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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Panel Vision - Guide to Jonah Hex

Edited by Robert Beach 

This is going to be something of a different guide than usual. Most of the time in these guides I'm going through a list of characters with the understanding that I’m guiding you through a collection of characters or universe elements, so you’ll have a greater understanding the superhero mythos that’s come to dominate pop culture. However, seeking to capitalize on Jonah Hex’s appearance on Legends of Tomorrow, I had so many options to choose from. 

I decided it’d be easier than writing 5 different articles about the guy to just combine them all in a single guide to the various broad strokes stories of Jonah Hex. This is going to be part history, part recommendation list, part review, and who knows if people are interested. Maybe we’ll do it again when some other character with a lot of content to cover makes their debut. 

I won’t spend too long on the Jonah Hex Showcase Presents as I’ve already spoken about this iteration of the character at length during a Comic Rainbow. I want to discuss it again, so I can give the lowdown on DC’s Showcase Presents books. 

Showcase Presents volumes are really damn big collections of old comics reprinted on cheap paper without color to keep the cost down. They’re "essentially" an answer to Marvel’s Essentials line, which was much the same thing. If you’re at all interested in owning physical copies of comic stories instead of digital issues or if you’re looking for something Comixology isn’t featuring, I can’t recommend Showcase Presents highly enough. They’re a great buy for anyone looking for a big volume of golden oldies. 

The Jonah Hex Showcase Presents cover most of the character’s original appearances in the ‘70s. This is a good primer on Jonah Hex as a character, and, to a lesser degree, the era he emerged out of. In the ‘70s, the kids who made up comic readership in the ‘60s had grown into young adults, so both DC and Marvel were actively working to increase the scope of their output.  

In DC’s case, one such option was to revive their various western comics as a response to the renewed popularity of the genre with the birth of the Spaghetti Western. Jonah Hex became the flagship character of this initiative and is essentially a more comic book-y version of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” from the Dollars trilogy: a tough-as-nails bastard with no past beyond his confederate uniform and a talent for killing. If you’re big into For A Few Dollars More or High Planes Drifter, this is some of the best Jonah Hex out there.

In 1985, DC’s event comic Crisis on Infinite Earths pretty much changed everything. It rebooted their whole universe, canceled a ton of titles, and left a bunch of characters like Jonah Hex in a limbo. Eventually, DC chose to rectify this with a new Jonah Hex comic entitled Hex. The only problem here was that cowboy westerns in the ‘80s were nowhere near as popular as they were in the ‘70s, having been supplanted as the favorite blockbuster flavor by the sci-fi action genre that informed hits like Robocop, Terminator, Aliens, and Mad Max. Rather than just dig in their heels and stick to the western format, DC elected to try and rework/update Jonah Hex for the new decade with an all-new genre: time-travelling, post-apocalyptic road warrior.

Yes, Hex is essentially DC’s own Mad Max only starring a time-displaced cowboy in the future. I don’t really get the thought process that led to dropping Jonah Hex in the future rather than just having his descendant as the future bounty hunter. But the idea still could’ve worked. However, the series goes one step further by pitting Hex against an insane future with recreationist history who's so obsessed with violent history that he kidnaps killers from across time to bring to the future to fight forever in the wasteland he created.  

It’s a weird concept, and a weird series to boot that wasn’t terribly well regarded when it came out. Since then, I’ve been told it has a greater following overseas. Most American comic fans I know regard it as an amusing curiosity more than any kind of under-appreciated classic. Still, if you’re looking for something that’s Mad Max by way of Doctor Who that stars a time-travelling cowboy, you don’t have many other options. 

The Hex comic did not last terribly long. The DC of the ‘80s wasn’t placing a very high premium on experimentation, so a lot of their non-superhero stuff tended not to persist unless it got really popular. Although, Hex came back in the ‘90s as part of DC’s mature readers imprint Vertigo. At the time of 1993, Vertigo was only starting out with a handful of critically acclaimed books like Hellblazer and Swampthing, both of which came from pre-existing and forgotten ‘70s DC universe characters. Reworking Jonah Hex as a weird west supernatural horror comic made a lot of sense.  Additionally, they brought in Timothy Truman, the guy who revamped Hawkman to massive critical acclaim in the ‘80s with the already reviewed comic Hawkworld. 

The result was a trilogy of weird west horror comics starting with Two Gun Mojo, the unequivocal best of the bunch, even though it’s not particularly amazing. The Hex Vertigo trilogy is an odd beast overall, a bizarre mash of raw and ugly historical accuracies with horror elements drawn from across Native American myth, Lovecraftian terror, and standard horror iconography. Two Gun Mojo is the first of the bunch, revolving around a freaky inhuman wizard that puts together a troop of zombies via all kinds of black magic. It’s an odd tale, but the zombies are creepy, especially their leader Wild Bill Hickok. The wizard himself is one of the most cartoonishly grotesque characters I’ve ever run across. And if you don’t have much tolerance for that thing, then yeah, you probably won’t enjoy this. 

