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Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmotti’s Jonah Hex #22: A Revisionist Look at the Tesla-Edison Fued

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Thom Young

For almost two years now, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmotti have been delivering outstanding stories each month in the pages of Jonah Hex, yet this series seems to get little fanfare from either the DC marketing machine or the fan community. The slight attention it has garnered is unfortunate because anyone who appreciates good writing and quality illustrations should be reading this series.

After the first nine issues (which weren’t bad), Gray and Palmotti began writing their best Hex stories with the 10th issue. That story was their first that reminded me of the best of the Michael Fleisher stories from the 70s—with Hex being a clear anti-hero who isn’t a nice guy, but who’ll do “heroic” things if there’s something in it for him.

Going back to the seminal stories in the early 1970s by John Albano and Fleisher, Hex has been a character who is almost exclusively interested in how a situation can benefit him. While he has a personal moral code that precludes him from either robbing or killing innocent people, he doesn’t usually show any interest in helping people for purely altruistic purposes.

In the first nine issues of their series, there were times when Gray and Palmotti showed an altruistic side to Hex, and those stories are weaker for it. However, Hex’s altruism has been less evident since the tenth issue—indicating that Gray and Palmotti began to better understand Albano’s and Fleisher’s stories from the 70s.

Additionally, Jonah Hex #10 was the issue in which Phil Noto first began illustrating (and coloring) some of Gray and Palmotti’s stories. Noto’s presence was a welcome change from Luke Ross, who illustrated six of the first seven issues. Ross is a very good illustrator, but he used Clint Eastwood’s face as the model for Hex’s (or at least for the un-scarred left side of Hex’s face).

Back in the 1970s, the Jonah Hex letter pages often ran comments from fans expressing their hope that Clint Eastwood would play Hex in a theatrical film. The idea was obvious because Hex has always been an essentially scarred version of the characters Eastwood played in such films as For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, High Plains Drifter, and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

However, seeing Eastwood’s face (or half his face) as Hex in a Jonah Hex comic book was not a good approach since it takes a reader out of the story. For instance seeing Christopher Reeve play Superman in the 1970s and 80s was a good thing (even if the stories for the films were lame), but it wouldn’t have worked for Curt Swan to have started drawing Reeve’s face in each monthly issue of Superman and Action Comics.

Thus, Noto was a welcome replacement for Ross on Jonah Hex—especially as it coincided with Gray and Palmotti gaining a better understanding of the character. Just as Gray and Palmotti’s stories became reminiscent of Fleisher’s work, Noto’s illustrations are reminiscent of the work of such noted Jonah Hex pencilers as Tony DeZuniga, Doug Wildey, Garcia Lopez, Gray Morrow, and Nestor Redondo.

Yet Gray and Palmotti are not imitating Fleisher, and Noto is not imitating the great Jonah Hex illustrators who came before him. They are each making the current stories their own while not contradicting the quality work that preceded theirs.

What’s more, when Noto hasn’t been the illustrator, the series has used some outstanding substitutes—including DeZuniga on the 5th and 9th issues, Val Semeiks on the 18th, and the great Spanish comic book illustrator Jordi Bernet on at least four issues.

In fact, as much as I admire Noto’s work, I must say that Bernet is better. He is a master of the medium whom Noto may one day equal.

Since issue #10, the combination of Gray & Palmotti’s scripts and the illustrations of Noto & Bernet have made Jonah Hex a series that has been consistently worth four to four and a half bullets on the Silver Bullet Comic Books rating scale. However, after all that praise for the series as a whole, I must now say that issue #22 disappointed me—reflected in the mere three bullets I would give it.

DC’s original solicitations for the most recent issue noted that Hex was going to be meeting both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Thus, I was particularly eager to read this story since Jonah Hex is not only one of my favorite titles that DC is currently publishing, but I have had a long time interest in the life and work of Nikola Tesla.

Unfortunately, despite DC’s original solicitation information, Tesla does not appear in this issue. On second thought, considering the problems with the story, perhaps it’s fortunate that Tesla didn’t appear. However, Edison is still a prominent character in the tale, and Tesla is mentioned.

