Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An Illustrated History of Jonah Hex (Part 1)


In the world of comics, Jonah Hex has always been an oddity.  The Western genre he usually inhabits is constantly declared to be “dead”, yet he’s had his own title in every decade since his creation.  His sales figures have always been notoriously low, seemingly an indicator that no one cares for the character, yet whenever there’s a mention of the Old West within a DC comic book, he’s there more often than not, sometimes as the sole representative of the entire era.  And at a time when the trend is leaning towards updating or streamlining classic characters to make them more appealing to a modern audience, Jonah Hex unabashedly remains rooted in the 19th Century, and worse yet, he wears a uniform that is viewed by many as racist.  He’s a surly, murderous drunkard with a nightmarish visage, attributes that seem to go against every notion of mass-market appeal and longevity, yet here he is, four decades later, still sitting pretty in a world full of capes.

What follows here is neither a running tally of everything Jonah Hex, nor a summary of virtually every comic he's appeared in, though you’ll get a healthy dose of both along the way.  This is more like an unauthorized biography, focusing on the stand-out moments in his life, both on the page and behind the scenes.  You’ll get a glimpse of firsts, lasts, and what-might-have-beens.  You’ll learn the names of those who had a hand in his creation, as well as those who helped him live as long as he has without forgetting where he came from.  You’ll also see things that are probably best forgotten, but I’m going to drag them out into the light one last time, because sometimes it’s good to remember the mistakes we’ve made.  It’s what makes us human, and as you’ll find out, Jonah Hex is one of the most human fictional characters out there.

1972-1974: Birth of a Bounty Hunter

“Cold-blooded killer, vicious, an unmerciful hellion without feeling, without conscience -- a man consumed by hate, a man who boded evil...that was Cody Corbert -- better known as...THE COBRA -- and twice as deadly!”

This was almost the introduction to the lead feature in All-Star Western (vol. 3) #10, dated Feb./March 1972.  Luckily for Western fans and the world in general, writer John Albano crossed out all that “Cobra” nonsense (the first name of “Cody” is pure guess on my part, going by what little I can see of the original word) and wrote “Jonah Hex” in its place.  It’s just the first in a series of decisions that would shape the scar-faced bounty hunter into a character that would hang around the DC Universe for years to come.

Jonah’s life started with a conversation between Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga regarding the way Westerns were represented in comics (which, at the time, were dominated by clean-cut Roy Rogers/Lone Ranger types) versus the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns that had become popular in the mid-1960s and were now reshaping the genre on the movie screen.  They both wanted to bring that same level of gritty realism to comics.  As DeZuniga told Michael Browning in Back Issue #12 (Oct. 2005), “John Albano, when we talked together, he was telling me, ‘Hey, Tony, let’s get away from like the Rawhide Kid and all those Western super-heroes because, you know, they’re shooting the guns out of the hands of the bad guys and all that.’  And I said, ‘I agree.’... Jonah Hex is an anti-hero, like John was telling me.  Even the towns in those days, they weren’t all asphalt roads.  They were dirt roads.  The cowboys really dressed really, really rugged -- I would say filthy and dirty -- and I liked doing it that way.”

With the direction of their project quickly decided upon, a character had to be made that best fit with their newfangled ideas.  As Albano worked on the script, DeZuniga submitted a few sketches of what this “Jonah Hex” fella should look like, with the one of a man with a hideous scar dominating the right side of his face being the most favored, though Albano questioned why the character was wearing a Confederate coat and hat.  As DeZuniga explains, “I said he was a Johnny Reb who was blown up by a cannonball.  I said, ‘He’s a comic book character and nothing’s impossible.’  But they said okay and they really liked the concept of that face.”  He has remarked elsewhere that the idea for the single flap of skin connecting Jonah’s upper and lower jaw came from anatomy illustrations showing the underlying musculature of the face.  There was one other element added at the request of Carmine Infantino, who was head publisher for DC at the time: he wanted Hex to be bulky, “like the Incredible Hulk.”  Though this idea was slowly phased out of Hex’s design over his first few stories, it’s most obvious in the promo ad that ran in some DC titles a month before his debut:

