Comics Like These Make the Cemetery Man Smile

March 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Note: During 2011, when I was writing for The Panelists, I devoted three long blog posts to DC’s Jonah Hex title. I want to re-run these Hex posts here, because I still think it’s a woefully underrated comic, and because I’ve got a long “think piece” on All-Star Western, Hex’s “New 52” replacement, going up at The Comics Journal soon, and these earlier posts give the TCJ essay some historical background.

“Comics Like These…” was originally posted on The Panelists site on January 20, 2011.

From JONAH HEX #28 (April 2008). Art by John Higgins.

I ignored Jonah Hex for a long time. The character–a disfigured, amoral bounty hunter created by writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga, and introduced in DC’s All-Star Western #10 (March 1972)–was popular enough to have his own long-running western comic from 1977 to 1985, but I didn’t care. Back then, I didn’t read anything but superhero stories.

I’ve since expanded my tastes somewhat, especially for westerns. My father was a John Wayne fan, and once I got over my hormonally-mandated hatred of everything my parents valued, Dad and I bonded over movies like Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1948). I read a broader assortment of comics now, too, so when a friend recently told me that DC’s reboot of the Jonah Hex comic book (begun in late 2005) was worth reading, I gave it a try. And it is a good comic, partially because writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, and their talented artistic collaborators, practice storytelling virtues unique in these days of Blackest Night, Brightest Day and sprawling event books.

Here’s one such virtue: Gray and Palmiotti write each individual issue of Hex to be self-contained and “done-in-one,” to allow new and casual readers to hop on at any point without fretting about continuity. Even so, Hex’s life does have a beginning and end. When Michael Fleisher wrote the original run of 1970s-80s Hex comics, he charted out the character’s history, from Hex’s troubled childhood (his father sold him to a tribe of Apaches) to his bizarre death (in 1904, he is killed during a card game and, in a Fleisheresque touch, his corpse is stuffed and mounted). Gray and Palmiotti follow and frequently refer to Fleisher’s chronology (a version of which can be found in the Wikipedia entry for Hex). Issue #30 (June 2008) begins with a double-page spread which wordlessly chronicles such events as the origin of Hex’s facial damage, and the collapse of his marriage to Chinese immigrant Mei Ling.

Within the parameters of Fleisher’s Hex biography, however, Gray and Palmiotti skip around with improvisatory abandon, following, for example, an issue starring the middle-aged Hex (#60, December 2010) with an unrelated flashback to Hex and Mei Ling’s honeymoon (#61, January 2011). A footnote by editor Wil Moss in #61 explains away this leap back in time with admirable flippancy: “Yup, believe it or not, once upon a time, Jonah Hex was actually married!” Fine. Go back in time all you want, fellas. As long as the story is fun to read (which it is), continuity and chronological order be damned.

In addition to using Fleisher’s biography as a springboard for individual tales, Gray and Palmiotti use other narrative strategies–most notably repetition–to bring poetic unity to the series. Hex #16 (April 2007) begins with two surreal vignettes: Hex and a curiously stoic little girl watch a man commit suicide by hanging himself from a tree, and a woman named Talllulah Black (who I’ll write about more in my next post) is gunned down by land snatchers. Black survives the attack, and while bleeding on the ground is visited by the girl from the first scene, who speaks the line “Days like these make the cemetery man smile.” Almost three years later, in issue #50 (February 2010), Tallulah is once again gravely wounded, and while unconscious, she dreams of the little girl:

From JONAH HEX #50. Art by Darwyn Cooke.

This repetition serves two different functions. First, Tallulah was introduced in #16, and her last appearance (so far) was in #50. If Gray and Palmiotti plan to write Tallulah out of the series altogether, the appearance and reappearance of the little girl neatly bookends Tallulah’s presence in Hex’s life. [Not so: Tallulah appears again in the last issue of Hex, #70.] Also, the symbol of a little girl takes on added poignancy in the context of issue #50′s specific story–about which I’ll say no more.

