Friday, April 20, 2012
I'm embarrassed to say that it's been six months since I put up #9. I didn't realize how far behind I'd fallen until a few weeks ago, as I was sending SoG#10 out to a fellow Hex-nut for review. I'll be honest, this one was a toughie for me, mainly because I had so much to explain within the context of the story, yet still have it make sense to both myself and you folks out there in Internet-land. Anyhow, give it a whirl, let me know what you think, and I"ll try not to make you wait another six months for #11.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
1979-1981: Those Who Don’t Learn From the Past...
Having appeared in well over 50 stories by this point in his career (25 in his own title, 28 in All-Star/Weird Western, plus the Jonah Hex Spectacular and Justice League tales), one might think there isn’t much new ground for Jonah to cover. And indeed, there’s a fair share of flashbacks and rehashes to be found as we move into the 1980s, the first incident of which occurs in Jonah Hex #26 (July 1979). Though the story by Michael Fleisher is fresh and action-packed (not to mention rendered in fine detail by E.R. Cruz), it brings to mind Weird Western Tales #12, Jonah’s third outing and written by creator John Albano. Both feature epidemics (Albano’s is smallpox, while Fleisher goes for cholera), but that’s not where the déjà vu comes in. It’s the ending, wherein Hex gives both villains (who by this point in the story are afflicted with their respective diseases) what’s coming to them in the same manner, namely offering up a cure right before he blasts it out of their hands. No one can deny the drama of such a scene, so perhaps it’s mere coincidence that the two writers used the exact same device seven years apart.
In JH#27, drawn by Vicente Alcazar, we’re treated to a tale of Jonah’s childhood, told by the man himself to a boy who wishes to run away with Hex and become a gunfighter. Back in 1849 -- two years before his Pa sold him to the Apache -- an eleven-year-old Jonah became enamored with a gunfighter as well, though this man was an outlaw. Bart Mallory has a charisma that young Jonah finds irresistible, and the man treats him with far more respect than Pa’s ever shown him, so when he offers to let Jonah help him rob the bank over in Haverville, Jonah’s all for it. After giving the boy a pistol, Mallory stations Jonah outside the bank to act as a lookout, then goes inside to do the deed. Unfortunately, the local law got wind of his plan and ambushes him -- with his dying breath, Mallory lies to the lawmen and says he kidnapped Jonah, therefore absolving the boy of any wrongdoing, so they let Jonah go. When he gets home, he stashes the pistol (which the lawmen didn’t take from him) under the floorboards right before his father walks in and starts smacking him around for not doing his chores. It’s an interesting look at just how early Jonah’s experiences with death and gunsmoke began. Also of interest is the fact that, while the end of the story shows young Jonah pulling out the gun and practicing his quick-draw skills, we never see him turn that gun on his abusive father...though about eight years later, we’ll learn of an incident not long before this one that may have discouraged him from doing so.
Around the same time JH#28 was hitting the stands, Hex fans got something extra to look forward to every month. Jonah Hex and Other Western Tales was part of DC’s Blue Ribbon Digest series of reprint books, and consisted of three issues (a fourth issue was advertised but never released), containing not only pocket-size versions of Jonah’s early days, but other Western folk such as Scalphunter, along with little factoid pages like "Notebook of a Gunfighter", which appeared in the digest’s first issue. We get to revisit Jonah’s past in another fashion with JH#30, the first installment of a three-part tale that spans a decade. It starts somewhere near the end of the Civil War, when Jonah and his comrade-in-arms, Corporal Eddie Cantwell, manage to capture a Union paymaster’s wagon, along with the Yankees guarding it. To Jonah’s dismay, Cantwell guns down the Yankees after they surrender, then suggests that he and Hex bury the money and reclaim it once the War’s over, which he believes is right around the corner. Jonah nixes the idea, but it turns out Cantwell wasn’t too far off:
Sharp-eyed readers might notice an oddity in the panel above, as it states that Jonah served in the 7th Cavalry, not the 4th as previously mentioned in WWT#29-30. This isn’t a spur-of-the-moment alteration: a gold-colored “7” had begun to appear sporadically on Jonah’s coat collar as far back as JH#13, the first of three issues written by David Michelinie, making either him or artist Vicente Alcazar the most likely candidates as to the source of the change. As for why Fleisher would perpetuate the error, he may have simply forgotten that he’d previously assigned Jonah to another regiment and went with the most current reference. Whatever the cause, from this issue onward, any story mentioning Jonah’s service record will only refer to the 7th Cavalry, and it’ll be three decades before his time with the 4th Cavalry is brought up again.
