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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1982)

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.

If you take a look at the cover to Jonah Hex #57, you'll note that it's dated February 1982, meaning a decade has passed since Jonah Hex made his debut in All-Star Western #10. And Michael Fleisher picks a heck of a way to mark the occasion: seems Jonah got a letter from his mother, Ginny, whom he hasn’t seen in 27 years. When Jonah meets up with her, he finds that she’s living in a dingy room adjacent to the local stable, and in debt to a gambler named Dirk Jagsted, who will mostly likely kill her if he doesn’t get his money soon. Jonah takes it all in stride, promising to have a word with Jagsted first thing in the morning. While his mother sleeps on the small mattress in the corner of the room, Jonah sacks out nearby on his bedroll and thinks back to June 1848, the last time he saw her. The flashback begins with a young Jonah defending his mother’s honor: a group of boys insist that Ginny is a tramp, and have no qualms about beating the snot outta Jonah in order to enforce their opinion. The boy later makes his way home, where Ma tends to his bruised face and Pa berates him for fighting before leaving to make a moonshine delivery. Sometime afterward, a travelling salesman with the impressive name of Preston W. Dazzleby shows up -- after showing off a few of his wares, Ginny tells Jonah to go off to bed, but Jonah finds he can’t sleep, he’s still too angry about those boys calling his wonderful, caring mother a tramp. Then he hears laughter coming from the hall, so Jonah gets out of bed, sneaks down to his parents’ bedroom, and sees Ginny and Dazzleby kissing and flirting while she packs a suitcase. Going by the shocked look on her face, Ginny wasn’t planning on saying goodbye to her son, but now she has no choice:

As you’ve probably guessed, Ginny’s promise to send for Jonah went unfulfilled, and within three years, his Pa would sell him to the Apache, therefore severing any theoretical chance of her reclaiming her son. The flashback ends as Jagsted and his cronies come a-knockin’ on Ginny’s door. Jonah cuts them all down within seconds, and when his mother dares to peer outside, he tells her, “You don’t gotta worry ‘bout the debt no more, Ma! It’s been repaid!” He then presses a roll of bills into his mother’s hand before saddling up. She asks if he’ll come back to visit her sometime, and Jonah replies, “Sure, Ma! Ah be back to visit! Be back real soon!” She smiles up at him as he says it, but we know that he’s chosen those words with care, echoing the last thing she’d said to him before abandoning him to his father’s wrath, which surely must have increased once Ginny was gone.

Jonah Hex #59 kicks off a storyarc full of Far East action, as Jonah is kidnapped and brought to China by a group known as the White Lotus Society, who wish for him to assassinate the Chinese emperor (by using an Occidental of such lethal renown, they think their hand in the affair will be unseen). When Jonah refuses, they up the ante at the end of Jonah Hex #60 by revealing they've kidnapped Mei Ling as well! She's been pulled into this not only to ensure Jonah’s cooperation, but to help him sneak into the emperor’s palace: a White Lotus spy will slip her into the emperor’s harem, thus putting her in a prime position for the two of them to complete the task. Jonah has no intentions of killing the emperor, and when he’s escorted to the palace in Peking, the only thing on his mind is finding Mei Ling (who’d been placed inside days before) and high-tailing it outta there. Unfortunately, the spy who’d gotten Mei Ling inside was captured not long after and ‘fessed up to the whole plan, so Jonah walks right into a trap as soon as he breaches the palace wall. When Jonah Hex #62 begins, he's literally been backed into a corner by a squad of gun-toting soldiers, who take him to the emperor. He knows that the bounty hunter wasn’t acting alone, and since Jonah refuses to divulge where Mei Ling is, the emperor has him dragged off to be tortured. They work him over pretty good, but he manages to polish off one of them just before Mei Ling busts in, armed and ready to rescue her husband:

The couple make good upon their escape and manage to lose their pursuers in the city, where a burly sailor by the name of Barnaby Sledge comes across them laying low in an alley. He offers to smuggle Jonah and his wife back to America, and while Jonah appreciates his help, Mei Ling doesn’t trust the man, later telling Jonah that Barnaby frightens her. “How ‘bout me, Mei Ling?" Jonah asks, pulling her close. “Do Ah frighten you, too?”