Gray and Palmiotti collaborate most often with Spanish cartoonist Jordi Bernet. There’s a big gap in my own awareness of Bernet’s work. I remember reading, over twenty years ago, two or three volumes of Catalan‘s Torpedo, a series of books by Bernet and writer Enrique Sanchez Abuli, about a ruthless gangster in 1930s New York. (In doing online research for this review, I discovered that other publishers brought Torpedo to American audiences: under their short-lived Hard-Boiled Comics imprint, Fantagraphics put out four Torpedo comics in 1993-4, and currently IDW is releasing collections translated by–wait for it!–Jimmy Palmiotti.) Also, I own a Bernet-Abuli Catalan book titled Dark Tales (1991), an entertainingly perverse collection of E.C.-inspired stories designed to disturb as many prudish grandmothers as possible:

I’d lost track of Bernet’s career since the early 1990s, but his Hex art retains all of his singular virtues: he still draws in a bouncy, scratchy line that’s a welcome alternative to the dominant styles (photorealism, pseudo-manga, Kirby derivatives) of mainstream American comics. Like his inspirations Alex Toth and Joe Kubert, Bernet excels in deceptively simple storytelling rather than surface flash. One example is the following page from Hex #38 (February 2009):

This page is near the climax of the issue, as a vindictive ex-sheriff slowly kills Hex by beating him, and refusing to give him water, out in the desert. Panel one stretches vertically across two tiers of the page, a composition that spatially emphasizes the initial power disparity between the two characters: the sheriff stands erect and strong, the literal and figurative apex of his strength the canteen he drinks from. (The tail of the first word balloon points directly to the canteen and the water.) In contrast, Hex is too weak to stand, and is consigned to the bottom of the right-hand side of the panel.

The next two panels cinematically dissect the space presented in panel one. We first zoom in on Hex, whose laughter undermines the sheriff’s power position, and whose eyes remain hidden to both the sheriff and us. We can’t read Hex’s emotions–contrary, incidentally, to the usual function of a close-up–and we wonder if he’s playing mind games as part of a last-ditch counter-attack. In panel three, we zoom in on the sheriff, who shares our unease; he looks warily at Hex, wonders “What the hell is so funny?” and pulls the canteen down from its previous height.

Panel four then continues to chip away at the power relationship established in panel one. As the sheriff bends over to speak–he wants Hex to acknowledge that he’s really going to die out there in the desert–he lowers the canteen and himself closer to Hex. In response, Hex’s strength seems to increase. He raises his head, says a complete sentence without coughing, and then our eyes slide over to panel five and the vultures. The sheriff is confident that Hex will be the birds’ victim, but as he points to the vultures, he also gestures back to the fourth panel, reminding us once again that the struggle between the characters isn’t as one-sided as panel one would indicate. Hex survives, of course, even as the sheriff becomes vulture lunch, and I admire how Bernet’s layout emphasizes Hex’s eventual, inevitable triumph in several subtle ways. More generally, I’m glad that Hex has become a regular English-language showcase for Bernet’s craft.

Though I praise Gray, Palmiotti and Bernet here, I don’t think that Hex is perfect. One aspect of some of the stories that disturbs me is the use of torture as entertainment, complete with extremely sadistic visuals. (Hex is surely one of–if not the–most violent comic ever published by DC.) In issue #26 (February 2008), for instance, Hex discovers a farm where two women trap men in a barn, cut off their arms, legs and tongues, and feed them like pigs. The men-pigs eventually get their revenge, though, by biting and eating the women to death. This story is subtitled “A Grindhouse Western,” which gives a fair sense of its exploitative aesthetic.

From JONAH HEX #26. Art by Guiseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini.

And a rare two-part story (issues #40-41, April-May 2009), featuring the Mengele-like surgeon Sawbones, is a full-blown splice of the western genre with movie “torture porn” like Saw (James Wan, 2004) and Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005). The story ends with Hex preparing to try out his own pain-inflicting techniques on Sawbones.

From JONAH HEX #41. Art by David Michael Beck.

Typically, narratives that include torture don’t disturb me–after seeing Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008), I understand that even a genre as disreputable as torture porn can produce valuable work–but the fact that Hex is the putative “hero” of his comic, and still participates in grindhouse violence and torture himself, unsettles me. Perhaps I identify with Hex too closely, though Gray and Palmiotti don’t give me much alternative: virtually everyone in Hex’s Wild West is even a bigger scumbag than he is. Maybe, too, the static drawings of the comics page remind me of other, less fictional torture images like the Abu Ghraib photographs. Or maybe I’m just a prude with an old-fashioned belief that torture is a dicey subject for entertainment. All I can say with certainty is that Hex is not for the squeamish.

Jonah Hex isn’t Footnotes in Gaza or Big Questions, but it is a genre comic that provides humble but genuine pleasures, like a 1950s Budd Boetticher B-western that turns out to be much better than you expected.

Next Post: A checklist of top-notch Hex issues not drawn by Jordi Bernet.

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