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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1983 - 1984)

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 we last left our hero, a couple of wannabe bounty hunters were about to punch Jonah's ticket, but at the beginning of Jonah Hex #79 (December 1983), Jonah gets away with a bullet in his side after blasting one of them in the face. What follows is an issue-long chase through the desert, which ends when a nearly-dead Jonah tricks his pursuer into drinking from a poisoned water hole. J.D. Hart (who’s been following Jonah’s trail for quite some time) rides up moments later, but it’s not until Jonah Hex #80 that we learn Jonah is still alive. A sheriff and his posse soon arrive as well, and take Jonah into custody despite Hart’s protests. After being deposited in the local jail and looked over by a doctor, Jonah manages to tell Hart about the letter, and as the marshal sets out to go fetch it, three of Turnbull’s men tail him, and he gets jumped once they’re out in the wilderness. Sometime later, Jonah gets a visitor: Emmylou Hartley, who read in the paper about Jonah’s capture. He reassures her that everything will be right as rain soon, unaware that Mei Ling has also come to visit -- she walks in just as Hex and Emmy are in a lip-lock, and though the sight of them together upsets Mei Ling, it’s Emmy that leaves, saying, "I-it’s always been you he’s loved anyway! Not (sob) me!"

Later on, Little Raven -- the young Ojibwa that Jonah helped out two issues earlier -- shows up outside the jailhouse window, all ready to free his blood brother with a lit bundle of dynamite! After collecting up his gear, Jonah bolts out of town alone on horseback, unaware that Turnbull is following not far behind. When Jonah reaches the pile of rocks where he hid the letter, Turnbull suddenly appears, gun in hand, and demands that Jonah step away from the rocks. Keeping his eyes fixed on the bounty hunter, Turnbull thrusts his free hand into a hole in the rock pile, then screams. "Thet’s whut’s alluz bound tuh happen when yuh go an’ stick yore hand in a rattlesnakes’ nest!" Jonah says as he picks up a forked branch to pin the rattler with, thereby letting him retrieve the letter within. The proof of his innocence secured, Jonah turns to leave, not caring that his longtime enemy will most likely die from the snakebite. When we get to Jonah Hex #81, however, he has a change of heart about letting Turnbull die, and instead sucks the venom out of the unconscious man’s wound, then bundles him into Turnbull’s surrey to drive him back to town. When the old man comes to, he’s rather surprised by Jonah’s kindness, but he doesn’t have long to contemplate it before the two of them are attacked by El Papagayo -- we last saw the bandito rotting in jail back in Jonah Hex #72, and it looks like he and his men have decided to repay the favor by gunning down both Hex and Turnbull!

Elsewhere, the ladies in Jonah’s life begin to move on without him: Emmy arranges to leave town on the stagecoach to St. Louis, and Mei Ling shares a meal with J.D. Hart who, after escaping Turnbull's men and explaining to the local law about the plot against Hex, has decided to start courting Mei Ling! Such things are the least of Jonah’s concerns at the moment, since he's still trying to escape El Papagayo's wrath and keep Turnbull alive at the same time. After damn-near getting blown up at the start of Jonah Hex #82, the two men end up trapped on a narrow cliff ledge, presumably making them sitting ducks, but when Papagayo spots them, he inexplicably decides to leave them be for now, promising to kill Hex next time they meet. "Good grief, Jonah!" Turnbull says to him. "What is all this, anyway? Some kind of crazy game you two play?" As they make their way back to town, though, Turnbull tells Jonah that he’s in the bounty hunter’s debt for saving his life so many times over the course of the past day, and swears he’ll file a sworn affidavit saying the death of Governor Phelps was an accident. Between this and the governor’s letter, the criminal charges against Jonah will be dropped...but their old feud still stands, and Turnbull declares, "For your role in bringing about the death of my only, beloved son, I hereby renew my vow to put you in an early grave!"

All these threats fade into the background for Jonah once they reach town, because when he catches sight of a commotion in front of Mei Ling’s hotel, he immediately fears the worst. And he has good reason to: a passel of skunks called the Riordan brothers kidnapped Mei Ling right outside the hotel in order to lure out Hex. They winged J.D. Hart in the process, but he insists on coming along with Jonah as he tracks them down. They ride out so fast that Jonah never thinks to ask what Hart was doing with Mei Ling in the first place, though he figures it our real quick when he sees the marshal -- who rescued Mei Ling while Jonah took out the bad guys -- holding the woman a mite too closely. Jonah doesn’t even bother to ask for an explanation, he simply begins pounding on Hart, then storms off, leaving behind any notions that he and Mei Ling could ever again be a happily-married couple.

