Hells and Tribulations

March 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Note: This is the second of three posts on DC’s recent Jonah Hex comic that I’m re-posting from The Panelists; the first is here. I’m re-running these Hex pieces because they compliment a essay I’m writing on All-Star Western that’s forthcoming on the Comics Journal website.

“Hells and Tribulations” originally ran on The Panelists site on January 21, 2011.

In addition to the talents of Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Jordi Bernet (whose art appears above, from the cover of #57 [September 2010]), Jonah Hex is a good comic book because of canny scheduling. Because Gray and Palmiotti write their stories to begin and end in a single issue, they’re able to recruit an array of talented cartoonists willing to draw a single, self-contained comic but reluctant to commit to an ongoing series. Gray and Palmiotti also write their scripts far in advance, to allow the Hex guest artists to do their best work, insulated from deadline pressures. The results can be impressive, as in the checklist of some of my favorite Hex issues listed below. I came late to Hex–it’s only been in the last couple of months that I’ve become a fan–but I’ve bought all of these comics for cover price or less in a handful of comic shops. I hope you’ll have similar good fortune; I hope you’ll stumble across Hex comics drawn by Russ Heath and Darwyn Cooke the next time you dive in a dollar bin.

From JONAH HEX #12. Art by Paul Gulacy.

Issue 12 (December 2006): “Bloodstained Snow,” illustrated by Paul Gulacy. Ever since Master of Kung Fu, I’ve had a weakness for Gulacy‘s detailed, somewhat-posey, photo-Steranko style, and it’s remained remarkably consistent over the years. The visuals here are more noir than Gulacy’s usual, a tight fit with Gray and Palmiotti’s nasty little script about the tensions between a prejudiced town and the “Mormon scum” unable to buy food and blankets, starving and freezing on the town’s periphery.

Issues 16-17 (April-May, 2007): “The Ballad of Tallulah Black,” illustrated by Phil Noto. These two comics introduce Black, a female doppelganger for Hex. Her past is as tortured as his, and she’s likewise scarred–in a too-obvious allusion to Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven (1992), Tallulah’s face and “nethers” are cut up by a psychotic john.

From JONAH HEX #16. Art by Phil Noto.

But that’s just the beginning of her problems. Poor Tallulah reminds me of both Patient Griselda and Sam Raimi‘s Ash, two other characters who undergo travails so horrific and extreme that the whole sick mess escalates into pitch-black humor. (As Tallulah herself says, “There’s for sure a Heaven, ‘cos this life ain’t nought but a series of hells and tribulations.”) Noto‘s art is less impressive than many of the other Hex contributors–he clutters up his panels with too many Photoshop patterns–but the computerized weightlessness of his images provides an intriguing counterpoint to Tallulah’s “one damn thing after another” history.

From JONAH HEX #25. Art by Russ Heath.

Issue 25 (January 2008): “My Name is Nobody,” drawn by Russ Heath. Gray and Palmiotti have roped several industry veterans into drawing Hex, including Dick Giordano (Hex #51 [March 2010] is, as far as I know, Giordano’s last comic book) and Russ Heath. The elegiac “My Name is Nobody” (a title cribbed from a 1973 Tonino Valerii spaghetti western) takes place in 1899, near the end of the West as a frontier, and not so far off from Hex’s own taxidermied death in 1904. “Nobody” begins with Hex holding off fifteen Mexican bandits during a mountaintop siege, and ends with him evading his responsibilities as a husband and father, drunkenly and tragically embracing his status as a wandering nobody.

From JONAH HEX #33. Art by Darwyn Cooke.

Issue #33 (September 2008): “The Hunting Trip,” and issue #50 (February 2010), “The Great Silence,” drawn by Darwyn Cooke. These issues are a must for fans of Cooke‘s Parker adaptations. In fact, I might prefer these comics over The Hunter and The Outfit; the Hex pages are bigger and in full color, which to my eyes flatters Cooke’s art more than the compact Parker format. (Also, the dark blue tones of the Parker books sometimes make it difficult for me to read the captions and word balloons–I wish all the Cooke Parkers were big and yellow like The Man with the Getaway Face one-shot.)

Gray and Palmiotti write some fairly ferocious scripts for Cooke. “The Hunting Party” is told from the point of view of a mute boy whose father dies of exposure after losing his leg in a bear trap. Hex then saves the orphan from wolves, but refuses to become a surrogate father, just as the story refuses to lapse into sentimental cliche. Gray and Palmiotti contrast scenes heavy with verbiage (mostly first-person, interior-monologue captions by the boy, telling his tale as a flashback), and wordless pages designed by Cooke for maximum clarity, impact and violence. “The Great Silence,” an even more violent story, opens with Hex and Tallulah Black indulging in a night of drinking and fucking to celebrate a “fine and profitable adventure” of bounty hunting, after which Tallulah tries to begin a new, less debauched life. The tone of “The Great Silence” is initially playful; when Hex returns to bounty hunting, for instance, Cooke stages his activities as a series of slapstick gags involving outhouses and sex with sheep:

From JONAH HEX #50. Art by Darwyn Cooke.

The story however, grows more somber as it goes along, and at its conclusion chronicles a single death infinitely more tragic than the opening carnage. “The Great Silence” is another borrowed title–this time from a classic spaghetti western directed by Sergio Corbucci in 1968–and both the earlier film and the later comic are nihilistic, unsparing popular art.

Issue #35 (November 2008): “A Crude Offer,” drawn by J.H. Williams III. This may be my favorite issue of Hex. Williams‘ art is beautiful in the ways you’d expect, with action scenes full of sprawling double-splashes, irregularly-shaped panels, and a depiction of the southwest similar to Williams’ evocation of MoebiusBlueberry in Seven Soldiers #0 (2005). More impressive, however, is how Williams tones down his stylistic flourishes to mesh with Gray and Palmiotti’s script. When the second act moves Jonah into a seemingly innocuous dinner with a sheriff and his wife, Williams’ layout becomes conventional and right-angled:

From JONAH HEX #35. Art by J.H. Williams III.

These normal pages disintegrate into a psychedelic freak-out as the story veers off in an unexpectedly perverse direction. In a September 2008 Newsarama interview, Williams expressed the desire to do a long-form Hex graphic novel with Gray and Palmiotti, and that’s a project I’d rather see than Williams’ continuing Batwoman, as innovative and cool as that Bat-book might be.

From JONAH HEX #60. Art by Brian Stelfreeze.

Issue #60 (December 2010): “Blood Lies Bleeding,” drawn by Brian Stelfreeze. Here’s a tale of mistaken identity that sets up a future nemesis for Hex. I’d only seen Stelfreeze‘s art a few times before, mostly on comic book covers, but I like the thick vertical lines he uses to represent rain (aided by Dave Stewart‘s atmospheric, monochromatic coloring) during the bloodbath in the second half of the issue.

If you’ve given up on pamphlet comics altogether, the trade paperback Bullets Don’t Lie collects Cooke’s “The Hunting Trip,” the J.H. Williams III work, and other stories, including two drawn by Bernet–a south-of-the-border matador epic, and the sheriff-in-the-desert tale that I discussed in my last post. Personally, I like to buy Hex in floppy form. I still find going to the comic shop on Wednesday to buy pamphlet comics a comforting ritual, even when those comics are about cannibals, murderers, and men who lose their legs in bear traps.

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