1978-1979: May You Live in Interesting Times
If a character’s popularity can be measured by how many comics they appear in during a given month, then Jonah Hex hit his stride in late 1978. During a two-month period, he was featured in not only his own title, but also a Western-themed special and one of DC’s flagship books. Taken singly, each of these stories is an odd little side-trip away from his usual stomping grounds, and seeing them altogether on the newsstand must have presented a bizarre picture to any new reader seeing Hex for the first time. Atypical stories or no, one of them would be life-altering for our favorite bounty hunter, as you will soon learn.
We’ll start off with Jonah Hex #17 (October 1978), drawn by Vicente Alcazar. Jonah’s been lured to Charleston by a promise to $5,000, though when he gets there, he discovers that the money is to be payment for flying a hot-air balloon to Europe -- the inventor wishes to remain on the ground in order to drum up the proper press, and knows Jonah’s the sort of man who will do anything for the right price. In this case, five thousand bucks ain’t it, and Jonah refuses, which doesn’t stop the inventor from bashing Jonah on the head and forcing him into the balloon’s gondola. Jonah comes to as the balloon lifts off and manages to grab the inventor, but that action doesn’t turn out as planned:
Adrift in a balloon with no experience in how to control it, Jonah spends the next three days at the mercy of the winds, which carry him all the way down to South America. When he’s finally spotted by a ship, it blasts him out of the sky and takes him captive -- turns out this is a slave ship bound for Brazil, and they think he’s going to rat them out (slavery was on the decline in Brazil during the 1870s, but it wasn’t officially abolished until 1888). After being thrown in with the “cargo”, Hex finds that the enslaved Africans were working on an uprising, which he has no problem with joining, and they take over the ship while it’s riding out a terrible storm. Unfortunately, the crew is wiped out in the process, and with no one left to control the ship, it’s destroyed when it crashes against the shoals. Jonah and many of the Africans are rescued by a tribe of blacks living on the nearby islands, but this isn’t the happy ending it sounds like. At the beginning of the tale, Jonah overheard the slavers talking about a tribe of cannibals that lived on those islands, and that’s who picked them up! Jonah tries to warn the Africans, but since they don’t speak English, it’s no use -- the only good thing is that the Africans talk the cannibals into letting Hex go since he helped them escape. Jonah is given a small canoe, and as he paddles away, we’re left to wonder if the Africans will end up on the menu.
Jonah’s jungle adventures continue in JH#18, which features Val Mayerik and Danny Bulandi on art. Now paddling his canoe up the Amazon, Jonah comes across a group of men torturing a native boy, so he jumps the guys and guns them down with their own pistols (Jonah lost his when the ship went down). As he frees the boy, another native hiding in the trees zaps Jonah with a poison dart (that’s gratitude for ya), but he manages to stumble back to his canoe and escape before passing out -- his unconscious body is later found on the outskirts of a rubber plantation. When Jonah recovers, he’s surprised to find that they know his name, and any sharp-eyed reader should be surprised as well: they claim to know it because his name was written on the sweatband of his hat, which was recovered along with all his other possessions when they found him...but Jonah lost all that stuff when the slave ship was destroyed! Fleisher must’ve hoped the readers wouldn’t notice this continuity error, and would simply be happy to see Jonah strutting around in his Confederate duds again. Of course, there’s still the matter of him being unarmed, but the plantation owner, Paul Venal, soon remedies that by lending the bounty hunter a gun from his own collection, which leads to the introduction of something that would later be considered part of the “classic” Jonah Hex look: a matched pair of ivory-handled Dragoons.
