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Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1980 - 1981)

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 you think of characters suitable for holiday stories, Jonah doesn't exactly leap to mind, but that didn't stop him from appearing in two different Christmas-themed tales released around the same time. The first was in Jonah Hex #34 (March 1980), with art by Dan Spiegle, and revolves around Jonah crossing paths with his Pa once more, this time in a ghost town taken over by outlaws. Seems it was Woodson's idea to set up this "haven fer owlhoots", so when Jonah comes riding in on the trail of some of the town’s "citizens", Pa pins on a sheriff's badge and tosses his son in jail! Even worse, Woodson is cooking up plans for a train robbery with the very men Jonah’s tracking, so our favorite bounty hunter has to break out of jail and take them out before any innocents get killed. In the end, it’s just Jonah and Woodson, and though the old man doesn’t fake a coronary like he did last time, he does plead for his life, and Jonah agrees to let him go...if he does Jonah a favor. Seems those outlaws Jonah was tracking had killed a kindly philanthropist who played Santa at the local orphanage every year. But the man’s dead now, and Woodson Hex has a white beard and rather portly build, so Jonah gets an idea:

Fleisher also penned Jonah's appearance in the Super-Star Holiday Special (Spring 1980), which is probably better known for containing the first Batman tale written by Frank Miller. But we're here for Hex, not Bats, so let's move on. Drawn by Dick Ayers & Romeo Tanghal, this quick 10-pager has Jonah tracking down some outlaws one Christmas Eve when he comes across a settler who’s fixing to shoot his daughter’s pet fawn so they can have a proper holiday dinner -- the winter’s been hard, game is scarce, and that fawn is all they have left to eat. Jonah stops the man and says that he’ll scrounge up something else for the family without giving him a reason why, though we soon learn, via flashback, that Jonah went through a similar situation when he was ten years old. After rescuing a raccoon from a trap, he brought it home to nurse it back to health, but his drunken Pa kills it later on so his wife could serve it up for supper...and for those keeping score, this marks the first time we ever see Jonah’s mother, Ginny:

As you can imagine, Jonah’s outburst earns him a smack across the face, along with a threat of worse punishment if he dares to lash out again. Thus is the source of Jonah’s desire to save that little girl’s pet from the same fate, though he can’t seem to flush out any game either. On a lark, he decides to follow a bright star in the sky -- an element used throughout the Super-Star Holiday Special -- and it leads him not only to the outlaws he was looking for, but after Jonah wipes them out, he recovers the provisions they were toting, thereby saving the fawn’s life with a knapsack full of hardtack and beef jerky. Despite the somewhat-gruesome flashback in the middle, it’s a rather heartwarming story, with an uncharacteristic (for Hex at least) happy ending.

There’s not much to be happy about in Jonah Hex #35-36, as Fleisher, Ayers, and Dominguez give us a two-parter dealing with the Fort Charlotte Massacre, which of course means we’re dealing with Turnbull once again. Seems the old man has formed the "Fort Charlotte Brigade" with the remaining survivors of Jonah’s regiment, and they're all eager to get even with him for his betrayal. The issue then rolls into a revised telling of Weird Western Tales #29 [1975], or at least the flashback portion of it (if you lay both comics side-by-side, you’ll find that the rendition in Jonah Hex #35 is nearly verbatim). The next issue begins with Jonah getting kicked out of the town of Painted Butte, Texas, as it seems the holier-than-thou townsfolk don’t want a known gunfighter walking their streets. A saloon gal comes to Jonah’s defense, and they send her packing too, and Jonah finds himself with an unwanted traveling companion. After an incident with a collapsing bridge, the duo gets captured by the Fort Charlotte Brigade and hauled off to the infamous fort, where Jonah and the saloon gal are locked away in the same building the Yankees tossed him in back in 1863. It doesn’t take long for Jonah to figure out what comes next:

What Hex doesn’t figure on is the saloon gal -- who feels she owes him for saving her life -- knocking him out, putting on his uniform, and acting as a decoy so Jonah can get away while their captors are focused on her. It’s great plan, really, with the exception of neither of them knowing that the Fort Charlotte Brigade stacked the odds against them and rigged the barbwire perimeter fence to explode, which it did once that poor girl tried to cut through it. With "Jonah Hex" dead, Turnbull’s goons leave, and the real Jonah escapes right out from under their noses, stopping long enough to bury the woman who saved his life on the outskirts of the old fort.

