If there’s one thing that really bums me out about the “New 52 ” universe — and truth be told there’s far more than one thing, but that’s another matter for another time — it’s that DC editorial has roped in every single corner of its terrain and isn’t letting anything out. Even “weird” characters like Swamp Thing, John Constantine, etc. are firmly ensconced within the rigid confines of the dully homogenized “DCU,” as it’s called. And while the semi-fabled Vertigo imprint where they once had such a comfortable home has increasingly headed into creator-owned (after a fashion — see if you can get any of the creators of Vertigo-published books to tell you about how “good” the deals that supposedly grant them “ownership” of their work really are sometime) territory for at least 15 years or so now, I admit that I do miss the days when purportedly “marginal” and largely unused established DC characters were allowed to roam about a bit more freely under the Vertigo banner.
Jonah Hex is a perfect example of exactly what I’m talking about. The scarred bounty hunter, originally created back in the early ’70s as a kind of comic book answer to the “revisionist western” trend sweeping Hollywood at the time (think Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, McCabe And Mrs. Miller, and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid), Hex ended up being, for the most part, a fairly standard gunslinger/outlaw who just happened to be a lot uglier than most. He managed a good run, and even survived a disastrous early-’80s reboot that saw him taken out of time and dumped into a Road Warrior-style post-apocalyptic future, but by the time writer Joe R. Lansdale and artists Timothy Truman and Sam Glanzman were given the green-light to revive him in a new “mature readers” iteration for Vertigo in 1993, he’d been sitting around gathering dust on the shelf of unused characters for a long time.
Lansdale, an acclaimed horror novelist who was new to comics at that point, wisely decided to blow off writer Michael Fleisher’s decade-plus run with Hex and yoke his take on Jonah a bit more closely to how co-creator John Albano scripted him, but by and large he was content to blaze his own trail with little to no regard for anything that came before, and the result is a fairly accurate depiction of frontier life as it really was — illiterate, uncivilized, unwashed, unloved yokels leading nasty, brutish, and for the most part quite short lives in a largely-unsettled part of a country that was still a boiling, festering wound after the Civil War — and throws in a generous helping of supernatural “high weirdness” and bodily function and sex jokes to spice things up. His Hex is lewd, crude, rude, and usually in a bad mood. And needless to say, the end result is more fun than half-price day at an Old West whorehouse.
Tim Truman was a brilliant choice to illustrate these scripts as the samples reproduced here show, and his down-and-dirty style has an appropriately “old school” western feel to it combined with a modernist’s eye for just what a shithole the frontier really was. A better penciller for this stuff would be hard — nay, impossible — to imagine, and when you add on the rich inks of the legendary (a term we don’t use loosely around these parts) Sam Glanzman, the result is pure gold. This remains, to this day, one of the most lavishly-illustrated of all Vertigo comics.
The gang united three times — for the five part Two-Gun Mojo in 1993, which sees Hex taking on a zombie horde in his quest to get payback for a friend’s murder; the five-part Riders Of The Worm And Such in 1995, wherein Hex lands work as a hired hand at an Oscar Wilde-inspired ranch (yes, you read that right) infested by giant man-eating earthworms who have — uhhhhmmm — bred with humans to create truly moronic, yet decidedly dangerous, offspring (the main ones we’re introduced to being two twin brothers who are obvious stand-ins for musicians Edgar and Johnny Winter, who in fact sued DC for unauthorized use of their likenesses); and the the three-part Shadows West in 1999 that pits our scarred “hero” against the freaks and geeks of the Wild Will (yes, you read that right again) travelling sideshow when Hex decides to free a Native American woman and her half-human/half-bear (yes, you read that right a third time) from, shall we say, indentured servitude to the troupe. The Lansdale/Truman/Glanzman triumvirate played each successive series for more and more laughs, but they’re all just unsettling enough to make horror fans happy, as well, and the combination of fun and fright works like a charm in all three adventures. The stories are simple and straightforward, and Lansdale’s scripts are brisk, pacy, and give his artists plenty of action sequences and creepy grotesqueries to really sink their teeth into. No single issue takes more than a handful of minutes to read, but you can spend hours looking at the pretty pictures of ugly things.
I would have expected all of this material to be reprinted in conjunction with the entertaining disaster that was the Jonah Hex movie a few years back (especially since Two-Gun Mojo was adapted for release as a “motion comic” at the time), but for some reason it wasn’t, and Vertigo is apparently making up for lost time now by finally collecting them all in the just-released Jonah Hex : Shadows West trade paperback, which is easily the most awesome thing you’ll find on the shelves of your LCS this week (or probably for the next several weeks). Even though these stories are all between 15 and 20 years old, they not only “hold up well” against most of the new stuff out there today, frankly they’re a whole hell of a lot better than, as they’d say in the West, ‘purt near all of it. And while I could go on an on about all that for a thousand or so more words without much trouble, I do have one small gripe, so let’s get to that now, shall we?
The introduction for this volume, written by Lansdale himself and reprinted from the first collected edition of Two-Gun Mojo back in 1994, is one of the most egotistical, self-serving intros I’ve ever read. He doesn’t even drop Truman’s name — whose work really steals the show here — until the last paragraph of his three-page pat on his own back, and Glanzman, who’s never gotten anywhere near the level of recognition in the industry he deserves despite the fact that he, for all intents and purposes, invented the autobiographical comics genre back in the 1960s (and told some of the finest war stories the medium has ever seen, to boot) doesn’t even merit a mention from his author. Bad form, Joe, bad form.
To his credit, by the time he does lower himself to acknowledge Truman’s contribution, he says that he’s “the perfect artist” to draw Hex, and he’s absolutely right about that. Then he goes on to say that he, himself, is the perfect guy to write Hex — and while that’s mighty brazen of him, he’s also right on that score, as well. At the end of the day, this superb team created a whole new subgenre — the western/horror/comedy. Nobody’s really tried anything like it since, and there’s not really much point, because the bar has been set so high (even if the material is decidedly low-brow, as it should be). Do yourself a favor and grab Jonah Hex : Shadows West now. No fooliin’ pardner, it’s the best durn funnybook yer gonna read in a mighty long spell.