All-Star Western 0

Today, Patrick and (special guest writer) Edmond Johnson are discussing All-Star Western 0, originally released September 26th, 2012. All-Star Western 0 is part of the line-wide Zero Month.

Patrick: Most comic books are named for their heroes. And that makes sense – the particular personality and superpowers ascribed to that hero (or group thereof) essentially is the identity of that series. All-Star Western is the rare title that breaks that mold: while the character of Jonah Hex has been a near-constant presence in this series, he’s supported by a cast of colorful Western characters. What’s fascinating about Jonah Hex is that he’s a normal guy – like Batman, Hex has no superpowers, but unlike Batman, he doesn’t wear a costume. He also doesn’t have his resources or discipline. So that leads to the question: what’s a Jonah Hex origin story? What does that even look like? Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti answer that question with shapeless narrative that resists easy character arcs, sentimentality, even clearly drawn line of cause and effect.

The zero issue opens on the scene of Jonah’s birth – it’s a lightly drizzling evening in the Missouri wilderness. Because nothing happens peacefully in Hex’ world, a band of Mormon-hunters descends on the house and demands to be let in. Papa Hex denies them access to the house, and when they insist, he slaughters them all. Not surprisingly, a man capable of this sort of savagery turns out to be a shitty father. So shitty, in fact, that Mama Hex abandons her son with his abusive, alcoholic gambler of a father (no one looks good in this scenario). The Hex men head west — the way of progress — and Jonah’s father sells him to an Apache tribe in exchange for safe passage through their territory. Jonah gets his Dances With Wolves on, and eventually ingratiates himself to tribe, but he’s never able to convince his adoptive brother, Noh-Tante, of his loyalty. Noh-Tante betrays and almost murders Jonah during a raid against an opposing tribe. But, you gotta be careful about almost-murder: it’s really best to make sure you’ve completed the job.

Jonah is discovered by, and then joins, the Confederate army. Jonah is captured following the Confederate defeat in the Battle of Fort Donelson. Union soldiers whip a pretty impressive scar into his face and send him down the Cumberland River on a raft. Jonah Hex is once again rescued and taken in by strangers. LUCKILY, these people don’t seem to want to kill him or put him in harm’s way (for once!) so, Hex decides to put himself in that now-too-comfortable danger. He rides back to his Apache brothers, and challenges his former brother to a duel with tomahawks. Hex comes out of that duel victorious, but only because he was able to cheat by using his own dagger (the rules clearly state: tomahawks only). His punishment? Further scarring!

The issue then skips ahead to present day to keep some of the forward-moving story going, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to ignore it. Ed, as a new reader, I suggest you do the same. If we wanna talk about Dr. Jekyll and the involvement of Haly’s Circus, let’s hash that out in the comments.

So, that’s the life and times of Jonah Hex. He’s basically been betrayed and/or abandoned by everyone he’s ever known. It’s astounding how frequently artist Moritat is made to draw this character suffering unimaginably. And yet Palmiotti and Gray approach this series of vignettes as clinically as humanly possible. It is, by all accounts, just the facts. These sorts of long histories come up all the time in comics, but they are usually accompanied by a running commentary in the form of the main character’s voice over. No such perspective here. There are tons of examples like this, but look how this scene totally lacks any commentary from Hex.

It’s a fearless pair of storytellers that lets the events speak for themselves. OR IS IT? The end of the issue reveals that Jonah is recounting this story to his friends. It’s not Palmiotti and Gray that are utterly unsympathetic to this story, it’s Jonah Hex himself. It speaks volumes about the character that he would present these episodes from his life without ever mentioning how they made him feel. This issue is crudely advertised as the one that answers “How did Jonah Hex get his scar?” – and I suppose it does answer that question. But what a shallow mystery to explore. I’m much more interested in the man who can dispassionately describe these moments from his life and ask for neither pity nor understanding.

I also like how this issue addresses some fairly ugly events in American history. The roving band of Mormon-slayers that kick off the issue (and Jonah’s life) are particularly interesting, as that seems to be narrative that is still ill-defined in our culture. I don’t know about you Ed, but I wasn’t taught about any of that in my history classes as a kid, and it’s only through the growing impact of Mormonism on our culture, and my own curiosity, that has led me to understand the oppression of Mormons in the 1830s and 40s. History (both American and Hexian) is the story of brother-on-brother betrayal, and the breadth of the civil war (lowercase c, lowercase w) stories leveraged in this issue is phenomenal.

These events in American history also anchor Jonah Hex in time. I’m guessing that Jonah is born in the early 1840s, which would put him at prime fighting age for the Battle of Fort Donelson in February of 1862. Interestingly, this puts his age during the main events of All-Star Western around 50. Especially considering the year, that makes Jonah Hex an old man. The publisher-wide mandate to make the characters younger (and therefore, more relatable), must not have reached these guys.