Though there are errors in both the text and the art this first time out, it’s specified in the letter column of Jonah Hex #31 that these guns are meant to be Whitneyville-Hartford .44-caliber Dragoon pistols, manufactured by Colt Firearms back in 1848, with a limited run of only 240 (only a few dozen still exist). It’s not only a rare handgun, but deadly as well, with a firing power that wasn’t surpassed until the invention of the .357 Magnum in the 1930s, so you know Jonah didn’t just pluck those things off the wall at random. Not long after, Venal convinces Hex to help rescue some workers who were kidnapped by the local tribe, the Kre-Ena-Krore, though the reality is Venal wants the natives wiped out so he can acquire their legendary treasure. What follows is a textbook lesson in the dangers that lurk within the jungle, like boa constrictors, quicksand, and bow-wielding natives who’d rather you not wipe them out. Jonah eventually learns about the true purpose of his mission, as well as what this “treasure” really is: a hut full of shrunken heads! Don’t worry, Venal gets what’s coming to him, and Jonah rides off at the end, presumably hightailing it for the nearest seaport and the first ship heading to the States, as he’s back home safe and sound by the next issue. It’s strange that Fleisher would go to all the trouble of inventing a way to get Hex down to South America, then only do two stories there. Looking back, it’s a bit of a let-down that he gets Jonah home so quickly.
At the same time Jonah was wandering around Brazil, he also turned up in Justice League of America (vol. 19) #159 &160, making this his first guest appearance in someone else’s book...and if you’re one of those fans who likes to imagine that Jonah Hex exists in a universe separate from the DCU, please skip the next few paragraphs, because what follows here might make your brain explode. Our pre-Crisis tale, written by Gerry Conway (who by this time was also writing Scalphunter’s adventures in Weird Western Tales) and drawn by Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin, starts at the annual JLA/JSA shindig, and after four pages of idle superhero chatter, we get an explosion...and then three pages of the Lord of Time, the villain of our piece, telling us one of the most ridiculous setups you will ever read in a comic book. Apparently, he’s created an ultimate supercomputer and programmed it to stop all of time, but after activating it, he realized that’s a very bad idea, and he can’t stop it from carrying out the program. Only the combined might of the JLA and JSA can defeat the computer, but since he’s the villain, the Lord of Time can’t just ask for help, so he instead plucks five legendary warriors out of the timestream and tricks them into crashing the superheroes’ party, therefore tricking the superheroes into attacking the Lord of Time’s stronghold and destroying the supercomputer...and that, my friends, is the explanation for why these five people are appearing in a JLA book:
After blowing the place to Hell and gone (and rendering a bunch of the superheroes unconscious in the process), Jonah and his new friends step back to reassess the situation, as none of them are aware of why they did it. There’s some muttering about being compelled by an unknown voice, and overall, our time-tossed quintet is rather shaken by all of it...except for Jonah. “Seems somebody, somewhere, up and yanked us away from our own business, with all the good manners of a slimy carpetbagger!” he declares, reloading his gun. “I figger we owe that somebody for the inconvenience!” If you believe in retcons, there’s a possible explanation for why he’s taking all this craziness better than the rest, and we’ll discuss it much further down the line. In the meantime, let’s focus on the fact that, as the issue progresses, these five people kick the collective ass of the JLA and JSA. Okay, they did have augmented weapons supplied by the Lord of Time, and Jonah even gets a flying horse, but still, we’re talking five against twenty here (going by a head-count of who’s on the first page). How insane is this?
Not as insane as the next issue: After the Lord of Time literally displays them right outside his stronghold in order to lure the superheroes there, our five warriors decide they’re not gonna take this abuse much longer and storm the place themselves (I like to think that Jonah goaded the other four into it). Once inside, they come face-to-face with both a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or “a toad-frog outta Hell”, as Jonah calls it) and a passel of lizard-men, all of which do what the superheroes couldn’t last issue, namely knock these five people flat, thus putting an end to Jonah’s direct involvement in this tale. We do see a comatose Hex near the end, and there’s a throwaway line on the last page about how the League, after they defeated the supercomputer, returned the five warriors to their respective times, but other than that, you need not concern yourself with the rest of this story. The only other thing of note within the comic is an advertisement, which also appeared in JH#18:
Also referred to as DC Special Series Vol. 2 #16 in some comics databases, the Jonah Hex Spectacular (Fall 1978) boasts not only a 30-page Hex story, but two 17-page backups featuring Bat Lash and Scalphunter, plus an action-packed Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez cover and a black-and-white mini poster by Luis Dominguez, making it a collector’s item in and of itself. Once you factor in the plot of the main story, however, the Spectacular becomes a unforgettable landmark in Jonah’s history.
