Taylor: I enjoy professional basketball. It’s fast paced, fun, full of dunks, trick shots, and some of the most gifted athletes on the face of the planet. With that being said, you would think that every game of basketball would be an amazing show worth watching every second it’s on. However, we can’t disregard the fact that these are professional basketball players who, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, don’t enjoy every game they play. It’s their job and sometimes they take the floor with their sole purpose being to win a basketball game and cash a check, regardless of how entertaining it is for the fans. Commentators often call this a “workman-like approach,” a phrase which also aptly describes All-Star Western 13.
This issue opens with a priest running for his life from an insane clown wielding a cleaver. You know, the usual. The priest pleads for life after being over taken by the appropriately named Jingles but to no avail. Having apparently been molested by a priest as a child, Jingles feels little remorse and quickly kills the priest, laughing all the while. Jonah and his team show up to investigate the murder the next day to see if it is related to Dr. Jekyll’s formula in any way and realize the murderer might be associated with the circus given that he drew bloody smiles on the men he murdered. At the circus a woman named Yanmei Tsen is searching for the mysterious group that kidnapped her mother. Before she can find them, however, they find her and a battle breaks out. Yanmei is about to be killed when Jonah and crew show up to mop up the rest of the bad guys. Our heroes find out that a man selling snake oil recently joined the circus and that he might be distributing some of Jekyll’s formula to the circus performers. On cue Jingles shows up, kills a few people, and then gets killed himself, along with a crazed animal trainer. Lastly, we learn that Jekyll/Hyde has traveled to Gotham in search of his “black diamond.” This issue also includes a backup story following a Native American named Tomahawk as he battles colonial America for control of the Ohio Valley. He kills, his family gets killed, and some other innocents are killed in this introductory story.
I wasn’t displeased with this issue by any means, but I’m also not crazy about it either. Understandably, the first issue that follows the wrap up of a different story line is going to be somewhat of a letdown, you can’t just keep ramping up the story in a title endlessly; it would burn out. That being said, what I found of particular let down was the use of a killer clown, which wasn’t a particular draw for me since the idea has been used so many times in the past. Since we are dealing with a circus in this issue I think Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti could have been much more creative in coming up with a twisted and terrifying murderer. There is a bunch of weird shit in any circus that could easily be bent in such a way to make it dark and disturbing and I feel that Gray and Palmiotti missed the chance to create a character that was much more unique and memorable. Additionally, given that the Joker was just reveled in Batman, the use of a clown seems especially generic and nowhere near as disturbing as the one of more iconic status. He even has green hair in Moritat’s design.
The battle sequence in the circus involving Yanmei and the Golden Dragons similarly left me a little underwhelmed and desiring more. The coloring and artwork in the background during this battle are bland and fairly drab with the exception of a few frames that work to show the movement of the characters.
It’s not that there is anything all that bad about the the story telling or the artwork in this issue, but I feel more could have been to engage the reader and make this issue pop out of the page a bit more. I liked that kung-fu has been introduced to this universe and I really enjoyed the reveal of the Golden Dragons as they offer yet another backdrop that can be juxtaposed with good ol’ fashioned Jonah Hex. I never tire of his Bill Clinton “aw shucks” attitude or unapologetic views on the “modern” Gotham City and its inhabitants. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when after shooting a vicious tiger Jonah simply states “I hate this town.” All-Star Western is at its best when it focuses on this dichotomy between Jonah and his surroundings and the workmanlike approach he takes with all the horror that surrounds him. The creators of this issue obviously came to the table with the same mentality but they do not have the luxury of being Jonah Hex so this issue fell a little flat right out of the gates. No doubt it will rebound in the future and, dare I say, that’s a slam dunk?
Tomahawk also left me a little cold. The backdrop of colonial America isn’t one that particularly interests me so it was hard for me to get on board this title from the beginning. The idea of Tomahawk’s family being killed is a little stale and while I realize this title has a small window to develop characters, I have to wonder if this action accomplishes that at all. What I do enjoy from Tomahawk is the depiction of colonial Americans being total assholes to each other and Native Americans. This is certainly more historically accurate than the rosy picture that is painted of them in history textbooks so I hope this title continues to develop that plot thread if for no other reason than it helps to educate people.
