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Monday, April 4, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1978 - 1980)

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.

Before we continue with our assessment of Jonah's regular title, let's take a moment to focus on the Jonah Hex Spectacular (Fall 1978). In addition to backup tales featuring Bat Lash and Scalphunter, this standalone special contains an unforgettable landmark in Jonah's history, drawn by the legendary Russ Heath. "Well, the first idea I had was to do a story about Jonah Hex being old," Michael Fleisher said in an interview published in The Comics Journal #56 (June 1979). "[My idea was] to do a story about Jonah Hex in his 60s...and I knew that I'd already established, at least in my own mind, that Jonah Hex was born in 1838. So I said, 'Gee, 60s, what year would that be?' and I found myself in the early 1900s."

And that's also where the reader finds themselves as "The Last Bounty Hunter" opens in 1904, with a white-haired Hex still tracking down outlaws at the ripe old age of sixty-six. The march of time has changed him a little -- instead of the aimless wanderer he was in the 1870s, he’s settled down in Cheyenne, Wyoming with a young Comanche gal named Tall Bird, and has to wear reading glasses when filling out reward vouchers -- but otherwise Jonah’s just as ornery and dangerous as always. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is rapidly leaving him behind, a fact pointed out to him by Michael Wheeler, a professor from Princeton who wants to write a book about Jonah. Wheeler spends months with Hex, and one afternoon, when the two men are out hunting, they encounter Lew Farnham, who runs a traveling Wild West show. Seems he wants Hex to hire on with him so he can turn the old man into a cross between Buffalo Bill and a rodeo clown, complete with a white spangled outfit. Not surprisingly, Hex turns Farnham down flat. Many days later, Jonah’s sitting in on a poker game at a saloon in town while waiting for Wheeler. He’s having a hard time focusing on the cards, so he removes his glasses to clean them off, just as an outlaw named George Barrow bursts in with a shotgun -- Hex had wiped out Barrow’s gang the night before, and now he’s back for revenge, letting Hex have it with both barrels before the bounty hunter can even draw his gun. Wheeler returns in time to see the local law take out Barrow, but it’s too late for Jonah:

Not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story. Jonah Hex was shot dead by George Barrow in the winter of 1904...and the blows keep on a-comin'. While Wheeler and Tall Bird are preparing a funeral pyre for Jonah's body, Lew Farnham and his assistant show up to steal it -- Wheeler is shot in the struggle, Tall Bird knocked unconscious, and the cabin set ablaze to cover up the crime. Farnham then takes the body to a taxidermist to have Jonah stuffed, mounted, and dressed in that godawful costume Farnham made for him. Despite the indignities, Jonah does manage a spot of revenge from beyond the grave: as Farnham’s assistant tries to wedge Jonah's gun into his hand, it goes off in the guy’s face (Farnham blames it on the gun's hair-trigger, but doubt will be thrown on this assessment many years later). As the years pass, Jonah’s corpse is displayed in one town after the next, making oodles of cash for Farnham, who eventually gets his at the hands of a gang of robbers. Then comes the final insult to Jonah’s afterlife, as the robbers take his body and sell it to an antique dealer, thus setting off decades of Jonah Hex being passed from one owner to the next, until it's completely forgotten that he’s actually a preserved corpse and not some ugly statue. The final panel shows his body on display at an amusement park, looking rather pathetic as he stands in the rain, alone and forgotten:

"It made me very unhappy, that story," Fleisher said later on. "It made me very sad and upset. The people who think that story is some sort of a sadistic toying with the reader are really wrong because I got very choked up writing that story, because it was the death of a character that I really loved -- not only loved, but I feel is really me." It also may have never been published if Larry Hama -- editor for both this and Jonah’s regular title at the time -- hadn’t supported it. Keep in mind that not only does this story kill off a major character (not unheard of at the time, but still unusual), but one that will still be appearing in a monthly title once this story is over with. Fleisher dared to tell the readers how the saga of Hex’s life was going to end long before that saga was even close to wrapping up. The fact that, technically, every Jonah Hex story is a flashback makes such a thing possible (remember, this is a Western character living well over a century in the past), but there were some in the comics industry who felt this particular revelation would dull the sense of danger in subsequent Hex stories, since the readers now knew how he was really going to die. At the time, Fleisher was quick to point out that people had no trouble reading Superboy stories when they knew good and well he was going to grow up to be Superman. "[M]y impression is that reaction was favorable," Fleisher added. "But certainly there were people who felt angry...'How dare he write about a death that's not valiant? Jonah Hex could die, but at least he should die saving a whole city.’ I didn't think that's how a person like that would die." This follows a rule Fleisher adhered to in his writing, that the characters should always be the most important thing in a story, and that an action scene should be sacrificed from a overly-long script before a character moment is.

