“He was a hero to some, a villain to others, and wherever he rode people spoke his name in whispers. He had no friends, this Jonah Hex, but he did have two companions: One was death itself… The other, the acrid smell of gunsmoke…”
I’ve meant to write about Jonah Hex for a long time now, at least since I started writing for the Gutter. But it’s often difficult to write about things I love and I love weird Westerns, especially Jonah Hex. The scarred and ornery bounty hunter has had a long and varied career since his beginning in All-Star Western Tales. I first discovered Jonah Hex with Joe R. Lansdale’s run, back when I didn’t know who Jonah Hex or Joe R. Lansdale were.
Jonah Hex is a former Confederate soldier, a bounty hunter who still wears his grays, something that sometimes rubs me the wrong way (I even had trouble with Firefly; though it’s foolish), and facial scarring that must impede his eating and sleeping. He’s modeled after Spaghetti Western drifters, most often Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. And, like his name, Hex bodes evil throughout his comics. His companions never do well, but he still picks up a lot of strays, aligning himself with losers, outcasts, freaks, orphans and people who are just plain misplaced—outsiders like himself and more vulnerable than he is. He’s also frequently taken in himself, whether by sad settler widows or Mescalero Apaches. Though nobody would ever say so, he has feelings and a conscience. He’s an antihero living in a society that has become cruel and corrupt. I’ve said before that Westerns are all about morality—sometimes glaringly black and white, like shadows on a salt flat, sometimes more complicated with everything twilight gray. I see Hex’s grays as declaring for the morally gray in a complicated world.
Writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuñiga created Jonah Hex in 1972 and he first appeared in the Western anthology comics, All-Star Western, and, Weird Western Tales. They started Hex’s story without an origin and I think that made the comic stronger. It created a greater sense of him as a disconnected drifter, a man with no past. Michael Fleischer took over writing in 1974, with Noly Panaligan, Doug Wildey, George Moliterni and José Luis García-López providing art. Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex: Vol. 1. (DC, 2005) collects their stories with “Over 500 Pages of Comics!”in black and white. And, aside from making for an affordable collection, the black and white shows off DeZuñiga’s inks beautifully. Before Tony DeZuñiga, I didn’t really appreciate 1970s comic art. Now he’s one of my favorite artists. In particular, his horses are beautiful and I don’t think anyone has drawn a better gun-shot man.
As Westerns faded in popularity, DC decided to update, or, as we say now, “reboot,” Jonah Hex. The first “gut-searing” issue of Hex (DC, 1985) announces, “Their nuclear-ravaged world needed a hero, what it got was… HEX.” The pitch was probably: Jonah Hex meets The Road Warrior. Hex is captured by a time-traveler who is busy collecting great warriors and bringing them to future Seattle. Hex escapes, fights a guy who looks like Cable and dons an outfit like Mad Max’s. It helps him fit in. Future Seattlites wear 1980s faux punk fashion—a lot of magenta and spiked shoulder pads, wrap around sunglasses and top knots. Hex lasted 18 issues. It’s not quite right and it’s hard to love something a writer surely wept over, but it’s something.
Joe R. Lansdale opens his 1993 Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo by quoting the 1970s Weird Western Tales: “He was a hero to some, a villain to others, and wherever he rode people spoke his name in whispers.”
Hex is back in the Old West again in three miniseries written by Lansdale with art by Timothy Truman and Sam Glanzman: Two-Gun Mojo (1993); Riders of the Worm and Such (1995)*; and Shadows West (1999). Where Hex’s adventures in All-Star Western and Weird Western Tales had been grim Westerns and Hex had been, well, weird, Lansdale really put the weird in Weird Western Tale. Hex fights giant worms and an evil medicine show man who commands pickled-till-they’re-undead gunfighters while helping a sideshow lady with a bear child and a British cattleman fixated on Oscar Wilde. There are zombies and cannibalism. And Hex’s facial scarring has never been more lurid: his damaged eye blood-red with a pinpoint pupil; a veiny isthmus connecting his cheek to his chin.
But Lansdale’s language makes the comic for me. His Hex is funny—giving different explanations for his scar: slipped shaving, bit his cheek eatin’, chigger bite. I think Hex’s penchant for picking up strays stands out more among the undead, freaky and spirit people. In fact, the word play and the camaradarie between Hex and his various undead, freaky and spirit companions reminds me of a perverse Pogo or a twisted Muppet Show.
In 2006, DC launched a new, continuing Jonah Hex. It also starts with a quote: “But as any man, woman or child knows, he had no friends. This Jonah Hex… One was Death itself… and the other, the acrid smell of gunsmoke.”
Jonah Hex has the advantage of being written after the Comics Code was broken. Too much can actually be too much, but Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s Jonah Hex is just right—capturing the strengths and groundedness of the original and blending it with some of the weirdness of Lansdale’s miniseries. Hex also picks up some friends, though, again, they’d never cop to it, including the new bounty hunter, Tallullah Black,** as well as El Diablo and Bat Lash. For the most part, the stories are episodic with as much of a continuing arc of narrative and character relationships as you care to explore.
The current excellent run is coming to an end with DC’s reboot, but Jonah Hex will continue in the new line. He’ll be a bounty hunter in Old Gotham riding with an ancestor of Bruce Wayne. I’m glad Hex will be kicking around, but I’m ambivalent. Team-ups are fun, but I like a world where not everybody knows each other. I like a world where there are outsiders, and Hex has always been an outsider. One of the strengths of Jonah Hex has been that the stories are often single issue episodes. But what I think is a strength in a comic is often what editorial authorities don’t. Then again, Hex has survived worse.
* Johnny and Edgar Winter sued DC over a depiction of them as the sinister Autumn Brothers in Riders of the Worm and Such. DC won in 2003, but the suit’s made that comic hard to find. As a cowboy says in that book, “Tryin’ to crap a perfectly round turd through a hoop at twenty paces would be easier” (Riders of the Worm and Such #2, 10)
**People with rape triggers might want to avoid her introduction in issues 16 and 17. Rape isn’t gratuitous in this story, but writers, please, really consider other reasons women might take revenge. Rape isn’t only distressing, it’s overused.
“Cold-blooded killer, vicious, unmerciful hellion without feeling, without conscience… A woman consumed by hate, a woman who boded evil…That was… Carol Borden!”