Monday, February 11, 2008

The Many Phases of Jonah Hex - The Early Hex

Jonah Hex is a rare character in comics. Not only is he a Western in a world dominated by superheroes, but he is probably the longest running western character out there (except for the Lone Ranger, but that is a whole other cowboy), having started in 1972 (36 years, can you believe it?). And in that 30+ year span there has been barely a handful of writers chronicle the adventures of Mr. Hex, John Albano, Michael Fleisher, Joe Landsdale, and the team of Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti. Granted there have been two others, David Micheline & Arnold Drake, but these two haven't done more than 4 stories combined.

Let's take a look at each of the phases of Jonah Hex. First up, Jonah Albano and the early Hex.

Jonah first appeared in All-Star Western #10 and throughout that story the scarred side of his face was covered in shadow. It wasn't until the end of the story when Jonah lights a cigar and along with a terror stricken outlaw we saw the hideous disfigurement that Jonah bore, even then it was in semi-shadows. His past was a mystery and at times even his abilities appeared to be a mystery as he dogged outlaws seemingly without need for water or rest.

All-Star Western #11 had a Jonah Hex that worked for very little money ($100) because life was cheap and Albano used realistic bounties. Jonah ends up falling for a beautiful woman, getting suckered but eventually learning the truth and turns her and her husband in. Jonah has a soft spot for beautiful women in distress and can be fooled.

Weird Western Tales #12 (the name changed with that issue) has Jonah being chased out of town by the locals, a theme that gets repeated often. The townsfolk are willing to tolerate Hex in order to clean up their town, but they don't want him hanging around because of the trouble that he draws. Later Jonah encounters a very young Indian girl and helps her and her tribe that are being victimized by the loacls. Jonah is defending the innocent, another theme that ends up being a core value of Hex's. Albano also gives Jonah a 'side-kick' with a wolf named Iron-Jaws.

The 'Weird' in Weird Western Tales started to surface in issue #13. Jonah is more in the background than before but at one point the main outlaw becomes a victim of his own imagination with the shadows of the night following him. Finally the shadows come to life in the form of Jonah Hex & Iron-Jaws. Jonah was almost a personification of the night and the outlaw's fears.

Jonah's valuing of an innocent seems to only extend to women & children, however. In WWT #14, Iron-Jaws is bitten by a rattlesnake and and when Jonah takes the wolf to a doctor, the doc refuses to see the wolf because he already has a patient. Without another thought, Jonah tosses the broken-legged human patient out the window. It appears that male adults, in the eyes of Jonah Hex, can never be truly innocent and worthy of compassion.

Jonah protects a woman's feeling for her outlaw fiance in WWT #16. Jonah hides the truth about her boyfriend's lying and killing in order to protect her, but it does appear that he keeps the money her boyfriend stole. This Hex story really does not have any 'weirdness' to live up to the title of the book.

The weirdness of the book, sometimes supplied by El Diablo or an offbeat backup story, shows up occasionally in a Hex story. It is not so much of a supernatural bent but rather the ironic twist that often characterized the EC and DC 'mystery' books. In #17 a villianous hanging female judge ends up dying by hanging herself when she falls off a cliff and her scarf gets tangled on a branch. We also see more of the self-serving Jonah Hex. During a holdup of the town bank, Jonah has no interest in helping the locals. He sits eating breakfast as the bank is dynamited and people are slaughtered in the middle of the street. Once he is offered money, he goes into action tracking down the villians. Once his job is done, he exacts revenge on behalf of orphaned children, again, voluntarilly protecting the innocent.

Issue #18 is the closest that Jonah comes to encountering the supernatural (until the new series) when he is hired to protect a 'werewolf/wild child'. Hex is again the victim of a swindle and is not the instrument of vengence, that is given over to another twist of irony.

Irony rears it's ugly head again in #19 when an escaped outlaw is the victim of a waterhole that he poisoned. #21, the last for Albano, was again showing the compassion that Jonah has, even in the midst of his ongoing killing. He gets a doctor for an old woman and donates bounty money for a children's hospital.

The Albano Hex was a mystery. Why was he so scarred? Why did he still wear Confederate grey? He had his own set of priorities and those seemed to be mostly set by the availability of money. Yet he also had compassion for young children for a reason that wouldn't be revealed for a few years and by another writer.

Only ten issues, but John Albano managed to lay the foundation for a character that was tough enough to live in the old west on it's own terms. Hex showed up at a time in the country when folks were fed up with the Viet-Nam war and were looking for a 'hero' that handled things the old fashioned way, with his wits, fists, and pistols. Hex was the right character at the right time.


Sleestak said...

One of the most misunderstood advertisements in that era were the "Will he save the West...or destroy it?" house ads DC ran. Most people recall it as referring to Jonah Hex when it was really for the campy Bat Lash.

Dwayne "the canoe guy" said...

Yup, The Jonah Hex corral has the first DC house ad for Jonah
Right here

SallyP said...

Gosh, I love Albano's Jonah Hex. In hindsight, the stories weren't as spooky as I remembered them, but they were still pretty cool, and they always had a nice twist.

Albano also used sensible amounts of money. $100 dollars was a fair chunk of change back in those days, when railroad workers were paid 1 dollar a day, and Army privates earned $13.50 a month.

Hagler said...

These are great. I'm always interested in seeing how characters have slowly evolved over time.