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Friday, April 22, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1984 - 1985)

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.

As Jonah Hex #87 (October 1984) opens, Jonah finally tells Adrian Sterling his true feelings, namely how he’s beginning to feel "like some rich girl’s lap dog, goin' out tuh fancy dress-up parties ever' night." He's heading back out West, and though he does offer to bring her along, Adrian's hesitation is about all the answer he needs. Jonah hitches a ride on a freight train headed west, which later gets blown to Hell and gone by some outlaws...a bad move on their part, since Jonah survives to take them out one by one. Jonah hauls their carcasses to the nearest town, where the sheriff shows him the newest wanted poster to come in...and it just so happens to bear Emmylou Hartley’s face! She did indeed assist Brett and the other two gals, Camille and Sandy, with a bank robbery last issue, and though all the women were disguised as men, some people got a glimpse of Emmy’s face when her bandana fell down during a struggle with a bank customer -- Brett shot the man, but the blame has gotten pinned on Emmy.

In Jonah Hex #88, Jonah tries to get to the bottom of this mess, which gets more complicated when another group of train robbers decide to use the wanted poster of Emmy to their advantage: the leader buys a blonde, pigtailed wig and forces one of the younger gang members to wear it, the notion being that any job they pull will be blamed on Emmy’s gang instead. As (mis)fortune would have it, one of the passengers on the first train they decide to rob under this scheme is Adrian, who's so in love with Hex that she's trying to track him down. During the trip, Adrian strikes up a conversation with a former tavern gal named Temple Starr. Unlike Adrian, Temple is running away from a man, not after one, and she shows Adrian the man’s picture in an engraved locket he gave her. In a contrived sequence of events, Adrian asks to try on the locket just as the robbers burst into the passenger car, killing Temple and striking Adrian in the head with the butt of a gun. This results in Adrian losing her memory and (thanks to the engraved locket she was still wearing) later being led to believe that she’s actually Temple Starr! Though Jonah later rounds up the robbers, he never learns of Adrian’s mishap, and aside from a couple of brief scenes in the next issue of an amnesiac Adrian working in a saloon, this is the last we’ll ever see of her. For all we know, she spent the rest of her days waiting tables, unaware that she’d left friends, family, and riches behind in New Orleans.

After the false lead caused by the train robbers, Jonah finally manages to catch sight of Emmy with Brett and his gang. He follows them into the town of Red Dog, where they try to rob the assayer’s office. Not believing that Emmy could be a willing participant in all this, Jonah busts open the back door with the intent of rescuing her, and gets a nasty surprise:

Brett, Emmy, and the others get away clean, and the reader was left to wonder for two months whether or not Jonah survived. It turned out that, while Jonah didn’t lose his life, he did lose Tony DeZuniga, who left the title after this issue. Back in 2006, I was able to ask him via a mutual friend why he'd left, and his reply was simple: his contract with DC had expired, and they decided not to renew it. Though we can’t say for certain why DC made that decision, the most likely reason is that, by this point in time, the company had already determined the title was to be cancelled. As Fleisher had told readers months earlier, overall sales weren’t what they used to be, and with Crisis on Infinite Earths -- DC’s huge 50th anniversary event -- just around the corner, the time had come for sweeping changes across all titles. To paraphrase the old tagline, worlds would live and worlds would die, and Jonah’s world had fallen squarely on the "die" list.

This didn’t mean Fleisher was going to let Jonah go down without a fight. If the direct market didn’t favor Westerns, he’d find a different genre to slip the bounty hunter into. This is where Bob Greenberger comes into the picture: as editor for both Crisis on Infinite Earths and The History of the DC Universe, Greenberger was privy to much of the behind-the-scenes action during the mid-1980s. I spoke with him on the subject in 2012, and he said this portion of our tale actually begins a few years before Jonah’s impending cancellation. "In 1982, when Mad Max: Road Warrior was being brought to the United States after playing to huge box office in Australia a year earlier, several DC execs, including special projects guru Joe Orlando and his editor Andy Helfer, attended a screening. Andy was arguably in favor of licensing it for comics and Orlando, I was told, didn’t think DC should spend the money, just rip it off.” Greenberger believes that Helfer, who was acting as "keeper" for Fleisher in regards to his various projects, brought up the idea of dropping Jonah Hex into a Mad Max kind of setting (Fleisher credits his own viewing of the movie as inspiration, and it’s possible that Orlando, being a longtime friend of Fleisher’s, may have contributed to the idea as well). Also, Fleisher was locked into a four-books-a-month contract at the time -- with Jonah Hex cancelled, another project had to be created to fill that hole -- so he was given the go-ahead to move Jonah to a whole new playing field, "with the out being that we knew he’d come back [to the Old West] so he could be stuffed," Greenberger said.

