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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1985 - 1986)

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.

As befits a series built around time travel, we’re going to start off this installment by skipping ahead one month into the future so we can look at the letter column for the second issue of HEX, wherein Michael Fleisher tells us how he got the inspiration to move Jonah into a new environment. Unlike the tale related by Bob Greenberger -- who thinks Andy Helfer may have been the influence behind dropping Hex into a Mad Max-style setting -- Fleisher credits someone else with providing the initial inspiration. Designer Ed Hannigan came into the DC offices one day with a HEX logo hand-painted in violet and hot pink. While he was responsible for creating many great designs for DC over the years, Fleisher wrote that Hannigan "had not been asked to design any such logo and had no expectation whatever of being paid for it. It was electrifying, certainly, but it was totally unsuitable for the then-running Western series Jonah Hex. 'Ed, it's gorgeous,' I said, 'but what the hell is it for?' 'I don't really know,' shrugged Ed. 'But I really like the name 'Hex' and I thought you might be able to use it for something.'" According to Fleisher, he had been dabbling with an idea for "a bleak, war-torn world" before Hannigan walked in what that logo (meaning Helfer’s influence could still be in there somewhere), but it wasn't until seeing that graffiti-style rendering of HEX that all the pieces came together in his head. Hannigan also provided some additional character designs for the new series, which Mark Texeira used as a starting-point for his own work once he was hired on as artist.

We can only estimate that this incident with the logo happened around the same time the axe came down for the Jonah Hex title, and therefore made it easier for all concerned to see this as a viable way to keep the character alive in the DCU, albeit in a future whose exact date had yet to be determined. In fact, a memo written by Greenberger dated May 30, 1985 (which you can find a copy of in 2008’s The DC Vault from Running Press) shows the company was still trying to nail down exactly when this new series was supposed to take place in the post-Crisis timeline just a few months before HEX #1 hit the stands -- many believed it should be set at least 500 years into the future, while Fleisher wanted it a mere 80-100 years ahead. As Greenberger himself said when I asked him about it in 2012, "The editorial edict that we have one [consistent] timeline...was paid more lip service than actual adherence," meaning that Fleisher's eventual decision to have HEX take place in the year 2050 won out over everyone else's concerns.

Another thing Fleisher mentioned in the letter column was that, unlike Jonah’s previous titles, HEX would be a non-Code book, which had heavy implications: back in the 1980s, only titles that bore the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval could be carried on newsstands, so not submitting a title to them implied that it was for "mature readers only". In reality, DC simply decided to make HEX a direct market-only book and not offer it to newsstands in the first place. As Greenberger put it, "The company didn’t want to pay for a seal that was unnecessary." In hindsight, the decision to keep Jonah’s new title off the newsstands -- where his numbers remained consistently good -- was probably not a smart move. But the biggest irony of HEX not having the seal is that, compared to other non-Code titles published by DC around the same time, Fleisher never took full advantage of the freedom that gave him. It’s not like anyone was holding him back, either: Mark Texeira was quoted on the subject in Back Issue #14 (February 2006), saying DC "sort of left us to our own mini-universe. As long as deadlines were met, they left us alone." Despite this hands-off approach, HEX was indeed part of DCU continuity, even after it had ceased to be, but we shouldn’t discuss the end before we look at the beginning...

The first two pages of HEX #1 (September 1985) ease both Jonah and the reader into this new world. The bounty hunter wakes up in an ordinary-looking saloon, wondering where Emmylou and Brett have gone. Before he has a chance to get over his confusion, El Papagayo barges in and begins shooting -- Jonah dives for cover, shoots the bandito in the gut, and is shocked to see wires and metal spill out of his innards. Jonah also realizes his gun -- which only contained one shot -- is just a lightweight piece of junk. Tossing it aside, he runs out of the saloon and into what he immediately categorizes as "a nightmare":

