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Jonah Hex #34

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008
By: Thom Young

Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray
Mark Sparacio
DC Comics
Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray's Jonah Hex series has been one of my favorite comic book works for the past three years. During the first year's worth of stories, they hadn't quite characterized the title character correctly (based on how Michael Fleisher characterized him in over 100 stories from 1974-85). At first, Palmiotti and Gray seemed to want Hex to be the bounty hunter with a heart of gold that he tried to keep hidden with his scarred face and his affectation of a mean disposition.

They weren't bad stories during that first year. In fact, they were pretty good, but they weren't stories about the Jonah Hex that I grew up reading in the 1970s. After that first year, though, Palmiotti and Gray got it right. Hex is a bounty hunter who looks after his own interests first and won't get involved in a situation simply for the sake of righting an injustice if there's nothing in it for him.

He has an amoral attitude toward life, and he fits well into the mold of "the lone American hero"--a nomadic tough guy dating back to Romanticized early 19th century notions of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and the mountain men who moved west across the continent and into the Rockies, Sierras, and Cascades as a means of getting away from civilization and the little houses on the prairie that were springing up in The Plains.

Jonah Hex is part of a character motif that has been running through American literature since the Leather-Stocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper (and perhaps earlier); through the dime novel Westerns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (including fictional accounts of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok); and that continues to this day in hardboiled American crime novels.

Even as a kid (perhaps especially as a kid), that Romantic notion of the American "Lone Wolf" hero is what attracted me to Jonah Hex--particularly as presented by Michael Fleisher 30 years ago. With only a few exceptions in the past two years of their run, Palmiotti and Gray have gotten it right.

I'm not sure, but I think this latest issue may be one of those exceptions.

I'm not sure because my reactions to this issue are all over the place.

At first, I was going to give this issue a rating of only two bullets. While I liked the style of Mark Sparacio's illustrations for this story in some ways (more on that in a minute), I didn't think the style he chose was appropriate for Jonah Hex. It also seems to me that Palmiotti and Gray used a different tone for the dialog to reflect the tone of Sparacio's illustrations--and I didn't like the dialog either (at least not for Jonah Hex).

Finally, there is the "back story" that the writers gave Hex in this issue that I believe is new to the character--at least I don't recall Fleisher or John Albano (the writer who created Jonah Hex) ever stating or implying this aspect of Hex's character before. (More on this "new aspect" in a moment.)

First, though, let me address Mark Sparacio's work. The illustrations on the first four and two-thirds pages seemed flat and stiff. However, that didn't throw me off. They almost had the look of something from the na´ve art movement that is reflected in 19th century American folk art. Yes, it was a bit flat and stiff, but that seemed to be the point--casting this story as an American folk tale told from the perspective of a na´ve artist.

"Okay," I thought, "This looks like an innovative approach to take with a comic book Western." The top panel on the fourth page went against the idea of the na´ve art movement or American folk art tradition, though. The leaves falling all around Hex and his cabin as he nails shingles on the roof look like computer-generated leaves.

Perhaps Sparacio might have drawn one leaf, and then just duplicated it with minor adjustments to be computer-pasted throughout the panel. All of the leaves are pointing the same direction as they fall from a tree (or trees) that exists off-panel to the left (with the wind carrying them from left to right).

Aside from those computer-generated leaves, the rest of the panel was fine, but those leaves drew my attention. I also noticed that all of these autumnal gold leaves from a deciduous tree were falling in what the story seems to indicate is the Cascade Mountains in Central Oregon (where I actually lived for three and a half years from the age of 10-14).

The problem is that there aren't a lot of deciduous trees in Central Oregon, just evergreen trees--pine, fir, and juniper. Indeed, Sparacio doesn't draw any deciduous trees anywhere in the story--just pine trees, which would be appropriate if the story is set in the Cascades far enough west from the Eastern Oregon desert (which is where the juniper trees are mostly found). Those autumn gold deciduous leaves seem to have been blown in from some other location entirely--carried in the upper atmosphere for hundreds of miles before being dropped on Jonah Hex's cabin in Central Oregon.

Okay, but that's only one panel and I'm not going to let it spoil the whole story. So what if the leaves are out of place and computer generated? Let's move on.

And I did. I turned the page, looked at the top two horizontal panels on page five (again presented in a na´ve art style--specifically reminiscent of the work of Grandma Moses in the case of these two panels). Very nice. I like the idea.

Then came the bottom two panels.

Drew Friedman!?

I swear, the owner of the general store and his daughter look like they were drawn by Drew Friedman, the illustrator who worked with his brother Josh Alan Friedman (writer) on two of my favorite comic books of the 1980s--Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Fantagraphics, 1985) and Warts and All (Viking-Penguin, 1990). If you don't know these books, seek them out. They are great (if you like dark satirical humor that is directed at Hollywood and politicians).

"I love Drew Friedman's work, but why is he illustrating an issue of Jonah Hex?" I thought to myself (as opposed to thinking it to someone else). You see, Drew Friedman is the greatest "photo realistic caricaturist" ever!

"Photo realistic caricatures?" you ask (if you're not familiar with his work).

