All-Star Western 14

Today, Taylor and Patrick are discussing All-Star Western 14, originally released November 28th, 2012.

Taylor: The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, originally written in 1886, has interested readers and writers alike continuously since it’s initial publication over 100 years ago. What perhaps gives the tale its enduring legacy is its exploration into the contradictory nature of mankind itself, both in action as a whole and on an individual level. While humans have done great things, like sending man to the Moon and ending the Cold War, they have also committed countless atrocities against each other. On an individual level a person may be kind to you one day and a jerk the next. All of this is part of the human experience and while it’s sometimes paradoxical and counterproductive to behave in such ways, it would seem that we just can’t help ourselves and they are here to stay. And while this aspect of humanity certainly makes for the stuff of great stories and philosophical inspection, it’s not something I appreciate in my comics. All-Star Western 14 is an exercise in this duality, being at times fun and at others trying, but ultimately giving us something to look forward to.

This issue opens with Reginald, Dr. Jekyll’s faithful assistant (and lover?), meeting Mr. Hyde at the Gotham docks, newly arrived from Scotland. His reason for coming to America is that he wants to reclaim his formula which was procured by a member of Haly’s Circus and distributed to a number of individuals, the likes of which are mostly unaccounted for. At this Circus, Jonah Hex and Tallulah obtain Jekyll’s formula for Reginald and learn that the majority of the Jekyll-Juice was sold to members of the Golden Dragon kung-fu gang. Following that lead to Chinatown, Jonah and Tullulah help Yanmei (aka the Barbary Ghost) beat up some of the Golden Dragons and then Tullalah agrees to help Yanmei find her mother, who has been sold to a white southerner (wasn’t slavery illegal at this point in time?). Later, Jonah gives the Jekyll-Juice formula to Arkham who goes to deliver it to Reginald, only to learn that the poor man has been eaten by Mr. Hyde.

I enjoyed the appearance of Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll in this issue and I think his character is being treated with a nice sense of horror. Often times we see Mr. Hyde portrayed as something similar to The Hulk – a huge brute who is willfully destructive but in many ways not willfully malicious. This Hyde, however, is no brute and he appears to retain all of the smarts Jekyll possesses but none of his, shall we say, niceties. He is a man (kind of) who dresses nicely and enjoys sitting down at a table to eat his dinner. Additionally, Hyde has a cannibalistic streak that — while bordering on the nonsensical — at least makes him more monster than man as we see when he eats poor “Reggie” and a man’s finger. Before, I had no real reason to fear Jekyll and his immanent appearance in this title and I felt that it really forecasted little concern for Jonah and company when compared with the thought of hundreds of Gothamites ingesting some Jekyll-Juice. The Hyde in All-Star Western is a savage, yet he has enough civilities about him that it appears he is capable of constructing mayhem on a fairly large and sophisticated level. I think his murder of Reginald is proof of this, as it goes above and beyond the desire to eat human flesh – it is just plane twisted. 

And while I like this Hyde so much, his counterpart in the story, Dr. Jekyll, is but a sad blip on the radar that leaves no lasting impression. In fact, despite this being his grand arrival in this particular story arc, Dr. Jekyll appears in all of six frames. While it’s understandable that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray want to introduce the primary antagonist of this portion of All-Star Western, it seems that they have done so at the cost of not developing the crucial second half of Hyde’s character. The writers establish some good aspects of Jekyll’s character and his gentleness in comparison to Hyde but as soon as he is introduced he makes his exit. Also, he ominously assumes he can control Hyde even in the presence of Jonah and company but this never comes to fruition as Hyde appears at the end of this issue. This seems like missed chance or a lost plot thread which could have been built upon but sadly was not.

The art of Mortitat is similarly two-faced in this issue. On the one hand I really like the overall style on display in this issue but there are one too many missteps in its execution which prevent me from being able to praise it too highly. The sketchy style of the art is immediately eye catching and certainly gives the comic an old-timey look that matches the time period it is set in. Additionally, the action scenes are rendered well and help to show off the kinetic energy of a full blown kung-fu battle. However, what happens in these scenes (at least in terms of battle damage) isn’t always carried over into the ones that follow. At one point, nearly defeated, Yanmei is bloody and beaten with a black eye, yet a few pages later her face seems to have miraculously healed.