Moving back to the issue at hand, we get a quick gloss-over of Jonah’s battle with Noh-Tante and tragic scarring, then move on to the winter of 1866, where Jonah is drafted into a posse to hunt down some bank robbers. The sheriff is impressed when Jonah captures the bad guys single-handedly, and recommends Jonah should take up bounty-hunting, starting with the capture of “a Satan-born, mad-dog killer” named Eddie Cantwell! The story continues in JH#31, wherein Jonah tracks down Cantwell, unable to believe that is old friend is a thief and killer. After subduing Cantwell’s cohorts without bloodshed, Jonah tries to talk things out with the man, but they’re interrupted by Arbee Stoneham, a tracker of great renown and little mercy, who proceeds to give Jonah a crash-course in bounty hunting:
You’d think this would be the end of our story, with Jonah chastised and his old friend dead, but in reality, this two-issue flashback is mere preamble for JH#32, which takes place eight years later in the Spring of 1874. Jonah’s older, wiser, and much more skilled than he was during that first encounter, and he’s decided to hunt Stoneham down and give him a taste of his own medicine. It’s an abrupt change in tone from the tale’s first two parts, emphasized by the art chores being passed from Luis Dominguez to Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. After a quick recap, Jonah rides into the town of Murphysburg, where Stoneham now lives, and while inquiring about him, a member of the Jason Crowley gang catches sight of Hex and reports to his boss about it. The gang is a dozen strong, and none too eager to be caught by Hex, so they set up an ambush for him. Lucky for Jonah, one of the locals tipped him off, and he spends the majority of the issue taking Crowley’s men out in a variety of ways: a Bowie knife, bullets, a lit kerosene lantern, a bundle of dynamite, all topped off with death by stampede for the ringleader (look close to spot Jonah at the extreme left behind the gate). It’s a jaw-dropping spectacle, and you just know that what Jonah has planned for Stoneham is going to blow it all away...so it’s a bit of a shock when he finally reaches the steps of the boarding house where Stoneham lives:
Turns out a bullet to the spine ended Arbee Stoneham’s bounty-hunting career a few years back, and even worse, he doesn’t even remember Jonah! This puts the kibosh on whatever revenge Jonah had planned, as well as giving him a glimpse of what his future might be like if he continues down the path of a professional gunfighter (of course, we do know what his future will be, and I’d say Jonah got off lucky that his biggest complaint in old age was failing eyesight).
Jonah belies his usual ornery demeanor when he takes the time to deliver a double-dose of Christmas cheer, the first occurring in DC Special Series Vol. 4 #21, with is more commonly known as the Super-Star Holiday Special (Spring 1980). Now before you go wondering what idiot decided to publish a holiday-themed comic so long after the fact, keep in mind that, like most magazines, comics tend to be dated months in advance, so this did indeed come out during the proper season. The special features five stories -- including the very first Batman tale drawn by Frank Miller, which causes some secondary-market dealers to jack up the price, so be warned -- with Jonah appearing in a short 10-pager, penned by Fleisher and drawn by Dick Ayers & Romeo Tanghal. While Jonah’s tracking down some outlaws one Christmas Eve, he comes across a settler who’s fixing to shoot his daughter’s pet fawn so they can have a proper holiday dinner -- the winter’s been hard, game is scarce, and that fawn is all they have left to eat. Jonah stops the man and says that he’ll scrounge up something else for the family without giving him a reason why, though we soon learn, via flashback, that Jonah went through a similar situation when he was ten years old. After rescuing a raccoon from a trap, he brought it home to nurse it back to health, but his drunken Pa kills it later on so his wife could serve it up for supper...and for those keeping score, this marks the first time we ever see Jonah’s mother, Ginny:
As you can imagine, Jonah’s outburst earns him a smack across the face, along with a threat of worse punishment if he dares to lash out again. Thus is the source of Jonah’s desire to save that little girl’s pet from the same fate, though he can’t seem to flush out any game either. On a lark, he decides to follow a bright star in the sky -- an element used in all five stories -- and it leads him not only to the outlaws he was looking for, but after Jonah wipes them out, he recovers the provisions they were toting, thereby saving the fawn’s life with a knapsack full of hardtack and beef jerky. Despite the somewhat-gruesome flashback in the middle, it’s a rather heartwarming story, with an uncharacteristic (for Hex at least) happy ending.
