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Friday, April 15, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1982 - 1983)

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.

When we catch up with our favorite bounty hunter in Jonah Hex #67 (December 1982), it appears the trail that leads to Cassie Wainwright's killers has gone cold, so he's back to his usual business. Little does he know that news of the bank robbery he thwarted last issue made the local papers, which did not go unnoticed by one of the former scouts that killed his fiancée 15 years ago. Unlike the previous two Jonah tracked down, Croy isn’t afraid to bring the fight directly to Hex. Croy manages to take Jonah down from a distance with a rifle, and though it doesn’t kill him, the bullet does enough damage to keep Jonah hovering between life and death for over three days, during which Jonah relives Cassie’s death back in 1859. When the paymaster’s wagon never arrived at the fort, young Jonah and a few others set out in search of it. Jonah already suspected theft even before they found the wagon in Comanche territory, now burned and battered, but with no bodies nearby to suggest a fight. And then they found Cassie:

When Jonah finally regains consciousness, word gets back to Croy pretty quick, and he sneaks into the doctor’s office in the middle of the night to finish Hex off once and for all. Too bad for him that Hex suspected whomever kept trying to kill him would try again, and though he’s surprised to see that his would-be killer is Croy, Jonah doesn’t hesitate to shoot when Croy suddenly whips out a derringer from a spring-loaded rig up his sleeve. So the score is now two murdering ex-scouts dead, one in prison, and three unaccounted for, but once again, we’ve got a cold trail, a fact emphasized by Jonah Hex #68, which seems to forget all about the current storyarc until nearly midway through, when two more ex-scouts -- Farrell Kincaid and a Shoshone named White Claw -- turn up. These fellas weren't all that nice back in the day, and they've only become worse since then. They announce their presence to Jonah by killing an old friend he'd been visiting, and the last panel of the issue leads straight into Jonah Hex #69, with Jonah showing up at the saloon to confront Kincaid. As the two of them have words, Hex spots White Claw in the mirror behind the bar -- the Indian had snuck onto the saloon’s second floor, and was readying to throw a tomahawk in the bounty hunter’s back. Jonah ducks just in time and manages to kill Kincaid, but White Claw escapes and rides out of town. This leads to an hours-long chase across open country, with White Claw wreaking havoc along the way.

Jonah eventually realizes they’re heading towards a Shoshone village, and sure enough, he soon finds himself in the middle of an ambush. The Shoshone chief sides with White Claw, saying that, even if Jonah’s accusations are true, they’re nothing in comparison to what the whites have done to the Indians all these years. However, having heard of Jonah’s many exploits over the years, the chief says Jonah can go free if he survives "The Gauntlet": a brutal test of stamina wherein a defenseless man must run between two columns of armed warriors, enduring their blows, and even if he makes it through, the man then must run for his life until he shakes off the last of his pursuers. Jonah manages to do both, accomplishing the latter by jumping off a cliff and into a raging river -- after swimming for his life, he reaches the riverbank and passes out. When he comes to three days later, he’s greeted by the last person he expected to see:

All things considered, it’s surprising that Jonah said "Mei Ling" upon seeing Emmylou Hartley and not "Cassie", especially since they both have blonde hair. But never mind that, what's this gal doing here? Seems Emmy has been in love with Jonah ever since he first kissed her in Jonah Hex #50, and she's been following him ever since he hit the trail again. When she found Jonah along the riverbank, Emmy managed to bring him to an old trapper’s cabin nearby. "I love you, Jonah!" she confesses, leaning close to him as he lays in bed. "You're the only man I've ever really loved in my life!" Jonah responds by telling her to be careful of his busted ribs, so you get a pretty good idea of where the scene's headed right before it fades out. Three weeks later, Jonah's feeling well enough to bring in some firewood, unaware that White Claw has tracked him down. He attacks Jonah with a knife, which he drives straight into Emmy's chest when she tries to come to Jonah's aid. Now remember, this is one of the men responsible for killing Jonah's fiancée, so the sight of White Claw stabbing Emmy understandably makes Jonah go a little nutso: he grabs an axe and proceeds to go to town on White Claw with it. Once he’s dead, Jonah carries Emmy -- who’s still alive but badly wounded -- inside the cabin.

When Jonah Hex #70 opens, Emmy is telling Jonah she wants to leave the cabin, insisting that she’s recovered enough from her stab wound to make the journey. Jonah eventually agrees, and as they ride away, she asks if he plans on pursuing the last of the ex-scouts, to which Jonah replies, "All them things Ah tol' yuh 'bout happened some fifteen years ago, Emmy! Life’s too durned short tuh waste it nursin' a grudge over fifteen years!" It seems Jonah's letting the trail go cold on purpose this time, possibly because of Emmy's presence in his life again (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out once more her passing resemblance to Cassie).

