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Friday, April 29, 2016

A Decade in the Life of Jonah Hex (1986 - 1987)

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.

Michael Fleisher remarked in HEX #2’s letter column that, in the world of 2050, “there are no hordes of costumed men and haul your keester out of the fire.” His statement was rendered false when he introduced a brand-new incarnation of Batman in HEX #11 (July 1986). A former criminology student in New York, he'd discovered the remains of the Batcave in Gotham the same day the bombs dropped, and with the Combine (a version of the Conglomerate) trying to take over the East Coast, he took up the mantle of the long-dead Batman and vowed to keep the New York safe, which includes keeping firearms out of the city. The Combine isn't too happy with this, and sends a couple of goons all the way out to Seattle in order to get someone both skilled and unknown to kill him. Wouldn’t ya know it, Hex fits the bill! These guys are presumably the ones who kidnapped Stiletta three issues ago, because they tell Hex that Batman tortured and killed her, and even show him Stiletta’s bloody clothes. They fly him to New York so he can get “revenge” on Batman, and thanks to Jonah wearing his guns right out in the open, Batman finds him first. We get a great five-page tussle that ends with the two of them falling off a rooftop, but luckily HEX #12 opens on them working together to avoid becoming street pizza. It’s not long afterward that Jonah discovers he’s been bamboozled, and Batman is not only kind enough to give him a lead on where the Combine might be holding Stiletta, he also lets Jonah keep his Rugers, so long as he gets the Hell outta New York once Hex finds his gal.

The rest of the issue is split between Batman’s investigation of the giant laser-wielding robots the Combine is donating to the city (the Combine’s ulterior motive being that they’ll use them to take over New York), and Jonah checking out the “cat club” (read: an illegal fighting ring) Batman directed him to. Jonah immediately recognizes “The Blonde Spitfire” in the ring as Stiletta, but the bouncers at the door beat the snot out of him before he can even get close. When he eventually comes to in the alley out back, the Combine already has the giant robots rampaging across the city, and for some inexplicable reason, Hex runs off to help Batman instead of trying to rescue Stiletta again. They manage to destroy all three, but dusting off the last one causes Batman to crash his plane into the Hudson River. In HEX #13, Jonah dares to jump into the river to try and save him, but Batman is nowhere to be found (we can only presume that Batman died, as we never hear from him again). Meanwhile, “some three thousand miles to the west”, we discover Stanley Harris is back in 2050, only now he’s teamed up with the Dogs of War, a bunch of other soldiers who’ve been plucked out of time, including a Viking, a demon-possessed ninja, and a Maori war chief who’s been transformed into a flying manta ray with deadly eye-beams:

Harris and his new friends are rounding up gang members to be used as slave labor at the behest of some pointy-eared fella. It’ll be a couple more issues before we get any real information on him, so for the moment, we’re gonna ignore the fact that Hex is being crowded out of his own book by a bunch of long-underwear types and concentrate on Jonah, who finally locates Stiletta at another "cat club" in HEX #14. Unfortunately, she's been pumped full of mind-controlling drugs, meaning she damn-near kills Jonah before he works up the nerve to knock her senseless and get her out of there. Not long after Stiletta recovers, Jonah overhears a guy talking about how he escaped from the work camp that the Dogs of War are dragging folks off to, and that he thinks the strange man in charge is actually a time-traveler!

We get another good shock with HEX #15, as Mark Texeira is no longer on art duties, and the legendary Keith Giffen has taken his place -- it’s a jarring change to say the least, but we’ll just have to roll with it. The issue opens with Hex telling Stiletta about what he’d overheard, and that he wants to investigate in case it’s true. There’s a bit of a geographical anomaly here, as the work camp was supposed to be three thousand miles away from New York, so we can only presume Jonah had to cover a lot of ground tracking down Stiletta, and they're near Seattle once more. Later on, we have to wade through four pages of exposition from S’ven Tarah, our pointy-eared, time-traveling friend. The short version is that he’s from a very distant future where Earth has been conquered by an alien race called the Xxggs, who travel across space in generational ships and enslave any planet that crosses their path. S’ven Tarah used a time machine to try and escape to a past era where he could find help, but Borsten ensnared him somehow. Trapped in 2050, he struck a deal with Borsten, assisting the despot while he secretly worked on a way to stop the Xxggs from this timeframe. After Borsten’s empire fell, S’ven Tarah was free to carry out his plans, which include endowing the Dogs of War with superpowers, because why not?