Oddly, instead of Tesla, the story has a character named Aubrey Booth who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Tesla—just as Hex bore a resemblance to Clint Eastwood in the way that Ross drew him in the early issues. It immediately dawned on me, of course, that this Booth character was supposed to be Tesla, but that the story was altered sometime after DC had sent out the original description of the issue and after Noto had finished illustrating it.

In the story, Booth/Tesla hires Hex to retrieve a steam-powered robot that he claims was stolen from him by Thomas Edison’s agents. When Hex later confronts “the Wizard of Menlo Park,” Edison explains that Booth was a former employee who stole the plans for the steam-powered robot from Edison. We learn later that Booth supposedly stole those plans at the direction of another former Edison employee—Nikola Tesla.

Edison doesn’t deny that his agents stole the steam-powered robot from Booth, and he implies that such a theft would be justified after he produces pay stubs that support his claim that Booth was an employee whose work on any such robot essentially constitutes “work made for hire”—and is thus the intellectual property of Edison.

As far as I know, there was no historical Aubrey Booth who worked for Edison, and I suspect his surname in this story is an intentional allusion to another noted 19th-century “terrorist”—the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Keep in mind, too, that the Booth in this story was (apparently) supposed to be Tesla before Gray and Palmotti (or DC editorial) changed his name.

While it’s true that the historical Tesla was a former employee of Edison, it’s absurd to imply that Tesla stole any of Edison’s concepts as his own (which may be why the character ended up being changed from Tesla to Booth). There were actually two main points of contention between Tesla and Edison that caused the animosity that grew between them, and it was essentially Tesla who accused Edison of intellectual theft:
  1. Tesla claimed that Edison offered him $50,000 (an outrageous sum of money in the mid-1880s) to redesign Edison’s inefficient direct current generators. After Tesla redesigned the generators and gave Edison several profitable new patents in the process, he asked for the $50,000 he was promised.

    Tesla claimed that Edison then told him the offer of $50,000 was a joke that Tesla failed to understand because he was from Serbia and didn’t appreciate American humor. Tesla quit and harbored personal animosity for Edison from that day forward.

    Meanwhile, Edison felt entitled to ownership of the redesigned direct current generators since Tesla had been employed by him in a “work made for hire” situation.

  2. However, Tesla was not actually concerned about the patents Edison took out on Tesla’s redesigned generators. He was only interested in the money that he believed had been promised to him.

    Tesla believed that alternating current was a superior approach to Edison’s direct current, and after leaving Edison he devoted his life to his work with alternating current. George Westinghouse supported Tesla and bought a number of Tesla’s patents for use in the Westinghouse brand of electrical appliances—which is why Tesla won the “current war” with Edison.

    Households and industries around the world are wired for alternating current thanks to Westinghouse’s backing of Tesla.
Of course, the world in which we now live is an amalgamation of these two approaches. Edison’s direct current powers the portable appliances in which we install batteries while Tesla’s alternating current powers the appliances that we plug into the electrical outlets in the walls of our buildings. However, Tesla also had an idea for powering portable appliances with alternating current—by transmitting the alternating current through the air in the same way that radio waves are transmitted.

If Tesla had come out on top in that approach, you would now be having a great deal of electricity flowing through your body as you read these words. Instead, you have some electromagnetic energy flowing through your body from the EM field being generated by the current running through your walls and appliances.

Just think, if Tesla had his way, the post-apocalyptic future presented in the short lived Hex series in which our hero is transported to the late 21st century might have come to pass—with AC electricity causing even more cancer and infertility than do the cell phones that we currently plug into our ears and store in our pockets next to our testicles.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. While Tesla was interested in robotics, the notion that he would have either invented or stolen a “steam-powered” robot is absurd. Any robot that Tesla might have been involved with would have been electromagnetic in nature, not steam powered.

However, the inaccuracies of Gray and Palmotti’s depiction of Tesla (or “Booth”) is not why I find this issue to be one of their least successful. In a work of fiction, Gray and Palmotti are allowed artistic license to present historical figures in a way that they believe makes an interesting and entertaining story—even if it means foregoing accuracy.

