THE COARSE WHISPER OF JONAH HEX
Jonah Hex #13
In stores Nov '06/cover dated January 2007Story: Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Artwork: Jordi Bernet
Colors: Rob Schwager
DC Comics 2006
Jonah Hex seems to be a lonely figure, but considering his severe facial disfigurement, he is not a particularly melancholy fellow. A kind of imagined Southern Man's vision of a noble anti-hero, still dressed in confederate greys and dispensing justice whenever forced into a violent confrontation, he is otherwise always traveling from place to place earning a living and minding his own business (which never works out peaceably, not surprising since the man is a bounty hunter).
A Hex story doesn't argue the right or wrong of the American Civil War, or about issues of slavery, because in an atypical Southern vision, those things are irrelevant; the real conflict was about the impolite audacity of someone from there trying to tell us here that we're wrong (even if the South finally did admit it was wrong about one part of the equation, slavery, but it took until the 1960s to arrive at that conclusion.)
Hex is stamped an outsider by his face, and doubly-stamped because he is riding around in the uniform of the "losing" side (another issue of point of view: how can it really matter that the South "lost the war" when it wasn't wrong? In the romanticized Southern view, historical reality isn't important, only moral certitude counts: hence the many confederate battle flags that fly from porches all over the South to this day.)
Not that any of this figures in the writing of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti's reborn Jonah Hex title for DC Comics. But the iconic image of Jonah Hex in his grey uniform, his torn face and his never-ending conflict with bad men who need killing badly is an amalgam of all these themes and many more, particularly Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name (A cigar chomping entrepreneur who isn't looking for trouble but just don't annoy him: he's the fastest gun there is); and the whole Western movie hagiography of silent men who ride horses saving women and children without ever getting into a real relationship with any of them.
Movies have always been a seedbed for comics, and Jonah Hex (originally written by John Albano for All-Star Western Tales) is certainly derived from a combination of Clint Eastwood western films and other motion pictures. For example, see the first Jonah Hex story in the recent DC Comics Showcase of black and white reprints: a 1971 tale that features a well drawn likeness by Tony de Zuniga of actor Lee Marvin as a villain, a not too subtle visual cue from which the reader is supposed to get their context.
The DC Comics rejuvenated Hex title from 2005 has been drawn by a number of artists, most trying to give the character a distinct Eastwood likeness, which to me is a major stumbling block for the reader: am I supposed to think of the character Jonah Hex or of Clint Eastwood while reading the story? If making Hex look like Eastwood is an attention getting gambit (I wonder if Eastwood's lawyers have noticed?) why not make Hex look like John Wayne? Alan Ladd? Gary Cooper?
Is DC Comics trying to tap into a general pop consciousness of Western iconography by hijacking Clint Eastwood and splicing him with Two Face/Harvey Dent and adding a six-gun? I don't know. Thankfully, though, there hasn't been any attempt at a dual-personality take on the character. In fact, until this issue I cannot recall any instances where Hex was ever not scarred.
Nonetheless, here in issue #13 writers Gray and Palmiotti are making Hex their own, refashioning the character. I am only vaguely aware of the origins of Hex' disfigurement from old DC continuity, something to do with a "hot tomahawk" (see the Wikipedia article on Jonah Hex here) but Gray and Palmiotti have jettisoned that and have cast Hex in the hot cauldron of North/South hatred: tortured and mutilated by Yankee soldiers wanting to "send a message" to rebels downstream, a bleeding and dying Hex is tied to a raft (wrapped in a confederate flag and tied to a St. Andrew's cross) and sent down the Cumberland River only to be rescued by a kindly Southerner (probably a doctor, though this isn't made clear: he does seem to have surgeon's tools handy to work on Hex and save him. He also instructs Hex about his wounds, and that his voice will probably always be "a coarse whisper"). In a vague way reminiscent of Eastwood's film The Beguiled about a wounded Confederate Soldier recovering in a school for young women, Hex instead recovers at the home of his savior, only to be asked to leave as soon as he is able because his presence endangers the man's family if the Yankees find him there (more or less akin to the situation in Beguiled). Before this can happen, though, Hex has to respond to the assault on the family from bandits masquerading as confederate soldiers in stolen uniforms. Bloody mayhem ensues.
Titled "Retribution," this is the first part of a three-part tale called "The shocking origin of Jonah Hex" and the story switches from the American Civil War to scenes in "The Wyoming Badlands, 1868" in which Hex seems to be catching up with a few of the fellows he met prior to his disfigurement. Drawn by Jordet Bernett, this Hex story is visually quite a bit like a cartoon, though Bernet certainly has a violent dynamic to his work that fits the theme (Bernet also draws in such a simplified style that there is no attempt at a Eastwood-likeness). Strangely, not a single black face appears in this tale, though it looks as if the "doctor" who saved Jonah lives in a plantation house that is almost palatial in size. Who keeps such a place clean and in repair? The "doctor"?
The look of many of the previous issues of Jonah Hex seem derived partially from the film Tombstone (especially the ones drawn by Luke Ross), but this issue #13 seems to be spinning into Gone With The Wind territory. I am interested to see how Gray and Palmiotti define the origin of this long-lived DC character in the next two parts and how they continue to use such broad American history as a backdrop to the violence and fury of Hex.
(I also hope to see some kind of attention given the fellow's name: Both "Jonah" and "Hex" are very direct references to bad luck, as far as American folklore go. I do not recall this being covered in any of the old Jonah Hex stories.)
Some Jonah Hex links:
The Comicbloc site has an interview about Jonah Hex with writers Gray and Palmiotti here.
Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter has a review of Jonah Hex #13 here - He praises the artwork but damns the story.
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