We go from a fateful future to a ghost from the past with Jonah Hex #20 (January 1979) as Jonah’s father shows up! It’s been nearly twenty-five years since Woodson Hex dumped his son with the Apache, and the old man’s just as scheming as ever, this time playing the inside man on the robbery of a stagecoach carrying $250,000 in double eagles. Jonah's not aware of this, of course, and nearly gets killed by Pa for his trouble. After escaping the little death-trap Pa and his cohorts set up, Jonah tracks them down and finishes them off, save for his father, who collapses for reasons unknown. He rushes the old man to a doctor and, after many minutes of pacing in the waiting room, the doc comes out and tells Jonah that Woodson is dying of a heart attack. The elder and younger Hex talk for a while -- probably the most civil conversation they’ve ever had -- and Pa passes on before he can tell Jonah where the money’s hid. The doctor takes care of the funeral arrangements, and as Jonah makes ready to ride off, he asks if, deep down, Jonah really loved his father. "Ah hated thet old man, Doc!" Jonah replies. "Hated his guts! But when yuh get down to it...Ah guess a man ain't got but one Pa!"

Too bad his Pa is the type who'll pay off a doctor to lie to his son: Woodson Hex is alive and well, and now $250,000 richer. Jonah Hex #21 picks up just three days later, as Woodson is spending money like water, which catches the attention of some ne'er-do-wells. They rough him up until Woodson tells them that he's only got “a few pocketfuls” of coins...and his son, Jonah Hex, has the rest! The fellas then track Jonah down and try to persuade him with a crowbar. They soon realize they're not getting anywhere, so they decide to step it up a notch and haul Jonah out to an old sawmill, where they're also holding Woodson. After tying both men to the waterwheel, they set it in motion, hoping a few good dunkings will loosen the Hexes' tongues.

Jonah manages to free himself and Pa, and after taking out their captors, Jonah turns his gun on Pa before he can escape on horseback. "Y-yuh shorely wouldn’t drill yore own dear Paw, w-would yuh, Jonah boy?" Woodson stammers, one foot already in the stirrups. Jonah informs him that yes he would, then demands to know where the rest of the money really is. Seems Pa hid it in an undertaker’s parlor before those guys captured him -- more specifically, it's in an occupied coffin due to be buried. They race back to town, figuring on digging up the coffin once the funeral’s done, but unfortunately, the dead man’s last wishes were for his coffin to be sealed inside the played-out silver mine he’d worked in for forty years, and with one push of the detonator's plunger, the missing money is lost for good. Jonah and Pa part ways after that, both unsatisfied with the outcome but seeing no point in taking it out on each other. All in all, the elder Hex comes off as almost comical in this pair of stories, and aside from lobbing insults at him, Jonah seems to want no revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child -- perhaps now being an adult that has lived through far worse, it doesn’t seem worth the trouble.

With Jonah Hex #23, drawn by Dick Ayers and Romeo Tanghal, we get another landmark in Jonah's history, though we won’t realize it for nearly two years. The story centers around a group of Chinese workers building a railroad spur who are suffering at the hands of their employers, to the point where they’re being gunned down in order to quell dissent in the ranks. The elderly leader of this group tries to hire Hex to avenge the deaths, but he’s only able to pay 20 dollars, so Jonah turns him down. The elderly Chinaman is then killed by three of the rail bosses, an event Jonah witnesses, which leads to him avenging those deaths for free. You’d think that would be the end of the matter, but there’s one person who’s not satisfied with the outcome: the Chinaman's daughter, Mei Ling, who tries to take out all her anger and frustration on the bounty hunter.

What follows is a prime example of Fleisher's "character moments trump action" rule, as the next couple of pages feature Jonah doing nothing more than talking with Mei Ling. He not only expresses remorse over the death of her father, but Mei Ling manages to get him to open up a little about both his personal beliefs (of which he claims to have none) and the reason why he leads the violent life he does. Getting Jonah to talk about anything having to do with himself is like pulling teeth, so there must be something quite remarkable about Mei Ling for him to do so. All this time they spend "makin' cow eyes" at each other doesn't go unnoticed, and the remaining rail bosses soon kidnap her in order to get revenge on Hex. Our hero soon makes short work of them, and then we get a scene that'll bring a tear to your eye:

Jonah’s already lost one love that we know of -- Joanna Mosby -- but as callous as it may sound, he could probably deal with that loss easier, since Joanna is now dead and forever out of reach. Mei Ling, however, is very much alive, but unwilling to continue their relationship because of the hatred she knows Jonah holds for himself. So she instead sends him away weeping, an act that probably adds yet another layer of scars to Jonah's lonely heart. There's a sort of counterpoint to this scene in Jonah Hex #25 (June 1979) when, after a typical story filled with gunplay, harrowing escapes, innocents dying, and the bad guy meeting a gruesome end, the wife of Hex's now-deceased Confederate Army buddy proceeds to berate him about it. Mei Ling's hope that Jonah could perhaps find a way to love himself doesn’t stand much chance against the fact that, wherever he goes, lives are destroyed, and he’s usually the one responsible.

