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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1977 - 1978)

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 Jonah Hex #1 (March/April 1977) debuted, there were only a handful of Western comics still being printed, many of which either featured more than one character or were padded out with reprints. Starting up a brand-new Western comic based around one solitary character with a new story each and every issue may have been seen by some in the industry as a huge mistake, but both Fleisher and Hex were more than up to the task.

For his first self-titled issue, Michael Fleisher and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez (who'd joined Hex's rotating stable of artists the previous year) have Jonah tracking down Tommy Royden, the young son of a wealthy plantation owner. Tommy had been kidnapped over six months ago, yet there’s been no ransom and no trace of the boy has surfaced. After two weeks of westward tracking, Hex comes across a boy-fighting troupe run by a man named Blackie LeClerc, and eventually learns that Tommy hadn’t been kidnapped for ransom, but to replace another boy who’d died in a fight. Sadly, Tommy himself died in the same manner not long before Hex's arrival, and since he doesn’t know whether LeClerc or his partner did the actual kidnapping, decides the best way to settle it is have them participate in "a little friendly fight! You know, like the kind you make those boys have!" The two men duke it out until they stumble off a cliff, and though LeClerc manages to hang on for dear life, his victory doesn’t last long:

The story perfectly illustrates some key facets of Jonah's personality: his black sense of humor, his unspoken need to protect the weak (especially children), and his determination to see that criminals get the punishment they deserve no matter what. It was a good way to introduce the character to potential new readers, especially since Jonah was about to embark on his longest storyline to date. Jonah Hex #2 begins with Jonah accepting a job from a man claiming to be with the U.S. Secret Service, but in truth, he works for Quentin Turnbull, a Southern plantation owner who wrongly blames Jonah for the death of his son during the Civil War. Turnbull was last seen back in Weird Western Tales #29-30 [1975] -- where we learned of the Fort Charlotte Massacre -- and though he appeared to have died at the end of that story, Fleisher brought him back to menace Jonah once more. Turnbull arranges this phony job wherein Jonah is supposed to win the confidence of a Mexican bandito known as El Papagayo, then spy on the man for the U.S. government. Unfortunately, the guns Jonah gave El Papagayo as a show of good faith turn out to be useless, and Jonah barely escapes the furious banditos by the skin of his teeth.

Turnbull must've known there was a chance the bounty hunter might get out of that mess alive, because he also arranges for Jonah to be framed for the murder of three lawmen, thereby placing a $10,000 bounty on his head...but even that isn't enough to satisfy Turnbull's lust for revenge. In Jonah Hex #4 -- the first issue of Jonah Hex to go monthly -- we're introduced to the Chameleon, a master of disguise hired by Turnbull in order to further discredit our hero. Masquerading as Hex, the Chameleon robs a stagecoach and murders one of the passengers, then later ambushes the real Hex and shoots him off his horse. Jonah is eventually found by a young lady named Joanna Mosby, who takes him back to her cabin. Though they get a mite amorous, it's soon revealed she's really in cahoots with the Chameleon, an alliance that turns sour when the Chameleon tells Joanna that, since she's seen his face, he's going to set the cabin on fire to kill both her and Hex. Too bad he didn't count on Jonah’s fancy footwork (take note of where the gun hits...owie!):

Hex and Joanna escape the blazing cabin, and though she says that she genuinely loves him, the man ain't buyin' it, giving her a good slap in the kisser before riding off. Moments later, we find that Jonah's been cleared of the stagecoach-robbing charge: an artist on the stage did a sketch of the robber, and while the Chameleon made himself up to look like Hex, he put the scar on the wrong side of his face, therefore confirming that he was an imposter. Hex is still wanted for murder, though, and worst of all, the Chameleon survives the fire, horribly burned and swearing vengeance upon Hex!

After this issue, the crazy Turnbull-backed shenanigans suddenly drop off, though Jonah’s “fugitive on the run” status still gets worked into each story. To that end, Jonah Hex #5 (a reprint of All-Star Western v2 #10 [1972]) gets a new framing sequence by Garcia-Lopez. The opener shows a posse in pursuit of Hex crossing paths with a woman on a buckboard. Turns out this is the same lady Jonah helped in his very first appearance, and when they ask if she’s seen him, she replies, “Ah ain’t laid eyes on thet man in more’n five years, sheriff!” The comic then rolls into “Welcome to Paradise” proper, and with the exception of some coloring changes, it's exactly as it was the first time around (complete with credits for Albano & DeZuniga). When the tale is through, we get a final page with the sheriff saying that Hex is now a wanted killer, and he tells the woman, “You see any sign of him, you let out a loud holler, hear?” before riding off. Cut to Jonah poking his head out from beneath the tarp covering the buckboard -- he’d been hiding there the whole time -- and thanking the woman for the assist. She in turn thanks him for what he did all those years ago: saving her life and paying off the farm. After the anger she’d shown him when they parted ways originally, this scene is rather touching, especially in light of the mess his life had become. It’s a reminder for both us and himself that he is a good man, he just has very rotten luck.