Back on Jonah’s side of things, he and Stiletta are checking out the devastation caused by the Dogs of War as they picked up some more slaves for the work camp. Hoping to find a clue as to where they’ve gone, Jonah and Stiletta split up, which is too bad, because Jonah eventually runs afoul of that manta ray-lookin’ fella, who zaps him good. We find in HEX #16 that the Dogs of War have hauled Jonah off to be enslaved just like all the other folks they’ve picked up, and it’s not long before he breaks out and tries to find the man in charge. Jonah soon comes up against Starkad the Slayer, the Viking member of the Dogs of War, and they have a good tussle before Harris steps in to break things up. Jonah is surprised by this turn of events, but not as surprised as Starkad, who exclaims, “By the yellow god! Y-you mean you’re friends?!?” S’ven Tarah’s reaction is about the same when Harris takes Jonah to meet him at the beginning of HEX #17:

Stiletta shows up at the work camp not long after, as do a trio of Xxggs, who traced S’ven Tarah’s chronal trail back to 2050. As the Xxggs begin to tear the place apart, S’ven Tarah sends his Dogs of War to guard the spaceship his labor force has been building. His long-term plan involves intercepting the Xxgg mothership centuries before it reaches Earth and using a “nucleotide injector” to alter the Xxgg species genetic makeup, thereby making it easier for the Earth forces in the far future to defeat them (the invasion can’t be stopped outright before it happens since it’s already a part of history, albeit hundreds of years from now). Don’t worry if you don’t understand the plan, because neither does Jonah -- “Ah’m only a poor country boy, Harris,” he says as his friend tries to explain it to him -- yet he’s still willing to help out. Since the Xxggs appear to be almost indestructible and all five of the Dogs of War are needed to operate the spacecraft, he and Stiletta cook up a distraction so the boys can lift off. Right before they implement their plan, Stiletta says that he may have bitten of more than he can chew this time, which prompts Jonah to ask, “You tryin’ to say you love me, sugar?”

“Love you?!?” she replies in disbelief, thereby putting the kibosh on any notion that she’s ever harbored romantic feelings towards him. Such things don’t matter when you’re trying to save the world, however, and the plan moves forward, with Hex and Stiletta tricking the Xxggs into following them down a tunnel adjacent to where the spaceship’s exhaust ports are located. The duo slips away just as the engines fire up, obliterating the Xxggs. With the spaceship containing Harris and the Dogs of War safely underway and all the prisoners released, the only ones left in the facility are Jonah, Stiletta, and S’ven Tarah, who tells them that he is about to depart back to his own era -- he knows the Xxggs will never stop hunting for him, so he’s going to erase his memories about what he’s done in 2050 to keep the Xxggs from learning about his plan once he arrives home. “By the time they interrogate me, I will have nothing to confess to them,” he says.

He then thanks Jonah for his assistance, but the bounty hunter doesn’t care about being thanked, he wants to go home to 1875, and practically begs S’ven Tarah to send him back. Unfortunately, the time-travel device only has enough energy left for one trip, and S'ven Tarah uses it for himself before Jonah can convince him otherwise.

It’s after this final scene that the reader discovers HEX will be coming to an end next issue. Despite good numbers at the outset, the title just couldn’t find a large enough audience to save it from cancellation. Looking back, the biggest problem with HEX was that Michael Fleisher’s reach exceeded his grasp: in an interview with Dwayne Hendrickson in 2009, Fleisher admitted he wasn’t well-versed in science-fiction, and when Mike Browning spoke with him for Back Issue #42 (August 2010), Fleisher said that, despite the work he’d done previously on the Spectre and Ghost Rider, he “always felt awkward with superheroes”. Considering the majority of HEX revolved around either sci-fi concepts or superpowered beings, it’s almost as if he was setting himself up to fail by these conjuring up these world-threatening situations where Jonah got lost in the shuffle. The best stories were smaller in scale, like what we see in HEX #18 (February 1987), which revolves around Jonah dealing out bloody vengeance one skunk at a time.