Stunned into submission, Jonah is dragged off to meet Reinhold Borsten, the man who brought him to this strange place. As to why he did so, Borsten declines to say right off, instead telling his "guest" that he has "long been a devotee of the fighting man and a dedicated student of the art of war." Borsten then shows Jonah various images of battles throughout time, up to and including footage of nuclear holocausts -- the latter proves too much for Hex’s 19th-Century mind, and he goes catatonic. When Jonah recovers, he’s been locked inside a glass tube, which is slowly filling with a paralyzing gas -- he busts out to find he’s in a room filled with similar tubes, all containing soldiers from various eras, along with cases of weaponry. After grabbing some guns (good ones this time, not single-shot phonies like before), Jonah makes a break for it with the guards hot on his tail, and even though he silently admits that all this craziness has him "shakin' in muh boots", he eventually manages to sneak out of the compound. Not that being outside is much better: the surrounding area is nothing but a wasteland, and Jonah has no choice but to trudge across it on foot. Borsten had told Jonah that he was now in Seattle, but Jonah knows that "Seattle’s a far damn cry from the town of Red Dog, whar thet saloon wuz!" While his mind is still trying to puzzle it all out, he comes across a gal in the middle of the desert being assaulted by three thugs. Seeing as how this is a situation he can actually relate to, he throws himself into the fray and rescues the girl. Afterward, she leads him to where she left her motorcycle, and the two of them speed across the wasteland, with the girl, Stiletta, directing him to where her gang is camped out. The Road Reapers are very much cast from the same mold as the denizens of the Mad Max films, and I can only imagine what Hex must be thinking the first time he lays eyes on the giant grasshopper they’re barbecuing:

Stiletta introduces Hex to Falcon, the leader of the Reapers, who apparently thinks of Stiletta as part of his harem -- she defiantly plants a kiss right on Hex’s lips as a thank-you for saving her life, which leaves Falcon fuming and Hex looking confused. All the talk going on about raiding a nearby community for water baffles him as well, but he throws in with them anyhow, even though, in his words, "It don’t smell right." Sure enough, as soon as the raid goes south and the gang scatters to the four winds, Hex hears Falcon spouting off about how he’s going to "ride back here and turn this community into a graveyard!" Now knowing for sure that the Road Reapers are the bad guys (but holding on to the notion that Stiletta isn’t like the rest of them...that must’ve been some kiss), Jonah turns on Falcon, leading to some good ol'-fashioned fisticuffs in the desert. Around the same time, the sky opens up and it begins to rain, but this isn’t a good thing: Stiletta had warned Hex earlier about the "acid storms" that pour down on the wasteland, and he immediately feels it eating through his fine Confederate-gray coat. Luckily, Stiletta also told him about the protective "zone suits" the Road Reapers wear, so after knocking out Falcon, he ditches his own clothes, strips the suit off of Falcon, and leaves the skunk to dissolve as Jonah roars off on his cycle.

In twenty-five pages, we’ve watched Jonah’s past life get torn from him in bits and pieces -- his environment, his weapons, even his uniform -- until all that remains is the man himself, clad in strange clothes and riding a tricked-out chopper. In HEX #2, he runs across three American soldiers that were plucked outta 1968 Vietnam, but were accidentally beamed out to the wasteland instead of Borsten's complex. The captain of the group, a black man named Stanley Harris, takes an immediate dislike to Hex. "I don’t make a practice of shakin' hands with you Southern boys!" he snaps the moment he hears the gunfighter’s drawl. The other two soldiers, Berkowitz and Winslow, try to smooth things over, but they don’t have much time to chit-chat before Borsten's men show up. They manage to wipe out their would-be captors, then commandeer one of the vehicles and head out. As they travel, the soldiers do their best to convince Jonah of what they figured out easily, namely that they’ve all been transported to the future. Hex, of course, ain’t buyin’ it, even after being shown the book Berkowitz coincidentally had on him, which contained an eyewitness account of Jonah disappearing from the Red Dog Saloon in 1875. Despite his disbelief, Hex does offer up information about Borsten’s complex and what he saw there, and the soldiers figure it must hold the key to them all getting back to their proper timeframes. They’re gonna need more firepower before they attempt to break in, however, and Winslow directs them to the remains of a military research base -- seems he grew up in Seattle, and his father worked at that base in the time he came from -- but while the base’s personnel are long-gone, the robotic defenses they left behind nearly wipe Hex and his new pals out. Luckily, Stiletta shows up at the last second to save Jonah's bacon...a rather convenient turn of events that none of them never bother to question.