"Yes, photo realistic caricatures. They're incredible," I answer.

In the two books of his that I'm familiar with, Friedman worked from photographs of Hollywood actors and politicians--recreating their appearance realistically but slightly altering them in terms of body posture and/or facial expression to make them look slightly absurd (i.e. caricatures).

Even the drawing of Hex as he tips his hat to Sandy Clarkson, the store owner's attractive daughter, looks like Friedman might have penciled it (though it's not as much a photo realistic caricature as are the drawings of the store owner and his daughter).

From that point on, the drawings of characters in the foreground of each panel looked like Drew Friedman's photo realistic caricatures superimposed on Grandma Moses-styled folk art backgrounds. Even though I like both styles, the mash-up of the two together looks a bit bizarre.

I became so fascinated with how much the characters looked like they were drawn by Drew Friedman that I Googled "Mark Sparacio" on the Internet. I discovered that he is not Drew Friedman using a pseudonym, which is what I had started to suspect.

Even though I had never heard of him before, Sparacio seems to have already done quite a bit of professional comic book work in the relatively short time he has been working in the industry. What I found even more surprising is that none of his other work seemed to be done in the style of American folk art, the na´ve art movement, or photo realistic caricatures.

Some of his covers look photo realistic--in a Greg Land-esque style--but they don't fall into the category of caricatures.

In the end, I decided that while I liked the American folk art style (or the na´ve art style), I didn't care for the bits that reminded me of Drew Friedman's photo realistic caricatures. Even though I love Friedman's work, it doesn't strike me as being appropriate for Jonah Hex.

Friedman (with his brother often writing the dialog) uses his style to create dark satirical looks at Hollywood and American politics (the Friedman Brother's story of the good folks of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show encountering an African American motorist who stops in their rural North Carolina town in the early 1960s is worth the price of Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead Is Purely Coincidental all by itself). Unfortunately (or actually fortunately), the Jonah Hex story in this issue is not a dark satire.

At least I don't think it is.

Additionally, Palmiotti and Gray seemed to alter the tone of some of the dialog (not all of it) that they normally write for Jonah Hex in order to reflect the tone of the photo realistic caricatures drawn by Sparacio--such as when Hex guns down the five outlaws who murdered Sandy Clarkson and her store-owner father: "Muh name ain't Hilliwig. It's Jonah Woodson Hex. The man what dangles from strings that reach ta the Heavens grasped in hands as cruel as any can imagine."

It's not exactly satirical/caricature dialog like Josh Alan Friedman would write, but it's not exactly the typical Jonah Hex dialog that Palmiotti and Gray write either.

Or perhaps I'm being influenced in my reading of it by Sparacio's panel of the five outlaws each being hit by one of Hex's five bullets as they're lined up at the bar in a saloon and then toppling over like dominoes in a chain reaction.

Of course, that scene also presents some of my mixed-reaction problems with the issue.

The story opens with Hex having moved to Central Oregon to settle down while living apart from society in relative isolation. Okay, half of that sounds like the Hex I know--the half about living apart from society, not the settling down half. The first page shows Hex burying his Confederate uniform and pistols in a box emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag. (Oddly, even after burying his uniform, Hex still walks around in a Confederate-gray shirt and hat.)

After Sandy Clarkson visits Hex at his cabin three times--first to bring pie, then to bring sex, and finally to bring news of her father's murder and to implore Hex to avenge her loss--Hex sits before his fireplace to read scripture from the Bible and contemplate whether he wants to take up a calling as God's Avenging Angel of Death.

The scene concludes with Hex throwing the Bible on the fire and riding into town to seek vengeance for Sandy, but finds that she, too, has been murdered by the outlaws who killed her father. He then gives his speech about being God's marionette as he guns the outlaws down and they topple over like dominoes.

The domino image looks ludicrous. It has the appearance of vaudevillian slapstick that seems completely out of place in a Jonah Hex story. On the other hand, the domino image underscores the "chain of events" that has led Hex to this moment in which he makes a "life choice" (the story is set in April of 1871--relatively early in Hex's career since most of Fleisher's stories are probably set between the late 1870s to mid 1880s).

Additionally, some of the absurd body positions that Sparacio places the characters in (which is what makes them look like Drew Friedman caricatures) could be taken to be the absurd positions that marionettes are often in (e.g. Sandy's body as one of the town folk pulls her back from going after the outlaws during her father's funeral or the scene in which one of the outlaws beats Sandy after she turns to prostitution)--underscoring Hex's opinion that he is God's marionette.

There appears to be some specific ideas behind the artistic choices in the story, and I can appreciate the thought that went into this work. On that level, I was tempted to rate this book with four bullets--possibly even five!

Nevertheless, the final product strikes me as being off the mark--like an attempt at doing a Friedman Brother's satire of that doesn't fit into with the rest of the character's canon--nor my notions of Jonah from reading Fleisher's stories when I was growing up.

Finally, I don't care for this idea of Hex seeing himself as an Avenging Angel whose strings are being pulled by a cruel God in Heaven (I'm assuming he wasn't alluding to The Spectre).



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