Monday, May 14, 2012
Just found out that Tony DeZuniga passed away on Wednesday. Those who've been reading my Jonah Hex history posts will know that he co-created the character in 1972 with John Albano, who passed away himself in 2005. Please keep Tony's family in your thoughts and prayers.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
1981: From Horse Opera to Soap Opera
“One thing’s certain: from here on out I’m gonna be leadin’ a whole new life!” our scar-faced hero says to himself near the beginning of Jonah Hex #45 (February 1981). “No more gunfightin’! No more bounty huntin’! No more killin’ other men an’ givin’ other men a shot at killin’ me!” Seems hard to believe, but Jonah means every word of it, as he truly desires to keep Mei Ling happy now that she’s agreed to marry him. The issue begins with the engaged couple picking out a wedding dress, much to the distaste of the other ladies in the shop, then moves on to Jonah heading over to the bank to finish up the paperwork on the house they’re buying (though it’s never stated outright, it appears they’re still in Feldons’ Gap, the location used in the last storyarc...and since the town banker died during that tale, this must be an associate Jonah’s dealing with). Before he gets there, though, an outlaw who has a beef with Jonah opens fire. Lucky for him, Jonah’s decided to be the merciful sort from now on, but that doesn’t stop Hex from settling this guy’s hash:
Later on, Jonah and Mei Ling travel to a farm outside town to meet up with her brother, Mei Wong, and his wife. We soon learn that Mei Wong is just as prejudiced as those white ladies back in town: he disowns Mei Ling on the spot for her wish to marry not just an Occidental, but a known killer. Geez, these two kids haven’t even made it to the altar yet, and already their marriage is in trouble. Things don’t get much better on their wedding day, for just as the ceremony finishes, the outlaw from the day before, along with three of his buddies, turn up outside the church and threaten to burn the whole town right to the ground if Jonah doesn’t come out and face them. Jonah, being true to his word, refuses to fight, which just puts everybody in the church into a uproar -- why should the town suffer just because Jonah promised his new wife that he’d lay down his guns? A man fetches Jonah’s Dragoons and the townsfolk all but force him out the door, still wearing his Sunday best (yep, he actually put on something other than his Confederate duds for a change!), so he can confront the bad guys:
After the bodies stop falling and the smoke clears, Jonah apologizes to Mei Ling for what he’s done, then asks the banker for the keys to their new house so they can get away from all this. Unfortunately, it looks like that little dream’s been taken from them as well: those gossiping ladies from the dress shop got to the banker first, and demanded that he not sell any property to Jonah, what with him being a “notorious gunfighter and miscegenationist”, as they put it. So our hapless banker spins a yarn about the property already being sold and he wasn’t informed. It’s very reminiscent of a scene near the end of All-Star Western #10, right down to Jonah saying to Mei Ling as they leave town, “Ah never really wanted tuh live around here anyhow!”
At the opening of JH#46, we learn that three weeks have passed since the wedding, and our star-crossed couple has been turned out of every place they’ve tried to settle in. “Folks ain’t exactly scurryin’ tuh lay out the welcome mat fer a yellow-skinned woman an’ a scarred-up ex-bounty hunter!” Jonah grumbles as they ride their buckboard through the rain towards a roadside inn. Once there, it’s the same old story, and Mei Ling has to talk Hex out of busting the heads of the racist skunks they run into there. Back on the trail again, the rain finally stops, but the ground’s so muddy that one of the wheels on the buckboard jams up and breaks, throwing its passengers violently off. Mei Ling’s okay, but Jonah landed damn-near on his head, putting such a strain on his back that he can barely move. With the buckboard ruined, Jonah tells Mei Ling to get on the horse and ride to the next town for help, which she reluctantly does. Not long after, their “friends” from the inn spot Hex from afar, and they decide to have a little fun with the “coolie lover”. Luckily, Jonah sees them coming and, after crawling into a tall patch of buffalo grass, proceeds to take out two of the three men (not bad for somebody that’s close to crippled), then sets the grass on fire so as to provide himself some cover as he tries to make his way to a nearby farmhouse. It’s abandoned, though, so Jonah has to fight through the pain a little longer and eventually takes out the last man with the help of some rotted floorboards, a lot of straw, and a well-placed pitchfork. Sometime later, Mei Ling and the doctor she found track him to the house, where the doc informs Jonah that his paralysis is most likely temporary, and few weeks of bed rest should help him heal up. Laying on a bed within the abandoned house, Jonah mentions that they’re looking for a place to settle, and he’s wondering who owns this particular spread. “As a matter of fact, I own it!” Doc Pedersen says. Seems he bought it off a family that moved to California, “But I’d be more than happy to see two nice young folks like you have it!” And with that, Jonah and Mei Ling finally have a place to call home.