With the destination set, all they needed to do now was build the road that would get Jonah there. First priority was getting a new artist, and Mark Texeira was chosen for the task -- illustrating Hex’s upcoming adventures would be his first long-term gig, starting with Jonah Hex #89. This issue is less action-packed than usual, and for good reason: Jonah’s got "a king-sized hole" in his chest thanks to Emmy, and he's resting up at the local boardinghouse. It's during this time that Jeremy Ashford comes riding into town, itching to avenge the death of his father, the Gray Ghost, who'd passed away two issues earlier after escaping Hex's wrath. Despite his poor physical shape, Hex saves Jeremy from being shot by a fella gunning for the bounty hunter, an act which later puts Jeremy in a moral quandary: how can he carry out his oath when the man he's sworn to kill saved his life? He eventually decides to face Hex like a man, unmasked. Finding him out on a porch swing, Jeremy sits down across from Jonah and tells him who he is. Jonah says he already knows, as he spied the uniform inside Jeremy’s bag when he saved him from getting shot. Jeremy then draws his gun and holds it inches from Jonah’s face, but the bounty hunter doesn’t flinch, he simply says, "Yuh want muh two cents, boy? Don’t do it!" What follows is probably the most intense scene in a Jonah Hex tale ever:

Jonah's calm demeanor causes Jeremy to lose his nerve and run off. Jonah breathes a sigh of relief, then reveals that he’d been holding a cocked pistol beneath the blanket on his lap the entire time. Moments later, Jeremy, who can’t live with the shame of letting down his father, puts his own pistol to his head and kills himself, bringing an abrupt end to the Gray Ghost saga (though a new version of the character would turn up 25 years later in Jonah Hex v2 #59).

The final three issues of Jonah Hex were drawn by Gray Morrow, who’s probably better known for his work on another DC cowboy -- Greg Saunders, the original Vigilante -- but he’d also done a cover or two in the past for the bounty hunter. It’s uncertain why Texeira didn’t close out the series, though we can speculate that his schedule was possibly full due to work on the new Hex title, so Morrow was brought in to pinch-hit, with Texeira contributing to two of the covers. There’s a feeling in these tales of Fleisher just biding his time until the end, shoehorning scenes that are relevant to the current storyline into scripts he perhaps had laying around. It’s not to say these three issues are bad, they just mostly come off as "business as usual". Jonah Hex #90 revolves around a young woman named Silver Ames, who’s decided to become the fastest gun in the West, and she’s got it in her head that the best way to do it is to kill everyone who’s faster than her. When we meet her, she's just tracked down Jeremiah Hart, the second-fastest gun in the country according to folks. I’m glad to tell you that the colorist finally got it right and made Jeremiah dark-haired again with tan-colored buckskins, but we don’t get to enjoy it for long because Silver shoots Jeremiah in the back when he refuses to draw on her. We later see Mei Ling sobbing over Jeremiah’s dead body, and though it’s a terrible note to leave the poor gal on, this is the last glimpse we'll get of Mei Ling until the 2006-2011 Jonah Hex series.

