Friday, January 15, 2016

"I've Had an Interesting Life," The Ballad of Jonah Hex

"Cold blooded killer, vicious, unmerciful hellion without feeling, without conscience... A man consumed by hate, a man who boded evil...That was... Jonah Hex." Those were the words that ran over the masthead of All Star Western Vol.2 #10, the first appearance of DC Comics most famous Western character, the bounty hunter Jonah Hex. And while the creation of John Albano and Tony DeZuniga has been fleshed out by many creators over the years, it's still pretty accurate. And since it was just announced that Hex would be appearing in an episode of DC's new Legends of Tomorrow series, I thought it would be a nice time to talk about Hex, his origins, and what makes him great, and make it clear to the uninitiated why the most public appearance of the character isn't something he should be judged by.

While Western comics have been a genre that hasn't really been popular for decades, Jonah Hex has been a character who has appeared pretty regularly since his inception forty years ago. That's because Hex isn't your typical cowboy hero. He's considerably closer to Eastwood's Man With No Name than he is to the Lone Ranger. Scarred, both physically an mentally, Hex is a bounty hunter without a heart of gold. He might have a personal code, and he might occasionally do the right thing for the right reason, but nine times out of ten? It's about the money. Hex pre-dates the superhero anti-heroes like Wolverine and the Punisher by two years and the 70s was a time, like now, when the anti-hero was on the rise, and so Hex remains a timeless character.

Hex's life is one where he was always on the wrong side or at the wrong place. He was sold by his sleazy father for safe passage through Apache territory. He did eventually become a member of the tribe, but was betrayed by his foster brother. He joined the Confederate army because they stood for individual rights, but when the North granted emancipation to all slaves, Hex decided it was time to leave the Confederacy, as he clearly had no love of slavery. But he didn't want to betray his soldiers, including his good friend Jeb Turnbull, so he simply surrendered to the Union. The Union soldiers were able to find his fellows, and they blamed Hex before they were all slaughtered, except Hex, who survived bu was wounded. He eventually returned to the Apache, and declared his foster brother, the chief's son, and it was decided that to settle the dispute, there would be a trial by combat. But Hex's foster brother sabotaged Hex's tomahawk, and so Hex had to resort to his knife to save himself, which was considered cheating. So Hex's face was branded with the Mark of the Demon and he was cast out again, That's the short version of the origin of Jonah Hex, but you can tell that this is a guy who's lived a rough life.

As for his publication history, Hex debuted in the second volume of All-Star Western Vol.2 #10, and he headlined that title when it changed it's name to Weird Western Tales with issue #12. He was the main feature in that title until issue #3, when he was given his own self-titled comic, which ran for 92 issues. The title ended around the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC's first major crossover that streamlined continuity and while other characters went back to basics, Hex starred in a new title, simply called Hex, where he was time tossed into the 21st Century and the comic was basically mad Max with Jonah Hex, which is an odd concept, no doubt. The title only ran eighteen issues. With the advent of the Vertigo line, Hex was one of the characters handed over to the mature readers line, and three mini-series written by novelist Joe R. Lansdale and drawn by Tim Truman were released throughout the '90s. These were supernatural stories, as this was in the era where most if not all of Vertigo's comics had to have some fantastic element to them, and they're enjoyable stories.

My real experience with Hex in comics began in 2006, with the launch of his new monthly title. Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, the series ran for seventy issues. It was an excellent comic, focusing mostly on one off stories, which was a change for comics at the time and still today, and while the vastly under-rated Luke Ross kicked off the series as artist, it didn't have a regular artist, with new artists coming in every issue or so, whose styles worked with the kind of stories Plmiotti and Gray were telling. The series drew on Hex's rich history, pulling aspects of his history together. The series didn't take place in chronological order, with flashback and forward issues popping up regularly, although that phrase isn't exactly right;it felt more like Starman's "Times Past" issues where we'd get a glimpse of when Jonah tried to settle down at some point in the future, or get a three issue arc that detailed Hex's origins.