“Well, the first idea I had was to do a story about Jonah Hex being old,” Michael Fleisher told The Comics Journal a year after the fact. “I've been trying to get DC to let me do a whole separate series about Jonah Hex as an old man. I'm not having any luck. But that was my idea to do a story about Jonah Hex in his 60s...and I knew that I'd already established, at least in my own mind, that Jonah Hex was born in 1838. So I said, ‘Gee, 60s, what year would that be?’ and I found myself in the early 1900s.”
And that’s also where the reader finds themselves as “The Last Bounty Hunter” opens in 1904, with a white-haired Hex still tracking down outlaws at the ripe old age of sixty-six. The march of time has changed him a little -- instead of the aimless wanderer he was in the 1870s, he’s settled down in Cheyenne, Wyoming with a young Comanche gal named Tall Bird, and has to wear reading glasses when filling out reward vouchers -- but otherwise Jonah’s just as ornery and dangerous as always. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is rapidly leaving him behind, a fact pointed out to him by Michael Wheeler, an American History professor from Princeton who wants to write a book about Jonah:
Wheeler spends months with Hex and Tall Bird, taking down all the details of the bounty hunter’s long life. One afternoon, when the two men are out hunting, they encounter Lew Farnham, who runs a traveling Wild West show. Seems he wants Hex to hire on with him so he can turn the old man into a cross between Buffalo Bill and a rodeo clown, complete with a white spangled outfit that bears Jonah’s name “emblazoned across the back in genuine simulated rhinestone diamonds!” Not surprisingly, Hex turns Farnham down flat. Many days later, Jonah’s sitting in on a poker game at a saloon in town while waiting for Wheeler to get back from a joyride in a new-fangled 3-horsepower Oldsmobile. He’s having a hard time focusing on the cards, so he removes his glasses to clean them off, just as an outlaw named George Barrow bursts in with a shotgun -- Hex had wiped out Barrow’s gang the night before, and now he’s back for revenge. Caught off-guard, Jonah barely has time to draw his pistol when Barrow’s on him, bashing him in the face with the shotgun, then letting Hex have it with both barrels. Wheeler returns in time to see the local law take out Barrow, but it’s too late for Jonah:
Not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story. Jonah Hex was shot dead by George Barrow in the winter of 1904. And as the reader is still trying to come to terms with this cold hard fact, the blows keep on a-comin’. While Wheeler and Tall Bird are preparing a funeral pyre for Jonah’s body, Lew Farnham and his assistant show up to steal it -- Wheeler is shot in the struggle, Tall Bird knocked unconscious, and the cabin set ablaze to cover up the crime. Farnham then takes the body to a taxidermist to have Jonah stuffed, mounted, and dressed in that godawful costume Farnham made for him. Despite the indignities, Jonah does manage a spot of revenge from beyond the grave: as Farnham’s assistant tries to wedge Jonah’s gun into his hand, it goes off in the guy's face (Farnham blames it on the gun’s hair-trigger, but doubt will be thrown on this assessment much later). As the years pass, Jonah’s corpse is displayed in one town after the next, making oodles of cash for Farnham, who eventually gets his at the hands of a gang of robbers. Then comes the final insult to Jonah’s afterlife, as the robbers take his body and sell it to an antique dealer, thus setting off decades of Jonah Hex being passed from one owner to the next, until it’s completely forgotten that he’s actually a preserved corpse and not some ugly statue (those familiar with the strange case of Elmer McCurdy will know this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds). The final panel shows his body on display at an amusement park, looking rather pathetic as he stands in the rain, alone and forgotten:
“It made me very unhappy, that story,” Fleisher said later on. “It made me very sad and upset. The people who think that story is some sort of a sadistic toying with the reader are really wrong because I got very choked up writing that story, because it was the death of a character that I really loved -- not only loved, but I feel is really me.” It also may have never been published if Larry Hama -- editor for both this and Jonah’s regular title at the time -- hadn’t supported it. Keep in mind that not only does this story kill off a major character (not unheard of at the time, but still unusual), but one that will still be appearing in a monthly title once this story is over with. Fleisher dared to tell the readers how the saga of Hex’s life was going to end long before that saga was even close to wrapping up. The fact that, technically, every Jonah Hex story is a flashback makes such a thing possible (remember, this is a Western character living well over a century in the past), but there were some in the comics industry who felt this particular revelation would dull the sense of danger in subsequent Hex stories, since the readers now knew how he was really going to die. At the time, Fleisher was quick to point out that people had no trouble reading Superboy stories when they knew good and well he was going to grow up to be Superman. Fleisher also related how many people at both DC and Marvel (for whom he also did freelance work) were praising him for it. “I saw when I was at Marvel a few weeks ago, a British fan magazine, whose readers had selected ‘The Last Bounty Hunter’ as the best story of the year, tied with Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali. So my impression is that reaction was favorable. But certainly there were people who felt angry...‘How dare he write about a death that's not valiant? Jonah Hex could die, but at least he should die saving a whole city.’ I didn't think that's how a person like that would die.” This follows a rule Fleisher adhered to in his writing, that the characters should always be the most important thing in a story, and that an action scene should be sacrificed from a overly-long script before a character moment is.
Before we return to our assessment of Jonah’s “present-day” adventures, we should take a moment to recognize artist Russ Heath’s contribution of this monumental tale. The work he delivers throughout the story is so beautifully rendered, and the expressions so genuine (especially Wheeler’s as he holds Jonah’s dead body), that it gives an already-great story the extra push it needs to be...well, spectacular. Heath was such an integral part of this story’s success that, 23 years later in Starman #74, James Robinson called upon Heath to illustrate the death of another Western character, Brian Savage aka Scalphunter. There is also another Fleisher/Heath collaboration from around the same time as the Spectacular: a Jonah Hex newspaper strip, which failed to get off the ground. All that remains of the venture are the sample pages Fleisher scripted and Heath drew for shopping around to the syndicates -- two daily strips and one Sunday strip -- which occasionally surface on the comic book auction market. Looking at them, it appears that they toned down Jonah’s scar in an attempt to make him more presentable, but he’s still in his Confederate uniform and just as surly as ever, so I’d say it’s a minor concession.
Moving back to the regular title with JH#19, we find that Jonah has returned to his usual business of takin’ down whatever owlhoots dare to cross his path, with Vicente Alcazar once again at the drawing table. And in JH#20, both Hex and the reader get a good shock as Jonah’s father turns up! It’s been nearly 25 years since Woodson Hex dumped his son with the Apache, and the old man’s just as scheming as ever, this time playing the inside man on the robbery of a stagecoach carrying $250,000 in double eagles. Jonah’s not aware of this, of course, and nearly gets killed by Pa for his trouble. After escaping the little death-trap Pa and his cohorts set up, Jonah tracks them down and finishes them off, save for his father, who collapses for reasons unknown. He rushes the old man to a doctor and, after many minutes of pacing in the waiting room, the doc comes out and tells Jonah that Woodson is dying of a heart attack. The elder and younger Hex talk for a while -- probably the most civil conversation they’ve ever had -- and Pa passes on before he can tell Jonah where the money’s hid. The doctor takes care of the funeral arrangements, and as Jonah makes ready to ride off, he asks if, deep down, Jonah really loved his father. “Ah hated thet old man, Doc!” Jonah replies. “Hated his guts! But when yuh get down to it...Ah guess a man ain’t got but one Pa!”