Jonah Hex #37 also deals with Jonah’s Civil War days, telling a tale that reveals Lieutenant Hex to be the soldier who accidentally shot General "Stonewall" Jackson (a odd fact of DCU history that carried over to the post-Flashpoint universe , as there's a throwaway line about it in All-Star Western #19 [1973], over thirty-three years later). At least there’s something for both Jonah and us to smile about in Jonah Hex #39, because for the first time in six years, Tony DeZuniga is back to draw the character he co-created, and within a few issues, he'll retake his place as the main artist for Jonah's title. Things weren't so rosy elsewhere that same month, as Weird Western Tales was cancelled with the publication of issue #70, making Jonah Hex the sole Western offering by DC, and one of the last still being published by any comics company (Marvel had cancelled both Kid Colt and Rawhide Kid the previous year, both of which were merely reprint titles by that time). Despite this grim outlook for the genre, Michael Fleisher and artist Gerald Forton were grooming a new Western character for DC, with the intent being to give him his own title.

Though this lofty notion never came to pass, Jeremiah "J.D." Hart debuted in Jonah Hex #42 as a U.S. Marshal who embodies the old-school "Western superhero" archetype: he shoots guns out of the hands of bad guys, does trick shots with silver dollars, and even has a doting aunt and a freckle-faced younger cousin who just love him to pieces. This is the sort of character that Jonah Hex was designed to supplant, and yet here he is, filling up the middle of the issue with his aw-shucks attitude. Even worse, Hart is soon set on Jonah’s trail by the mayor of Feldon’s Gap, who claims Hex killed the town’s banker -- in reality, the mayor and his accomplice want the bounty hunter eliminated before he finds out about them hiring outlaws to drive the locals off some prime real estate they want to sell to the railroad (they’re also the ones who killed the banker, who was in on the scam). Meanwhile, Jonah’s distracted by a familiar face turning up in his life once more: Mei Ling! Turns out her brother lives near Feldon’s Gap, and she was on her way to visit when her buckboard lost a wheel, the jolt causing her to injure her leg. Luckily, Jonah was riding nearby and swooped in to rescue her. After taking her to a nearby farmhouse, the two of them talk about what happened when they parted ways:

Holy Hannah, did Jonah just retire from bounty-hunting?!? Not quite, for as we find out in Jonah Hex #43, Jonah still has one last job to do, which is to find the owlhoot who killed that banker. Yep, the mayor set things up so Hex and Hart would have no choice but to cross paths! When they do, all it takes is a few minutes of talking before they both realize something screwy is going on here, but Jeremiah Hart is a very by-the-book sort, so he still feels the need to bring Jonah in until this is all straightened out. On the way back to town, they get jumped by Apaches, who quickly recognize the "Mark of the Demon" Jonah bears. This leads to over three pages of flashback, explaining Jonah’s time among the Apache -- it seems like the only reason Fleisher included this was to refresh the memories of those fans who missed Jonah Hex #7-8 three years before, as well as give these Apaches a reason to burn Hex and Hart at the stake! Our duo escapes, but a shootout at the beginning of Jonah Hex #44 leaves Hart too wounded to go on, so Jonah has to ride back to Feldon's Gap alone to settle things with the two-timing mayor. Meanwhile, Mei Ling also heads to town in the hope of finding Jonah, but instead finds the fellas who shot at Hex and Hart openly bragging about killing them! Moments later, Jonah himself shows up and eliminates the skunks in a way J.D. Hart probably wouldn't approve of:

Later on, Jonah and Hart arrange a little subterfuge to trick the mayor and his accomplice into confessing their crimes, thereby allowing the story to end on a happy note, with Jonah and J.D. talking rather amicably, and Mei Ling standing next to Jonah with a loving look in her eyes. Seems our favorite bounty hunter is staying true to his word about retiring, and J.D. wishes the happy couple all the best, though he can’t stay for the wedding. “There’s rumors of another range war brewing up in Lincoln County, and I’m afraid I’ve got to ride up there and poke my big nose in it!” he says, a line that probably alludes to what would've been the first story arc of Hart’s own title had it manifested (years later, Hart will return to become a regular member of Jonah's supporting cast).