The next notable issues are Jonah Hex #7-8 (drawn by Ernie Chan, Noly Panaligan, and Vicente Alcazar), which reveal via flashback the origin of Jonah's facial scar. Back in July 1851, Jonah was a boy of thirteen and living with his abusive, drunken father. The elder Hex sells booze illegally to a local Apache tribe, and one day, in order to raise a grubstake so he can get in on the California gold rush, he decides to sell his son to them as well so they can use him for slave labor -- he claims that he’ll come back for the boy, but this is clearly a load of hooey. After two years of living with the Apache, Jonah rescues the tribe’s chief from a vicious puma, and they accept him as a full member of the tribe. Unfortunately, the chief’s son, Noh-Tante, isn’t so happy about this, nor about the fact that Jonah keeps making eyes at a girl named White Fawn. When they’re both sent out on a test of manhood -- stealing horses from a nearby Kiowa camp -- Noh-Tante betrays Jonah and leaves him to be killed by the Kiowa. Though he survives, the Apache have moved on by the time Jonah returns to where they'd set up camp. There’s a quickie glossing over of the next 12 years, taking us up to 1866, a year after the Civil War ended: discharged from the Confederate Army and wandering the West, Jonah stumbles across his old tribe. He tells the chief of how Noh-Tante betrayed him, and the chief decides this must be settled by trial-by-combat. Armed with tomahawks, Jonah and Noh-Tante go at it, but Jonah’s weapon was rigged to break. Deciding that one dishonorable move deserves another, Jonah pulls out the knife he keeps hidden beneath his coat collar and stabs Noh-Tante. Not knowing about the rigged tomahawk, the chief sides with his dead son and punishes Jonah for cheating:

So now you know: Jonah’s scar is the result of a red-hot tomahawk to the face. As with the Fort Charlotte Massacre and the "fugitive" storyline this tale is embedded in, it all boils down to yet another false accusation, as well as rejection by a father figure (in this case, his actual father is part of the equation), and in the long run, events like this have to color how Jonah thinks of himself. Michael Fleisher once commented that someone like Hex must have a certain amount of self-hatred to do what he does because, as a bounty hunter, he’s putting his life on the line constantly. To be sure, coming from an abusive household isn’t the best start for a boy, and suffering through the indignity of slavery would just lower his opinion of himself even further. But Jonah did manage take away one very important lesson from all this: he learned how to endure. Between what the Apache did to him and the torture his father already put him through, there’s little the world can throw at Jonah that he hasn’t already experienced. And there’s the more practical lessons in the form of hunting, tracking, and fighting skills that he picked up during his years with the Apache. So much of what makes Jonah Hex the man he is can be traced back to his Pa trading him away for a stack of pelts. Without that event, he’s nothing.

El Papagayo returns to get revenge on Hex in Jonah Hex #9-10, and in Jonah Hex #11, Jonah runs into Joanna Mosby again (sadly, she dies trying to protect him from some fellas that busted him up pretty bad earlier in the story, and Jonah shows that he indeed had feelings for Joanna by giving her one last kiss before she passes away). While all three issues reference the "fugitive" storyline in one way or another, there’s not even a brief mention of Jonah’s troubles in Jonah Hex #12, which focuses instead on Hex looking for a friend lost in the Louisiana bayou. It’s possible this tale may have been written before the current storyline was cooked up and held in reserve in case Fleisher fell behind, a theory lent credence by the fact that Jonah Hex #13-15 were written by David Michelinie, who Fleisher had brought to DC after coming across his writing samples in editor Joe Orlando’s slush pile. With the exception of the John Albano-penned reprint pages in Jonah Hex #5, those issues were the only ones not written by Michael Fleisher during the title's entire run.

When Fleisher returned for JH#16, he finally brought the "fugitive" storyline to a close. Jonah crosses paths with an inventor named Nostrum, who just happens to be familiar with the still-nascent science of fingerprinting, as well as the process of identifying the distinctive marks left on bullets when fired by certain guns. He can prove Jonah Hex is innocent! Unfortunately, the Chameleon has managed to track Jonah down and tips off local law enforcement (in disguise, of course) as to the wanted man's whereabouts. As the town prepares to put Jonah on trial, Nostrum continues to gather evidence to free him, so the Chameleon stabs Nostrum and impersonates the inventor in the courtroom. He gets on the stand and tries to convict Jonah with a damning testimony, but the real Nostrum stumbles in and manages to blow the Chameleon’s cover before dropping dead of his wounds. Furious, the Chameleon pulls a gun and rips off his makeup, ranting like a madman until Jonah whips out his handy-dandy hidden knife and shuts him up:

And that's it. After fifteen issues of non-stop action, Jonah’s troubles are all resolved rather succinctly in one page. Overall, the "fugitive" storyline is burdened somewhat by too much padding -- about half of the issues in this arc could be removed without affecting the plot -- but on the other hand, we did get Jonah’s "origin story" in the midst of all this craziness, along with a new bad guy in El Papagayo, who will turn up to menace Hex for years to come.

With its opening scene of Jonah getting trapped in a hot-air balloon and floating out to sea, readers of Jonah Hex #17 back in the day might've thought Fleisher was setting up another long-term storyline, but in truth, it was just a brief side-trip. The bounty hunter eventually ends up off the coast of Brazil, where we runs afoul of both illegal slavers and cannibals (he manages to survive both). By Jonah Hex #18, he's found a small patch of civilization in the form of a rubber plantation, and it's there that Jonah acquires something that would later be considered part of the "classic" Jonah Hex look: a matched pair of ivory-handled Dragoons.

Though there are errors in both the text and the art this first time out, it’s specified in the letter column of Jonah Hex #31 that these guns are meant to be Whitneyville-Hartford .44-caliber Dragoon pistols, manufactured by Colt Firearms back in 1848, with a limited run of only 240 (only a few dozen still exist). It’s not only a rare handgun, but deadly as well, with a firing power that wasn’t surpassed until the invention of the .357 Magnum in the 1930s, so you know Jonah didn’t just pluck those things off the wall at random. He uses the Dragoons to great effect later on in the story, and would continue to do so long after he left Brazil. How exactly he got back Stateside is unknown, as Jonah Hex #19 (December 1978) makes no mention of it.

In our next installment, we'll take a look at another comic that hit the stands around the same time Jonah was having his South American adventures. It presented a wholly different view of the bounty hunter, and would have an impact on Hex history for decades to come. 

Recommended reading:


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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