Our second Christmas story in JH#34, with art by Dan Spiegle, revolves around Jonah crossing paths with his Pa once more, this time in a ghost town taken over by outlaws. Seems it was Woodson’s idea to set up this “haven fer owlhoots”, so when Jonah comes riding in on the trail of some of the town’s “citizens”, Pa pins on a sheriff’s badge and tosses his son in jail! Even worse, Woodson is cooking up plans for a train robbery with the very men Jonah’s tracking, so our favorite bounty hunter has to break out of jail and take them out before any innocents get killed. In the end, it’s just Jonah and Woodson, and though the old man doesn’t fake a coronary like he did last time, he does plead for his life, and Jonah agrees to let him go...if he does Jonah a favor. Remember how I said this was a Christmas story? One of the reasons Jonah was tracking those outlaws is because they’d killed a kindly philanthropist who played Santa at the local orphanage every year. But the man’s dead now, and Woodson Hex has a white beard and rather portly build, so Jonah gets an idea:
There’s not much to laugh at in JH#35 &36, as Fleisher, Ayers, and Dominguez give us a two-parter dealing with the Fort Charlotte Massacre, which of course means we’re dealing with Turnbull once again. Seems the old man has formed the “Fort Charlotte Brigade” with the remaining survivors of Jonah’s regiment, and they’re all eager to get even with him for his betrayal. The issue then rolls into a retelling of WWT#29, or at least the flashback portion of it. If you lay both comics side-by-side, you’ll find that the rendition in JH#35 is nearly verbatim, with only a few scenes removed...and even though this was originally the story that introduced the 4th Cavalry, all references to it have been changed to the 7th, so Fleisher’s sticking with the retcon! Another notable change is when the Yankees deduce where the rest of the regiment is camped: in both versions, it’s some telltale red clay caught in the hooves of Jonah’s horse that gives their location away, but where Noly Panaligan drew a black soldier in the scene, Ayers &Dominguez made him white (for the record, the latter would be more historically accurate, as the U.S. Army wasn't integrated until after World War II).
The next issue begins with Jonah getting kicked out of the town of Painted Butte, Texas, as it seems the holier-than-thou townsfolk don’t want a known gunfighter walking their streets. A saloon gal comes to Jonah’s defense, and they send her packing too (oddly enough, they appear to have no problem with the saloon this all takes place in), and Jonah finds himself with an unwanted traveling companion. After an incident with a collapsing bridge (during which Jonah utters a throwaway line about his Aunt Aretha, who has never been mentioned before and will never be again), the duo gets captured by the Fort Charlotte Brigade and hauled off to the infamous fort, where Jonah and the saloon gal are locked away in the same building the Yankees tossed him in back in 1863. It doesn’t take long for Jonah to figure out what comes next:
What Hex doesn’t figure on is the saloon gal -- who feels she owes him for saving her life -- knocking him out, putting on his uniform, and acting as a decoy so Jonah can get away while their captors are focused on her. It’s great plan, really, with the exception of neither of them knowing that the Fort Charlotte Brigade stacked the odds against them and rigged the barbwire perimeter fence to explode, which it did once that poor girl tried to cut through it. With “Jonah Hex” dead, Turnbull’s goons leave, and the real Jonah escapes right out from under their noses, stopping long enough to bury the woman who saved his life on the outskirts of the old fort.
JH#37 also deals with Jonah’s Civil War days, telling a tale that edges mighty close to “urban legend” territory. It starts off with an old man and his grandson spotting Jonah Hex in a Confederate graveyard, and from there, the old man spins a yarn about how Hex saved General “Stonewall” Jackson from being killed by a band of Union soldiers. Impressed by his skills, Jackson enlisted Hex to help him blow up a key bridge right before the battle of Harpers Ferry, after which the two men parts ways. Months later, Hex is part of the force fighting at Chancellorsville, and after a hard-won victory, he and his men are holding position on a ridge overlooking a possible Yankee escape route. It’s dark, they see a mounted force coming, and...
That right, kids: according to some old codger, Jonah Hex is the Confederate soldier responsible for accidently shooting “Stonewall” Jackson, who died a week later from his wounds. As if Hex doesn’t have enough things in his life to feel guilty about, Fleisher tries to pin this on him, too. At least there’s something for both Jonah and us to smile about in JH#39, because for the first time in six years, Tony DeZuniga is back to draw the character he co-created. And it’s a fine tale to return on, as Jonah crosses paths with a samurai who’s come to America in search of his kidnapped daughter (in the midst of their first meeting, Fleisher managed to sneak in a reference to Jonah's birthday, though it’ll be another year before we learn the full date). Upon finding out that he and the samurai are on the trail of the same man, Jonah teams up with him, and though it doesn’t end well for his new friend (no surprise here), the bounty hunter manages to help the samurai keep his honor and bring down the bad guy. The issue was so good that DC selected it as one of their top ten stories of 1980, but elsewhere that month, things weren’t so rosy, as Weird Western Tales was cancelled with the publication of issue #70 -- consider it the final shockwave of the “DC Implosion”. Unlike all the other times the title was canned, there would be no last-minute rescue, but Scalphunter briefly found a home in the back of Jonah’s book when JH#40 came out the following month, and back-ups featuring a variety of Western characters would become an on-again/off-again feature over the years, though none of these stories would ever cross over with Jonah’s.
