When The Hex & Arkham Show go underground I can't help but wonder if the venture is a commentary of the prospects of the title in the New 52 line. Are writers Gray and Palmiotti sneakily inserting a message to readers about the niche All-Star Western holds in the market?
Nah, it's just an excuse for Jonah and Amadeus to encounter funny-talking thugs, subterranean Indian tribes and a giant fucking bat. Gray and Palmiotti are figuring out subtle methods to have the premiere Western character in comics rub elbows with established DC lore. Here's what has happened up and through issue #6:
Jonah Hex arrives in Gotham City to assist in tracking down the culprit of a string of bloody prostitute murders and is immediately thrust into an unwanted collaboration with Amadeus Arkham. The investigation puts them at odds with a clandestine organization who follow the teachings of the Crime Bible. After capturing the affiliated duo responsible for the murders Hex is approached by Thurston Moody, a wealthy Gotham citizen, to track down his recently missing son. This is what leads Hex and Arkham to the previously mentioned sewer system which is revealed to be in construction by slave labor provided by the underclass child of Gotham. They're apprehended by some of the goons running the place and thrown into a whirlpool that sends them over a waterfall and into a helpless situation. There, they battle an ancient tribe of Native Americans, climb a huge cliff and Jonah mercs an oversized flying mammal. When they finally make their way out of the caves they're on the front doorstep of the Wayne Manor, and are assisted by Alan Wayne to help convince the authorities to join them in rescuing the imprisoned children. It is there they discover the mastermind behind the whole operation is Thurston Moody, which flings Jonah into the next locale and story beat.
The reason I unfolded that spoilery synopsis for you is to demonstrate that the creative team is not using the elements of the DC superhero universe as meaty plot points but rather as garnishes to a Western-style tale. The Crime Bible is an established DC artifact. The Indian tribe in the underground cavern are the Miagani. The area the characters wander in is the Batcave and if one has a keen eye they might notice that Thurston Moody's house is filled to the brim with owl paraphernalia. Point is: Palmiotti and Gray are doing an expert job of transforming what they did over in the Jonah Hex ongoing and naturally extending it into the refurbished universe.
Moritat improves with every issue, and I enjoy the art here more than I did in the first arc. There is a sense of relaxation with the world and its inhabitants. Both Jonah and Arkham have more defined looks to them and they more easily portray a range of emotion. Also, the consistency is raised as Moritat delivered some beautiful panels next to shoddy looking ones in the initial three issues. The series is action-heavy, but there is a certain reality to the adventure too. He does well in portraying the fierceness of Hex's fighting style, and the grim truths of violent acts.
All-Star Western #6 is a bit rushed, and conveniently puts Jonah Hex on track to leave Gotham for the next three issues. Some of the surprises the writers throw at us feel staged, but nothing so outrageous that it deconstructs the believability of the premise. What helps pace the arc as a whole, and the series so far, is the ongoing narrative by Arkham. He perfectly analyzes Hex by revealing to the reader both the flaws and benefits of being a roughened killer. Through his interactions with the bounty hunter we're able to understand Arkham himself, including an extremely revealing series of moments for both characters as they sit in darkness and wait for death.
As you may know, this series has had back-up stories since issue two, and this grouping of issues offered a complete story called "The Barnaby Ghost". The story is fairly plain, but well done. Essentially, the child of a family murdered by a mob boss hunts down the criminal empire and extracts revenge in the most brutal way possible. The story isn't breaking any ground, and would be mundane if not for the protagonist being an Asian woman. In a contemporary setting those qualities by themselves would mean nothing for me as a reader, but considering the Western setting, the journey of a violent and relentless minority woman piques my interest enough to anticipate her promised return. Phil Winsdale's effort in the backup is outstanding. His art is more what I expected for All-Star Western — more grainy and realistic. Dominic Regan adds an undeniable quality that makes the story pulpy and animated.
Palmiotti/Gray have proven they are the masters of the single issue story, and now are showing their skill in crafting a longer tale. I'm enjoying the series, but am waiting for something more nourishing. However, I'm patient, and what they provide in the interim is high quality adventure comics.
Jamil Scalese is just like you — an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.