Of course, he’s still got Emmylou to fall back on... or he would if she hadn’t taken the stage to St. Louis, remember? Emmy thought leaving Jonah would bring an end to her problems, but a new one arises when the stagecoach gets stopped by bandits before it reaches its destination, and along with the strongbox on board, they decide to take Emmy as well! She demands in Jonah Hex #83 to know why she was abducted, to which the man in charge replies, "‘Cause you were the only good-lookin’ female in the bunch, that’s why!" We then discover that the other two bandits are women, though whether they were kidnapped as well is uncertain. To be sure, the man seems intent on beating up Emmy until she learns to obey him, but considering the treatment she got during her years with the Crow Indians, she may be able to endure whatever punishment he puts her through.

Jonah throws a fit when the desk clerk at the hotel tells him that Emmy checked out yesterday and left on the stage. Despite knowing that she was heading to St. Louis, Jonah chooses instead to get rip-roaring drunk, and by nightfall he's standing by the edge of a lake, cursing the mess his life has become. He decides right then and there to devote his life to being the best damn drunkard he can be, tossing his prized Colt Dragoons into the water for good measure:

Jonah falls asleep not long after, and wakes up the next morning to find a lady named Catherine Rebecca Smollett berating him for his slovenly state. She talks him into accompanying her back to the a nearby temperance farm, where she plans on making a God-fearing teetotaler out of him. Considering that Hex was probably suffering from the mother of all hangovers, it’s surprising that he didn’t just cuss Smollett out and stumble off in the opposite direction, but perhaps there was some unpickled part of his brain that realized he really couldn’t go through life like this. Jonah spends the next few days working on the farm, trying his best to remain sober as well as put behind him all the grief he’s gone through over the past few months. This reprieve from his troubles doesn't last long, though, as some fellas show up on the farm looking to gun down Hex. Despite his own lack of firearms, Jonah makes short work of them, and afterward, Smollett reluctantly asks him to leave. “I do wish you could have stayed here with us long enough to be truly saved, Jonah!” she says as he makes ready to ride off. Jonah replies that he figures he’s been pretty nearly saved already, silently adding, Leastways as saved as Ah’m ever likely tuh be!

After acquiring some new pistols in the opening pages of Jonah Hex #84, the bounty hunter receives a telegram from the wealthy Mr. Sterling, offering him a job down in New Orleans. Jonah arrives two weeks later, just as Mardi Gras is about to begin, and his told by Mr. Sterling that he fears his daughter, Adrian, may be kidnapped during the festivities. Sure enough, as Jonah is escorting Adrian and her fiancé, Clifford Mapely, from a party later that night, they are attacked by three men, one of whom shoots Jonah while the other two grab Adrian -- Clifford flees during the commotion, leaving his fiancée and their unconscious bodyguard to fend for themselves. Adrian bluffs the attackers into thinking that Jonah is her fiancé, and Clifford was the bodyguard, so they kidnap both of them and stash the couple in a wine cellar somewhere within the city. When Jonah wakes up later, Adrian tells him why she lied: She apparently fell in love with Jonah the moment she laid eyes on him! Though surprised by this turn of events, Jonah frees himself and Adrian from their bonds, and together they take out the kidnappers. After turning them over to the authorities, Jonah escorts Adrian home, where she tells the shamefaced Clifford she never wants to see him again, then walks off arm-in-arm with Jonah!

Elsewhere in the issue, we look in on Emmylou Hartley, who’s still being held captive by bandits. The leader, Brett, has kept her tied up and locked in a closet for the past few weeks in an effort to soften her up. Whenever she begs to be let out, Brett tells her that it’s not his fault she’s tied up, but her own, and that, if she’d just promise to not try to escape every chance she gets, he’d gladly untie her (a textbook example of brainwashing). It’s not until Jonah Hex #85 that Emmy finally gives in when they ask her to help with a bank robbery.