By JH#47, Jonah’s all healed up and taken to fixing up the house, though it soon proves difficult as some men on horseback try to cut him down in a hail of gunfire. Jonah responds with a few sticks of dynamite (it was meant for stump-clearing, but it clears owlhoots just as well), and when it’s all over, Mei Ling wants to know who they were and why they were trying to kill them. His lack of answers doesn't exactly please her, but the reader soon learns these men were part of yet another attempt by Turnbull to avenge the death of his son Jeb. As “Fort Charlotte Brigade” stories go, this one seems a mite weak: after learning that Jonah’s taken a wife, Turnbull hires some men to kidnap Mei Ling, with the intent of shuffling her between multiple locations so that Jonah will never be able to track her down, but Jonah manages to rescue her from the train the bad guys try to get away on...and that’s about it. Turnbull doesn’t bother ‘em again for the rest of their marriage. I think he gave up too easily.
Another old acquaintance of Jonah’s shows up in JH#48. Samson Graves worked alongside Jonah when they were scouts for the U.S. Cavalry before the Civil War broke out. Matter of fact, Jonah saved Samson’s life when he was captured by Paiutes and tortured. The incident left Samson scarred in more ways than one: not only did he lose a few fingers, but he now has a near-phobic reaction when around Indians. Jonah doesn’t know this when Samson shows up on his doorstep looking for help with some Crow warriors on his trail, and therefore agrees to help Samson sort things out with them. Once they meet up with the Crow, however, Samson begins shooting them with no provocation, so Jonah tries to knock some sense into him with his fists. He then finds out that his old buddy had previously attacked an group of Crow children, which is why these warriors are after him. Terrified at the prospect of being tortured again, Samson begs Jonah to kill him, which he does. This isn’t the end of Jonah’s troubles, though, because when he gets home, he finds that Mei Ling has packed her bags and left! He jumps back on his horse and hightails it down the road, where he eventually catches up to her:
Mei Ling’s actions are understandable: Jonah may have retired from bounty hunting, but that hasn’t stopped him from killing over a dozen men since they’ve been married. It doesn’t seem like there will ever be a point where Jonah permanently lays down his guns. Despite this, Mei Ling gives him the benefit of the doubt and comes back home with him, though this doesn’t mean it’s the end of their squabbling over his behavior. She lays into him pretty hard in JH#49, accusing him of intentionally setting fire to their corn harvest (in reality, it was an errant flick of Jonah’s cigarette butt that did it), which they needed to pay off their mortgage (what, you didn’t think the doc gave ‘em that house for free, did ya?). “Now don’t start throwin’ a hissy fit, blast it!” Jonah snaps back. “Ah’ll get the *&#!@!! money! Ah promise Ah’ll get it!” He then rides into town, storms into the sheriff’s office, and begins cherry-picking bounty posters off the wall -- looks like Jonah’s retirement is over, folks. He manages to track down six men over the course of one day, cashing in to the tune of $6,500 (six grand for the mortgage, and five hundred for “pocket money”), then rides home that night and dumps all the money on the table right in front of Mei Ling, claiming he did some odd jobs around town. She quickly sees right through this ruse and gets him to admit the truth, and while he’s in the midst of defending his actions, she manages to shut him up with two little words:
Well now, as if getting married wasn’t enough, now Jonah’s gonna be a daddy! It’s yet another wrinkle in a situation that, going by the letters beginning to appear in the back of the book, is making readers nervous. While many seem glad for Jonah’s newfound happiness, a few are concerned about the surly cuss they’ve come to know and love being watered down, while others who are aware of Jonah’s terrible track record with loved ones are wondering how long before Mei Ling dies. A whole ‘nother set of concerns was probably raised after those letter-writers got a hold of JH#50, wherein a new character is introduced who has the potential to break up the happy Hex homestead. It takes place on Jonah’s birthday, firmly establishing it as November 1st (which is the same day as Michael Fleisher’s...you can do things like that when you’re the writer), and this must be some time after the last issue, because Mei Ling definitely looks pregnant now. With winter setting in, Jonah’s off on a hunting trip so as to stock up their larder, but he runs afoul of some Crow Indians, who attack him without warning. After taking out the majority of them, he goes after the last one and gets a good shock:
She ain’t just any old girl, though: Emmylou Hartley is the last surviving member of a party of settlers who’d been overrun by Crows about four years ago. Married off to one of their warriors, Emmy had been held captive by them until three days before, when she finally managed to escape. Lucky for her, she’d fled right into Jonah’s hunting grounds, and with the braves on her trail wiped out, Jonah sets her on his horse and begins the long trek out of the mountains and back to civilization. But since nothing’s ever easy in a Jonah Hex story, they soon encounter one problem after another. First fierce snowstorm sets in, then Emmy and the horse slip over the edge of an icy cliff -- Jonah rescues Emmy, but the horse is a loss -- and when they try to take shelter from the storm inside a cave, they accidentally rouse a grizzly bear, which Jonah has to kill with his knife because his rifle’s jammed up. This is probably one of the worst birthdays Jonah’s ever had, so maybe that’s the reason why he kinda loses his head and gets a little sugar from Emmylou. It doesn’t go any further than a kiss, and he’s certainly in a foul mood as they continue on down the mountain, but whether that’s because of him slipping up with Emmy or all the trouble they’ve run into is uncertain. He drops her off at the McCabe ranch near the base of the mountain, where they also fix Hex up before he heads on home to Mei Ling. Does he mention Emmy to her? Nope. Matter of fact, he’s fixin’ on crawling straight into bed without another word, but Mei Ling has other plans:
A rather sweet ending, though Mei Ling openly saying it’s Jonah’s 37th birthday (making this 1875, since he was born in 1838) does throw a wrench into the works when it comes to trying to figure out a proper timeline for his adventures because, even after this tale, Fleisher will continue to set the majority of these stories in 1875. This would be no problem if Jonah had been born in, say, February, then you could pack in most the stuff that supposedly will happen in within that year and not pull your hair out (I say “most” because there’s at least two instances that will occur down the line which will really test the mettle of even the most battle-hardened chronologist). But we’re going to ignore these gaffes for the most part since others have tried to work it out and gone insane for their efforts.