Because of Hex's habit of, well, killing his opponents, and regular rogues gallery wasn't common, and because he isn't exactly the friendliest sort, a supporting cast wasn't in the works either. But there were a few characters who would return again and again. As nemeses go, if Hex had an arch enemy it would be Quentin Turnbull, the father of Hex's friend, Jeb, who was on an endless quest to revenge his son's death upon Hex. Throughout the most recent Jonah Hex series, various classic Western heroes would pop in and out, most notably the supernatural avenger El Diablo and the dandy Bat Lash. And it was in that series that Tallulah Black was introduced. A woman who was brutally scarred by men who killed her family, Jonah taught her to shoot and helped her on her revenge quest. Tallulah would eventually become a bounty hunter in her own right, and she would often pop up on Jonah's adventures, and the two developed something akin to a romantic relationship.

The artists who worked with Palmiotti and Gray throughout that run were absolutely incredible, featuring many of my favorite artists. Darwyn Cooke drew issues 33 and 50. J.H, Williams III drew issue 35. Eduardo Risso, famous for 100 Bullets, drew issue 62. Phil Noto drew half a dozen issue,s including the inaugural Tallulah Black arc. Tony DeZuniga returned to draw issue 5 and 9 and an original Jonah Hex graphic novel by Palmiotti and Gray, No Way Back. Ryan Sook drew the final issue of the series, number 70. Famed Spanish artist Jordi Bernet was the closest thing to a recurring artist the series had after Ross left, drawing sixteen issues, including the three issue origin story that ran in issues thirteen through fifteen, Legends like Russ Heath and Dick Giordano came in and drew an issue each,and rising stars of the time like Fiona Staples and Jeff Lemire also came on board for an issue. And that's only who I remember off the top of my head! I'm a story guy when it comes to my comics, but the murderer's row of artists that worked with Palmiotti and Gray on this series is undeniable, and remembering it makes me want to go back and reread them all.

Most recently, Hex headlined a new All-Star Western series, part of DC's "New 52" initiative. The series took Hex to Gotham City in the 1880s, where he teamed up with Jeremiah Arkham, founder of Arkham Asylum, for various adventures. The series was deeply tied into the new DC continuity, featuring Vandal Savage in one arc and the Court of Owls in another. The stories, still, were by Palmiotti and Gray, and Hex was still the Hex they had been writing, the cold, darkly funny at times, bounty hunter. The series had longer arcs than Jonah Hex, and a regular artist throughout most of its run, the excellent Moritat, although Darwyn Cooke came in to draw the final issue. The series ran for 34 issues, plus a zero issue. And while Hex hasn't appeared since the end of that series, where he was given an oddly hopeful ending for Jonah Hex, I have no doubt he'll appear again soon, because you can't keep a good bastard down.

For a Western hero, Hex has had a fairly decent presence in DC comics animated media. I first encountered the character in "Showdown," an episode of Batman: The Animated Series where an aged Hex hunts a man named Arkady DuVall who is working for Ra's al Ghul. It's a brilliant episode from Hex writer Joe R. Lansdale, with one of the most touching endings of any episode of the series. Hex would appear in a couple episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, because why not? The creators of that show did a great job not softening Hex's persona while still keeping him in line with the series all-ages dictate. And in the excellent two-part season one finale of Justice League Unlimited, "The Once and Future Thing," Hex appears in the first part, an episode with the line that is in this post's title, where he observes that he thinks Batman is a time traveler, and when Bruce asks him why his thinks that, his response is simply, "Experience. I've had an interesting life." That dry response and matter of fact attitude sums up Jonah Hex to a tee. And Joe R. Lansdale returned for one final animated tale of Hex with one of the short films that used to accompany DC direct-to-dvd animated movies, in a darkly animated and gorgeous short that came with Batman: Under the Red Hood and was collected with the other shorts in the collection Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam!

Since I am talking abut Hex's history and appearances, I would be remiss if I didn't briefly mention the 2010 Jonah Hex feature film. The mission statement for this blog is to talk about good comics and the things we love about them, and so while the film has its fans and defenders, it simply didn't click for me. However, Josh Brolin did a great job as Hex himself and he looked the part, so I am curious of how the look and the casting will be for  Legends of Tomorrow. I will say, if you get the chance, the Blu-Ray of the film has a great ten minute documentary that talks to many of the creators who have been deeply involved with Hex over the years.

Jonah Hex is a character who is a portrait in contrasts. He's a former slave who wears a confederate jacket. He's a mean s.o.b. who still maintains a strong personal code of ethics. And its these contrasts that have kept readers fascinated with him for years, and will keep them coming back. Legends of Tomorrow will hopefully open up a new generation to the scarred old west bounty hunter, and I look forward to seeing Hex stride the screen again.

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