1997-2004: Strange Days Indeed
Though the methods were varied, there was a modern revival of DC's Western stable near the turn of the millennium. Around the same time Joe R. Lansdale was putting his stamp on Jonah Hex over at Vertigo, Chuck Dixon introduced a new villainous version of the Trigger Twins in his Batman titles, followed a few years later by descendants of Nighthawk and Pow-Wow Smith in 1997's Robin Annual #6 (which just so happened to have a Weird Western Tales theme). Meanwhile, James Robinson revealed over in Starman that police offer Matt O'Dare was a reincarnation of Scalphunter, plus we got a few "Times Past" stories set during his tenure as sheriff in late-1800s Opal City. We also discovered in the pages of JSA and Hawkman that Nighthawk and Cinnamon were the 19th Century incarnations of Prince Khufu and Chay-Ara. When Mark Waid reintroduced Golden Age speedster Quicksilver over in The Flash as Max Mercury, he gave the character an origin story set in the Old West. In 2003, Jen Van Meter created a present-day Cinnamon, named for the original by her parents. Even Greg Saunders -- the original Vigilante -- popped up here and there throughout the period, including a cameo in the short-lived El Diablo title, which starred a streetwise crimefighter as opposed to a supernatural force. With so many familiar Western monikers being taken on by modern-day DCU characters, it seemed like only a matter of time before someone bearing the name of Hex would turn up. It was just a question of which writer would do the honors.
"I’d always liked Jonah -- read his adventures from quite early in Weird Western, up ‘till the end of his own title," Karl Kesel told me when I interviewed him in 2011. "I was a big fan of the Spaghetti Westerns, of course, and Jonah fit into that sensibility very well." That admiration for the character led Kesel to include Hex in a few projects over the years, one of which -- sadly -- never saw the light of day. "[I pitched] a Challengers of the Unknown idea which would have brought [Jonah Hex from the future and] back to present-day, where he would have joined the Challengers while looking for a way back home. That pitch never went anywhere, obviously, and possibly for good reason." I'm sorry to say Kesel no longer possesses any material from that pitch, so we'll just have to use our imaginations to picture Jonah running around in one of those purple jumpsuits the Challs tend to favor (we can also add this to the list of "near-misses" when it comes to getting Jonah back to 1875).
The second project proved a little more fruitful: Unlimited Access, written by Kesel with pencils by Pat Olliffe and inks by Al Williamson, was a sequel to 1996's DC Versus Marvel crossover event, and featured matchups from multiple eras of both companies' histories, as opposed to just the current offerings. Near the end of Unlimited Access #1 (December 1997), Axel "Access" Asher mistakenly opens a portal to the Old West and runs into Jonah Hex...and then they both run into Marvel's Two-Gun Kid, a meeting that "seemed only natural" to Kesel, since both characters had experience with time travel. At this point in Jonah's timeline, however, he hasn't been tossed into the future yet, a fact we learn after Access sends Two-Gun back to his proper universe, then Jonah and the young hero head to town for a drink. Jonah's still mulling over everything he's seen and heard that night when, from outta nowhere, the final pages of Jonah Hex #92 begin to play out all over again!
Seeing that gunplay is imminent, Access takes it upon himself to save Hex by activating one of his portals and shoving him in. "Lord Almighty! Ah done died an' gone tuh Hell!" Jonah shouts as the two of them fall through the space between the Marvel and DC universes, with Jonah eventually getting swept out of Access's reach and vanishing. We'll presume Jonah landed up in 2050 same as before, since this is the last time we see him in this miniseries.
Speaking of DC Versus Marvel, Jonah Hex was one of the characters to get the Amalgam treatment with Generation Hex #1 (June 1997), wherein writer Peter Milligan blended Jonah with Marvel mutant Chamber to create Jono Hex, leader of a group of "malforms" roaming the Old West. It's about as non-canonical as you can get, and aside from the similar names, I don't see why Milligan decided on this combination, as the results are muddled -- it's lacking the sense of fanboy fun that came through in many other Amalgam titles.
