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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

review of 1985's Hex v1 ongoing series

Jonah Hex was on it’s last legs when DC comics decided to to take a chance on this new series.

By 1985, Jonah Hex had been in publication for 9 years and had narrowly escaped three near-cancellations making it the longest-running (and only) Bronze Age Western comic book at the time. Things were looking pretty grim for Jonah Hex come 1983: super-hero titles were the popular genre at the time, the title had recently been passed up for the ‘Baxter’ treatment (higher cover price and better quality paper) because it wasn’t considered by DC to be a 'fan favorite’, and - the final nail in the coffin - Jonah Hex became a bi-monthly series after #85 (1984). Writer Michael Fleisher explained that the book wasn’t doing so well in the Direct Market (apparently Jonah Hex always did better on the newsstand) and it was probably due to all of the super-hero titles it had to compete with at comic book shops. What distinguished Jonah Hex from just about everything else on the market was the fact that it was a "typical Western" - it was set in the post-Civil War American West (circa 1850 - 1900), stayed within it’s own universe, the anti-hero protagonist was a flesh-and-blood 'everyman’, and the storylines were true-to-life with no super-villains, aliens or any other fantastic elements.  Michael Fleisher had written Jonah Hex stories since Weird Western Tales #22 (1974) and Jonah Hex had pretty much become his character by this point, so when DC decided to shake things up with the new Hex series it was a little surprising that it was revealed as Fleisher’s idea.

Well, actually that’s not the whole truth - Fleisher credits the idea of Hex to Ed Hannigan who, about a year prior to the publication of Hex, showed up in Fleisher’s office with a new electric pink 'Hex’ logo he’d designed for no reason whatsoever. This got Fleisher thinking about what kind of book would suit that title and a title about Jonah Hex trapped in a post-apocalyptic future was proposed to the DC editorial board. But I kind of suspect that story to be bogus, too. The first person (that I know of) to suggest pulling Jonah Hex out of his environment and placing him in a new locale to fight aliens and super-villains was a fan named Doug Taylor who wrote in to Jonah Hex v1 #76 (1983). Taylor argued that the series had gotten formulaic and that Jonah could be placed in any situation and still be interesting - he wasn’t criticizing, he was only offering suggestions on how to revitalize the series and it’s dwindling sales. The letter column writers dismissed the idea and Jonah Hex fans flamed poor Taylor’s suggestions in the letter pages of Jonah Hex for many issues to come.

There are some pretty obvious parallels between Hex and 1980s films like Escape From New York (1981) and the Mad Max trilogy (1979 - 1985) if for no other reason than they are set in a post-apocalyptic future and the anti-hero protagonist rides a motorcycle and is good with a gun. All of those films had a nice North American reception at the box office and earned a cult-favorite following - so that could’ve been another source of inspiration.

  • No matter what the true source of inspiration may have been, DC decided that Crisis on Infinite Earths was the best time to take Jonah Hex in a completely new direction and send him to 2050 AD. Harbinger (in the Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series) makes a very candid comment about Jonah Hex being plucked out of the past and being sent to the far future - so that pretty much wraps up everything, right? Wrong. Hex created two major continuity problems:Jonah Hex gets sent to a post-apocalyptic future that had somehow endured some massive nuclear war in 2045 AD that left North America as a (mostly) dystopian wasteland. This was in direct conflict with the Legion of Super-Heroes’ future timeline (then written by Paul Levitz). After the Crisis on Infinite Earths it was decided that the DC universe would be part of one consistent universe and only have one possible future, so now Levitz had to try to incorporate the new nuclear-ravaged North America into Legion of Super-Hero’s past continuity.
  • In Jonah Hex Spectacular (1978), Fleisher wrote “The Last Bounty Hunter” - a story which details the death of Jonah Hex in 1904. This creates the big continuity paradox of 'how was Jonah supposed to be killed in 1904 if he was stuck in the year 2050’? Fleisher never resolved this, but the ending of Hex indicates that Jonah does somehow make it back to his own time - the reader just never knows how.

Hex lasted 18 issues from 1985 to 1987 and was cancelled because sales were too low. I think the main problem with the series was that it outraged a lot of the die-hard Jonah Hex fans who felt that moving him out of the old West and into the far future was basically sacrilege. I suspect Jonah being sent to 2050 AD was a last ditch attempt by Fleisher to keep the book alive - Jonah Hex v1 #92 ended hastily with a lot of dangling plot lines left unresolved (the new Hex series was previewed in Jonah Hex #89).

Hex was still a good series, but I’m sensing a lot of it’s regular readers were new fans since many letters in the letter column inquired as to the origins of Jonah’s disfigured face. The series did not have the Comics Code Authority seal on it’s cover, but wasn’t overly violent and the language wasn’t profane (and I don’t remember of any implied sexual situations). Still written by Fleisher, the series was fast-paced and had plenty of action.

The Legion of Super-Heroes made an extremely brief appearance (Hex #10; ties in with Legion of Super-Heroes v3 #23) and a future version of Batman even guest-starred (Hex #11 - 12). I’m going to assume that the Batman appearance was just a marketing gimmick as Fleisher stated that Hex #11 received some of the highest sales of the series. Mark Texeira illustrated the majority of the first fourteen issues of Hex, and Keith Giffen pencilled issues #15 - 18. While Texeira was a great choice and natural fit for the Hex series, Giffen was not. Many fans wrote in to complain that Giffen’s art was too confusing and chaotic, and threatened to drop the book if Giffen wasn’t dropped as an artist.

I’m inclined to agree with the die-hard fans that Jonah Hex works best as a Western character in a Western environment (as nine years of continuous publication have demonstrated). Thankfully, Jonah Hex went back to his Western roots in DC’s Vertigo imprint during the early 1990s.

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This article first posted December 2013 on the DC in the 80s tumblr.

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