An interesting side note: in addition to writing, Albano worked as a cartoonist, and the very first Jonah Hex script was actually a hand-drawn affair, complete with panel layouts and dialogue balloons.  It currently resides in the collection of aforementioned Michael Browning, and I took the liberty of reproducing the first page of it here, next to the published version by DeZuniga (who followed Albano’s layouts almost to the letter):

It’s thanks to these surviving pages that we know of Jonah’s short-lived “Cobra” alias, as well as a bit of narration that didn’t make it into the first story:

“That was Jonah the gunfighter, but what about Jonah the man?  Was he really a wild, immoral, and incorrigible savage who had best be kept forever isolated from civilized human beings...?”

Though it never made it to print, that question pretty much forms the basis of every Jonah Hex story to come.  Albano and DeZuniga (and all the creators who will follow them) constantly put Jonah in situations where he can be an “incorrigible savage” one minute and a rather tender-hearted sort the next.  His debut story gives us a mix of both: as seen above, the first shot is of him dragging two dead bodies behind his horse as if out for a Sunday stroll, and all throughout, we witness him cutting down owlhoots left and right like a grey-clad angel of death.  Yet in the middle of the tale, Albano and Dezuniga use up half a page to show Jonah knocking a man out cold for whipping a horse -- a pure character moment, with no relation to the overall story -- and at the end, Jonah uses nearly all the reward money he earned to pay off the back taxes owed on a widowed mother’s farm.  Unaware of this, the widow later tries to blow Jonah’s head off with a rifle because her boy has taken a shine to him, but instead of trying to smooth it over by pointing out his altruism, he simply acts like the mean-spirited bastard everyone assumes he is the moment they lay eyes on him.  As we’ll see in the years to come, this appears to be a knee-jerk defense he’s developed when dealing with most of humanity, as more often than not, whenever the bounty hunter makes a new friend or we’re introduced to an old one, that person will be dead by the end of the issue.  With a track record like that, it must be easier to let everyone hate you than to show them otherwise and risk watching them die.

Another aspect of Jonah Hex that will wax and wane over the decades is also featured in his first outing, namely his implied “supernatural” nature.  With a name like Hex and a face like a hell-spawn, it seems an unavoidable notion -- to be sure, one of the men he hunts down in the story seems convinced that Jonah is a demon, and another gets spooked so bad he starts shooting at tree stumps -- but other than unerring tracking skills, Jonah never displays any unearthly powers, so you could write the outlaws’ behavior off as a lack of nerve.  Viable excuses like that constantly crop up in Albano’s Hex stories, therefore leaving up to the reader’s imagination to decide if Jonah is indeed “an immortal apparition” (as the intro to his tale in WWT#19 suggests) or just a very skilled hunter of men.  The closemouthed position that his creators continually take regarding both Jonah’s past and his scars only serve to add to the mystery.

Jonah’s preference towards animals over people comes back into the picture when he picks up a sidekick of sorts in Weird Western Tales #12 (All-Star Western’s new name starting with this issue).  Ironjaws was a pet wolf belonging to a little Indian princess who died at the hands of white settlers, a tragedy that riled Jonah up to a point we had yet to witness -- years later, we would learn that he has very personal reasons for his animosity towards anyone who hurts an innocent child.  Swearing that he’d look after the animal, Ironjaws tagged along with the bounty hunter until WWT#14, which also marks a slight change in Jonah’s appearance.  The story begins with Ironjaws suffering from a rattlesnake bite, and after Jonah leaves the ailing wolf in a doctor’s care, he’s ambushed by a few outlaws out for revenge.  They haul him out to the desert, strip him down to his blue jeans, then tie him up to die under the blazing sun.  Ironjaws somehow makes its way out to the desert to chew away the ropes binding Jonah before dying from a combination of snakebite and exhaustion.  Outraged, Jonah stalks back to town and demands the doctor give him some clothes and a gun so he can go and kill the skunks responsible.  When he leaves the office, Jonah has inexplicably acquired a new Confederate coat (maybe the doc just happened to have one laying around?) but the rest of his outfit is brand new: the gun holster rig, which has been left-handed since his debut, now rests on his right hip with a second gun tucked beneath his belt, and he now wears brown cuffed boots with rawhide stitching.  These features will be part of his standard look for years to come.  Luckily, he won’t grow so attached to the other item he wears for the first time here: a blue-black hat with a tiger-striped band, like he’s some sort of crazy cowboy pimp.  DeZuniga must’ve wised up to the fact that this looks rather silly on him, and by WWT#20, he’s back to his old officer’s hat.  This ain’t the last we’ve seen of Jonah’s pimp hat, though, so stay tuned.

