Giving Into Exploitation: Why Joe R. Lansdale’s Jonah Hex Doesn’t Work

Decoding DC Part VII

splash-jonahhexworm-1I love Spaghetti Westerns

The long shots of the scenery, the gritty gratuitous close ups and the anticipation of violence puts me tantalizingly on edge.

I also love the archetypical characters, flooding the fulsome background, whose mythic restraint and explosive humorous emotion never cease send me into an orgy of thought.

Some believe, me included, that the Spaghetti Western, which is a sub-genre of the much larger ‘Exploitation’ movement of the 60s and 70s, is one of the purest forms of film and drama.

Exploitation is a major part of the modern evolution of story telling and its influence can still be felt in the work of many film directors today. Evidently, many comic writers as well.

One thing that defines truly good Exploitation art is its ‘lack of pretension.’ The work should not be trying to be something.

This is the problem with Lansdale’s version of Jonah Hex.

His publication, made patently clear by this issue of Riders of the Worm and Such, is attempting to be smarter then it is. Because of this intellectual chip on the writer’s shoulder, Joe R. Lansdale’s Jonah Hex has a wonderful environment, and even thrilling moments, but as a whole feels empty.

Lansdale gives into exploitation and this kills his story.

WHAT IS EXPLOITATION

Ilsa_she_wolf_of_ss_poster_02

Nazisploitation. The oddities of Exploitation films.

Perhaps it is vague of me to accuse Joe R. Lansdale’s writing as being pretentious in wanting to be Exploitation without defining what I mean by the word.

Exploitation is a very complex artistic style and one that encompasses a truly massive world of film, comics and plays.

My definition allies with Eric Schaeffer’s, which he espoused in his book, that Exploitation is of “low moral or artistic merit, and therefore attempting to gain financial success by ‘exploiting’ a current trend or niche genre or base desire for a lurid subject matter.” It is often a word used in conjunction with ‘pulp’ in that it has a lurid focus that is used to gain financial return.

What is fascinating about the style is that it often meshed genre’s into hybrids.

In the case of Blaxploitation, the civil rights movement was superimposed into a film-noire setting, resulting in funky iconic Seventies films like Foxy Brown or Shaft.

In the comics world, Blaxploitation influenced Marvel’s Black Panther and Luke Cage. Both are characters of colour that embrace their culture and make it a world to be desired by the whitecentric mainstream. The effects of this movement has had large influence on film and art, most recently seen,  inn the illustrious career of Quentin Tarantino.

WHAT IS THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN? 

Leone's Once Upon A Time In America

Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West

The Spaghetti Western, a genre heavily also influencing Tarantino’s work recently, is not entirely a member of Exploitation.

In the early 60s, Sergio Leone was experimenting with motifs from Kurosawa samurai films in effort to inform his Westerns. What came out of this experimentation was a series of films called The Dollar’s Trilogy, which depicted a west that was highly allegorical, gritty and devoid of sentiment. In these movies, violence no longer was a heroic function, but a byproduct of two ideologies clashing. The role of violence resembled its dramatic function in the dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Violence in and of itself is not interesting to the Spaghetti Western. What is interesting  is the build up to its occurrence.

Italian westerns spent the next ten years, from 1965-75, emulating Sergio’s work.

This time is properly referred to as the ‘Spaghetti Western Exploitation Period.’ Out of this film movement came the many Django films and other uber violent Westerns. Lansdale seems to draw on this time for his incarnation of Jonah Hex.

If you’ve followed these postings on the regular, and there really is only a few of you; as I have noticed triple the hits on Journey Into Marvel, you will know that I have mentioned Spaghetti Western in relation to Two Gun Mojo.

Riders of the Worm and Such has followed that model.

WHY LANSDALE’S DIALOGUE SEEMS INAUTHENTIC

One of the major traits of the Spaghetti Western is its stylistic language.

Some of the reason for this is because these Westerns are often translations of Italian scripts, making the dialogue stilted and hokey. Sometimes an unexpected wit comes out of the interactions. Not to mention an alienation when attempted “American slang’ pops in out of nowhere.” Lansdale draws upon that aspect for his dialogue.

For example, after Jonah and his young friend assess the carnage from the preceding night’s attack by the underground worms, Jonah says “Nothing tried to bite our punkins off and suck our noodles out.”

This reads extraordinarily inauthentic.

Not because the slang is incorrect. All the words are right.

The words seem wrong for the character. This moment of dialogue is present for affect, not honest development. There are many more examples of this throughout.

Jonah has always possessed an earthy manner of speech. One that is often peppered with assorted swears and salty words. However,  ‘noodle’ and ‘punkin’ seem pretty juvenile language for a man that has murdered many and is a veteran of the American Civil War.

GLANZMAN AND TRUMAN’S ARTWORK PROBLEM

Dialogue is not the only part of this story that feels desperate and pretentious. The artwork is also troublesome.

Spaghetti Westerns rely on stylized and choppy closeups that are meant to accentuate the tense nature of impending violence.

Paneling functions similarly to camera technique in comics. How a panel’s perspective captures action, changes how the reader perceives the event.

Sometimes the panel’s stylization can get in the way of the action.

