for the ride. I just hope most of the next trade has art more fitting with the story they're trying to tell. Once that happens, I think Jonah Hex will really sing for me. Either way, I'm definitely in for volume 2, assuming I can figure out which one it is!