A year after Unlimited Access, Kesel found another way to integrate his love of Hex into a project, this time via an idea that had been bouncing around in his head for a while. "I just had this notion of a super-powered gal gunfighter who rides around on a flying monster -- if I had the chance to do the character at Marvel, she would have been called Rawhide (which would have turned out to be even more twisted, considering the original Rawhide Kid’s since-revealed sexual orientation), and her 'hoss' would have been Dragon Man. But I had the opportunity at DC," Kesel said, referring to his work on Superboy, starring the modern-day Boy of Steel he and Tom Grummett created during 1993's Reign of the Supermen event. The title already featured many revamped versions of classic characters, so adding another to the mix seemed natural. In Superboy #54 (August 1998) -- with guest pencils by Scott Kolins -- Project Cadmus sends Guardian, Dubbilex, and Superboy to Paris, where "a possible genetic anomaly" has been spotted. "Oh, you mean we're lookin' for a monster! Cool!" the Kid exclaims, just before a dragon-like creature surfaces from the Seine River and starts menacing a redhead in a bikini. Superboy leaps into action, destroys the creature -- which turns out to be mechanical -- then sets down next to the redhead, whom the Kid presumes will shower him with thank-yous. What he receives is the furthest thing from that:
Turns out Superboy just ruined a photo shoot for Hex -- no first name ever given -- an up-and-coming supermodel with a fuse as short as the legendary gunfighter's. Both Guardian and her assistant (who's wearing a baseball cap with the graffiti-style HEX logo on it!) manage to keep her from killing the Boy of Steel, but her animosity towards him increases that night after he ends up blundering into another of Hex's photo shoots, this time with an actual monster hot on his heels! The action spills over to Superboy #55, where the "genetic anomaly" is soon dubbed "Grokk the Living Gargoyle" due to its appearance and onomatopoeic roar. As Hex and the Kid try to put as much distance between themselves and Grokk as possible, it becomes evident that the folks at Cadmus aren't the only ones interested in the monster: soldiers working for a mysterious group called the Agenda show up on the scene with orders to kill Grokk...and Superboy as well, if possible.
Unfortunately, the soldiers regard Hex as little more than a distraction, and one of them, brandishing a knife, slices open the right side of her face when she tries to clobber him with a piece of rubble. Superboy swoops in to save her, and Hex staggers off in shock as he dukes it out with the soldier. Later on, the soldier comes across her again: wielding a high-tech pistol this time, he's about the finish the job he'd started earlier when Grokk lands between the two of them. The soldier empties his clip into the creature to no avail, and is soon bitten in half. Then Grokk turns its attention to Hex, but seems more curious about her than menacing. "Better hurry if I'm next on your hit list," she tells Grokk at it sniffs her, "because pretty soon I'm going to get tired of sitting here...and pitying myself..." Between her wrecked photo shoots and carved-up face, Hex appears to have accepted that her life is over, and isn't even interested in defending herself anymore. The Boy of Steel reenters the fray at that moment, carrying Grokk away to continue the fight at a safer distance. From his new position, though, he can't see more of the Agenda's soldiers lining up on a nearby rooftop, getting ready to open fire on him. Hex does her best to shout a warning, but Superboy is too far away to hear...and that's when things get a mite weird:
Our stuck-up supermodel is suddenly acting like a very familiar gun-toting, quip-tossing Southern badass, and it ain't very clear why. Hex eliminates the soldiers who had Superboy in their sights, then saves Guardian by doing a fancy trick-shot off of his shield. After hearing Hex's newly-acquired drawl, Guardian catches on quick that something is wrong and says, "I, um, don't believe we've...been introduced..."
She replies, "The name's Hex, suh. Jonah--" Then she stops, dropping the gun and nearly fainting. Guardian manages to keep her on her feet, but Superboy picks that moment to end his fight with Grokk by tossing it at the building they're standing on! Guardian pushes Hex out of the way, but she later disappears in the confusion. The battle finally over, Superboy comments on how strangely Hex was acting at the end. "It gets weirder," Guardian tells him, picking up the pistol Hex had been using and showing the Kid the empty chamber. "She shot a gun that doesn't even have a clip in it -- and she seemed to think she was an Old West bounty hunter."
Those who looked for answers in the next issue sadly found none, as Karl Kesel wouldn't return to the Hex subplot for nearly a year-and-a-half. In the meantime, sightings of Jonah's corpse suddenly became rampant in the DCU. Despite Tall Bird's wishes, it appears that the body of her husband was not cremated after the events of Secret Origins #21, and turned up eventually in the Planet Krypton restaurant, as seen in a special epilogue created for the collected editions of 1996's Kingdom Come, as well as a brief cameo in The Kingdom #2 (February 1999) -- imagine how the local health department would've reacted if they'd realized there was century-old corpse on the premises! The Wild Times: Deathblow one-shot (August 1999) spins an Elseworlds-style story where turn-of-the-century necromancers use Jonah's body to raise an army of the dead. And in Starman #64 (April 2000), a skeletal-looking Hex can be spotted in a warehouse full of "bizarre aspects of the superheroic world", collected by a Japanese businessman in the 1970s. Through all the reboots and retcons that had been wrought upon the DCU over the past decade or so, it seemed as though Jonah's final fate was inevitable in every reality.
