December 19, 2010

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Jonah Hex No Way Back

Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Illustrated by Tony DeZuniga and John Stanisci
DC

The life of Jonah Hex is a cold and lonely one, but it has its rewards in the end. While the scarred gun for hire is enjoying those rewards, he's given a very powerful jolt--someone he's tried hard to forget is back in his life, whether he likes it or not.

As Hex gets tangled back into his past and a family tree he didn't even know he had, an old adversary is ready to strike, with quite a few innocent bystanders in the middle. Can Hex beat back his feelings long enough to beat the odds, one more time? He's got to keep moving, because in a hard world like like his, there truly is...no way back.

I'd read the first Jonah Hex trade collection and the ongoing series by Gray and Palmiotti was one of the last single issue comics I was picked up, so I was pleased to find the graphic novel they'd released around the time of the movie. Here they are joined by DeZuniga, a veteran of Hex's original adventures, who gives this book the gritty feel that it needs (I was not pleased by some of the slick art in the first trade) to go along with the dark and almost hopeless nature of the plot. You can't have a smooth set of pencils on a book that features everything from dogs to horses getting shot. It completely ruins the effect.

It's always interesting to me to see the difference between serial comics and a graphic novel, even if I only read trade collections. This story keeps moving in a way that it could not have if broken down into issue form. There are no obvious stops in the action, as Palmiotti and Gray take advantage of the format to keep the story moving from beginning to end. They're free to add an opening that sets up the tale without feeling like wasted space, because we're dealing with a story that's well over 100 pages. Had this been in 22 pages at a time, the first "issue" would either feel cheated because of the opening or the starting point of the story might have needlessly been extended to take an entire "floppy". I'm glad to see our pair of writers use the format to its full ability, rather than write as they would for the ongoing series, with unnecessary pauses or breaks.

I read a fair amount of comics from this team, and I have to say this is one of their best plotting efforts. If you were unfamiliar with Hex, it's easy to pick up on the type of person he is--ruthless to those who don't know him, but with a layer underneath that shows a depth of caring that sets him apart from the awful world in which he lives. He looks just as bad as those he faces when we first meet him, but the care he takes dealing with the dead and protecting those who did nothing wrong peek out amid the grime. Hex has taken a long look at this western world in which he lives, and he doesn't like it one bit. He's got to be as rough as those around him to survive, but that doesn't mean he can't condemn it with his own words and sentence those who he feels deserve it with his guns, his knife, or even his tongue.

This is very much in evidence here, as Hex walks about in a setting where even a preacher has his faults. You can tell this is a modern western, the kind that uses Unforgiven as its model rather than, say, your typical John Wayne film. Hex may be of this world, but he's also got the sense to see what is right and wrong from the eyes of a modern audience. This may or may not be realistic, but that is the Palmitti-Gray take on Hex. Their Hex never claims to be better than the scum he kills or comments on, but you can see in his actions that despite his outside demeanor, Hex will always try to do the right thing. He just might take a bloody path getting there.

As a general rule, I like that approach. We're too knowledgeable these days to believe that the West was ever so clean as Hollywood or old western comics made it. We know the time of cowboys was short, we know that many settlers were awful people, and we know that the treatment of Native Americans was brutal and mostly one-sided. When writing a modern western, you just can't go back. I like that Palmiotti and Gray show the seedy underside of America during the years after the Civil War, where even the good people are flawed.

What I did not care for here, however, is that the level of violence against women is way too high, and that the female characters never factor as anything other than scenery (as prostitutes or loose women), plot device (a woman in Hex's past), or victims (to be harmed and then murdered). I've read enough of Palmiotti and Gray's other words to expect better of them. Powergirl in particular comes to mind as an example of writing a strong female character, as does Hex's opposite number Tallulah Black. I know that the west was rough, and that horrible things do happen to people in dark stories, but in this novel, they just seemed to be there for effect, not as an integral part of the story. I'm not against having horrible things in your comic. What I am against, however, is using them just to up the violence ante. I will give the creative team credit for keeping everything off-screen, but at the same time, I question why a story that's this long couldn't find a few pages to give a female character something to do that didn't involve being used or abused.

The main story itself is an interesting choice for Hex. He's not a man to reflect on the past, but this story forces him back whether he wants to or not, time and time again. The idea that Hex has never had it good makes sense, but I'm not sure he needed the trope of an abusive father. The creation of a distant family with a relative who is almost his polar opposite was a good touch, I think, especially since when you scratch that surface, they appear to even be different at their heart. In the end, Hex is a man trying to leave his past behind, but I don't think he's ever going to have much success. When you lead the kind of life our scarred protagonist does, the past will always be nipping at your heels, slipping in as you catch fitful sleep. The title "No Way Back" is apt, because nothing Hex does now can change the life he leads. To go back means to die, something I think he understands well, and is a theme in all of the Hex comics I've read by Gray and Palmiotti.

Because of the way women are treated in this story, I have a hard time recommending this one-shot Hex adventure. Looking past that problem, this is a very good story crafted by two writers working with a man who knows how to match his art to the plot. I just wish some changes had been made to the details in order to give it some balance in relation to the female characters. I'd love to see more novel-length Hex stories, because I think he fits this format better than in shorter arcs with artificial breaks.

Hex is a character you want to follow, even if he'd try to keep you at arm's length. Anyone who likes the ongoing series should definitely check this out, but I don't think it's a good place for beginners. I am hopeful that the next Hex story I read by Palmiotti and Gray shows a stronger side to the women involved, so that I can recommend it without hesitation. Hex is a great character in their hands. Now he just needs to be part of a plot that has a role for both genders.