"One thing’s certain: from here on out I’m gonna be leadin’ a whole new life!" our scar-faced hero says to himself near the beginning of Jonah Hex #45. "No more gunfightin’! No more bounty huntin’! No more killin’ other men an’ givin’ other men a shot at killin' me!" Seems hard to believe, but Jonah means every word of it, as he truly desires to keep Mei Ling happy now that she’s agreed to marry him. The issue begins with the engaged couple picking out a wedding dress (much to the distaste of the other ladies in the shop), then moves on to Jonah heading over to the bank to finish up the paperwork on the house they’re buying (though it’s never stated outright, it appears they’re still in Feldons' Gap...and since the town banker died during that tale, this must be an associate Jonah’s dealing with). Before he gets there, though, an outlaw who has a beef with Jonah opens fire. Lucky for him, Jonah’s decided to be the merciful sort from now on, but that doesn’t stop Hex from beating the crap outta the guy. Later on, Jonah and Mei Ling travel to a farm outside town to meet up with her brother, Mei Wong, and his wife. We soon learn that Mei Wong is just as prejudiced as those white ladies back in town: he disowns Mei Ling on the spot for her wish to marry not just an Occidental, but a known killer. Geez, these two kids haven’t even made it to the altar yet, and already their marriage is in trouble. Things don’t get much better on their wedding day, for just as the ceremony finishes, the outlaw from the day before, along with three of his buddies, turn up outside the church and threaten to burn the whole town right to the ground if Jonah doesn’t come out and face them. Jonah, being true to his word, refuses to fight, which just puts everybody in the church into a uproar: Why should the town suffer just because Jonah promised his new wife that he’d lay down his guns? A man fetches Jonah’s Dragoons and the townsfolk all but force him out the door so he can confront the bad guys:

After the bodies stop falling and the smoke clears, Jonah apologizes to Mei Ling for what he’s done, then asks the banker for the keys to their new house so they can get away from all this. Unfortunately, it looks like that little dream’s been taken from them as well: those gossiping ladies from the dress shop got to the banker first, and demanded that he not sell any property to Jonah, what with him being a "notorious gunfighter and miscegenationist", as they put it. So our hapless banker spins a yarn about the property already being sold and he wasn’t informed. It’s very reminiscent of a scene near the end of All-Star Western #10, right down to Jonah saying to Mei Ling as they leave town, "Ah never really wanted tuh live around here anyhow!"

Things haven't improved much by the beginning of Jonah Hex #46 (March 1981), as we learn that our star-crossed couple has spent the last three weeks being turned out of every place they've tried to settle in. "Folks ain’t exactly scurryin' tuh lay out the welcome mat fer a yellow-skinned woman an’ a scarred-up ex-bounty hunter!" Jonah grumbles as they ride their buckboard through the rain towards a roadside inn. Once there, it’s the same old story, and Mei Ling has to talk Hex out of busting the heads of the racist skunks they run into there. Back on the trail again, one of the wheels on the buckboard jams up and breaks, throwing its passengers violently off. Mei Ling’s okay, but Jonah landed damn-near on his head, putting such a strain on his back that he can barely move. Not long after Mei Ling leaves to find help, their "friends" from the inn spot Hex from afar, and they decide to have a little fun with the "coolie lover". Despite being close to crippled, Jonah manages to take out two of the three men before crawling his way to a nearby abandoned farmhouse, where he eventually takes out the last man with the help of some rotted floorboards, a lot of straw, and a well-placed pitchfork. Sometime later, Mei Ling returns with a doctor -- they track Jonah to the house, where the doc informs him that his paralysis is most likely temporary, and a few weeks of bed rest should help him heal up. Laying on a bed within the abandoned house, Jonah mentions that they’re looking for a place to settle, and he’s wondering who owns this particular spread. "As a matter of fact, I own it!" Doc Pedersen says. Seems he bought it off a family that moved to California, "But I’d be more than happy to see two nice young folks like you have it!" And with that, Jonah and Mei Ling finally have a place to call home, and can really begin to enjoy their new life together.

Recommended reading:

In our next installment, Jonah passes two more milestones in his life, plus he learns that marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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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