Unbeknownst to Hex, the last member of the guilty party has decided to seek him out...and unlike the others, his intentions are noble. Ernest Daniels has done his best to lead an upstanding, pious life ever since he helped with that payroll robbery, but the guilt still gnaws at him. When he confesses his long-ago sin to the local reverend, he suggests that Daniels atone with Hex personally. Daniels later tells his sons, Jason and Tim, of the journey he’ll be undertaking, but not the reason for it. Tim asks to come along, and Daniels agrees. Meanwhile, Jonah sneaks back into the Shoshone camp in order to retrieve his Colt .44 Dragoons (yes indeed, that man loves them guns), and later that night as he and Emmy sit around the campfire, they hear gunshots in the distance. They soon discover the target is a horse-drawn carriage containing Daniels and his son. Jonah recognizes him immediately, but decides to put aside past grievances until after they’ve all gotten away from the unseen assailants (who are revealed to the reader as Daniels’s other son and a few hired gunmen). As the group escapes, they run straight into a very unnecessary subplot involving some renegade Indians led by a man who believes himself to be a manifestation of the Great Manitou.

After capturing Jonah and the others, the guy rambles on about the great war he’s going to start between the red and white man, just as soon as he reroutes the Rainbow River with dynamite, causing it to flood the nearby valley (which just so happens to contain the town Daniels lives in). After "Manitou" is done speechifying, he and most of his followers depart, leaving one man behind to guard Jonah and the others. They manage to take out the guard easily, but as they are about to leave the cavern, Jason and his cronies show up. He tells his father in Jonah Hex #71 that he’s "sick and tired of listening to you preach your boring platitudes!" Jason wants all of his father's money for himself, even if it means killing family members to get it. Jonah tries to talk some sense into Jason, but the moment he realizes it’s not working, he pulls leather and shoots all three of Jason’s hired gunmen, then takes out Jason by shooting at a stalactite directly above the man, causing it to plummet straight down and impale him. With that threat out of the way, Jonah grabs a horse and tries to stop "Manitou" and his men from flooding the valley, but gets shot in the leg by one of them before he gets the chance. As he goes over his options, Daniels catches up with him and, after lamenting to Jonah that he wants to atone for his past sins, Daniels confronts the Indians himself, an act that causes him to fall off a cliff with the dynamite, which explodes in midair. Jonah gets the drop on the remaining Indians (including the ersatz god), ensuring that the people in Campanas Valley won’t come to harm. Later, Jonah tells Tim Daniels that he’s sorry about his father’s death, saying that "he wuz a fine man!" And so, the saga of Cassie Wainwright finally comes to a close...on page 10 of a 23-page story. If it hadn’t been for the inclusion of that "Great Manitou" subplot, we could’ve wrapped all this up last issue. There was really no point to padding out the story with that nonsense, unless perhaps Fleisher had planned on making "Manitou" a new recurring villain, since Jonah hands him over to the authorities instead of killing him. But since we never see the guy again, it’s a moot point. The rest of the issue focuses on Jonah tangling with El Papagayo once again, as the Mexican bandito kidnaps Emmy in order to force Jonah into helping him steal a priceless emerald necklace. Papagayo would do this himself, but it’s too dangerous, so instead, he wants Jonah to dress up like El Papagayo and steal the necklace in his stead so the bandito will get all the credit:

Stupid as it sounds, Jonah agrees for Emmy’s sake. Things get even more convoluted by Jonah Hex #72, with twist after twist being thrown at the reader, but it all turns out fine by the end of the issue, with El Papagayo in jail and Emmy hanging off of Hex’s arm... and if that isn’t upbeat enough for ya, no one dies in this issue! That’s a strange occurrence for a Jonah Hex tale, but considering this marks his 100th issue since his debut in All-Star Western #10, (not counting specials or guest-spots), we’ll consider it Jonah’s way of celebrating the occasion. When we get to Jonah Hex #76, we find him pondering what to do about Emmylou Hartley. His love for the gal has dissipated, but he can’t bring himself to tell her so. Meanwhile, Emmy seems to have fallen back to her old role as a warrior’s squaw, setting up camp for Jonah and preparing the game he brings back -- faced with devotion like that, it’s easy to see why he’s having a hard time talking with her about their relationship. That reluctance might've influenced him to take the job later offered to him by McKinley Phelps, the governor of the state. It seems the state penitentiary is hopelessly corrupt, and he needs a man on the inside in order to gather evidence against the warden and his staff. The idea is that Hex -- a man whose profession is already slightly questionable -- will commit of series of crimes so that he can be sentenced to the penitentiary and therefore begin his investigation without suspicion. After a month, he’d be released, his record cleared, and collect a well-deserved fee. However, Jonah wants something more than the governor’s word that everything will be peachy-keen once this is over:

