As I write this, we’re a little over a year away from the big screen debut of DC Comics’ western hero Jonah Hex in the film JONAH HEX
Although the character has been around for 35 years, his profile is certainly not on the level of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Or even Flash and Green Lantern.
So, a short look at the character and the history of western heroes at DC Comics leading up to his creation.
Western heroes or western themed heroes had been around comics since near the beginning. DC sported the modern day western hero Vigilante in 1941. World War II kept most of the attention in the meantime, with the heroes of DC mostly dealing with modern menaces, Nazis, Japanese, and gangsters in addition to the more colorful adversaries. But, once World War II ended, readers wanted to move on to other things besides recent horrors and the historical west rose sharply in popularity.
For many the end of the Golden Age is marked by the unannounced change in ALL-STAR COMICS , featuring the JSA, to ALL-STAR WESTERN in 1951. There wasn’t necessarily a style change. Instead of clean cut, square jawed superheroes, we now had clean cut, square jawed western heroes like The Trigger Twins, Nighthawk, frontiersman Tomahawk who would hold a solo book until 1970, Strong Bow, Pow Wow Smith, Johnny Thunder, and more, illustrated by the likes of Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, and Gil Kane. All basically of the same tone that you would find in your average John Wayne film of the 1940s. And even the other superheroes of the time would find themselves in a quasi-western from time to time, ala “Batman – Indian Chief” from the period.
This however proved to be a fairly short lived era, giving over to tales of the space race and the Silver Age in very short order. And while it would be a disservice to dispute the craftsmanship of the stories, it’s hard to detect any real lasting impact from this era, unlike DC’s contemporary science fiction titles. Part of that may be that even from the start, they were slightly anachronistic. In the movies, audiences were getting a more complicated view of the west on a regular basis with THE SEARCHERS and Anthony Mann’s westerns. That was further cemented in the 1960s with the rise of the spaghetti western. Clearly, if DC was going to revisit the genre, something new was in order.
“WILL HE SAVE THE WEST OR RUIN IT?”
The period of the late 1960s to the early 1970s was an interesting one for DC. Their clean cut, square jawed heroes had gone from right in tune with the times to out of date in less than a decade. And they were finally in danger of being passed by Marvel which was clearly the company on the rise and most in tune with the times.
Carmine Infantino was promoted to the top of the company. And many non-traditional features were created during this period. The mystical Deadman was created by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino and quickly passed over to newcomer Neal Adams. Horror anthologies came back and out of them arose Swamp Thing. Kirby and Ditko came over to DC and The Creeper, Hawk and Dove, The New Gods, The Demon, Kamandi, and O.M.A.C. appeared. Batman became darker. Wonder Woman was depowered and became more Emma Peel than superhero. Green Lantern and Green Arrow debated the issues of the times. Enemy Ace fought a war with great skill, but openly wondered about the dehumanizing effects of war and why innocents must suffer for it. And a new style of western hero was created, in step with the times.
But it wasn’t Jonah Hex, yet. Debuting in 1968, Barthomew Alouysius Lash, Bat Lash, was a far departure from the stoic archetype that had previously defined the western genre in comics. Bat Lash, under the guidance of Sergio Aragones, Denny O’Neil, and Nick Cardy, was much more interested in womanizing, fast talking, enjoying the finer things in life, and, ostensibly, hated violence. Harkening to the flower children of the period, he even sported a flower in his hat. Although, certainly similar to television’s MAVERICK, Bat Lash had his own charms and perhaps accidentally dished out his own sense of justice. Bat Lash was a critical success and a success in Europe, but he only appeared in 9 issues total before being cancelled due to low sales. It’s hard to say why Bat Lash didn’t catch on. Perhaps it was due to the contradiction that although he hated violence he was quite good at it, not quite nailing the flower child ethos of the time. Perhaps it was the lack of a strong story hook, trouble found Bat Lash he didn’t particularly go out of his way seeking trouble, that didn’t ring true. Perhaps the obvious intelligence of Bat Lash left some of the troubles he got into hard to swallow. Perhaps it just was the fickleness of readership.