“Yes, my darling! frighten me, too!” she sobs, but lets him kiss her despite this. It’s the first tender moment they’ve shared since this whole mess started. The next day, Barnaby takes the Hexes to the ship he serves as first mate upon, but that doesn’t mean our happy couple is out of the woods just yet, because while they’re hiding out in the ship’s hold, they stumble across the cargo: opium! Now, before you go wondering why these drug smugglers would risk discovery by helping out a couple of strangers, we find out in Jonah Hex #63 that they'd already planned on adding Jonah to the crew (involuntarily, of course) and making Mei Ling the shipboard entertainment (most definitely involuntary!). Jonah manages to crack open Barnaby’s skull for getting them into this mess, but that only spares the sailor from the grief to come, for as we find out a few weeks into the voyage, this here is a plague ship. One by one, the men come down with cholera, and soon even Jonah is laid up in his bunk, delirious and dreaming about his Pa beating his mother. Only the real-life screams of Mei Ling rouse Jonah from his nightmare, and he finds the ship’s captain assaulting her. Big mistake, one which the captain pays for with his life. Unfortunately, this leaves them without anyone healthy enough to navigate the ship, for the only other able-bodied crewman left is the ship’s doctor.

For twenty-two days and nights, the ship meanders across the ocean, until a storm smashes it against some rocks -- Mei Ling makes it safely into a lifeboat, but Jonah has to fight his way past a pair of hungry sharks (and nearly lose his leg in the process) before he can reach it himself, and the two of them are picked up a week later by a ship headed for San Francisco. Once Jonah’s wounds are properly tended to and they’re certain that no more disasters are lurking on the horizon, Jonah and Mei Ling finally have a serious talk about their relationship:

While the ending of this five-part tale isn’t exactly unexpected -- did anyone really think Jonah and Mei Ling would become a couple again after this? -- the overall story does break Fleisher's rule of "character moments trump action", because while there were pages and pages of crazy action sequences, the amount of panels devoted to their troubled relationship are rather scant. I can tell you that, despite Mei Ling’s insistence, this matter isn’t completely resolved, and she’ll fall back into Jonah’s life in a couple of years. There is another gal, however, who’ll be occupying a good amount of Jonah’s time before that who’s never been spoken of before, yet may have influenced many of his actions since.

Jonah Hex #65 begins with Jonah preventing a train robbery by the Crenshaw boys, and as some of the gang escapes on horseback, Jonah leads his own mount out of a livestock car and heads after them. Unfortunately, it’s nearly dark, so Jonah angles for the nearby town of Clearwater Springs, figuring on picking up their trail come morning. His arrival in town is witnessed by Walt Barstow, a crooked sheriff who’s not above fleecing the townsfolk for protection money. The sight of Hex sends Barstow into a panic, and he runs in the other direction, thinking, After all these years, he’s finally managed to track me down! He then ducks into the telegraph office to send a message to Rod Webster, "the only one of the old bunch who lives close by". And who exactly is the "old bunch"? We find out not long after Barstow gets back to his office and tells his deputies (who are in on the protection racket) about Hex riding into town:

Seems that, back in 1859, Hex, Barstow, Webster, and four others were part of a scouting unit for the U.S. cavalry, overseen by a Colonel Marcus Wainwright, who was the father of the fine filly Hex is cozying up to in the picture. While Barstow doesn’t explain why Jonah’s presence has him so afraid, he does point out that, if they want to keep running their protection racket, they’ll have to gun down Hex!

