Surprise, surprise — a Western comic gets full marks from ol’ Raf “Expletive” Gaitan. Dear reader, I too am familiar with how much I love Western comics, especially Jonah Hex, so I say with little trepidation that this is the best issue I’ve read, and a contender for Best of the Year. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if this one numbers among the best Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have ever done. Incidentally, it’s the least violent issue of Jonah Hex I’ve ever read — Palmiotti and Gray let their writing take front and center this go-around.
This issue, the penultimate one before the big relaunch, sees Jonah Hex chasing four unscrupulous men who ambush a grizzled old prospector looking for gold. That setup could make an interesting and action-packed story on its own, but Palmiotti and Gray use this as the “pre-credits” scene, if you will — the issue is about Jonah Hex’s conversation with the last victim of the ambush: the gut-shot prospector. The reveal as to whom Hex is talking to comes early and gets more and more impactful as the panels progress. Anyone who doubts the writers’ talent for inter-character relations and dialogue should look no further than this issue — it’s a markedly compelling read for mostly being a conversation.
Palmiotti and Gray have that all-so-important talent that any writer needs — an ability to say more than the words they put down, and they coax much emotion from the traditionally curt and abrupt Hex. Considering the person’s relation to Hex, it’s even more painful to read and the brusque ex-soldier speaks volumes by comparison to his usual demeanor. Even the action sequence is cleverly staged, with Jonah Hex centered on the page and surrounded by four floating panels, each one filled with a dead man having been killed “off-screen.” This technique was used to great effect and was lauded accordingly in #66, but here it’s even more impressive, courtesy of Jeff Lemire.
No stranger to the title, Lemire’s pencils are perhaps the perfect fit for this particular installment. It’s scripted much like an Anthony Mann film, complete with gorgeous, emotionally reflective vistas, and Lemire’s semi-impressionistic yet detailed art nails the visceral feeling and absorbing atmospherics that an issue of this magnitude requires. His work is at once a sharp contrast from Rafa Garres’ grotesque and thorough style (seen in the previous issue) and a welcome respite — it’s a healthy compromise, with a touch of regular artist Jordi Bernet’s pop-addled style. Lemire is a vasty underrated artist in mainstream comics, but proof of his abilities can be seen in his monthly, Sweet Tooth, and if you haven’t had your heart hurt and healed by Essex County, please do so post-haste. Lemire also demonstrates a strong eye for layout, one that seems eerily in-line with Palmiotti and Gray’s standards.
There’s never a dull page to look at, and there are some gorgeous, inventive layouts, including a fantastic two-page spread that features a conversation play out across the entire page, starting with a large image, transitioning to a middle grid, and then back to the opposing image on the other side. It’s nothing short of brilliant, and a highlight inside of a highlight. Dave McCaig’s sweaty orange/yellow palette is suitably fitted to the rest of the story, and its sweltering application really kicks up Lemire’s work. Lord knows it doesn’t need it, but it’s one hell of a coloring job. You can practically hear the buzzards and feel that grit in your gut.
Jonah Hex is the series I’d like to write the most, and the one I’ll miss as much when it relaunches. While it will be back as All-Star Western, that series will attempt to focus more on Jonah’s impact in the DCU. Not to say it will be bad, because Palmiotti and Gray are staying on, but this title has become meaningful to me as a respite from all the crossovers and tie-ins and superheroics. There’s a place for that and always will be, but sometimes I like to get wistful for the genre, like firing a favorite firearm. Jonah Hex #69 is a loving tribute to the character, and the second-to-last chapter of a series that might never be matched in comics. In a day and age where everything has to tie together and fit in somewhere, it’s nice to see a title that gallops at its own pace, and it will be sad to see it ride into the sunset.
Rafael Gaitan was born in 1985, but he belongs to the ’70s. He is a big fan of onomatopoeia, being profane and spelling words right on the first try. Rafael has a hilariously infrequent blog and writes love letters to inanimate objects as well as tweets of whiskey and the mysteries of the heart at @bearsurprise. He ain’t got time to bleed.