Yet while I could let these opposites in execution, both narratively and artistically, detract from my overall experience, the simple truth is that I just can’t. There is a lot of neat stuff being set up in this issue and I’m genuinely excited to see where it all goes. Stepping back and looking at this issue from a wider perspective, I see that we have 1880s Gotham, bounty hunters, kung-fu, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde all combined into a single, super interesting entity.

So Patrick, did you dig the Hyde or do you think he’s a little one-sided? Are you as excited by me to see where this story goes (the nice Jekyll’s) or do the lesser qualities of this title (the Hyde’s, if you will) detract from your experience too much? Also, I didn’t mention Tomahawk at all, do we need to talk about it?

Patrick: There’s a lot of that Jekyll/Hyde relationship in our protagonists, isn’t there? As a team, Arkham is always put off by Hex’s savagery and Hex is always put off by Arkham’s unfaltering civility. I like the interplay between these characters enough that it’s never really bothered me how relatively useless Amadeus Arkham really is. Even when you might think Arkham might come in handy — social skills, detective work — Hex proves just as capable in those situations. But it’s a comic book that regularly devotes entire pages to silent fight sequences (and under Moritat’s pen, those sequences are always a pleasure), so I didn’t think too much of it. But, Taylor, you raise an interesting point about how Palimotti and Gray treat the Jekyll/Hyde paradigm in much the same way. All the good doctor can do is wine and be ineffective, but the killer is fierce, charming, elegant – blessed with so much more agency than his meek counterpart. I mean, check it out: the beast is more Stefan Urquelle than uncontrollable Hulk.

I’m hoping that this is a thematic area Palmiotti and Gray are planning to explore. There wasn’t much opportunity in this issue, as our heroes were tied up with that kung-fu gang you mentioned (cool). But notice how both the Barbary Ghost and Tallulah Black took themselves out of the equation for the rest of the story. Hex is taken a-back by the abandonment, which is a singular occurrence for him in this series. It’s abrupt, and it reveals strange little quirks about Tallulah while exposing one of Hex’ few insecurities, but it also serves to narrow the cast. If this drama comes down to Jonah and Amadeus vs. Hyde and Jekyll, then I think we’ll have something really special happening. Of course, there’s always a chance Hex is just going to ride in and save the day — like he always does — and the conceit dies on the doorstep. We’ll talk about it next month, I guess.

Goodness gracious, that’s a lot of talking about what the issue ain’t. Let’s talk about what it am. The centerpiece of this issue is brawl in the streets of Chinatown between the amped up Golden Dragons and our heroes. Taylor, you praise the kinetic action in that sequence, and you’re totally right to do so, but it’s interesting to me how little Moritat seems to concern himself with space. Instead, the focus is on the characters – in the first half, almost exclusively on Yanmei. I had to roll my eyes at a few drawings of her breasts nearly falling out of her shirt (and more than one crotch-shot), but it is interesting how much this fight focuses on her body – both what it can do and what it’s limitations are. Yanmei even pulls of the delightfully cheesy kung-fu classic of jumping onto an opponent’s sword: an impressive feat of strength, accuracy, balance and courage, but ultimately pointless.

She’s sorta gets shown up when Jonah and Tallulah show up. But until that point, it’s almost like we had a Barbary Ghost back-up in the middle of the issue – and a pretty cool one at that. Which is great because the actually back-up story leaves a lot to be desired.

I guess they figured the main story had such a tenuous connection to the title All Star Western, that the back-up had to double down on the concept, without a hope of tying them together. Tomahawk’s story takes place a full 100 years before this Jekyll / Hyde adventure and — other than Hex’s weird little history with the Indians – bears very little influence on the characters or the world we’re engaged in 1890s Gotham. Previous back-up stories, like Night Hawk and Cinnamon and Dr. Thirteen, all fed into the same world. Turns out that’s necessary to make the back-ups feel like world-building. It’s like this should be part of a series called All-Star Pioneer Comics. Plus, I don’t really understand Phil Winslade’s coloring. The sheer number of characters rendered in action in just about every single panel is damn impressive, but why does everything have to look like it’s a water-color by numbers page of a kid’s native american studies workbook?

You think we’re going to see The Adventures of Tallulah Black and the Barbary Ghost in the backs of future issues? Here’s hoping!

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?

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One comment on “All-Star Western 14

  1. Are there any public domain stories and/or characters that DC hasn’t tapped at some point? What makes Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll fodder for comic books? It’s a little bit weird, right? What makes these guys fair play?

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