With his true innocence set down in writing, Jonah tells Emmy that he’s going away for a while. She demands to know where he’s going, but he tells her it’s a secret and that she’s probably better off without him anyhow, then rides off. Two weeks later, Jonah begins his crime spree, brazenly robbing trains and stagecoaches until he’s finally bagged by the law. Charged with four counts of armed robbery, Jonah is sentenced to twenty-five years in the state penitentiary, where he’s stripped of his distinctive Confederate gray and given prison stripes. Over the next few days, he learns quite a bit about how corrupt his new home is, and when he comes to the aid of a fellow prisoner that collapsed from being overworked and underfed, the guards beat Jonah within an inch of his life, then chuck him into solitary confinement. But it’s all worth it, right? In a month, the governor will order his release, and these skunks get what’s coming to them. Wrong. As Jonah Hex #77 opens, we find Jonah’s gone half-mad from having spent several weeks in the hole with nothing but rats for company. Then Quentin Turnbull shows up at Jonah’s cell door and reveals this was all just another scheme engineered by him. Seems Governor Phelps is a longtime friend who just happened to owe Turnbull quite a few favors, so he coerced the man into helping him get Hex thrown in prison for the rest of his life. "You’re going to rot in here forever, my young friend," Turnbull says, "can’t you see that? You’re going to be hemmed in by these four dank walls until your mind turns to jelly and your body to dust!" Too bad all this gloating blinded him to the fact that Jonah wasn’t restrained:

The guards come in and pummel Jonah before he can harm Turnbull, then lock him away in solitary once again. Around the same time, Emmylou Hartley (who read about Jonah's sentencing in the paper) keeps trying to arrange a visit with Jonah. The warden stonewalls her for weeks, however, until he finally tells her that Jonah Hex died in solitary, even going so far as to show Emmy the grave -- this is all a ruse, of course, in order to continue torturing Jonah without fear of anyone else looking in on his welfare. The guards even taunt Jonah with the news reports of his "death", telling him that “we can keep you locked up here just as long as Mr. Turnbull wants us to--” Jonah responds by bashing the guard’s skull into the wall, a remarkable feat considering he’s been in the hole subsisting on nothing but bread and water for over two months. Still, he manages make his way to the prison storeroom to retrieve his usual duds and weapons, then takes out a passel of guards before hightailing it out of the prison on foot, intent on reaching the governor and making him straighten out this mess.

At the governor’s mansion several days later, Phelps tells Turnbull about the letter he wrote for Hex, which makes Turnbull so livid he attacks Phelps. The governor backpedals so fast he trips and smacks his head upon a marble fireplace, killing him instantly. Such things are of no consequence to Quentin Turnbull, and he’s already planning his next move as he departs the mansion...while Jonah Hex watches him from a nearby tree. Jonah doesn’t know what transpired inside until someone rushes out yelling that the governor is dead, and when they spot Jonah, the blame is quickly pinned upon him, and he runs off before he can be shot. At a hotel that night, Emmy is still holding on to the hope that Jonah is alive, and when someone knocks upon her door saying they have a message for her, she presumes that it’s from him. In reality, it’s Turnbull and three cronies demanding to know where the governor’s letter is! Thank goodness Jonah shows up at the beginning of Jonah Hex #78 (November 1983) to save the day. While he’s busy taking out Turnbull’s cronies, the old man escapes, and Jonah tells Emmy to go hide out in the next town south of there until all this blows over...but not before he bestows a very passionate kiss upon her lips (there goes that notion of not really being in love with her, but then again, he did just spend over two months in prison).

After a brief scene with the warden of the penitentiary explaining to the press why he’d told them earlier that Jonah Hex was dead (“a slight mix-up in our record keeping” is his lame excuse), the story meanders a bit, first to a couple of hayseeds-turned-bounty hunters who decide to go after the $10,000 reward on Hex, then to Hex himself riding out to wherever he hid the governor’s letter, only to come across a bunch of massacred Ojibwa women and children beside a river, and finally jumping to Mei Ling and her son out in the family garden as J.D. Hart rides up. Neither we nor Mei Ling have seen the marshal since Jonah Hex #44, and her exclamation of “Is that really you?” is certainly called for: though previously depicted as dark-haired, Hart is now inexplicably a blond, and his fringed buckskin clothes have turned a lurid shade of blue! We could dismiss this easily if there had been some change in the staff, but Fleisher and DeZuniga are still on board, same as before, and the error will persist throughout this storyarc, so it’s a serious fumble on everyone’s part here. On a more positive note, Jonah’s baby boy finally gets a name -- Jason -- and Mei Ling states that he’s nearly two years old now, so even though the comic’s still in a constant state of 1875, time’s been moving along at a regular pace for lil’ Jason Hex. As for the reason J.D.’s dropping in out of the blue, he’s concerned about the mess Jonah has gotten himself into and wants to help in whatever way he can.

Back on Jonah’s end of the story, it appears that one of the Indians survived the massacre: Little Raven, the bossy twelve-year-old son of the chief. He insists that Jonah help him avenge the death of his fellow Indians, and together they track down the men responsible before Jonah returns the boy to the Ojibwa. In a ceremony that night, the chief makes the two of them blood brothers, and Jonah gets back on the trail the next morning, where he comes across a fella asking if Hex can spare a bit of water since his canteen ran dry. "Glad tuh help out, friend!" Jonah replies, unaware that someone behind a nearby rock is training a rifle on his back...

You'll have to wait until our next installment to see how this turns out!

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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