Still, even though Bat Lash might not have been a sales success, but he had a small cult following and was a critical success. That was apparently enough to attempt more western features and All Star Western was revived in 1970 featuring Pow Wow Smith, El Diablo, historical figures, and the feature Outlaw which started out as a falsely accused hero and soon morphed into a Billy the Kid feature. Outlaw didn’t have much success, although it certainly was an indication that DC would be prepared to showcase a hero that didn’t necessarily wear a white hat. And, with issue #10 of All-Star Western in February-March 1972, a man wearing a gray hat entered the town of Paradise Springs.
“HE HAD NO FRIENDS, THIS JONAH HEX, BUT HE DID HAVE TWO COMPANIONS. ONE WAS DEATH ITSELF… THE OTHER… THE ACRID SMELL OF GUNSMOKE.”
“Welcome to Paradise” by John Albano and Tony DeZuñiga was Jonah Hex’s introduction to comic books, and even today it reads like an archetypical Jonah Hex tale. Really, as a tale it’s a great example of storytelling. Let’s take a closer look at it.
The story opens with Jonah Hex, the scarred side of his face hidden in shadow until it’s dramatic reveal halfway through the story, dragging a couple of dead outlaws into the town of Paradise. Clearly, Jonah Hex wasn’t some sort of square jawed, “bring them in alive”, upholder of law and order, but more a practical dealer of frontier justice. That’s further cemented when Jonah Hex immediately sets out to get paid for his services, $100 a head. He quickly learns that three more of the outlaw raiders he was hired to bring down are in the saloon across the street and immediately takes the offensive, something he comments that they should have done when they had the drop on him.
Unlike your standard white hat cowboy, Jonah Hex doesn’t boldly walk in the bring them in, but instead sneaks around to the back of the saloon, climbs in a second story window, threatens a dance hall girl to keep quiet, and then ambushes the outlaws from the second floor. Two of the outlaws go down quickly with the third escaping when Jonah gets tangled up with a boy. Neither apologize for the incident. And Jonah figures that the third outlaw will lead him back to the gang leader anyways. So, after punching out the stable owner, who’s mistreating Jonah’s horse, Jonah sets out to track down the rest of the gang.
We’re then treated to Jonah Hex becoming an almost supernatural force as he tracks down the gang in the night, revealing his scarred face for maximum impact, and ultimately chasing the gang leader to a farm. The gang leader manages to take the woman farm owner hostage, although Jonah doesn’t think much of it, when the boy he tangled with earlier shows up and talks Jonah into saving his mother. Jonah, reluctantly, tosses aside his gun belt, but when the gang leader turns to ride away, he gets a thrown knife in his back that Jonah was concealing. Again, Jonah Hex violates tradition by not even taking down the head bad guy face to face.
Right there, you’d have a badass anti-hero. But, Albano throws in yet another curve to further define Jonah Hex. After saving the widow and her son, Jonah gets invited back by the son for his mother’s apple dumplings, supposedly the best around. And, Jonah considers settling down. He pays off the pretty widow’s back taxes with his bounty and enquires about purchasing a place where he could settle down.
And the town elders have none of it, quickly informing Jonah Hex that there’s not a place for sale in the whole territory. They’ve no place for a man of, and marked by, violence like Jonah Hex. Turns out that he’s not invited for apple dumplings either, as the widow takes a pot shot at him with a rifle on the way out to her farmhouse and informs him that he’s not welcome and a bad influence on her son. A last encounter with the son, who really does like Jonah but clearly there’s no place for Jonah in this town, and Jonah informs him that he hates him “like poison!”. “Welcome to Paradise” indeed. With the very first story, John Albano informs us that there’s not going to be a fairy tale happy ending for Jonah Hex.
Jonah Hex was apparently an immediate hit. And ALL-STAR WESTERN apparently recognized it as it became WEIRD WESTERN with issue #12. Jonah Hex would headline the magazine for all but one issue through issue #38, at which point he graduated to his own self titled book.