Titled “Thanksgiving”, the story begins with Jonah and Stiletta riding out to visit some friends of hers for the holiday. From out of nowhere, a gunshot rings out, plugging Jonah in the gut and causing him to crash their cycle. Jonah is in too bad of shape to make a run for it, so he sends Stiletta off to find help, then takes out the nine-man gang by any means possible while trying not to bleed to death. The issue is interspersed with some classic Fleisher flashbacks, showing us Giffen’s renditions of Jonah’s childhood as previously seen in Jonah Hex #51 (young Jonah in a boxing match versus “The Killer Kid”) and the Super-Star Holiday Special (the incident with the raccoon, which is now established to have taken place on Thanksgiving). It’s a sad sort of irony that Jonah’s hallucinating about his old life in the 1800s just as the series chronicling his new life in 2050 is coming to a close, and it becomes even sadder when he finally collapses, silently asking God to not let him die in this hellish place. Stiletta and her friends soon ride in like the cavalry, and one of them, Vance, has medical training. He fixes Jonah up once they get him back to the warehouse they live in, but the bounty hunter’s still not in the best shape, and is confined to a motorized wheelchair as he explores the place that he’ll be recuperating in. It runs out that Marya, Vance’s wife, likes to collect vintage amusement park pieces like carousel horses, games, bumper cars, and a certain something we haven’t seen for nearly nine years:

What must it been like for Jonah, to have come so close to dying earlier that day, then finding this thing covered in dust inside a ramshackle warehouse later on? The only comment we get from him on the subject is “Ah guess it means Ah’ll be goin’ back home one day...after all.” At the moment, I suppose that’s all the comment he can muster, and since the issue ends right there, we’re deprived of any follow-up, as well as any clue as to how Jonah actually gets home. Just as Bob Greenberger said, the previous existence of that stuffed and mounted corpse in DC history guaranteed that, should HEX fail as a series, the man would indeed be returned to the Old West at some point, but to divulge the information to Jonah like this is both a blessing and a curse. He has to look upon Death itself, the companion that follows him wherever he goes, now sheathed in his own skin and brandishing his Dragoons (last seen in Jonah Hex #83, right before he chucked them into a lake... did he somehow recover them once he returned to the past?), but offering Jonah no information beyond its own presence. All he knows is that he will die in the past, not the future, and that he will be an old man when it happens.

Though this marked the end of Jonah's monthly adventures for a good long while, Michael Fleisher wasn't finished with the bounty hunter just yet. Ten months later, Secret Origins #21 (December 1987) hit the stands, with a cover by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and interiors by Gray Morrow. "Requiem for a Gunfighter" serves as an epilogue for both the character and Fleisher's "The Last Bounty Hunter" from 1978's Jonah Hex Spectacular, as it continues the tale of Jonah's stuffed corpse which, by 1987, has taken up residence in Frontier City Amusement Park in Laramie, Wyoming. A film crew accidentally discovers the "statue" in one of their shots is really a dead body, and a Princeton professor by the name of Lawrence -- who is said to have written "the definitive book" on Hex, and bears a resemblance to Fleisher himself -- verifies via photographs that the body is indeed the long-lost corpse of Jonah Hex:

Once news of the gruesome discovery hits the press, a few people with an interest in procuring the body step forward. One is them is Mr. Lewellyn, who will do anything to own Hex's corpse. Another is Tall Bird, Jonah's now-elderly widow: it was implied at the end of "The Last Bounty Hunter" that she'd died in the fire with Professor Wheeler, Jonah's would-be biographer, but it appears that Tall Bird made it out alive, and now wishes to cremate her late husband, just as she'd planned to do eight decades earlier. Lawrence meets up with her and inquires about some aspects of Hex's life that have gone unrecorded, such as the events at the end of Jonah Hex #92:


While this scene helps to confirm that HEX remained in-continuity after its cancellation, it also neatly avoids answering the question of how Jonah got back to the Old West: Jonah didn't tell Tall Bird, so she can't tell Lawrence. He also asks what drove Jonah "to become the most renowned manhunter of his age." So Tall Bird tells him that when Jonah was a boy, his father presented him with a rifle on his birthday. Later that night, Woodson went off on a drunken tear and began beating Ginny for supposedly "slippin' around" instead of attending to her wifely duties. Jonah grabbed his new rifle, presumably with the intent to shoot his Pa, but the man knocked his son to the floor before he could do it (if you recall, young Jonah also got a hold of a gun way back in Jonah Hex #27, but kept it well-hidden...this incident here might be why).

