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Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1981)

With a comics career spanning nearly 45 years, multiple cartoon appearances, a feature film, plus a guest-shot on the CW's television show Legends of Tomorrow (April 14th, see local listings), Jonah Hex is the highest-profile character in DC's Western stable. Created by writer John Albano & artist Tony DeZuniga (both of whom wanted to bring the aesthetic of "spaghetti Western" movies to comics), Jonah debuted in 1972's All-Star Western #10 (which was re-titled Weird Western Tales by issue #12) and quickly became a fan favorite. Albano parted ways with his creation after penning only ten issues, leaving him in the very capable hands of Michael Fleisher, who would accompany the scar-faced bounty hunter over to his first self-titled series, Jonah Hex, three years later.

Between 1977 and 1987, Fleisher fleshed out virtually every aspect of the character's life, giving readers details about Jonah's childhood and his wartime experiences, having him settle down and start a family, even revealing his final fate at the dawn of the 20th Century, as well as the possible nightmare to come in the mid-21st Century. In this series of articles, we're going to present you with a "highlight reel" of this ten-year period under Fleisher's tenure, showing you how Jonah Hex went from being a mere four-color cowboy to a legend that would survive the deterioration of the genre that birthed him.

Every marriage suffers through some bumps now and then, but Mei Ling quickly learns that being married to Jonah Hex takes those bumps to a whole 'nother level. In Jonah Hex #47 (April 1981), Jonah's vow to hang up his guns takes a real beating when Quentin Turnbull sends some members of the Fort Charlotte Brigade to kidnap Mei Ling, and in Jonah Hex #48, Jonah gets a visit from Samson Graves, a friend from his days working as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry. Seems Samson is in trouble with a local group of Indians, and he talks Jonah into helping him out. Not bothering to explain the situation to Mei Ling, Jonah rides off with Samson to take care of it (long story short: things don't end well for Samson). When Jonah gets home later on, he finds that Mei Ling has packed her bags and left! He jumps back on his horse and hightails it down the road, where he eventually catches up to her:

Mei Ling's actions are understandable: Jonah may have retired from bounty hunting, but that hasn't stopped him from killing about a dozen men since they've been married. It doesn't seem like there will ever be a point where Jonah permanently lays down his guns. Despite this, Mei Ling gives him the benefit of the doubt and comes back home with him, though this doesn’t mean it’s the end of their squabbling over his behavior. She lays into him pretty hard in Jonah Hex #49, accusing him of intentionally setting fire to their corn harvest (in reality, it was an errant flick of Jonah's cigarette butt that did it), which they needed to pay off their mortgage. "Now don’t start throwin' a hissy fit, blast it!" Jonah snaps back. "Ah’ll get the *&#!@!! money! Ah promise Ah'll get it!" He then rides into town, storms into the sheriff’s office, and begins cherry-picking bounty posters off the wall -- looks like Jonah’s retirement is over, folks. He manages to track down six men over the course of one day, cashing in to the tune of $6,500 (six grand for the mortgage, and five hundred for "pocket money"), then rides home that night and dumps all the money on the table right in front of Mei Ling, claiming he did some odd jobs around town. She quickly sees right through this ruse and gets him to admit the truth, and while he’s in the midst of defending his decision, she manages to shut him up with two little words:

Well now, as if getting married wasn’t enough, now Jonah’s gonna be a daddy! It's the sort of news that you'd think would give Jonah even more incentive to make this marriage work, but when we get to Jonah Hex #50, a new character is introduced who has the potential to break up the happy Hex homestead. The story takes place on Jonah’s birthday, firmly establishing it as November 1st (which is the same day as Michael Fleisher' can do things like that when you’re the writer), and a decent amount of time must've passed since the last issue, because Mei Ling definitely looks pregnant now. With winter setting in, Jonah's off on a hunting trip so as to stock up their larder, but he runs afoul of some Crow Indians, who attack him without warning. After taking out the majority of them, he goes after the last one and gets a good shock:

She ain’t just any old girl, though: Emmylou Hartley is the last surviving member of a party of settlers who’d been overrun by Crows about four years ago. Married off to one of their warriors, Emmy had been held captive by them until three days before, when she finally managed to escape. Lucky for her, she’d fled right into Jonah’s hunting grounds, and with the braves on her trail wiped out, Jonah sets her on his horse and begins the long trek out of the mountains and back to civilization. But since nothing’s ever easy in a Jonah Hex story, they soon encounter one problem after another. First fierce snowstorm sets in, then Emmy and the horse slip over the edge of an icy cliff -- Jonah rescues Emmy, but the horse is a loss -- and when they try to take shelter from the storm inside a cave, they accidentally rouse a grizzly bear, which Jonah has to kill with his knife because his rifle’s jammed up. This is probably one of the worst birthdays Jonah's ever had, so maybe that’s the reason why he kinda loses his head and plants a kiss on Emmylou. It doesn’t go any further than a kiss, and he’s certainly in a foul mood as they continue on down the mountain, but whether that’s because of him slipping up with Emmy or all the trouble they’ve run into is uncertain. He drops her off at the McCabe ranch near the base of the mountain, where they also fix Hex up before he heads on home to Mei Ling. Does he mention Emmy to her? Nope. Matter of fact, he's fixin' on crawling straight into bed without another word, but Mei Ling has other plans:

A rather sweet ending, though Mei Ling openly saying it’s Jonah's 37th birthday (making this 1875) does throw a wrench into the works when it comes to trying to figure out a proper timeline for his adventures because, even after this tale, Fleisher will continue to set the stories in 1875. This would be no problem if Jonah was born in, say, February, then you could pack in most the stuff that supposedly will happen in within that year and not pull your hair out.

Speaking of time, another decent chunk of it must have passed when we weren’t looking, because when Jonah Hex #51 opens, Mei Ling’s just about to go into labor, and Doc Pedersen will be arriving shortly. Meanwhile, Jonah’s insisting that he needs to head into town, and that he’ll be back before the baby comes. The reason for his departure is to fetch a surprise for Mei Ling, specifically a new comforter to wrap the newborn in -- who would've thought that he’d be such a big softie? Too bad there’s an unknown gunman waiting for him when he rides into town, one who’s just itching to make a name for himself by killing Hex. When he confronts the former bounty hunter, though, Jonah refuses to fight and walks away, causing the man to call Jonah a coward. Surely there have been other outlaws who’ve tried to get Jonah’s goat by calling him such, but this time the words have an effect on him, and our father-to-be spends a few pages dwelling upon an incident with his own Pa when Jonah was just a boy: Woodson entered Jonah into a contest at the county fair, wherein he had to box three rounds with an older boy so Woodson could win ten dollars. Jonah did his best, but after being savagely beaten and counted out, Pa still smacked him around, calling him "a snivelin', mushy-spined coward!" Perhaps knowing that his own child is on the way -- and not wishing to repeat the same cycle of abuse -- is making those taunts harder to ignore at the moment.

After shaking free of his ruminations, Jonah crosses paths with a youngster named Petey, who's sporting a good shiner courtesy of the blowhard gunman -- seems the boy stuck up for Hex and got a good whack for his trouble. Well, y’all know Jonah ain't fond of grown men that whup on little kids, so he gives the gunman a good beat-down, to which the gunman responds by shooting Hex in the arm when his back is turned. Jonah, deciding he’s had enough of this bullroar, grabs the comforter he dropped in the street, tosses it in the gunman’s face, then takes hold of a rifle Petey fetched out of Jonah’s saddlebag and lets the guy have it point-blank in the chest. Gathering up the comforter, Jonah heads home and discovers there’s a little baby boy waiting for him. He begins to apologize to Mei Ling for not getting home in time, but she says it doesn’t matter, then smiles and tells him that he’s so good to her when Jonah pulls out the comforter. "Ah ain’t half as good as Ah’d like tuh be, sugar," he replies, "but darn it, Ah shore am tryin'!"

After seeing Jonah standing there with his little boy in his arms, one might hope that, for a change, things will finally go his way. Sadly, things begin to fall apart in Jonah Hex #52, which takes place just a month later. Petey's out at the Hex homestead helping Jonah out with the farm work, and Mei Ling comes out and asks them to watch the baby for a spell. Setting the lad under a nearby tree, Jonah and Petey continue with their chores, unaware that a scorpion is wandering through the grass. The baby reaches for it and gets stung, but Jonah acts fast and sucks out the venom. He takes the baby inside, and Mei Ling proceeds to read Jonah the riot act, accusing him of not caring about his own son, as well as berating him for all the gunfights he’s been involved in since they got married. It's like she saved up all her grievances just to unleash them right at that moment. Seeing that she’s acting a bit squirrelly, Jonah reacts the same way he did when they first met and gives her a good slap...though one has to wonder if, down the line, he ever made any conscious connection between his actions at that moment and the beatings his father used to inflict upon his mother.