The next morning, Jonah tracks the Crenshaw boys to some abandoned Indian cliff-dwellings. Whilst sneaking up to one of the buildings, Jonah overhears the boys talking about giving Sheriff Barstow his share of the robbery money, a fee for looking the other way whenever the gang’s in his territory. Though stunned by the mention of the name, Jonah puts his personal feelings aside long enough to round up the outlaws, then takes them to the next town over, figuring that "if Sheriff Barstow at Clearwater Springs really is in cahoots with ‘em, then thar shore ain’t no sense turnin’ these Crenshaw boys over tuh him!" Once he’s turned the gang over to the (more- trustworthy) authorities, Jonah sneaks into Barstow’s office under cover of night and begins searching for evidence that this sheriff and his old scouting partner are one in the same. When he finds the picture, Jonah’s mind reels back to much happier times, when he and the colonel’s daughter, Cassie, were fixing to get married. The day before the ceremony, Cassie headed to town on the paymaster’s wagon to pick up her dress, leaving Jonah behind at the fort with her father. None of them were aware that Hex’s fellow scouts were planning on stealing the payroll they’d been sent to get, and they regarded Cassie as a small obstacle between them and the money. Barstow knocked her out cold, then he and the others abandoned her and the wagon in the middle of Comanche territory. Three days passed before Cassie was found and, in Jonah’s words, “whut we did find would make a growed man weep tuh look at!” His fiancée dead, Jonah vowed to hunt down those responsible, but remember, this is a much younger Hex than we’re used to seeing, one who lacked the experience needed to track down six men who’d all gone their separate ways once they had the money. Unable to find any trace of them -- not to mention getting swept up in the Civil War two years later -- Jonah’s vow went unfulfilled, though it’s obvious he never let go of Cassie’s memory in the ensuing fifteen years. One has to wonder if this horrific loss weighed upon him when he began to get feelings for Mei Ling, and to have the ghost of his lost fiancée suddenly appear in his life so soon after becoming separated from the woman he did eventually marry...well, a man can only take so many blows before he hits back. Stepping out of the sheriff’s office, he confronts Barstow and his men in the street. The bounty hunter graciously offers the deputies the chance to skedaddle -- which they gladly take -- leaving the former scouts alone. Barstow fast-talks Hex into letting him ride out of town alive, but quickly turns his horse around and begins firing his rifle while Jonah’s back is turned, to which Jonah responds by throwing himself to the ground and shooting Barstow dead. As he checks the body, Jonah finds a copy of the telegram Barstow sent to Rod Webster. After fifteen years, the cold trail has turned red-hot, and Jonah Hex has to make a decision:

Jonah's obviously made his mind up by Jonah Hex #66 (November 1982), as he's heading for the town of Willow Bluff to confront Webster, who has become somewhat lily-livered in the past fifteen years. Having used his ill-gotten gains to set himself up as a banker, Webster offers $10,000 to a local gang in the hope that they can finish Hex off, and when that doesn't do the trick, he actually asks his wife, Stella, to cozy up to Jonah and convince him to leave Webster alone. Once Jonah finds out who she is, though, he gives her an earful about why he’s got a vendetta against her husband. "An' while yo’re at it," Jonah says as he shows Stella the door, "whyn't you go tell Mr. Webster fer me thet they got words fer men whut uses good-lookin' women tuh transact their business fer'em -- an' town banker shore ain’t one of 'em!" The moment Stella gets home, Webster demands to know what happened, and she tells him, adding that "inch for inch and pound for pound, that so-called ‘rabid mad-dog killer’ of yours is a better man than you are!" With that rebuke still ringing in his ears, Webster meets up with the gang he’d hired and demands that they kill Hex right now. They exchange for letting them rob Webster's bank and make off with all the money. Webster agrees, but Hex stops them, killing one of the gang members with some fast gunplay. Webster then has the gall to thank Hex for putting aside his grudge to stop the robbers, but the still-living gang members, not wanting to swing alone, begin to spill the beans about both Webster’s contract on Hex and his assistance with the bank robbery, a confession that about half the town is witness to. Now that Webster’s sure to be spending a long time behind bars, Jonah decides that’s fair enough punishment for what the man did fifteen years ago, and turns to leave. Webster cracks right then and there, grabbing a gun and opening fire on Jonah. Unlike with Barstow, Jonah simply turns around and takes aim at Webster, not firing a shot, knowing that the threat of killing the cowardly man is enough to make him crumple in the street and beg for his life. Moving to leave once again, Jonah is stopped this time by Stella Webster, who says to him, "For once in my life, I want to know what it feels like to kiss a real man!" So Jonah obliges her.

Next time, Jonah continues down the vengeance trail, and he runs into someone unexpected near the end of it.

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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