Sam Glanzman’s and Timothy Truman’s perspective is all over the place; wildly veering from landscape silhouettes to close ups. This might be done to mirror the roving eye of the camera that would be present if this story were a film. These panels don’t achieve what is intended. Rather, I am left confused  as what is going on.

All this artistry further confused the narrative and padded scenes that in some comics would occupy, maybe, two panels. It created meandering visual onslaughts of well drawn art that are assaultive to the mind and the attention span.

It takes the cowpokes four pages to invite Jonah Hex to their campfire.

What should have been covered in one panel, is dragged out into pages of multiple different perspectives on the same conversation peppered with mindless vapid dialogue.

JOE’S TRUE NARRATIVE PROBLEM…

All this narrative waffling stems from a larger problem with Lansdale’s direction of the story. Joe uses this title as a pulpit to espouse his opinions about Westerns.

Vertigo’s mandate was to embrace the supernatural and redefine how the horror comic worked. When Vertigo took on the Jonah Hex title, the creatives were forced to come up with an edge on why a supernatural western should be a featured title. Out of this, Lansdale must have decided to use Jonah Hex to change the face of the comic western by pitting him against former comic stereotypes.

Comic westerns had historically been pretty cheesy, especially the Westerns of DC.

At one point Jonah comments on the banality a singing cowboy: a common archetype that often flooded the pages of Silver Age DC Westerns. This is one of many moments that seem to be more parodic then story driven. Indeed a whole page is wasted on the moment which neither furthers the plot, nor develops Jonah.

Editorial bent is all well and good but it means that story is sacrificed for essays on the difference between Jonah: the Anti-hero and the whitewashed Western heroes of yore.

THE IRRELEVANCE OF WILDE’S WEST

Looking at this issue in and of itself it is irrelevant in full scale of the Riders of the Worm and Such arc.

Jonah and his young friend find themselves in another locale where they suffer another attack from subterranean creatures.

Didn’t this happen last issue?

It did and almost exactly the same way.

This issue does nothing to develop the arc.

It must have really annoyed those who spent the cash on it in 1995.

I felt ripped off just reading it.

Though I love examinations into how comics work and how genre rules function in the creation of a story, as you can see from this article, it frustrates me when artistry overtakes a story.

Perhaps, Lansdale allows his fascination with exploitation to govern how this issue works. By doing this he destroys any possible enjoyment of the comic.

Giving into a style is never a good idea for a medium; whether it be a film, a comic or any other visual art. – Enjoy Decoding, Julian Munds

Story I Read:Chapter Two: Wilde’s West” (Jonah Hex: Rider’s of the Worm and Such #2 Apr. 1995)

Rating: 1 out of 5

Pros: Pretty art. There’s a female character, though she is poorly drawn and looks very out of place.

Cons: Terrible juvenile dialogue. Lack of character development. No story. Absurd pathos. Too much pretty art.

Upcoming Review:Chapter Three: Big Worm” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #3 May 1995)

Previous Review:Chapter One:  No Rest for the Wicked and the Good Don’t Need Any” (Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #1 Mar. 1995)

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About Julian Munds

I possess a degree in Theatre and Drama from the University of Toronto. I own my own theatre company called Snobbish Theatre. We focus our work on new versions of classics.

Posted on January 6, 2014, in DC, Jonah Hex and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. What a strange and inaccurate evaluation of the work. Not that you don’t like it, as I have no trouble with that, but this is more pretentious than the comic ever was, and though we certainly were trying to show the brutality of civilization, it was pretty much all civilization. But what you seem to think is going on isn’t what I was doing at all as a writer. Tim you can ask as an artist. I can’t speak for him.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I am curious, what were you trying to do?

      Looking at Riders in comparison to Two Gun Mojo, I notice a marked difference in dialogue style. For instance, in Riders there seems to be a heck of a lot of focus on scatological humour, as there is later in the next issues and I’ll be continuing to look at those.

      It seems almost this that veer into a new place with the character is unnatural. This why I suggested this was a nod to some other form. Not because of the humour but because it wasn’t present in the character in Two Gun where Jonah is darker, more full of angst and, generally, less jovial. I am just curious as to why you chose to do this?

      As you say, I have no understanding of what you intending to do and it is therefore be more pretentious of me to ascribe an intention on your work. If that is so… why does this comic exist beyond just writing another comic? If this is just “comics for comics sake” does that lack of intention not make it more exploitative?

      I ask these questions of you as a respect of your artistry.

  2. You can have intent without having the intent to be pretentious. You’re defending your logic with more of the same pretension. But the point is, yes there was more scatological stuff. So what? If it bothers you, okay. That’s your choice. But that has nothing to do with anything other than a story telling choice. You can have real intent to make a point with a comic, but I think it’s pretty silly to call a comic about worms of the earth pretentious. I don’t know how it is with the comics you wrote. What was your intent?

  3. Oh, and the RIDERS OF THE WORM is a parody or music personalities and personas, that’s it’s intent, and it’s not a pretentious intent. We were having fun. Anyone else gets to choose if it’s fun for them or not. I have no problem with you not liking it, as I said, but this whole argument you have with it confused me.

  4. I should also add it is exploitation and was meant to be. Part of the parody was of the films and comics of that nature Tim and I liked. I grew up on drive in exploitation films. That’s part of the joke. It’s not a mistake that it’s playing with exploitation, but it’s also making fun of it at the same time.

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