Riders of the Worm is even grosser in some aspects and swaps out the standard horror set-up for a Worms of the Earth type story drawn from Lovecraftian lore. It’s a lot more of an adventure tale in the vein of Conan or Tremors than western horror, but it has its moment. The final book, Shadows West, really isn’t worth digging into. It surrounds a killer circus troop after a human/bear baby. It’s nowhere near the same wallow in bad taste, horror elements, and western action as the other two books. Overall, the trilogy isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or well aged as a lot of Vertigo’s other ‘90s titles, yet none of it is un-enjoyable and as far as horror western goes. That’s such a small niche you’re already grading on a curve. 

2005 was a weird year for DC. They had spent most of the late ‘90s and early 2000s cruising on new momentum from hits like Grant Morrison’s Justice League or the series of highly successful Batman and Superman event series like Knightfall and Death of Superman. What’s more, Marvel’s bankruptcy in the late ‘90s meant DC was basically ruling the roost.  

By 2005, however, Marvel had turned things around and became profitable again after the double-barrel blockbuster smash of Spider-Man 1 & 2 and were high on the hog with their major summer event comic of ’05 Civil War. To try and stay competitive, DC’s answer was to go old school, resurrecting a lot of classic elements and ideas to try and reinvigorate that spirit of imagination that once defined their universe. One of the more under-appreciated elements of this initiative was a new Jonah Hex comic that stands up as easily the character’s best series. 

Running 70 issues from 2005 to 2011, Jonah Hex stands as a classic of the western comic genre that shows how well the old tropes of Spaghetti Westerns can work when filtered through modern sensibilities of storytelling and stakes. In a lot of ways, Jonah Hex ’05 serves as a precursor to a lot of the adult, quasi-Art House westerns we’ve had recently like True Grit, The Revenant, or Hateful Eight.  

I’ve chosen to single out Six Gun War as it speaks to a unique subsection of the series that I really appreciated: how many of the classic DC western heroes it actually brought back. As I’ve already covered, DC had a ton of western heroes across the ‘50s and ‘70s, and Jonah Hex’s best storyline was a team-up event featuring the 3 biggest all-stars of the genre: Jonah Hex, Bat Lash, and El Diablo. In addition to the series's own very popular new addition to the mythos: Tallulah Black. 

The story revolves around the closest thing Hex has to an antagonist, Quentin Turnbull, a killer confederate general who blames Hex for the death of his son and is the one who scarred Jonah during the Civil War. The comic is basically an outline for an All-Star Western movie with Hex’s adventures of fighting Turnbull bringing him into contact with the other heroes. Hex faces down a league of assassins Turnbull put together to take down Hex and then launching an action-packed assault on Turnbull’s mining compound in South America. In a lot of ways, it’s a streamlined Western version of the Pirates of the Caribbean plot structure with more hardcore levels of violence. Speaking of films...

You knew this was coming. Prior to his role in Legends of Tomorrow, the 2010 movie is probably the most visible public appearance Jonah Hex ever made. It’s terrible. Honestly, as someone who’s a pretty hardcore Jonah Hex fan (seriously, I had to do no research to pen this guide) that film is absolutely heartbreaking, a complete ruination of a great comic book icon and one of the only major non-superhero success stories within the big two. It’s right up there with the Constantine movie and Fant4stic in terms of how much it’s a complete betrayal of the source material and genre in favor of the most generic and backwards decision possible. 

If you haven’t seen the movie, well, don’t do it. Here's the set-up: The film borrows its central conflict from the 2005 Jonah Hex series with Jonah fighting alongside Tallulah Black against Quentin Turnbull and his psycho killers. That’s about all the film actually takes from the source material. Stuff like Tallulah being a vapid prostitute who doesn’t do much fighting, Hex having the supernatural power to commune with the dead, and Turnbull building a giant Steam Punk plasma rifle to blow up the White House are all new and terrible additions. It’s honestly really weird how much the film feels like an aborted sequel to Wild Wild West except without the fun or energy of that movie. 

Josh Brolin is a waste as Hex given he’s actually a good actor with a lot of range. John Malkovich is on acting autopilot as Turnbull, and Megan Fox is awful as usual. Hex, as a character, is represented, but his new magic super powers render him a cipher beyond the most generic western clich├ęs. Turnbull is a boring antagonist with no personality, and turning Tallulah Black from a hard-bitten, rape-revenge western protagonist into a damsel in distress is downright insulting. The action is all equally terrible. The whole movie is draped in the worst examples of CG excess.  

The only good thing about this flick is an out-of-nowhere performance from future Magneto Michael Fassbender. Fassbender is playing the throwaway role of Turnbull’s lead henchmen, a psychotic Irish guy with Pictish tattoos and is shockingly great in the role. Fassbender is a tremendous actor all around, so it’s not terribly surprising. It's just a little weird and comforting that even in bad movies he’s still quality. 

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