Meanwhile, Jonah’s spent the past two weeks playing socialite with Adrian, who’s managed to gussy him up "like a blasted chimpanzee" (as Jonah puts it), and though he seems fond of the attention she lavishes on him, he's lost his taste for the non-stop partying. Jonah had best enjoy the high life while it lasts, for unbeknownst to him, Quentin Turnbull has set yet another assassin on the bounty hunter’s trail: a masked man in Confederate togs called the Gray Ghost. It’s said he was a Confederate officer whose family was slain by Union troops, and when the War ended, he refused to surrender, choosing instead to hunt down those he believed to be traitors to the Cause...and his newest target for vengeance is Jonah Hex!

That night, as Jonah and Arian ride home from yet another party, they come across a man stranded alongside the road. They offer him a ride in their buggy, and “Mister Gray”, as he’s calling himself, is grateful to take them up on it. Whatever plan the Gray Ghost has in mind is soon scuttled when a trio of men nestled on a ridge further up the road suddenly begin firing upon the buggy, clipping “Mister Gray” in the head. Hex takes up a rifle and opens fire, killing one of them, but the other two get away -- we later learn that these men were hired by the Clifford to eliminate Jonah so he can get Adrian back. Unaware that there’s still a snake in their midst, Jonah and Adrian take the injured “Mister Gray” back to their home, and soon they all turn in for the night. Before Adrian joins Jonah in bed, however, she decides to check in on their guest, only to find the Gray Ghost brandishing a gun in her face. He shoots the woman, then goes after Jonah, who’s already out of bed and armed -- they briefly exchange gunfire in the stairwell before the Gray Ghost decides that it would be best to retreat at the moment. Unfortunately for him, his exit is spotted by Clifford’s hired men, who mistake the man in Confederate gray for Hex and fill him full of lead!

The issue ends with Mr. Sterling and Jonah speaking with a doctor, who tells them that Adrian will recover from her wounds in a month or two, while reassuring them that the Gray Ghost is most certainly dead... though the reader soon finds out the Gray Ghost handsomely paid the doctor to lie. There was even more bad news waiting in that issue’s letter column, which opened with a note from Michael Fleisher. "Writing these lines is a bittersweet experience for me, for reasons that will soon become apparent," he began, then informed readers that Jonah Hex #85 marked his 100th Hex tale as writer (17 issues of Weird Western Tales, 81 of 85 issues of Jonah Hex, and the stories included in the Jonah Hex Spectacular and Super-Star Holiday Special) and his third as editor. He spoke of his deep love for the character, and of the fans who’d stuck by Hex through thick and thin. “In a comic book market increasingly dominated by costumed flying men, we have, together, managed to keep alive the spellbinding legend of one flawed, ordinary, extraordinary man," he wrote. "Whatever the future brings us, we’ve accomplished something together we can always be proud of."

Then came the bitter part of his note: After seven years of monthly adventures, Jonah Hex was becoming a bi-monthly title again. Fleisher told readers this was due to the burgeoning direct market (AKA comic book stores), which had a different sales demographic than, say, a spinner rack at the local drug store. "Jonah has always been very strong on the newsstands, but in the comic shops, well, to be frank about it, he’s never been entirely comfortable squeezed in among all those flying men," he wrote. In DC’s eyes, a book that couldn’t perform well in both markets at once wasn’t worthy of monthly publication. In an effort to turn the tide, Fleisher asked readers to not only buy Jonah Hex comics at their local shop, but also to introduce the character to friends in order to increase readership.

Two months later, Jonah Hex #86 (August 1984) shows the Gray Ghost stumbling home, where his son, Jeremy Ashford, is waiting for him -- not only does the Gray Ghost now have a surname, but it looks like at least one member of his family survived the supposed massacre. Still in bad shape from the gunshot wounds he suffered last issue, the Ghost spends a week recuperating before riding out again to finish the job he started. He kidnaps Adrian and lures Jonah to a local slaughterhouse to finish him off, leading to a three-page brawl along with a good amount of gunfire. In the end, Jonah rescues Adrian, but the Gray Ghost vanishes once more, much to Jonah’s consternation. "Whar in the Sam Hill is he?!?" he shouts when he goes to look for the body, only to find a couple of bloodstains on the floor.

Next time, we discover the final fates of the Gray Ghost and Emmylou Hartley, along with the desperate plan to save Jonah Hex!

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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