Man, it’s such a dense issue. The pace such density requires can occasionally make the story disorienting. But the way the narrative lurches forward in time allows the individual sequences to serve as exciting little set pieces. Moritat’s action sequences — which always have ample page-space — aren’t necessarily the clearest, but he does effectively capture the chaotic nature of combat. The Fort Donelson surprise-attack sequence is great, but the duel with Noh-Tante is a fantastic example of how Moritat’s art makes this title so special.

Ed, what’d you think of this issue? I trust Jonah Hex is a new entity for you – do you feel like you know the character at all now? TRICK QUESTION: we’ll never know Jonah Hex.
Edmond: Where to start? I imagine this is the same question that the writers asked themselves when they were first approached to write this zero issue, and I think I’ll follow their lead and start with the birth of baby Hex. To me, the funny thing about birth narratives is that, generally speaking, they’re not really about the baby that’s being born. Because, as a rule, newborns are completely and utterly boring. They have very little in the way of personality and are extremely unlikely to remember the events surrounding their own births (no matter how dramatic they may be).

Little Jonah is no exception. He makes his first appearance five pages in as a heavily-swaddled potato-headed blob. Sure, he’s depicted as a fairly anguished potato-headed blob, but I imagine that has more to do with his recent perilous voyage through the birth canal than the fact that his father has just brutally murdered several men. (Side note: As someone who normally writes about music, I found myself uncomfortably obsessing about whether an ax to the groin would really make a “chuk” sound. Frankly, I hope I never find out.)  But I digress. The point of this first bit of backstory is not so much about Jonah as it is about the world into (or is it unto?) which he has been born. And that world is very cruel and very violent—and delightfully action-packed.

And then there are the parents. As you say, Patrick, neither Ma or Pa Hex comes away as being particularly admirable. The drunken and brutish Woodson Hex is just about the worst role model a kid could have, and our sympathy for his much-beleaguered wife Ginny is hard to sustain after she abandons her son and flees with Mr. Dazzleby. (I have to say, the name Dazzleby stopped me in my tracks. I realize it has larger implications in the DC universe, but… “Dazzleby”? Really? It’s just not a nineteenth century kind of name. If anything, it sounds like an ungodly collaboration between Ikea and American Apparel—something like a gold-sequined, flat-packed coffee table with leg warmers.)

Let’s move on. I want to talk about the role of American history in Jonah Hex’s back-story. I’m a historian by trade, so I perhaps have a particular perspective on this. Now I don’t want to nit-pick, but the number of historical strands that were threaded through Hex’s formative years seemed to me a bit artificial, a feeling that was undoubtedly heightened by the lurching timeline in which one biographical vignette abruptly gave way to the next. Hex is sort of walking, talking embodiment of the 19th-century American experience—at least the way we like to imagine it today. There’s the birth on the prairie (with passing reference to Mormon persecution), the Gold Rush, the Apaches, the civil war… It’s like Jonah Hex is the 1860s version of Forrest Gump (but with considerably more scarification). All that’s missing is a spell spent working on the transcontinental railway, a trip down the Mississippi on a paddle wheeler, and maybe a visit to a plantation. (Speaking of which, did it seem to you like any minority groups were conspicuously missing from a story that was substantially set in the civil war-era south?)

Now before you raise any objections, let me reassure you that I do know that it’s a comic book I’m writing about and that I completely understand the need to suspend my disbelief. But I can’t quite shake the feeling that the biographical narrative would have been more powerful if it had fleshed out some of these historical contact points a little bit more. Was Jonah really that easily accepted into Apache society? What leads him to join the rebel army?  And why does his grammar and diction get worse with age? The synoptic quality of the story gives us a lot of glimpses into the making of a complex character, but it obscures the connecting tissue—the emotions, the tensions, and the motivations that pull a life forward.

Patrick, I do agree with you that the revelation late the in the book that the story is being told by Jonah himself changes things, but I’m not willing to give the writers a complete pass: I think they could have added hints of poignancy and personal insight without undermining the sense that it is being retold by an older Hex with an air of flat dispassion.

One last thing. Patrick, you mention “almost-murder.” There is an incredible amount of almost-murder in Jonah Hex’s backstory — as in, “to the point where it strains credibility that he could possibly still be alive.” During an age that lacked antibiotics, even a minor battle wound was liable to fester and turn gangrenous. Yet from the time he’s an adolescent Jonah seems to be getting cut up and/or left for dead at every opportunity. And I don’t even want to think about what sort of gastric distress might result from being force-fed a raw deer heart.