Too bad his Pa is the type who’ll pay off a doctor to lie to his son: Woodson Hex is alive and well, and now $250,000 richer. JH#21 picks up just three days later, as Woodson is spending money like water, which catches the attention of some ne’er-do-wells. They rough him up until Woodson tells them that he’s only got “a few pocketfuls” of coins...and his son, Jonah Hex, has the rest! The fellas then track Jonah down and try to persuade him with a crowbar:
They soon realize they’re not getting anywhere, so they decide to step it up a notch and haul Jonah out to an old sawmill, where they’re also holding Woodson. After tying both men to the waterwheel, they set it in motion, hoping a few good dunkings will loosen the Hexes' tongues. Jonah manages to free himself and his father, and after taking out their captors, Jonah turns his gun on Pa before he can escape on horseback. “Y-yuh shorely wouldn’t drill yore own dear Paw, w-would yuh, Jonah boy?” Woodson stammers, one foot already in the stirrups.
“Yes, blast it! Ah would!” Jonah responds, then demands to know where the rest of the money really is. Seems Pa hid it in an undertaker’s parlor before those guys captured him -- more specifically, it’s in an occupied coffin due to be buried. They race back to town, figuring on digging up the coffin once the funeral’s done, but unfortunately, the dead man’s last wishes were for his coffin to be sealed inside the played-out silver mine he’d worked in for forty years, and with one push of the detonator’s plunger, the missing money is lost for good. Jonah and Pa part ways after that, both unsatisfied with the outcome but seeing no point in taking it out on each other. All in all, the elder Hex comes off as almost comical in this pair of stories, and aside from lobbing insults at him, Jonah seems to want no revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child -- perhaps now being an adult that has lived through far worse, it doesn’t seem worth the trouble.
With JH#23, drawn by Dick Ayers and Romeo Tanghal, we get another landmark in Jonah’s history, though we won’t realize it for nearly two years. The story centers around a group of Chinese workers building a railroad spur who are suffering at the hands of their employers, to the point where they’re being gunned down in order to quell dissent in the ranks. The elderly leader of this group tries to hire Hex to avenge the deaths, but he’s only able to pay 20 dollars, so Jonah turns him down. The elderly Chinaman is then killed by three of the rail bosses, an event Jonah witnesses, which leads to him avenging those deaths for free. You’d think that would be the end of the matter, but there’s one person who’s not satisfied with the outcome: the Chinaman’s daughter, Mei Ling, who tries to take out all her anger and frustration on the bounty hunter.
What follows is a prime example of Fleisher’s “character moments trump action” rule, as the next couple of pages feature Jonah doing nothing more than talking with Mei Ling. He not only expresses remorse over the death of her father, but Mei Ling manages to get him to open up a little about both his personal beliefs (of which he claims to have none) and the reason why he leads the violent life he does. Getting Jonah to talk about anything having to do with himself is like pulling teeth, so there must be something quite remarkable about Mei Ling for him to do so. All this time they spend “makin’ cow eyes” at each other doesn’t go unnoticed, and the remaining rail bosses soon kidnap her in order to get revenge on Hex. Our hero soon makes short work of them, and then we get a scene that’ll bring a tear to your eye:
Jonah’s already lost one love that we know of -- Joanna Mosby -- but as callous as it may sound, he could probably deal with that loss easier, since Joanna is now dead and forever out of reach. Mei Ling, however, is very much alive, but unwilling to continue their relationship because of the hatred she knows Jonah holds for himself. So she instead sends him away weeping, an act that probably adds yet another layer of scars to Jonah’s lonely heart. There’s a sort of counterpoint to this scene in Jonah Hex #25 (June 1979) when, after a typical story filled with gunplay, harrowing escapes, innocents dying, and the bad guy meeting a gruesome end, the wife of Hex’s now-deceased Confederate Army buddy proceeds to berate him about his actions. Mei Ling’s hope that Jonah could perhaps find a way to love himself doesn’t stand much chance against the fact that wherever he goes, lives are destroyed, and he’s usually the one responsible.
Though Jonah himself (for the most part) remains firmly ensconced in the 1870s, time keeps marching on for the rest of us. The decade the birthed our favorite bounty hunter is rapidly coming to an end, and interest in the particular genre he belongs to keeps on waning. By this time next year, one of DC's Western titles will be breathing its last, and another will have to make room for some new friends.