Jonah Hex: Storytelling Ambiguity and the DC Reboot

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Note: This is the third of three posts on DC’s recent Jonah Hex comic that I’m re-posting from The Panelists. The first two are here and 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.

“Storytelling Ambiguity…” originally ran on The Panelists site on July 25, 2011.

Blame this post on Tim O’Shea of the Robot 6 comics website. One of my favorite Robot 6 features is the Sunday “What Are You Reading?” column, where regular Robot critics and invited guests chat about the comics and books that (surprise, surprise!) they’re currently reading. (Back in 2009, I was flattered to be a “Reading” guest.) Anyway, in the July 17 [2011] installment of “What Are You Reading?” Tim wrote the following about Jonah Hex #69 (September 2011):

Drawn by Jeff Lemire, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray reveal Jonah getting to confront his dear old dad. The story far exceeded my highest expectations. And all it is two men talking for the bulk of the tale, and yet it is much more than that. Glad to see the writers will still get to play with Jonah in the DCNuverse.

I’m a fan of the Gray/Palmiotti Jonah Hex series (I praised it here and here), but reading Tim’s capsule review made me realize that I’d fallen behind on the comic: the last four months’ worth were buried in the “books to read” pile next to my bed. So I fished Jonah Hex #69 (titled “The Old Man”) from the pile, eager to see if I agreed with Tim. And I did, though I’m not sure #69 is significantly better than other good issues of the series—it’s remarkably consistent, and just about the only comic book I buy every month.

There is something interesting about the conclusion of #69, however, that I want to discuss, though to do so I need to summarize the story in detail. Spoilers ahoy…!

Page one opens with an old man (guess who?) riding into a proverbial dusty Western town, carrying gold that he’s wrenched out of nearby mountains. The story also begins with some captions of painfully purple prose (“The sun was just going down, a hissing globe of fire and torment”), but mercifully Gray and Palmiotti quickly shift to an extended dialogue scene inside the town’s saloon, where four men hatch a plot: they’ll follow the old man, kill him once they’ve located his mine, and steal the gold. Jonah Hex is drinking in that saloon too, and he overhears the group’s plan.

A day or so later, Hex rides up to the mine and discovers the corpses of the four would-be thieves. Hex also finds the old man mortally wounded, shot in the stomach—obviously in a skirmish with the saloon rats—and waiting to die.

Hex himself isn’t after gold. Rather, he reveals that he’s the old man’s son, and he’s come “ta watch” his father die, as implied payback for the cruelty and abandonment Jonah suffered as a child. The story then tightens into a tense conversation between the two men, a No Exit-esque confrontation between Jonah and his abusive father (named Woodson Hex, though not identified by name in issue #69). We know this isn’t a heart-warming family reunion when early in their chat they exchange the following words:

Throughout the conversation, Jonah guzzles from a bottle of whiskey, and Woodson repeatedly asks for a drink. Jonah doesn’t give him one. Instead, he mentions that as a child he spiked his father’s drinks with piss:

The twists and turns of their jabbing, guarded conversation, and the rhythms of Lemire’s layouts, lead to an inevitable conclusion: Woodson dies while Jonah looks on. Then the last two pages of the story are wordless. In the first, Jonah breaks his promise to the buzzards by burying his father and memorializing his grave with a pile of stones:

And below is the last page.

So what happens in this conclusion to “The Old Man”? I see at least two different interpretations, both of which hinge on panel three of the final page. Is Jonah pissing on his father’s grave? That would be consistent with the pissing motif we saw earlier in the story, and with Jonah’s contempt for Woodson. But Jonah might also be simply pouring whiskey on his father’s grave, as a sign of respect akin to rappers’ libations on the graves of their homies. The hooch in panel two looks the same color as the liquid in panel three, and Jonah has already shown his father unexpected respect by burying his body. The point, of course, is that we can never know the full story, because Gray, Palmiotti and Lemire withhold crucial visual information from us.

This artful cultivation of ambiguity is an example of the thoughtful storytelling in Gray and Palmiotti’s Hex scripts–and I get the feeling that Tim O’Shea appreciates Hex as much as I do. But I disagree with Tim when he writes that he’s “glad to see the writers [Gray and Palmiotti] will still get to play with Jonah in the DCNuverse,” not because Gray and Palmiotti should leave the title, but because I wish the DCNuverse would leave Jonah Hex the hell alone. The imminent reboot of DC titles is remaking Jonah Hex into a new comic called All-Star Western, and here’s the official PR about it, from the list of 52 upcoming DC titles at Comic Book Resources:

Even when Gotham City was just a one-horse town, crime was rampant–and things only get worse when bounty hunter Jonah Hex comes to town. Can Amadeus Arkham, a pioneer in criminal psychology, enlist Hex’s special brand of justice to help the Gotham Police Department track down a vicious serial killer? Featuring back-up stories starring DC’s other western heroes, All-Star Western #1 will be written by the fan-favorite Jonah Hex team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and illustrated by Moritat.

All-Star Western sounds like a repudiation of everything I currently like about Jonah Hex. I love the fact that Gray and Palmiotti write each issue of Hex to be “done in one,” with a complete story designed to be easily understood by first-time readers. Smothering Hex with DC’s complex continuity (Gotham City, Arkham, etc.), combined with the decreased page count for the lead Hex story, will probably kill off the “done in one” aesthetic.

Also, while I liked Moritat’s (a.k.a. Justin Norman’s) art on the recent Spirit comic, I was dismayed that the All-Star Western PR made no mention of Jordi Bernet, the prodigiously talented cartoonist responsible for more issues of the Gray/Palmiotti Hex than any other artist. Will Bernet draw for All-Star Western? In the current Jonah Hex, Bernet issues have alternated with issues drawn by accomplished guest artists, including Russ Heath, Darwyn Cooke, J.H. Williams III, Fiona Staples and (upcoming in Jonah Hex #70) Ryan Sook, and I hope we don’t lose this variety in the shift to the new title. I’ll review All-Star Western after a few issues come out.

Here’s the big question, though: am I the only one who cares about Flashpoint and the DCNuverse less than a lanky stream of piss?


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