That night, after they fix up one of the flying machines found at the base, Stiletta leads them to the Needle (the name for Borsten’s complex) and helps them break in. As they make their way down a corridor, a laser grid suddenly fires up, killing Berkowitz and Winslow instantly. Harris immediately accuses Stiletta of betraying them, then shoots her as Hex looks on in shock. “Yuh kill-crazy lunatic!” Jonah hollers, slugging him, but Harris quickly shows the gunfighter the truth: “Stiletta” was actually a robot, sent by Borsten to lure Hex back to the Needle. Harris had seen a flicker of light in her eyes, betraying her machine nature, but Jonah can’t comprehend this any better than the rest of the madness he’s seen. When Borsten’s guards show up, though, he can comprehend that just fine, so he and Harris blast away at them while the pair try to escape. Unfortunately, they get separated, and Jonah ends up escaping the Needle alone.

HEX #3 reveals the reason why Jonah and all those other soldiers got pulled out of their proper times: Borsten is in the reenactment business, using real people from history to fight battles for his wealthy clients to bet on. Jonah Hex was supposed to be his newest attraction, and Borsten had advertised this in advance, which is why he's so eager to get the gunfighter back. In HEX #4, we change up artists a bit: Ron Wagner penciled this tale, while inker Carlos Garzon (who also worked with Texeira on the previous issue) provides some continuity to the art style. A lot of backstory gets filled in this time around, starting not long after Jonah -- who’s just about to drink from a small spring he’s found in the desert -- meets Stiletta once again. He immediately pulls a gun on her, gasping, “You--you ain’t human! Yo’re some kinda machine!” Stiletta has no clue what he’s talking about, but reasons that he must’ve seen a robot that looked like her.

"Honestly, Hex, I can’t imagine how you got to be so ignorant about some things," she says, then begins to show him how to purify the water with a chemical wafer called a Soames -- after the bombs dropped five years earlier, all open sources of water became heavily irradiated, and if he’d swallowed so much as a mouthful without treating it first, it would’ve killed him -- they’re so indispensable that they’ve become the de facto currency in 2050. Her willingness to tell him such things must’ve convinced Jonah that she truly wasn’t going to hurt him, because in-between panels, he ‘fesses up to her about where he’s really from. Stiletta’s surprised, but not shocked, and later on, we find out why: Reinhold Borsten is her father (okay, this kinda explains the robot...). Seems in the year 2042, Borsten was a liaison for NSA assigned to a time-travel project, wherein he stumbled across what was to happen in only three years’ time:

Stealing designs for both the time machine and several other technologies, Borsten figured he’d bypass the nuclear holocaust and set himself up as king of the wasteland (the reenactments are just a hobby, I guess). He didn’t count on a criminal organization known as the Conglomerate gaining a foothold before him, thanks to them controlling the world’s supply of Soames, but he’s working on a way to bring them down using his time-travel tech. Not long after that info-dump, a flying machine tears outta the sky lookin’ to cut down Hex and Stiletta. In the previous issue, Jonah had killed a guy who was peddling mind-altering drugs, and we find out in HEX #5 (which has Texeira back on penciling duty) that he worked for the Conglomerate, who've sent their goons out to search for those responsible. Jonah and Stiletta kick the snot outta them and steal their ride so they can get back to civilization (or at least what passes for it these days). The Conglomerate doesn’t take kindly to this, especially after one of them -- who was looking forward to seeing the gunfight Borsten promised a couple of issues ago -- recognizes Hex in some surveillance footage, and figures Hex must be working for Borsten.