Meanwhile, Jonah’s recovered well enough that he can go searching for Emmy again. It’s a darn shame he doesn’t know Emmy just escaped from Brett’s clutches, as he could’ve saved himself a lot of grief out on the trail: first Jonah gets caught in a rockslide (which kills his horse), then he gets mauled by a mountain lion (which tears his Confederate coat to shreds). By some miracle, he makes it to a farmhouse, where the owner lends him a horse. This is where Jonah’s luck finally turns good again, as he just misses being hit by a "shootin' star":

Not giving the strange incident a second thought, Jonah heads back to town to get patched up by the doc. A telegram about Hart's murder (from Mei Ling, perhaps?), is waiting for him, and just as he reads it, Silver Ames herself shows up, demanding a shootout. Knowing what she’s capable of, Hex shoots her down before she can finish her three-count. His attitude about it may seem blasé, but who knows how many times he’s gone through this same scenario...and unlike Jeremy, who was reluctant to kill when the time came, it didn’t appear that any amount of talking would make Silver back down. Then we get to Jonah Hex #91, where we're introduced to yet another love interest for Jonah, and they’re not subtle about it either, showing Jonah in a lip-lock right on the cover, which imitates a Neal Adams Superman piece from 1971:

Jonah runs into Carolee while he’s out looking for Emmy (there must be a really fast tailor back in Red Dog, because he’s wearing his Confederate coat again), and she tells him a sob story about wanting to join the rodeo that just came into town. Well, it just so happens Jonah knows one of the guys working that rodeo, and he says he’ll see what he can do about getting her a job. Carolee is so overjoyed by the news that she pulls him down for a roll in the hay right then and there...which wouldn’t be so bad if she wasn’t seventeen and he wasn’t pushing forty! Jonah is quite aware of how wrong this relationship is, but he doesn’t seem too eager to fight it. However, it does turn out to be a good thing that Jonah’s hanging around the rodeo, as there’s a few former employees that’re fixing to destroy it. While tracking them down, they ambush him, and though Jonah manages to kill one before the rest run off, the dead body vanishes in a beam of light while Jonah’s back is turned -- since he didn’t witness the event, Jonah doesn’t make the connection between this disappearance and the incident at the farmhouse, but the reader may have by now. Back at the rodeo, Jonah decides the best way to smoke these skunks out is to make them think he’s moved on, so he raids the costume tent and -- in one of the most embarrassing moments in Jonah’s career -- disguises himself as a rodeo clown:

As if that wasn’t humiliating enough, he also spies Carolee cozying up to the owner of the rodeo. The only good thing to come out of Jonah’s greasepaint adventure is he catches the bad guys before they can do any more damage. The issue ends with Jonah punching a mirror in a fit of rage, and who can blame him? Think of what’s happened to him in the past year: He got tossed in prison, he went on a major bender and had to go to a temperance farm to dry out, he lost his wife to another man, he burned through three girlfriends (the last one being more than half his age), and then there’s all the usual crap he has to suffer through on a daily basis like getting shot and stabbed and beat up and what-have-you. It’s been a long time since Jonah’s had so much go wrong in his life all at once, and the new life waiting around the corner will be just as rough. When we reach Jonah Hex #92 (dated August 1985), the cover says it all: "GUT-WRENCHING FINAL ISSUE! Will it also be Jonah's last gunfight?" To tell the truth, the overall issue is far from gut-wrenching. The story flips between scenes of Jonah protecting a young orphan girl who witnessed a murder, and scenes of Emmy still on the run from Brett, the latter of which have the pace of a slasher film, as Emmy keeps thinking she’s reached a safe place, only to have Brett turn up and set her running again. It all comes to a head in the last few pages, when Jonah stops in the Red Dog Saloon for a drink, and Emmy runs in and finds him...just as the mysterious beam of light that’s missed him twice before finally hits its target:

And just like that, in the summer of 1985, the very last Western on the comics market came to an end. The heyday of four-color cowboys had long since passed, and it would be decades before publishers would offer up multiple Western-themed titles again (though only a handful compared to the old days). Along with the loss of an entire genre, readers would also be deprived of any knowledge as to what happened to Emmy after Jonah vanished: like Adrian Sterling, there has never been another mention of Emmylou Hartley in all the years since her last appearance. As for Jonah himself, he would be given one last chance at survival, far from the genre that birthed him. In a comics shop full of superheroes, Jonah needed a miracle in order to stand out amongst them. What he got was HEX.

In our next installment, we go back to the future...whether ya like it or not!

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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