Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing All-Star Western 17, originally released February 27th, 2013.
Drew: For all of the subtle differences fans can talk about in DC’s current publishing lineup, the fact is: they publish A LOT of superhero comics. A simple lack of capes and tights is enough to make a title like All-Star Western stand out, but writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti aren’t content to rest on those laurels. Indeed, recent issues have cribbed stylistic elements form the likes of parlor dramas and Victorian novellas, in addition to the old Westerns that inspired the characters in the first place, all while seamlessly folding in elements of DC’s own fictional universe. It’s a tonal chameleon, taking on whatever style best fits the material at hand.
Of course, that uniqueness and diverse stylistic vocabulary can make it a difficult title to pin down, requiring a familiarity with the works and styles being referenced. Issue 17 is clearly indebted to the ornate writings of Victorian novelists, a genre I am woefully (though willfully) ignorant of. Fortunately, an intimate understanding of Victorian literature is not required — I’m able to appreciate the intent, even without the familiarity to fully appreciate the execution. The style and volume of the narration often make the issue feel a bit more like a lavishly illustrated novella than a comic, reminding me a bit of the Victorian magazine Punch (famous for coining the word “cartoon” for its comical illustrations and captions).
That narration describes a cholera outbreak in the poorest part of 1880′s Gotham, which was addressed by heartlessly quarantining the district (Gray and Palmiotti make a point of name checking No Man’s Land). Ever the humanitarian, Catherine Wayne takes it upon herself to deliver supplies to the quarantined masses, but is taken hostage and held for a ransom of medical supplies. Terrified, Alan Wayne hires Hex and Arkham (and a few redshirts) to retrieve her. Hex and Arkham eventually find the men that captured Catherine, but they’ve been beaten by Vandal Savage, who had been coveting her from afar.
Oh, and did I mention the zombies?
That’s right. The “cholera” outbreak has turned everyone into flesh-eating monsters. Hex acknowledges that it doesn’t look like cholera so much as rabies, but I think we all know what it really looks like. The Victorian setting and presence of the undead call to mind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which (unfortunately) I also haven’t read, but that may actually serve as a more relatable cultural touchstone than Age of Innocence.
Savage claims responsibility for the outbreak, which is an interesting idea, but is ultimately left for the next issue to explore. For all of the ornate language, the element this issue may borrow the most from Victorian literature is its interest in mood over plot. This issue reminds me rather pointedly of the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, doing more to establish the setting than anything else. To be sure, this features a lot more zombie action, but it’s still relatively light on plot.
The backup similarly features a rather thin plot, focusing instead on the character of Jenny Freedom, the Century Baby of the 1800s. There are some cool steampunk elements (not to mention a few mummies), but the real emphasis of this backup is on establishing Jenny as a confident, competent, and anachronistically empowered woman. It’s a great introduction to the “19th Century Stormwatch,” which already has me more excited than the recent Tomahawk backups.
Patrick, I hesitate to call this issue a return to form, simply because it’s so unlike any of the rest of this series, but it has me more excited about this title than I’ve been in quite a while. I enjoyed the heck out of this issue, but I can understand if some felt it to be a little slow. It could be that comparing this series to actual Victorian literature is making it seem much more exciting than it is, but I think it accomplishes a pretty herculean task in making that style fun. Did you find this boring? Also, feel free to school me in some Victorian novels — I literally named the only two I’ve ever read.
Patrick: I read Price and Prejudice and Zombies (by an odd coincidence, I read much of it at Drew’s parents’ house), and I can assure you that this issue of All Star Western is remarkably more successful of tapping what’s compelling about both of those genres than that novel. My chief criticism of P&P&Z is that I feel like I engage different parts of my brain to enjoy the works of Jane Austen and of George Romero. I like Pride and Prejudice quite a bit, but shifting over to zombie-action is never worth the cognitive gear-grinding required. Especially because the novel never agrees to meet you halfway and build to dramatic battles, the zombies are merely inserted into the climaxes of the Victorian drama. It’d be like having a slick action movie that climaxes in a courtroom scene or a wedding – it just doesn’t make narrative sense.
I think you’re right to identify the voice over as a little Dickensian. Dickens had this great habit of writing the third person narration with the perspective of someone who lived in the universe- – there’s a chatty, familiar nature to kinds of details included in it. Like the narrator lists the names of the four streets that line the quarantine zone — that’s a detail that basically means nothing to you or me, but means a great deal to the speaker, who clearly lives in this town at this time (even if, you know, he’s not an active character in the story). The narration is also deployed expertly in this issue; it frequently drops out entirely to give the characters space to express themselves only to turn up again to deliver some crucial pieces of information or atmosphere.
As much as this chapter in the Jonah Hex story appears to be singular in its style, I love the various nods to the greater DC Universe. Vandal Savage (what a great name for a bad guy, by the way) gets to know the powerplayers in Gotham upon arriving in town – and some of them are HUGE powerplayers:
There’s no text to give the game away, but that’s Mayor Cobblepot on the left and the Court of Owls on the right. Palmiotti and Gray have done such a spectacular job of weaving the Court through the background of their little slice of Gotham history. If my count is right, they’ve had the Court in four separate issues of this series (which outpaces every series that isn’t Batman… or Talon… oh and maybe Birds of Prey). So there’s a wonderful mix between the Palmiotti / Gray mythology and standard DC mythology, just as there is a wonderful mix or Victorian tragedy and modern pandemic-horror in this story. All of these disparate threads come together to the logical conclusion of the issue and there’s no trace of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies syndrome anywhere.
I was just thinking about this the other day — are the any series we’re reading that have used the same artist for every single issue? In the New 52, I think ASW is the only one. Moritat’s style is instrumental in creating the tone of this series, it’s kind of hard to imagine this world without it. Moritat must love zombie movies, because he taps so many of the beautiful visual cliches of the genre. I could pull just about any image from the back half of the issue, but here’s one of my favorites.
I’m also really digging the backup story. And with the promise of more Terrance Thirteen in future installments of the 19th Century StormWatch, I’m eager to see this feature stick around for a while. Even when I’ve liked the previous back-ups (like the Nighthawk and Cinnamon stories or the aforementioned Dr. 13), it’s totally clear that those are meant to be limited-run stories. From this single introduction, it’s clear that both the character of Jenny Freedom and the concept of 19th Century StormWatch have legs enough to carry on indefinitely. You guys think they’d let StormWatch take over the lead on All-Star Western? Even temporarily? I think it’d be fun! Ooo! Or maybe the subject of an annual? There’s just so much meat to it, I’d love to see it explored.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?