Meanwhile, the brothers of that gunman Jonah killed last issue head out to his place looking to get even -- they'd heard that Jonah had a son and, upon seeing Petey ride away from the farm, mistakenly kidnap the boy. The next day, his mother shows up at the Hex homestead and tells Jonah that Petey was spotted with a trio of strangers, so Jonah offers to go find him. This just makes Mei Ling livid: not only is he doing a job she believes is best left for the sheriff, she also thinks Jonah cares more about Petey then their own son, who’s a mite feverish from that scorpion sting. "If you walk out that door, we won’t be here when you get back!" she threatens. "I’ll be gone, Jonah, and so will the baby!" Considering that she tried to leave him once before, you’d think Jonah would take this more seriously, but instead he rides off without another word. He rescues Petey about midway through Jonah Hex #53 and returns the boy to his mother, then heads home himself, only to find a farewell note from Mei Ling waiting for him...and unlike the last time, there’s no trail for Jonah to follow, for a sudden storm has wiped out Mei Ling's tracks. Unbeknownst to him, Mei Ling’s already made it as far as the McCabe place, where she meets Emmylou Hartley -- it’s the first we’ve seen of the gal since Jonah Hex #50, and her presence here seems like an afterthought. Mei Ling tells them that she’s leaving her husband, then bundles up the baby and rides off in the rain.

But what of Jonah? How’s he reacting to the notion that his wife’s flown the coop? Well, after trying to pick up her tracks and failing miserably, he comes home and proceeds to get stinking drunk, to the point where he begins hallucinating. First El Papagayo shows up, offering to put Jonah out of his misery, so Jonah draws his Dragoons and blasts him (or at least the window he was standing in front of). Then Turnbull and Solomon come along to mock him, causing Jonah to destroy damn-near everything in the house in an effort to drive them away. After that, Woodson Hex turns up to tell Jonah how to be a proper drunk, to which Jonah responds by screaming that the last thing he wants in the world is to be like his Pa, then runs outside and into the yard, where he comes face-to-face with the Chameleon, the master of disguise who helped Turnbull frame Hex during the "fugitive" storyarc of Jonah Hex #2 - 16. He says that he’s come to kill Hex, and Jonah lets a flurry of bullets fly out, "killing" a scarecrow as Jonah screams that he’ll never die so long as he’s the fastest. It’s at this moment that the full weight of what’s occurred crashes in on him, and he realizes that his reputation as the fastest, deadliest gunfighter in the West is all he has left in life, and he just can’t take it:

After nearly a decade of stories, this is the lowest point we’ve ever seen him knocked down to. He’s lost loved ones before, and even been abandoned before, but it appears that Jonah had truly believed Mei Ling would forgive him no matter what, and it’s over. No more wife and child, no more happy home, and he can’t bear the notion that he’s the one responsible. Self- hatred wins out again, leaving him broken and sobbing in the rain. The final page shows Jonah saddling up his horse, his mind already back in bounty-hunter mode -- with his family gone, there’s no desire left to stay at the house and be a farmer. Emmylou shows up and begs Jonah to take her along, but he refuses, thinking that, in time, she’ll forget about him. There’s a bit of an unspoken question here: Why does Emmy want to go off with Hex? This is purely speculation, but I think there may have been a subplot excised from the last few issues, for there really seems to be no point in introducing Emmylou three issues before -- and having Jonah kiss her -- then not even mentioning the gal again until now. Perhaps Fleisher wanted Jonah to participate in some infidelity before breaking up his marriage to Mei Ling, but someone at DC or the Comics Code Authority put the kibosh on it.

Following such a heart-rending experience, one might think Jonah would become an unfeeling automaton in order to function on a day-to-day basis, but when we get to the end of Jonah Hex #55 (December 1981), we see that hasn't become the case yet. After having tangled with both the Fort Charlotte Brigade and El Papagayo in this issue and the previous one, Jonah is attending to a dying teenager named Tim, whose father died at Fort Charlotte. Tim joined the Brigade in his late father's memory, but Jonah's actions earlier in the story caused him to have doubts about what he’s been told. Those doubts led Tim to sacrifice himself when another member of the Fort Charlotte Brigade tried to kill Hex. With his last breath, the young man offers up forgiveness from both himself and his father, absolving Jonah of whatever he may have done at Fort Charlotte. Riding away from the grave he dug for Tim, Jonah sheds a tear and silently asks, "Dear Lord, whutever is thar about life thet makes darned near everythin' turn out so sad?"

In our next installment, Jonah's heart gets put through the ringer a few more times...the fella just can't catch a break! 

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All content in this article entry written by Susan Hillwig. If you want to attribute any of this work, please credit Susan Hillwig. For more of Susan, check out her One Fangirl's Opinion blog. 

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