John Albano’s Jonah Hex was more a mythic figure than a man. He specialized in dealing out justice, often ironic justice that fit into the WEIRD WESTERN title theme. He was lonely, had an unexplained past full of violence, had some sympathy to women, children, and animals and was otherwise ruthless and unsentimental. And many of the villains he faced tended to be very depraved, when Albano wasn’t treading in moral grays.
John Albano created the character, but only ended up writing 10 stories, interrupted by one Arnold Drake story, before leaving the character. There’s no definitive explanation for why Albano left, but most explanations center around money and ownership. There’s a particular rumor that Clint Eastwood was interested in purchasing the rights for adaptation and DC didn’t want to fork over compensation to Albano. Perhaps true, perhaps not, although it’s worth noting that 1975’s THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES features an ex-Confederate soldier haunted by his past. In any event, Michael Fleisher was hired to take over Jonah Hex and he would stay with Jonah Hex throughout the 1970s and through the late 1980s.
Fleisher’s run was different than Albano’s in that Fleisher embraced the serial storytelling conventions of the time and slowly fleshed out Hex as a character. We learned about Jonah Hex’s past and Quentin Turnbull was introduced to serve as the first recurring villain for Jonah to overcome. A recurring villain with a strong link to Jonah’s past, Turnbull blames Hex for the death of Turnbull’s son Jeb. To add to the story complexity, Jonah blames himself for the death of Jeb. Jonah Hex became less an archetype of old school justice being carried out and more of a flawed human being. Fleisher still carried over the main themes and they were consistent with Albano’s stories, but there’s clearly a difference in approach. Fleisher most set his mark on Jonah Hex by having Jonah marry immigrant Mei Ling and fathering a son, Jason, before Jonah’s past catches up with him and it’s clear that he can’t settle down and have a normal family life as Mei Ling leaves him. Violence has, literally, marked Jonah Hex and there’s no escaping it. A theme Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN would get to a decade and a half later. Fleisher also added the Mexican bandit El Papagayo to the mix who would be a continuing adversary. Most of these things worked as Jonah Hex graduated to his own title which had a successful 92 issue run. Fleisher even gives an end to Jonah Hex in a late 1970s special, shot at the turn of the century and, gruesomely, stuffed for display as a relic of his era.
Jonah Hex was clearly the most successful western character of that period, with his western adventures appearing on a regular schedule from 1972 until 1985. He seemed to be the springboard for a small western universe with Bat Lash and El Diablo along with new creations Scalphunter and Cinnamon. Sales must have been pretty solid for awhile. So, why was he a hit and others not?
In many ways, Jonah Hex combines some of the elements that make Wolverine and Batman successful. You just have to look at Hex to see that he’s had a traumatic past. And his stories involve escaping from one tight situation after another and eventually delivering a rather unique brand of justice. Tenacity is also a hallmark of Jonah Hex, as he also has Wolverine’s “you can hurt me, but you can’t kill me” characteristic. Jonah Hex, more than most, is a terrific example of the outsider. A person that wants to fit in, but circumstance, prejudice, and his own characters flaws prevent it. And, at long last, Jonah Hex was a character that finally had come up to date with the modern conception of the west. Not one of pure white hats, but a more complicated and tougher place. Jonah Hex would be right at home in THE SEARCHERS or THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. He wasn’t so much a revisionist western hero, but someone who could combine the old fashioned virtues of fast gunplay and quick thinking with deeper character moments.
“ONCE UPON A TIME...IN THE WEST?!?”
If one were to pinpoint a low point in the modern popularity of the western, the mid-1980s is as likely a time as any. Jonah Hex’s sales were headed down and the time came to either cancel the series or try something different. And, Michael Fleisher decided that he’d rather try something different.
So, taking a page out of MAD MAX, Jonah Hex was whisked to a post-apocalyptic future, given a leather outfit, a pair of laser pistols, and let loose to take care of a new generation of varmints. Lasting a brief 18 issues under the writing of Fleisher, and the art of Mark Texeira and Keith Giffen, it’s a chapter best left forgotten. And after an impressive 15 year run, Jonah Hex took an absence from comics starting in 1987.