Speaking of time, another decent chunk of it must have passed when we weren’t looking, because when JH#51 opens, Mei Ling’s just about to go into labor, and Doc Pedersen will be arriving shortly. Meanwhile, Jonah’s insisting that he needs to head into town, and that he’ll be back before the baby comes. The reason for his departure is to fetch a surprise for Mei Ling, specifically a new comforter to wrap the newborn in -- who would’ve thought that he’d be such a big softie? Too bad there’s an unknown gunman waiting for him when he rides into town, one who’s just itching to make a name for himself by killing Hex. When he confronts the former bounty hunter, he’s shocked that not only is Jonah refusing to fight, but he isn’t even wearing his guns anymore! The man calls him a coward right in the middle of the street, and there’s a few murmurs of agreement from the gathered crowd as Jonah walks into a cafe for a bite to eat...not that he really does eat so much as push the food around his plate. Seems our father-to-be is dwelling upon an incident with his own Pa when Jonah was just a boy: Woodson entered Jonah into a contest at the county fair, wherein he had to box three rounds with an older boy so Woodson could win ten dollars. Jonah did his best, but after being savagely beaten and counted out, Pa still smacked him around, calling him “a snivelin’, mushy-spined coward!” Surely there have been other outlaws who’ve tried to get Jonah’s goat by calling him such, but perhaps knowing that his own child is on the way, and not wishing to repeat the same cycle of abuse, is making those taunts harder to ignore at the moment.
Shaking free of his ruminations, Jonah realizes how much time has passed and leaves the cafe, where he crosses paths with a youngster named Petey, who’s sporting a good shiner courtesy of the blowhard gunman -- seems the boy stuck up for Hex and got a good whack for his trouble. Well, y’all know Jonah ain’t fond of grown men that whup on little kids, so he gives the gunman a good beat-down, to which the gunman responds by shooting Hex in the arm when his back is turned. Jonah, deciding he’s had enough of this bullroar, grabs the comforter he dropped in the street, tosses it in the gunman’s face, then takes hold of a rifle Petey fetched out of Jonah’s saddlebag and lets the guy have it point-blank in the chest -- congratulations, mister, you got your gunfight. Gathering up the comforter, Jonah heads home and discovers there’s a little baby boy waiting for him. He begins to apologize to Mei Ling for not being there like she wanted, but she says it doesn’t matter, then smiles and tells him that he’s so good to her when Jonah pulls out the comforter. “Ah ain’t half as good as Ah’d like tuh be, sugar,” he replies, “but darn it, Ah shore am tryin’!”
After seeing Jonah standing there with his little boy in his arms, one might hope that, for a change, things will finally go his way. Sadly, things begin to fall apart in JH#52, which takes place just a month later. Petey’s out at the Hex homestead helping Jonah out with the farm work, and Mei Ling comes out and asks them to watch the baby for a spell. Setting the lad under a nearby tree, Jonah and Petey continue with their chores, unaware that a scorpion is wandering through the grass. The baby reaches for it and gets stung, but Jonah acts fast and sucks out the venom. He takes the baby inside, and Mei Ling proceeds to read Jonah the riot act, accusing him of not caring about his own son, as well as berating him for all the gunfights he’s been involved in since they got married. It’s like she saved up all her grievances just to unleash them right at that moment. Seeing that’s she’s acting a bit squirrelly, Jonah reacts the same way he did when they first met and gives her a good slap...though one has to wonder if, down the line, he ever made any conscious connection between his actions at that moment and the beatings his father used to inflict upon his mother.
Meanwhile, the brothers of that gunman Jonah killed last issue head out to his place looking to get even -- they’d heard that Jonah had a son and, upon seeing Petey ride away from the farm, mistakenly kidnap the boy. The next day, his mother shows up at the Hex homestead and tells Jonah that Petey was spotted with a trio of strangers, so Jonah offers to go find him. This just makes Mei Ling livid: not only is he doing a job she believes is best left for the sheriff, she also thinks Jonah cares more about Petey then their own son, who’s a mite feverish from that scorpion sting. “If you walk out that door, we won’t be here when you get back!” she threatens. “I’ll be gone, Jonah, and so will the baby!” Considering that she tried to leave him once before, you’d think Jonah would take this more seriously, but instead he rides off without another word. He soon tracks down one brother and gets him to ‘fess up about where they’re holding Petey: an old miner’s shack outside town. Jonah heads out there and storms in the place, unaware that he’s been set up. The issue ends with the bad guys blowing up the cabin with Hex in it, then picks up a split-second later in Jonah Hex #53 (October 1981), wherein we learn that Jonah spotted some dynamite stick wrappers inside the cast-iron stove, so he lit out the back way just in the nick of time. He then gets the drop on the two remaining brothers, and though one is strangled by Hex’s lariat, the other experiences an unthinkable fate, at least in terms of what Albano & DeZuniga originally had in mind when they created the character: Jonah shoots the gun out of the bad guy's hand! Though he claims he was aiming for the man’s heart and the gun just so happened to be in the way, it could also be seen as a sign of Jonah trying to be less bloodthirsty.