Just as the new millennium began, Kesel and artist Tom Grummett brought "Lady Hex" back into the Boy of Steel's life, dropping her onto the last page of Superboy #71 (February 2000) with both guns a-blazin'. The next issue shows Hex sneaking into Project Cadmus ten hours earlier, intent of freeing Grokk and using the creature to lead her to the Agenda, which she blames not only for wrecking her face, but for the blackouts she's been having. They did something to me -- I know it, Hex thinks, reflecting on how she's been on the run since the incident in Paris (though she apparently stopped for long enough to change into a skintight black bodysuit, adorned with silver conchos similar to the ones Jonah himself sometimes wore on his boots). Unbeknownst to her, the Agenda had recently taken over Cadmus, replacing many key personnel with Agenda-loyal clone versions, and they soon capture her. Hex confronts one of the group's leaders, Amanda Spence, about her blackouts, wanting to know if they'd given her a virus or something along with disfiguring her. While Spence disavows any knowledge of what may or may not have been done to her, she does tell Hex that "with any experiment comes setbacks...failures...unforeseen side-effects..." The words -- along with a slap to the face from Spence -- cause Hex to cower and say, "If...if that's all I am..."
Then Hex looks up again, and the thin scar on her face twists until it covers the entire right side, her eye becoming opaque. "Then Ah suggest yuh be a mite more careful in the future, missy!" she finishes in a snarling voice, then opens fire on the Agenda agents -- just like in Paris, the gun she's using had run out of ammunition, yet it blasts off bolts of energy like it has a full charge. The Agenda quickly deduces that Hex has the ability to create "psionic bullets", but requires a weapon to discharge them. They manage to disarm her, thereby rendering her powerless, but Hex is soon rescued by the unlikely duo of Krypto (a regular mutt from Earth, not the Silver Age super-pup) and Angry Charlie (one of Cadmus's resident creatures):
Escaping into the bowels of the facility, Hex finds her way down to the holding cell for Grokk and sets him free. As before, the Living Gargoyle has no interest in harming her, and lets her climb on its back for a ride. After acquiring new weapons, the two of them then proceed to tear through Cadmus, Hex blasting away at soldiers and Grokk flash-frying them. They soon run into Superboy who, along with Guardian and two other members of Project Cadmus, had recently broken out of the Agenda's clutches (as seen at the end of the previous issue). Together, they find a way out of the facility and ride Grokk to freedom. Unfortunately, the gargoyle turns out to not be the easiest thing to steer, and crashes into an incoming Agenda transport. While everyone makes it through with minimal injuries (and, ironically, rescue some more of Superboy's friends who were being held captive on the transport), the crash awakens Hex from her latest blackout, depriving her of her psionic ability. In Superboy #73 (with guest pencils by Adam DeKraker), the gang hides out in the woods surrounding Cadmus, plotting how to best retake the facility from the Agenda. Hex volunteers herself and Grokk as a diversion, but admits that, in her current state, she isn't very useful. "I've been told I...change during my blackouts. Become a different person," she says, and later suggests, "If I could choose when the blackouts came...had some control over them...that would be better." To that end, Hex lets herself be hypnotized, and her "other self" comes rushing forward, same as before:
Leading the charge into the facility -- and trading a few choice lines with the Kid along the way -- Hex helps her (his?) new pals defeat the Agenda by the end of Superboy #74 (drawn once more by Grummett), but the final blow in the battle comes not from the heroes, but from Dabney Donovan, a mad scientist in the custody of Cadmus. In an attempt to escape, he releases a virus that destroys only clones with the Agenda's genetic signature -- since nearly all of their agents are clones, the opposition literally melts away. Unfortunately, with no one in the Agenda left to question, Hex can get no answers as to whether or not they're really the cause of her condition, and if anything can be done about it. When we see her in Superboy #75 (June 2000), she's back to her regular self, but the whole experience has made her decide to give up modeling for good and become a bounty hunter, which Superboy (who lost his powers between issues) doesn't agree with at all:
The sentiments she expresses are the sort of thing Jonah would say as well...and that only adds to the conundrum that is "Lady Hex", as she never made any appearances in the DCU after this issue, yet there's still a lot of unanswered questions about this gal. Was she a descendant of Jonah Hex (presumably though his son Jason) who could unknowingly channel her ancestor, a reincarnation of Jonah that was unaware he was now a she, or was “Lady Hex” part of the whole theme of genetic tinkering that figured highly throughout the title's run? To be sure, there’s a lot of clues that point to the third possibility, namely the "psionic bullets" and the connection to Grokk the Living Gargoyle, along with the remarks Amanda Spence made to Hex in regards to the Agenda's experiments (on the other hand, Hex and Grokk didn't melt along with the rest of the Agenda clones, so perhaps they were the result of some other lab's tinkering). Unfortunately, not even Karl Kesel can provide us with an answer, as he no longer recalls what he had in mind for the character in the long run. His bosses weren't exactly eager for him to pursue more adventures with Hex, anyhow. "I certainly got the impression that DC wasn’t happy and/or comfortable with the character, and I was discouraged from using her. Otherwise she would have shown up more," Kesel told me.
