Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Western Comics Focus: JONAH HEX

Troy D. Smith

A couple of years ago, Western Fictioneers invited a panel of experts to cast their votes for THE TOP TEN WESTERN COMICS . 

I plan to occasionally use this column (the last Tuesday of every month!) to put a spotlight on the characters they chose. I'm going to start at the top, with the overwhelming choice for #1...

Jonah Hex first appeared in the pages of ALL-STAR WESTERN #10, DC Comics, in 1972. Created by writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga, Jonah was very much a child of the 1970s: far from the heroic western heroes of previous decades, audiences were treated to the adventures of a cynical, anti-heroic bounty hunter, who owed far more to Sergio Leone and The Man with No Name than to Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. His moral ambiguity was visibly demonstrated by his face, horribly scarred by a red-hot tomahawk while being tortured by Apaches.

With issue #12, the comic's name was changed to WEIRD WESTERN TALES... and boy, could it get weird. Jonah Hex stories tended to be a lot darker than other mainstream western heroes (except maybe the original Ghost Rider.) Eventually, in 1977, Jonah got his own title (Scalphunter took over the starring role at WEIRD WESTERN TALES), which was scripted by Michael Fleischer, with most issues drawn by Jonah's co-creator Tony DeZuniga. Jonah's own book ran for almost a hundred issues; when it was finally canceled in 1985, Jonah had long been the last remaining regularly appearing western hero. (In a bizarre move, Jonah was catapulted forward centuries into a post-apocolyptic, Mad Max-like future in a series called simply HEX, best forgotten.)

But you can't keep a bad man down. Jonah appeared in three very successful miniseries in the 1990s, all written by Joe R. Lansdale and drawn by Timothy Truman. The stories were even weirder than they had been in the 70s, as Jonah faced down zombies and giant worms in addition to the regular outlaws and Indians.

There is a lot to like about Lansdale's Jonah Hex when compared to Michael Fleischer's version. One thing I liked was that Lansdale portrayed Jonah as a proud Rebel from East Texas, whereas Fleischer had written a backstory (Jonah's co-creator John Albano had simply never delved into the bounty hunter's past) in which Jonah, sold into slavery with the Apaches by his drunken father, grows up and joins the Confederate Army- and is shocked (shocked!) when he realizes the South supports slavery, whereupon he deserts... but continues to wear his Confederate uniform as a reminder of how terribly wrong he had been. Which is a patently ridiculous example of presentism and 20th century mores being imprinted on characters from the past (I think Mel Gibson's THE PATRIOT is ridiculous for the same reason... and admire the AMC TV series HELL ON WHEELS for addressing its hero's Confederate background and racial attitudes more honestly.)

In 2006, Jonah once more got his own ongoing series. JONAH HEX (vol.2) ran until 2011, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and drawn by several different artists, to much critical acclaim. In another case of DC taking Jonah out of his element for no apparent reason, the book was canceled and Jonah joined the cast of a new iteration of ALL-STAR WESTERN -which takes place in Gotham City (?) and has Jonah teamed up with the founder of Arkham Asylum (you know, that place were they lock up Batman's enemies between rampages.)

But perhaps that was an appropriate move; if I were Jonah, I think I'd rather be in Arkham Asylum than in the JONAH HEX movie that came out in 2010. Josh Brolin nailed the role, and looked the part, but that was the only good thing about the (very disjointed) film. They did use Jonah's arch-enemy, Quintin Turnbull (John Malkovich), but "misused" might be a better term. Also, again for no apparent reason, they decided to give Jonah weird superpowers that involved resurrecting the dead (power gained, naturally, from an Indian shaman), rather than just being content with the only superpower the comic book character needs: being the baddest man in the West.

To give you a feel for the character, I am going to quote the wikipedia plot synopses of the stories in FACE FULL OF VIOLENCE, a graphic novel that reprints the first six issues of the 2006 JONAH HEX series:  [DANGER! SPOILER ALERT!]

"When a rich family hired him to track down their kidnapped son, he found the boy had become part of an underground dog-fighting ring and was forced to put him down when he contracted rabies. In a conflict involving a stolen gold crucifix, he burned an entire mining town to the ground. Bat Lash helped him take revenge against a corrupt sheriff who framed him. The Mayor of a small town tried to execute him to cover up the incestuous rape of his mute daughter, but the townspeople lynched the politician instead. On Christmas he got into a gunfight, killing a dozen men to protect one of his bounties from their revenge attempts. In the small town of Salvation, he met a local gang who posed as nuns and tried to murder him before he could reveal their secret."
Now THAT'S Jonah Hex.

Here are some Jonah Hex graphic novels, available at amazon and B & N -this is only a partial list:

Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex, vol. 1  (this one reprints the original WEIRD WESTERN TALES stories)

Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex, Vol. 2 (reprints the last several Jonah Hex stories in WWT, and the first 22 issues of the 1977 JONAH HEX series.)

Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence

Jonah Hex: Guns of Vengeance

Jonah Hex: Tall Tales

Jonah Hex: No Way Back


  1. I highly recommend that SHOWCASE volume of the original stories. While I've found that reading superhero comics in DC's SHOWCASE and Marvel's ESSENTIALS editions can be a little disappointing (superheros need to be colorful), these Westerns work just fine in black-and-white. DeZuniga's gritty art is really good. I'm less fond of Fleischer's writing, but there are still some good stories.

  2. Lots of JH gems out there, including one or two Christmas yarns I remember from some DC Specials. Would love to get a complete list of those appearances sometime.

  3. Troy, I had no idea Jonah Hex even existed until the movie came out. See what I've missed all these years? Now I have to catch up with all these different comic books! What a treasure trove! Thanks so much for another very enlightening post.

  4. Very interesting post. I have to admit to complete ignorance about Jonah Hex. I did not even know about the movie. But my appetite has been whetted and I am going to order the Showcase volume 1.

    This is what I love about WF and this blog - I Iearn something new almost every day.


  5. I'm so glad to hear they're putting out a second volume of Jonah Hex tales in a Showcase volume. Been waiting for that for WAY too long.