When I started getting into Daredevil as a small boy, I would go to the comic book store and grab a few back issues at random. It didn’t really matter if the issues were stinkers because Matt Murdock was just so cool. Cooler than Batman, even, because he could do everything Batman could do blind. Plus his costume was badass and he lived in a comic book version of Hell’s Kitchen that made the western side of midtown Manhattan seem noir-ish and intriguing.
For similar reasons, I tend to pick up Jonah Hex whenever I can’t figure out what else to buy at the comic book store. The eponymous anti-hero at the center of every story is a cool guy, no question, but it’s the book itself that’s the draw. Hex has something going for it that few non-Vertigo titles ever manage: consistency. The kind of storytelling harmony achieved by having the same two writers, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, script every issue. Jonah Hex was cancelled recently, victim of DC’s current company-wide reboot, but for the past six years it’s been one of the most consistently awesome titles on store shelves.
“Who Lives and Who Dies,” from Jonah Hex #23, serves as a stellar example of this comic’s greatest showcase: the intriguing, completely self-contained one-off story. Gray and Palmiotti weren’t writing for trade – only 13 of the title’s 70 issues are multi-chapter tales – which made it incredibly easy for a casual reader to just dive right in without feeling lost. “Who Lives and Who Dies” begins with the words: “With regards to my arm and how I came to lose it…” followed by a pretty spot-on description of what makes Hex’s character so compelling:
What follows is a campfire tale of the way Jonah handles a battle between opposing groups of Native Americans. How the teacher lost his arm is cleared up almost immediately:
Turns out Hex and a rather disagreeable army colonel are both angling to kill a local chief. One of Hex’s more appealing qualities is that he always keeps his word. If he says he’s going to take somebody down, he does, though never without complications. This time it’s the colonel, who pushes Hex into the pit with the natives that only moments before Hex had been opening fire on, then sentences Hex to death in order to collect the bounty on the chief.
“For you, perhaps.” Hell, yeah. Since he’s the star of the book, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate the situation turning in Hex’s favour, but take care to note the way in which Hex and the teacher find themselves in similar positions: pinned to a rock and, presumably, left for dead, with one character responsible for freeing the other.
And of course everyone involved (the teacher’s students, the reader) wants to see the villian get his comeuppance, which he does…
…until the teacher, an intellectual humanitarian, demands the colonel be freed. Of course, Hex knows what’s going to happen, but goes along with it anyway, resulting in the colonel almost immediately going for the teacher’s gun and aiming it at Hex:
And now the two characters have switched positions, with Hex as the master and the teacher as the student. A tried-and-true storytelling technique? Sure. Is it used well? Absolutely. Is it cool? Totally.
That less-is-more mentality is what made Jonah Hex so inherently readable, yet also, strangely, made it a book few people ran to the store to buy. Its greatest strength – consistency – was also its greatest weakness, with no individual issue rising above or below the standard of quality established and maintained by Gray and Palmiotti month after month (Palmiotti’s wife, Amanda Conner, went through something similar on her own book, Power Girl.) There are no low points to contrast the high points to, which puts Jonah Hex on a scale consisting of exactly one digit (that digit’s a nine, but still.)
Though Hex is gone it will be immediately replaced by All-Star Western, also scripted by Gray and Palmiotti, also featuring Hex, but with the addition of back-up tales concerning other DC heroes of the old west. DC’s “second feature” experiment from a couple of years ago – raising the cover price by a dollar and giving Captain Atom, the Question, and the Metal Men (among others) a few pages in the back of someone else’s book – failed pretty miserably, so I question the wisdom of giving Hex less screen time and forcing him to share the frame with Bat-Lash or whoever. If anyone can make it work, it’s Gray and Palmiotti, but it feels like a rather ill-advised editorial decision.
Jonah Hex #23 is collected in the Only the Good Die Young trade paperback (with five other excellent one-off tales) if you’re for some exceptional storytelling for cheap.