“TWO GUN MOJO”
Jonah Hex didn’t sit on the shelf long, before being given another chance. In the early 1990s, DC Comics launched the Vertigo label which was open to more adult interpretation of characters. And Clint Eastwood had a significant hit with the revisionist western UNFORGIVEN. The circumstances were right for a re-launch.
In August 1993, Vertigo released JONAH HEX: TWO GUN MOJO written by Joe “Bubba Ho-Tep” Lansdale and drawn by Tim Truman. This incarnation took the title of Weird Western tales literally, pitting Jonah Hex against a strange circus of freaks and zombies, basically branching out from the ranks of straight western into a horror western hybrid. Although, Jonah Hex’s solutions to problems didn’t change all that much, a bullet to the brain works against the living and the undead. Atmospheric, dark, violent, and funny, TWO GUN MOJO turned out to be a modest hit prompting a sequel.
In 1995, JONAH HEX: RIDERS OF THE WORM AND SUCH was released. This time Jonah Hex found himself up against a Cthulhu type menace and half worm/half human gunfighters in the form of the “Autumn Brothers”. Again the same strengths of the first series were in abundance. Unfortunately, there was a completely unexpected turn of events.
The “Autumn Brothers” were clearly an homage to rock and roll’s Winter Brothers. And they didn’t take the homage with any sort of good natured sense of humor, but turned around and sued DC Comics for use of their public image. The lawsuit took several years to run it’s course with several setbacks to DC along the way, but in the end a significant precedent was established. Comic books weren’t just a way of selling action figures and other merchandise, but a legitimate art form entitled to all the protections of parody, satire, etc. afforded to all other art forms. It’s obvious, but the Jonah Hex case was the first to make it part of law.
However, while DC Comics may have ultimately won, it clearly took the momentum away from the Lansdale / Truman team. JONAH HEX: SHADOWS WEST was published in 1999, dealing with Jonah Hex involved with spirit people and then Jonah disappeared from regular comics again for another seven years.
It’s also worth noting that courtesy of Joe Lansdale, Jonah Hex had his biggest exposure outside of comic books in this period. Jonah Hex basically took over one episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, “Showdown”, where he took down the son of Ra’s al Ghul in the old west.
“A FACEFUL OF VIOLENCE”
In 2006, Jonah Hex was relaunched. Perhaps due to the mild boom in westerns with OPEN RANGE and 3:10 TO YUMA coming out in the same time frame, perhaps as a reaction to all the superhero books that were flooding the stands. Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti took their turn in a critically acclaimed, if sales challenged, run. Gray and Palmiotti avoided the serial chronological storytelling of Fleisher to tell stories that could take place anywhere during the life of Jonah Hex and were usually resolved in one issue. Often told from many different perspectives and portraying Jonah Hex in different lights, although usually facing off against depraved s.o.b.s who deserve the rough justice that Jonah Hex is going to deliver. Probably with a dose of irony.
By eschewing continuing serials, the current run has embraced a variety of artists that really have few other outlets for drawing western themed comics. Luke Ross drew most of the first year, using a slick realistic style that had Jonah Hex visually modeled on Clint Eastwood. Phil Noto mostly followed Luke Ross. And, with the “Origins” story arc, European artist Jordi Bernet became the semi-regular artist on the book and has graced us with a distinct style, slightly remiscent of Joe Kubert, but 100% fantastic and eschewing splash pages in favor of old fashioned storytelling. Guest artists still appear and it’s worth seeking out the issues illustrated by Darwyn Cooke and J.H. Williams III.
Although the book isn’t really interesting in serial storytelling, it has added to the world of Jonah Hex. Bat Lash and El Diablo have been regular guest stars. And Gray and Palmiotti have added the heavily scarred and traumatized Tallulah Black to the cast, as an homage to the grindhouse film THEY CALL HER ONE-EYE. Quentin Tarantino also mined similar territory in using Daryl Hannah in KILL BILL in a similar homage. Currently, the book is in the middle of a six part storyline and building towards its 50th issue, with a graphic novel in the works to tie into the movie.