Tall Bird continues the tale as they stand before Jonah's stuffed corpse: after being scarred with the "Mark of the Demon", Jonah went through a bout of depression where "he drank hard and often, to relieve the gnawing pangs of bitterness and defeat". One night, in the midst of a heavy drinking binge, he came across a man beating a woman in the street -- Jonah was so wasted, he thought the couple was his parents, so he shot the man in order to rescue his "Ma", not realizing until the deed was done that he'd made a serious mistake. Luckily, the sheriff showed up and told Jonah the man he shot was "Mad Dog" Lucas McGill, an outlaw with a sizable reward on his head, then handed Jonah a wad of bills. "Reward?!?" Jonah exclaimed, then dumped the money in the street and walked away, the implication being that he only became a bounty hunter in order to keep people from suffering the way he had his entire life. As Tall Bird finishes her tale, Mr. Lewellyn shows up with his two goons, ready to take possession of Hex's body, even if it means shooting both her and Professor Lawrence. Lucky for them, someone's got their back:

Just as with Lew Farnham's assistant eighty-three years before, the stuffed and mounted corpse of Jonah Hex fatally shoots Mr. Lewellyn, but unlike last time, it's a little hard to write this off as accidental. Tall Bird described Hex earlier as a "restless spirit", and this seems to confirm it. To be sure, Lawrence is convinced: "By tomorrow morning, we'll have you out of here forever, Jonah! I-I promise you that!" he says over his shoulder as he and Tall Bird are escorted out of the park by police...but did he truly keep his promise? The final panel is reminiscent of the one for "The Last Bounty Hunter", with Jonah being left on his lonesome in the middle of an amusement park. The reader is left to presume that Jonah's body will soon be put to rest, but how could Jonah stumble across his own corpse in 2050 if it was cremated in 1987? Evidence will later surface that the corpse remained intact for many years to come, but that will come from other writers, as this was the very last Jonah Hex story penned by Michael Fleisher, making his final tally a whopping 126, one of the longest runs for a writer on a non-creator- owned comic.

In the years since Fleisher and Hex parted ways, both have stayed busy. Fleisher went back to college and earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Michigan -- though he continues to write novels and other papers, his last official comics credit was in 1995, for the UK anthology 2000 AD. It seems that, without Jonah Hex around, he lost interest in comic books, and in recent interviews, his memories of those days has grown fuzzy, meaning some unanswered questions from his run will remain so. As for Hex, he got a trio of Vertigo miniseries courtesy of Joe R. Lansdale in the 1990s that put the "weird" back into Westerns. Then in 2006, Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray started a new Jonah Hex monthly series, followed by Jonah's return to All-Star Western in 2011 -- both titles reflected some of the best aspects of Fleisher's run, and even retold a few classic tales with an added twist or two. They also rivaled Fleisher for longevity: as they closed in on All-Star Western #28, their 100th Jonah Hex tale, I told Jimmy Palmiotti that, if he and Justin Gray stuck it out until issue #55, they'd beat Fleisher's record. Palmiotti replied, "He should keep that record. It is his." Six months later, All-Star Western came to an end with issue #34... just twenty issues shy of tying with Michael Fleisher.

Recommended Reading:

This series of articles was adapted from "An Illustrated History of Jonah Hex", an ongoing project chronicling the character's life both on the comics page and behind the scenes. Look for a new installment on the One Fangirl's Opinion blog page this May 1st.

All content in this article entry written by Susan Hillwig. If you want to attribute any of this work, please credit Susan Hillwig.

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