Oddly enough, right around the time WWT was cancelled, Michael Fleisher and artist Gerald Forton were grooming a new Western character for DC, with the intent being to give him his own title. Though this lofty notion never came to pass, Jeremiah “J.D.” Hart debuted in JH#42 as a U.S. Marshal who embodies the old-school “Western superhero” archetype: he shoots guns out of the hands of bad guys, does trick shots with silver dollars, and even has a doting aunt and a freckle-faced younger cousin who just love him to pieces. This is the sort of character that Jonah Hex was designed to supplant, and yet here he is, filling up the middle of the issue with his aw-shucks attitude. Even worse, Hart is soon set on Jonah’s trail by the mayor of Feldon’s Gap, who claims Hex killed the town’s banker -- in reality, the mayor and his accomplice want the bounty hunter eliminated before he finds out about them hiring outlaws to drive the locals off some prime real estate they want to sell to the railroad (they’re also the ones who killed the banker, who was in on the scam). Meanwhile, Jonah’s distracted by a familiar face turning up in his life once more: Mei Ling! Turns out her brother lives near Feldon’s Gap, and she was on her way to visit when her buckboard lost a wheel, the jolt causing her to injure her leg. Luckily, Jonah was riding nearby and swooped in to rescue her. After taking her to a nearby farmhouse, the two of them talk about what happened when they parted ways:
Holy Hannah, did Jonah just retire from bounty-hunting?!? Not quite, for as we find out in JH#43, Jonah still has one last job to do, which is to find the owlhoot who killed that banker. Yep, the mayor set things up so Hex and Hart would have no choice but to cross paths! When they do, all it takes is a few minutes of talking before they both realize something screwy is going on here, but Jeremiah Hart is a very by-the-book sort, so he still feels the need to bring Jonah in until this is all straightened out. On the way back to town, they get jumped by Apaches, who quickly recognize the “Mark of the Demon” Jonah bears. This leads to over three pages of flashback, explaining Jonah’s time among the Apache -- it seems like the only reason Fleisher included this was to refresh the memories of those fans who missed JH#7-8 three years before, as well as give these Apaches a reason to burn Hex and Hart at the stake! Our duo escapes, then they make like Butch and Sundance over the edge of a cliff, though Jonah gets knocked out after they hit the water and Hart has to drag him out. He recovers right at the beginning of Jonah Hex #44 (January 1981), just before they’re shot at by the Spast brothers, whom Hart tossed in jail during the previous issue -- they broke out, tracked the fellas down, and are itchin’ to get even. Both men take bullets as they dive back into the water, staying under until the gunmen figure they’re dead and gone. Hart’s too badly wounded to go on, so Jonah leaves him at a farmhouse and rides back to Feldon’s Gap to settle things up with the two-timing mayor and his buddy. Meanwhile, Mei Ling also heads to town in the hope of finding Jonah, but instead finds the Spast brothers openly bragging about killing him! Moments later, Jonah himself shows up and eliminates all the Spast brothers in a way J.D. Hart probably wouldn’t approve of:
Back at the farmhouse, J.D. and his hosts soon find themselves fending off an attack by the mayor’s hired thugs. Hart manages to capture them all and, after hauling them back to town, he and Jonah engage in a gunfight right in the middle of the street, wherein Jonah kills the marshal in cold blood...or at least that’s what the two men arrange for it to look like. It’s really just a cover so Jonah can play at shaking down the mayor and his accomplice for some hush money -- once they ‘fess up to all their wrongdoings, Hart steps out of hiding and places them under arrest. The story wraps up with Jonah and J.D. talking rather amicably, and Mei Ling standing next to Jonah with a loving look in her eyes. Seems our favorite bounty hunter is staying true to his word about retiring, and though J.D. wishes the happy couple all the best, he can’t stay for the wedding. “There’s rumors of another range war brewing up in Lincoln County, and I’m afraid I’ve got to ride up there and poke my big nose in it!” he says, a line that probably alludes to what would have been the first storyarc of Hart’s own title had it manifested (too bad it didn’t, since the mention of Lincoln County implies the marshal would soon be trading slugs with Billy the Kid!). This will be last we see of Jeremiah Hart for quite a while, but luckily Tony DeZuniga will be sticking around for the long haul: starting with this issue, he’s once again the main artist for Jonah’s adventures, missing only a handful of stories between now and the title’s last days. It’s a grand time for him to come back on board, as he’ll soon be illustrating some major milestones in the life of his creation, beginning next month with a "Blood Wedding!"