Just before his change in attire, Jonah took part in an odd little adventure which wouldn’t see the light of day for another four years, when it was finally printed in The Amazing World of DC Comics #13 (dated Oct. 1976).  In the early ‘70s, as editor Paul Levitz explained in his preface to the piece, the company was in the process of cooking up some kind of humor/horror mag for their line of “Weird” comics (in addition to the newly-dubbed Weird Western, DC was already cranking out Weird Adventure Comics, Weird War Tales, and Weird Worlds).  By 1972, they were calling this still-unpublished title Zany, and one of its features was to be parodies of their own DC characters.  Sadly, when the magazine (now and forever known as Plop!) finally hit the stands in September/October 1973, that particular idea had been scrapped, but not before Albano and DeZuniga finished a four-page Jonah Hex story.  The result is something you have to see to believe, and I chalk it up to Albano’s cartoonist background that he so effectively knocks the piss out of his own character without being mean.

Though absent from WWT #15 (El Diablo takes the lead for this issue), Jonah gets back in the saddle with WWT#16, and by WWT#18, not only has Jonah taken over the front cover art, his name is also printed bigger than the name of the magazine (rather like how Batman’s name usually overshadows Detective Comics).  There’s no doubt now that Hex’s departure from the norm when it comes to Western comics heroes has won out.  More landmarks will follow, like the first dated story in WWT#19 (which takes place in August 1867), and WWT#20 features a story by Arnold Drake, the first person besides John Albano to write a Hex tale.  Drake also gives us a novel concept by introducing an old flame of Jonah’s by the name of “Widow” Lacey (she ain’t no widow, folks, she just calls herself that to sound respectable) and she actually lives until the end of the issue!   Unfortunately, Drake only does the one tale, and we never get to see this particular soiled dove again.  Albano comes back to the writer’s desk for WWT#21, but this will be the very last time he does so: after penning only ten stories, he decides to leave Jonah behind.  Before he moves on, though, he bestows upon us a glimpse of Hex before he got his scars, courtesy of a hallucination brought on by a bad head wound:

As I noted earlier, both Albano and DeZuniga preferred to leave the origin of Jonah’s scars a mystery (the “blown up by a cannonball” notion never making it into any story), so this is first time they even acknowledge that Jonah wasn’t just born ugly.  Overall, it’s a fine story for creator and creation to part ways on, and for a brief while, it was nearly the last one: despite solicits on the last page saying otherwise, Weird Western Tales was cancelled after #21 (dated Jan./Feb. 1974), due to a nationwide paper shortage -- considering its bimonthly status and the old adage of “nobody reads Westerns,” DC must have thought it a small enough book to sacrifice.  This marks the first time Jonah got the axe, and the book’s return four months later would mark his first resurrection.  Coincidentally, this also heralds the entry of a new writer, one who would make more than a few marks of his own upon the character: Michael Fleisher.


  1. Wow, great chunk of history there, girl. I hadn't noticed the month gap in the WWT (ie the cancelation) I thought it was just a weird publishing schedule.

    Looking forward to Part two.

  2. Nice work Susan, it's a great read.

    You'll need to download a copy of the promo ad - my server is set up to stop direct links to images.

  3. What a terrific post. I've been a Jonah Hex fan for years, but you managed to tell me a whole lot of things I didn't know. Great job.