In Jonah Hex #27, drawn by Vicente Alcazar, we're treated to a tale of Jonah's childhood, told by the man himself to a boy who wishes to run away with Hex and become a gunfighter. Back in 1849 -- two years before his Pa sold him to the Apache -- an eleven-year-old Jonah became enamored with a gunfighter as well, though this man was an outlaw. Bart Mallory has a charisma that young Jonah finds irresistible, and the man treats him with far more respect than Pa's ever shown him, so when he offers to let Jonah help him rob the bank over in Haverville, Jonah's all for it. After giving the boy a pistol, Mallory stations Jonah outside the bank to act as a lookout, then goes inside to do the deed. Unfortunately, the local law got wind of his plan and ambushes him -- with his dying breath, Mallory lies to the lawmen and says he kidnapped Jonah, therefore absolving the boy of any wrongdoing, so they let Jonah go. When he gets home, he stashes the pistol (which the lawmen didn’t take from him) under the floorboards right before his father walks in and starts smacking him around for not doing his chores. It's an interesting look at just how early Jonah’s experiences with death and gunsmoke began. Also of interest is the fact that, while the end of the story shows young Jonah pulling out the gun and practicing his quick-draw skills, we never see him turn that gun on his abusive father...though about eight years later, we'll learn of an incident not long before this one that may have discouraged him from doing so.

We get to revisit Jonah's past in another fashion with Jonah Hex #30, the first installment of a three-part tale that spans a decade. It starts somewhere near the end of the Civil War, when Jonah and his comrade-in-arms, Corporal Eddie Cantwell, manage to capture a Union paymaster’s wagon, along with the Yankees guarding it. To Jonah’s dismay, Cantwell guns down the Yankees after they surrender, then suggests that he and Hex bury the money and reclaim it once the War’s over, which he believes is right around the corner. Jonah nixes the idea, but it turns out Cantwell wasn’t too far off:

We get a quick gloss-over of Jonah's battle with Noh-Tante and tragic scarring, then move on to the winter of 1866, where Jonah is drafted into a posse to hunt down some bank robbers. The sheriff is impressed when Jonah captures the bad guys single-handedly, and recommends Jonah should take up bounty-hunting, starting with the capture of "a Satan-born, mad-dog killer" named Eddie Cantwell! The story continues in Jonah Hex #31, wherein Jonah tracks down Cantwell, unable to believe that is old friend is a thief and killer. After subduing Cantwell's cohorts without bloodshed, Jonah tries to talk things out with the man, but they’re interrupted by Arbee Stoneham, a tracker of great renown and little mercy, who proceeds to give Jonah a crash-course in bounty hunting:

You’d think this would be the end of our story, with Jonah chastised and his old friend dead, but in reality, this two-issue flashback is mere preamble for Jonah Hex #32 (January 1980), which takes place eight years later in the spring 1874. Jonah's older, wiser, and much more skilled than he was during that first encounter, and he’s decided to hunt Stoneham down and give him a taste of his own medicine. It’s an abrupt change in tone from the tale's first two parts, emphasized by the art chores being passed from Luis Dominguez to Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. After a quick recap, Jonah rides into the town of Murphysburg, where Stoneham now lives, and while inquiring about him, some members of a local gang catch sight of Hex and presume he's in town to capture them. The majority of the issue covers the gang's attempt to ambush Jonah and his systematic takedown of all twelve members of the gang in a variety of ways: a Bowie knife, bullets, a lit kerosene lantern, a bundle of dynamite, all topped off with death by stampede for the ringleader. It’s a jaw-dropping spectacle, and you just know that what Jonah has planned for Stoneham is going to blow it all it's a bit of a shock when he finally reaches the steps of the boarding house where Stoneham lives:

Turns out a bullet to the spine ended Arbee Stoneham’s bounty-hunting career a few years back, and even worse, he doesn’t even remember Jonah! This puts the kibosh on whatever revenge Jonah had planned, as well as giving him a glimpse of what his future might be like if he continues down the path of a professional gunfighter (of course, we do know what his future will be, and I’d say Jonah got off lucky that his biggest complaint in old age was failing eyesight).

Recommended reading:

Next time, we'll get a double-dose of holiday cheer from Hex, plus more Civil War shenanigans and the return of a character that'll convince Jonah to do the unthinkable. 

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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