Loosing the Legend of Jonah Hex: How Palmiotti and Gray Lost the Plot
Decoding DC – Part 18
Extremites, after the fall of the Vertigo line, and it’s reabsorption into DC proper, the darkness that permeated those wonderful anti-DC line pages began to disappear. Character traits that readers had come to expect from those titles became whitewashed. I don’t how or why it came about but mainstream DC decided to revive Jonah Hex. Instead of following the dark anarchic world constructed by Joe R. Lansdale, and drawn by Tim Truman, the character was revived by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray as a throwback to the Jonah Hex of 80s. The main difference being that all the supernatural aspects that have come to define the character have been excised. Jonah is now a scarred bounty hunter who resembles the Man with No Name. The legend of Jonah Hex is lost within the pages of Palmiotti/Gray’s reinterpretation. Everything has become so insignificant.
Insignificance has never been a problem for the Jonah Hex title. Mythological themes often confused and puffed the issues into overblown colourful emptiness. At times it seemed as if the archetypes at play within the story were more important then the story itself. Palmiotti and Gray’s application of a realist lens take the meaning out of Jonah Hex. This is why this reboot falls flat.
The dialogue is flat. In the Lansdale/Truman Hex, dialogue was always all over the place. One moment it would be full of hackneyed — at times desperate — jokes, the next lofty sentiments about politics, war, or religion. It was mixed bag, but a mixed bag the often matched the sensational style. Palmiotti and Gray have made the dialogue filmic. For example the first exchange in the issue: a cowpoke is pleading with Jonah to not kill him. His lines are perfectly accented and you hear the character in your head. Take a look:
“You an’ me been riding near on three weeks for this bounty an’ all the time you was ponderrin’ on killin’ me?”
This is all right dialogue in the basic sense but it feels too right. Up until this point the cowboyness of the characters have been over embellished to point of incoherence; this gave the scenes a certain parodic charm. All of that charm is lost.
Emotion and Jonah Hex have never been bedfellows. His character works best when he floats through situations exacting his western justice. But now, P and G have created a fully fleshed character who is effected but the goings on of the story. Jonah has been tasked with tracking down a wealthy land baron’s son. The young boy has been captured and enslaved by a child fighting ring. What gets me about this whole thing is that Jonah seems to be too invested in the whole search. He shows legitimate grief when he discovers the whereabouts of the kid. Jonah isn’t Batman or one of DC’s gritty pretty boys, he is a simple legend who drifts the endless deserts of DC’s Weird Westerns. All of these sudden emotions ring hollow.
The most hollow part of Palmiotti and Gray’s Jonah Hex is the way they emphasize Jonah Hex’s moral code. In Post 9/11 and indeed, the whole modern age of DC — pretty much post Frank Miller — heroes have often been reduced to moral codes. This makes for some extraordinary preachy and heavy handed comics. Palmiotti and Gray spend panels using the narration blurbs to discuss what is dark and what is light. Isn’t it part of the fun for readers to find that out for themselves?
The world Jonah has been placed in is different. The weird has been sucked out the West. Palmiotti and Gray have taken all the supernatural elements out of the world and made him a normal cowboy in a world with human cowboys. Even Luke Ross’ art has made Jonah Hex into Clint Eastwood look alike.
In Vertigo’s Weird Westerns, the West is populated with two dimensional stereotypes interacting in a highly stylized world. Men and Women do not talk unless it was about a murder or sexual transaction. While this reduced the role of women to ineffectual positions, it also instilled an archetypical legendary quality to the stories.
The women in this story are sympathetic strong willed pioneer ladies. Although it is a coup for women in Western comics, it is not right for Jonah Hex. His world should not reflect ours.
Children represent innocence in the archetypical world of Hex. This comic concerns a child fighting ring, in a homage to very first Jonah Hex story form the 70s, but showing all the suffering of the children as this comic does serves to add an unneeded Dickensian moral to the story. Jonah is now not only a champion of justice but also a protector of the little children. Are Pamiotti and Gray trying to turn him into a saint?
The biggest folly in this comic is Luke Ross’ art. Ross has created pastel rich world that looks like a children’s picture book. Ross uses real life human faces as models for his characters/ Jonah Hex is modelled on Clint Eastwood and I don’t understand why this is. Whatever the reason behind this choice it serves to further remove any individualism from the Hex title. Luke Ross’ art is unoriginal and boring.
Jonah Hex survived the 90s by being presented in limited run series that was one arc spread over a few issues. Although sometimes this lead to filler issues — more a result of Joe R. Lansdale then the limits of the series — there was always a thrust to reach the climax of the story. Palmiotti and Gray create episodic stories, taken out of sequence, and have a wide range of different artists realize the stories. I have nothing against this idea. It’s what comics have historically been but the episodic nature of the stories marginalize Jonah Hex as insignificant.
Three act structure returns.
The story begins with Jonah taking on the search for the plantation owner’s son, then migrates to the carnival where he witnesses the boy’s death, and the revenge of the proprietor. Game, set, and match. It’s all nicely tied up in a bow. Aside from the ultimate death of the boy, Jonah barely encounters any obstacles. No tension is built. He just clobbers through the panels to the bloody end. Even the cold open in the desert with another bounty hunter seems blasé and unimportant. There is nothing to wet the reader’s appetite. It ends and next month we’ll have another equally insignificant western blood fest.
If the writers decided to use a three act structure that was self contained, why did they choose to kill off the boy?
I know it’s a common theme in Jonah Hex that the very people he tries save are the ones he ends up killing, but it just seems so empty to kill off the child. Further, making me question why is this story important. Am I to marvel at the brutality of the world, question the insignificance of life, observe the Dickensian and empty life of an 19th century boy? Or do P and G just kill off the child to contain the story? If everybody dies then you wont question next month what happened to last week’s characters.
Coginitive and creative dissonance is wonderful way of describing this issue. On the one hand it is a passable western comic with good dialogue, and well rounded characters, but on the other hand, it does not feel in any way like a Jonah Hex issue. The main character could be named “Bob the cowboy” and still the story would be same. By modifying Jonah Hex into a 3-dimensional being, who no longer relies on archetypes, by placing him into a real environment and by limiting his stories to self contained episodes, Palmiotti and Gray loose the significance of the Jonah Hex name. It is an ok read, but it is not Jonah Hex. Jonah Hex, who rides with death, is riding in this comic in name only.
Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.
Story I Read: “Giving the Devil His Due” (Jonah Hex v. 2 #1 January 2006)
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Pros: Well rounded characters. Good dialogue. Compelling scenes of brutality. Clarity.
Cons: The art. The insignificance. The convenience. The loss of epic.
Previous Review: “El Diablo Part 4” (El Diablo #4 Jan. 2001)
Upcoming Review: “Bullets of Silver. Cross of Gold” (Jonah Hex v2 #2 Feb. 2006)