In retaliation, they send out their own "hired gun": a bruiser named Chain with a buzzsaw hand and titanium body armor. After a five-page brawl, Jonah manages to flatten him in a car-crusher, but this doesn’t mean his troubles are over, as some of the Conglomerate’s other goons take him and Stiletta captive at the beginning of HEX #6. Surprisingly, they’re not interested in killing him, and instead the Conglomerate offers Hex a job: destroying Borsten's time machine before he can use his stolen tech to neutralize the radiation in the water table, which would makes Soames worthless and bankrupt the Conglomerate. A few of their men have already infiltrated the Needle’s personnel, but Hex is “a regular one-man army”, so they want the gunfighter to “surrender” to Borsten’s forces in order to gain access to the time machine, and guarantee Hex that they’ll send him back to 1875 before they destroy it. Stiletta wants to help out with taking down her father -- when Borsten escaped to the future, he didn’t bother to warn his family, and Stiletta survived the nukes by sheer luck -- but Jonah refuses, then rides off alone to a spot where Borsten’s men can capture him (though he first puts up a bit of a fight to make it look good).

In HEX #7, the Conglomerate’s inside man shows up to release Jonah from his stasis tube and assist in the plan. Unfortunately, a guard kills the man right afterward, and accidentally triggers the explosives they were going to use to blow up the time machine. This sets off a chain reaction throughout the Needle, and Jonah has to try and get to the time machine alone before the whole place blows sky-high. Little does he know that backup is on the way: Stiletta has ignored Jonah’s wishes and snuck into the Needle, and she soon runs into Harris, who’s been tortured for the last few issues by Borsten and just managed to escape. After an off-screen confab, they realize they’re on the same side and head off to find Hex. They finally meet up with him in the chronal chamber in time to save him from being shot by Borsten. As Hex and Harris prepare to depart, more guards bust in, rescuing their boss and shooting Stiletta -- while Harris vanishes, Jonah jumps off the platform without a second thought to save her, and the time machine is destroyed as more explosions tear the chamber apart. Hex and Stiletta escape the Needle by the skin of their teeth, while Reinhold Borsten is shown being engulfed in flames.

Wagner returned for HEX #8, a fun romp involving a rigged game in a shooting gallery. This issue also features Jonah gaining some new guns -- a pair of .357 Ruger Blackhawks -- but by the end of the story, he’s lost Siletta! From the looks of things, she got kidnapped while he was in town getting supplies, and though he searches high and low for her, he turns up nothing, and by the beginning of the next issue (as illustrated by Texeira again), he’s turned his attention towards getting shit-faced instead. Considering his previous track record with the bottle, this is perfectly understandable, especially when you factor in that Stiletta may have been the only thing in this entire time period keeping Jonah anchored in reality. There’s also the possibility that Jonah’s in love with Stiletta, but aside from lip-locking with the robot version of her in HEX #2, very little evidence exists in the series to suggest that they’re a romantic couple and not just two people that’ve thrown their lot in with each other. Whatever the makeup of their relationship, the gal stays on Jonah’s mind through the next couple of issues, despite distractions like the Stepford Wives-esque community he encounters in HEX #9 and rescuing a well-heeled man’s daughter from a “Sin Killer” cult in HEX #10 (June 1986), the last one penciled by Ron Wagner. The latter is also notable for containing a brief cameo by the Legion of Super-Heroes, though these two pages sadly don’t have any bearing on the plot at all, nor do they effect anything in Legion of Super-Heroes #23 (released the same month) where an abbreviated version of this scene appears:

Despite having no impact upon the story itself, the Legion's presence does signal a turn in the title’s overall content, which will become clear with the next issue.

In our final installment, we have a "Requiem for a Gunfighter" as Fleisher and Hex part ways.

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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