Sadly, it’s a case of too little too late, for when Jonah gets home after returning Petey to his mother, he finds a farewell note from Mei Ling waiting for him...and unlike the last time she left him, there’s no trail for Jonah to follow, for a sudden storm has wiped out her tracks. Unbeknownst to him, Mei Ling’s already made it as far as the McCabe place, where she meets Emmylou Hartley -- it’s the first we’ve seen of the gal since JH#50, and her presence here seems like an afterthought. Mei Ling tells them that she’s leaving her husband, then bundles up the baby and rides off in the rain. But what of Jonah? How’s he reacting to the notion that his wife’s flown the coop? Well, after trying to pick up her tracks and failing miserably, he comes home and proceeds to get stinking drunk, to the point where he begins hallucinating. First El Papagayo shows up, offering to put Jonah out of his misery, so Jonah draws his Dragoons and blasts him (or at least the window he was standing in front of). Then Turnbull and Solomon come along to mock him, causing Jonah to destroy damn-near everything in the house in an effort to drive them away. After that, Woodson Hex turns up to tell Jonah how to be a proper drunk, to which Jonah responds by screaming that the last thing he wants in the world is to be like his Pa, then runs outside and into the yard, where he comes face-to-face with the Chameleon, the master of disguise who helped Turnbull frame Hex during the “fugitive” storyarc of JH#2-16. He says that he’s come to kill Hex, and Jonah lets a flurry of bullets fly out, “killing” a scarecrow as Jonah screams that he’ll never die so long as he’s the fastest. It’s at this moment that the full weight of what’s occurred crashes in on him, and he realizes that his reputation as the fastest, deadliest gunfighter is all he has left in life, and he just can’t take it:
After nearly a decade of stories, this is the lowest point we’ve ever seen him knocked down to. He’s lost loved ones before, and even been abandoned before, but it appears that Jonah had truly believed Mei Ling would forgive him no matter what, and now...now it’s over. No more wife and child, no more happy home, and he can’t bear the notion that he’s the one responsible. Self-hatred wins out again, leaving him broken and sobbing in the rain.
The final page shows Jonah saddling up his horse, his mind already back in bounty-hunter mode -- with his family gone, he has no desire to stay in that house full of memories and be a farmer. Emmylou shows up and begs Jonah to take her along, but he refuses, thinking that, in time, she’ll forget about him. There’s a bit of an unspoken question here: Why does Emmy want to go off with Hex? This is purely speculation, but I think there may have been a subplot excised from the last few issues, for there really seems to be no point in introducing Emmylou three issues before -- and having Jonah kiss her -- then not even mentioning the gal again until now. Perhaps Fleisher wanted Jonah to participate in some infidelity before breaking up his marriage to Mei Ling, but someone at DC or the Comics Code Authority put the kibosh on it (two years later, however, DC's Code-approved Sword of the Atom miniseries kicks off with an extramarital affair, so either attitudes changed rather quickly or there were other factors at work). Quashed subplot or no, we’ll discover in the years to come that Emmy does care deeply for Jonah, and even Mei Ling still holds feelings for him, plus there will be other women along the way, but it’ll be decades before we again see Jonah make a serious effort to break away from the killer’s path, and when he does, he’ll do it for his own sake, not for love. As for right now, he’s back to wandering the West alone, and God help the first person to incur the wrath of this heartbroken man.