The problem with the story is that much of the issue is comprised of Hex having long conversations with either Booth/Tesla or Edison. Five of the first six pages show Hex talking to Booth/Tesla (the first page shows Hex riding on horseback to Booth/Tesla’s house).

In those five pages, Hex mostly listens while Booth/Tesla takes on the role of monologist to explain the history of dime novels and automata to Hex—a monolog that is occasionally interrupted by Hex telling him to get to the point.

Booth/Tesla assures Hex that it’s important to know both how he was inspired by dime novels and the history of automata. Of course, there isn’t any reason for Hex to know this information. All Hex must know is that Booth/Tesla claims Edison stole his property, and that he’s being hired to retrieve it.

The inclusion of the history of dime novels and automata is either Gray and Palmotti attempting to make Booth/Tesla look like a blowhard monologist who provides information that Hex doesn’t need or care to know, or it’s an example of Gray and Palmotti being didactic within their story because they are personally fascinated by the history of dime novels and automata and so feel compelled to awkwardly insert the information.

I can appreciate the latter, because I’m personally fascinated by the history of dime novels and automata. The fact remains though, that this information seems to be awkwardly inserted and may serve no purpose in the story.

There is a difference between providing a didactic “history lesson” in a work of fiction and providing such a lesson in a work of non-fiction (such as in a review of a work of fiction that has a historical setting or situation). I fully understand that some people find the information I provide in reviews and elsewhere to be “didactic” (though that’s technically an incorrect use of the term in this case).

I don’t expect my inclination towards expository criticism to appeal to everyone, and I have no interest in changing to appeal to those people who don’t care for it. However, for those who are interested in such things, I believe the information I incorporate into reviews and elsewhere provide a context for understanding my reaction to a story.

It also allows some readers insight into the story that they might not otherwise see had I not provided such information. A good critical review, article, or argument should do no less. For instance, I wouldn’t expect everyone to know the history of the animosity between Tesla and Edison, so I incorporated that information into this soapbox review.

In reviews, articles, and other forms of critical writing, expository material is there to aid readers into having a greater appreciation of the topic. However, works of fiction are another matter. Unless carefully handled, such exposition in a story is a true example of didacticism.

The problem of Hex’s “conversation” with Booth/Tesla is compounded later with seven pages of conversation between Hex and Edison. An eighth page shows Hex riding up to Edison’s compound in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. In another twist of historical fact, it was actually Tesla who built a lab near Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs—though it was in the late 1890s rather than the 1880s.

As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, I don’t have a problem with a story that is little more than a conversation between two characters. My favorite film is My Dinner with André, and two of my favorite plays are Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead—all of which are essentially “literary works of conversation.”

While all three of those works contain a great deal of mundane talk, there are also poignant moments and epiphanic instances that eventually arise in the conversations. However, no such moments or instances appear in Hex’s conversations with either Booth/Tesla or Edison.

After showing Hex pay stubs that prove that Booth was his former employee who stole the plans for the steam-powered robot from him, Hex is ready to leave Edison and let him keep the automaton. Fortunately, for the action-lovers out there, a gang of black-clothed terrorist thugs arrive just as Hex is getting ready to leave.

These terrorists attempt to set fire to the compound and lab, and kill Edison and his men. They are, of course, agents of Booth and Tesla—those scoundrels who are trying to claim Edison’s work as their own.

Hurriedly, Edison offers Hex money to dispatch Tesla’s agents. Hex does so. Then, when Hex asks Edison for his money (as the historical Tesla supposedly did after redesigning Edison’s direct current generators), Edison offers to employ Hex as his permanent bodyguard, and to pay him to eliminate Tesla once and for all.

Because of his moral standards, Hex declines Edison’s offer—saying, “Ah ain’t an assassin, Edison. Pay me so’s ah can git back ta the past. Ah don’t like it much here.”

I know how you feel, Jonah. I didn’t care for this story as much as I have some of Gray and Palmotti’s other tales of Jonah Hex.

Still, the dialog in the issue was well written (even if some of it may have been didactic), and Noto’s illustrations were top-notch. Thus, it’s not a bad story. It’s just not as good as it could have been, or what I was expecting. What more can I say?

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