So Drew, did anything in either of these comics really grab you or did they leave you a wanting more like me? Do killer circus side shows entice you as much as they do me? Do you think Tomahawk will kill everyone he sees in the next issue?
Drew: I definitely see where you’re coming from on this, Taylor, but it sounds like I enjoyed this issue a bit more than you did, and I think where we differ is on our sports analogy of choice. I’m a baseball fan (a Detroit Tigers fan, no less — biting my nails during game four as I write this), where that sense of head-down professionalism is even more of a rule. The analogy here would be that of slumps and streaks — watching good players struggle or not-so-good players inexplicably succeed, at least temporarily. I’m with you on placing this issue a bit more in the “slump” category, but here’s where the nature of the sport matters: baseball is a much slower game than basketball. Where basketball is about 50% sprinting, baseball is about 50% sitting (then another 45% standing around). It puts my girlfriend to sleep, but I love the slow, miniature dramas that can play out, even when your team isn’t doing so well. It’s these smaller moments that salvage the issue for me.
The first little moment is the clown. Far from derivative, I saw it as a haunting suggestion of Gotham history repeating, as though the city itself is eternally doomed to the kind of madness it’s known for. Grant Morrison has suggested that Gotham has bat-related ties throughout history (which he then tied directly to Batman, when he was lost in time), and I thought this was an elegant expansion of that idea into the reasons Batman needs to exist. Tying Jingle’s rampage to the Catholic sexual abuse scandal was an interesting choice, and my only real problem with that opening sequence is that it was too brief. Without more space to reflect on Jingle’s abuse (or the notion that there will always be a homicidal clown in Gotham), it feels a bit exploitative.
The next moment is Yanmei’s arrival at the circus. I failed to recognize her at the end of the zero issue, but Yanmei was the lead in the “Barbary Ghost” backup featured in issues 4-6. Her story was very pointedly left open-ended, as she was still seeking her mother. That she had tracked her as far as Gotham is exciting for those of us who enjoyed her exploits. More important, the implications of a character from a backup appearing in the lead is an exciting development. It adds a sense of depth and reality to this universe, and turns those backups into more than just fun one- or two-shots. Of course, Yahmei is the only backup character I’ve really liked, but it’s an exciting prospect, nonetheless.
This point actually speaks to the backup of this issue, which very clearly occurs in a different time period from the rest of the series. That’s not an urgency I had ever applied to the backups, but in light of Yanmei’s appearance in this title, this one feels like it can’t really go anywhere. I appreciate how well-researched it clearly is (and I think “post-colonial” is a more accurate descriptor, Taylor), as well as the presence of Anthony Wayne, but I really don’t know who to root for here. I’m otherwise very sympathetic to native american causes, but when they’re pitted against the interests of our founding fathers, I honestly don’t know where my best interests lie. It’s an odd note of ambiguity that leaves us rooting against the very people we know are destined to win.
The last moment is the release of the tigers at the circus (and not just because of my aforementioned Tigers fandom). It reminded me very specifically of last year’s exotic animal escape in Zanesville, Ohio, where 46 escaped animals — including 18 bengal tigers — were shot and killed. Hex’s reaction — that killing the animals was a shitty thing that he had to do — seems very much in line with that of local law enforcement, who clearly did not relish dispatching dozens of animals on the endangered species list. It’s an interesting incorporation of current events into a period title, and I love that Hex can act as an audience surrogate here.
The weirdest part of this issue is that it doesn’t exactly leave much in the way of anticipation — the circus threat has been neutralized, and Hyde has been located — so we’re left with little to chew on in the meantime. I’m sure Hyde will break out, but at this point, I’m much more interested in finding Yanmei’s mother. The greatest excitement comes from anticipating how those threads will smash together before either ends. All-Star Western 13 may be workman-like, or it may be a slump, but there are enough wrinkles along the way to make it a fascinating issue. I hope Palmiotti and Gray can build on this momentum, to turn it into another great run.
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