Again, I realize I should probably suspend my disbelief some more—but maybe that would be missing the point. I’m starting to suspect that this is a character who is shaped at his very core by the fact that he has time and again survived against all of the odds. Yes, it’s improbable that he would endure a horrific childhood and be raised by Apaches and fight in the civil war and survive innumerable almost-murders. But just think of the sort of fierce and fearsome person who could possibly go through all of that and somehow persevere. What would such a man look like? I expect he’d look a lot like Jonah Hex.

Edmond Johnson is a music historian who teaches at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. He knows almost nothing about comic books and is proud of himself for somehow getting through this entry without mentioning opera even once.  If you want to know more about the topics he normally writes on, you can find out by visiting http://www.edmondjohnson.com

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11 comments on “All-Star Western 0

  1. I know you avoided talking about that “present day” bit for the purposes of the discussion on the narrative, but I really want to talk about the art. It really doesn’t look like Moritat, but he’s the only artist listed. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that Pia Guerra (of Y: the Last Man fame) was thanked in the credits. I could kind of see that last bit being Guerra’s work — especially that last splash page. (By the way…are we supposed to recognize that person?) I’m not sure why they would thank her instead of giving her credit for the art, but then again, I’m not sure why she would just get a thanks out of nowhere. Did she maybe draw the previous Hex origin tale? I WANT ANSWERS.

    • I ALSO WANT ANSWERS, but Ed and I had our hands full discussing the meat of the issue. I assume that’s Pia drawing the last couple pages – it’s definitely not Moritat (though the consistent coloring does a nice job of easing the transition).

      I don’t recognize the character in the splash page at the end, but then, there are a lot of Western characters I might recognize if only I had been following this universe for years.

  2. I think the reason I don’t complain about the “19th Century Forest Gump” thing is because it lacks any trace of treacly sentimentality. Forest Gump is just so sickly sweet, and this is so… not. I guess you can hold it to task for reveling in the grimness of this world (and not in the American Dreaminess of the world). But for my money, it’s a lot easier to take this sort of narrative.

    But yeah, Hex would have died a long time ago if he weren’t a comic book character.

    • Just to be clear, when I compare Jonah Hex to Forrest Gump it’s not because I think the characters are in any way the same. They’re really not. The parallel is more with the degree of historical happenstance in which each of those characters ends up participating in many (if not post) of the events which have come to define their respective ages. So please, no one cast Tom Hanks as Janah Hex on my account.

  3. Bah, just lost far too many words. I’m too wordy anyway.

    Likes: Showed how he became who he is with a story instead of an explanation. Pointing gun at dad and backing down to get beaten, abandoned by mom, then dad, then betrayed by Noh-Tante. . .Trust no one, if you point your gun, shoot. Why does Jonah feel this way? The story showed us. Also, this felt like a $3.99 book. A full, big story that went on for a long time. I like this comic so much more without backups.

    Dislikes: Damn, that is one bad cover. The flames of the guns obscuring part of the title are cool, the rest is really bad. Of course, as a rule the zero covers are bad, but this is worse.

    Indifferences: I like that some read this as historical fiction. I haven’t read any of the ASWs as historical fiction (after all, they’re set in Gotham), so it never occurred to me to read this story in that manner. I’m going to reread it and see how I feel. Probably the same since I know very little about 19th century US history (hooray, math degree), but it might change my perspective.

    One of my favorite zero issues.

    • Yeah, Ed kinda calls me out for putting too much faith in Jimmy and Justin’s choice not to include voice-over, but I totally think it’s intentional. And even if it’s not, the effect is that same. Hex learns these lessons and I don’t have to listen to him say “And that’s when Ah learned to never point a gun unless Ah mean to shoot it.”

      • I wouldn’t say I “called you out,” Patrick. I think we just have a gentleman’s disagreement about how much personal insight could/should have been revealed about Hex in this issue. I actually think the decision not to have a voice-over was pretty clever (and certainly intentional). I just wish there were maybe a few moments, however subtle and/or non-verbal, that would allow us to infer something more about what’s going on in Jonah Hex’s head. But that’s personal preference on my part and not necessarily a criticism of the writers.

        I also agree completely with kaif01 that the cover is fairly horrible. Given the generally high-level of the artwork inside, I would have expected something much more striking for the front.

        • Of course – everything we do here is gentlemanly. Forgive my frivolous language.

          Oh the cover’s a total disaster. I think there’s a perception that stylized artwork doesn’t sell comics – so you’ll frequently see hyper-realism on covers even when that doesn’t match the art inside. But it’s extra extra dumb because Moritat’s work has been like THE defining characteristic of All Star Western in the New 52. Be proud of that shit, DC.

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