Ultimately, Karl Kesel left Superboy after issue #79, though he came back for #100, the title's final issue, which by then was being written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Dan Didio (more on them later). In the years since, he has worked on a variety of projects for DC and other companies, but none of them to date have involved Jonah Hex in any form. Reflecting on the contributions he made in the life of our favorite bounty hunter, Kesel said, "I’m an interesting footnote/sidebar in Jonah’s history, at best. What I did with the character, I did out of fondness for Hex (original and female). I still really like the idea behind the modern-day female Hex-type character (which probably says more about me than about the character) and given the chance I’d jump at the chance to do the same (or similar) character for DC or elsewhere." While that has yet to occur for Kesel, another writer will explore the notion in their own way about fifteen years after Hex and Grokk flew off into the sunset.
With "Lady Hex" rendered persona non grata by DC execs and the "Vertigo Hex" era wrapped up, Jonah's appearances were once again limited to the occasional guest-spot...and one of those can't even be counted as canonical. Superman & Batman: Generations III was the third volume in "An Imaginary Series" by the legendary John Byrne under the Elseworlds banner, which (as the title implies) took place over several decades. In issue #8 (October 2003), Superman attempts to fly into the future, but the machinations of Darkseid cause him to bounce back into the past instead. He lands up in Smallville, but as Supes says, the time period is "about half a century before my rocketship arrived from Krypton!" Reckon he means 1888, but it's never specifically said. After changing into his civilian duds, Superman comes across his adoptive parents, who at this time are still very young. Though they'd only first met six days earlier, Martha Clark already knows she wants to marry Jonny Kent. Too bad Jonny is more focused on killing Jonah Hex, whom he blames for the death of his two brothers and a dozen of his friends during the Civil War.
Jonny's vendetta holds no interest for Hex, as he's only in town to find Caleb Lamb, an outlaw with a $500 bounty on his head. Jonny is too hot-headed to leave Hex be, however, and they eventually agree to have the cliché "shootout at high noon" scenario the next day. Superman spends the night fretting over whether or not he should stop the gunfight: he certainly has no recollection of either of his parents mentioning such a thing to him as a boy, and he can't help but wonder if that means he's destined to prevent it. In the end, he lets the gunfight take place, and soon discovers he had nothing to worry about:
"Ain't worth it," Hex tells Jonny after busting his spectacles. "Whoever I killed t'was near an' dear t'yuh, I killed as a soldier fightin' fuh his country. Now...now I don't kill less'n there's money in it." Speaking of which, Caleb Lamb shows up at that moment and opens fire on Jonah, who takes him down easy. Unfortunately, the first bullet fired by the outlaw went awry and struck Martha in the abdomen -- she lives, but the doctor says she'll never be able to have children (and now you know why Clark Kent is an only child!). While Jonah's time in the story is brief, Byrne gives us a pitch-perfect rendition, both in voice and in looks. It's a shame this story "doesn't count" since it's an Elseworlds (nor does it mesh with Jonah's previous Civil War encounter with a member of the Kent clan), but we will get a variation on this scenario about four years down the line that's a little more legit.
Five months passed before Jonah popped up in another comic, specifically The Legion #29 (March 2004), written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, with pencils by Chris Batista. If you were disappointed by his lack of interaction with the Legion of Super-Heroes back in HEX #10, I'm sorry to say that he doesn't even get to share a panel with 'em this time around: thanks to Darkseid (him again?!?), a temporal shockwave is causing time itself to collapse, and Jonah Hex is on hand to witness all of 1873 getting engulfed by the shockwave. Don't worry, the Legion will fix things up by the end of the next issue, but that one panel is all the Hex we get in this tale.
As the end of 2004 approached, it looked like Jonah's presence in the 21st Century was going to be virtually nonexistent compared to what we'd seen in the 20th. With the exception of imprints like Vertigo and Paradox Press, DC Comics was fully invested in the superhero genre, and though they were thoughtful enough to honor Jonah Hex with a Millennium Edition reprint of All-Star Western #10 (complete with an essay by Robert Greenberger praising the character), it seemed the chances of them offering up a monthly Western title again were slim-to-none. That outlook would change within a few months, however, as folks at DC began to speak Jonah Hex's name...not in whispers, but with a surprising level of excitement, and before 2005 closed out, the scar-faced bounty hunter would hit the comics racks in a way that felt like Old Home Week.