“Read a Damn Book – 128: Jonah Hex and Other Western Tales”

in comics •  last year  (edited)

First off, let it be known: I am not a “western” fan. I never had a cowboy phase as a kid, although I watched quite a few western films with my Uncle Randy throughout my life. (He loves westerns, though I only ever REALLY liked two cowboy movies: Blazing Saddles and Support Your Local Sheriff…and, I supposed, Apple Dumpling Gang, with Tim Conway and Don Knotts. I saw Star Wars at the drive-in when I was seven, and no gunslinger could compare, after that, to a laser sword wielding magician in space, so cowboy movies dropped off my radar.) But I was still kind of excited when my friend, John O’Brien, let me have this little book to read. Several years ago, I read a Vertigo graphic novel, called Johan Hex - Two Gun Mojo, which was decidedly in the WEIRD WESTERN vein (with magic and zombies and such)---and I’ll read just about anything that falls into the “WEIRD” category. So, did THIS book hold up to my expectations???

jonah hex digeest - (peg).jpg

Ross Andru (ed.) and various others – Jonah Hex and Other Western Tales (1979)

Jonah Hex and Other Western Tales is a digest sized, reprint collection of western stories that originally appeared in various DC comic titles from around 1971 to 1979. The book is edited by Ross Andru (who I knew as an early artist on The Defenders books) and overseen by Joe Orlando (who was a major player in the horror anthology, Creepy!) The stories in this collection were created by a number of different authors and artists (I recognized Neal Adams, who did the art on the second story in this book,) and the main characters here are Billy the Kid, “El Diablo,” Scalphunter, and Jonah Hex (who gets a few stories.) For those who don’t know Hex, he is a bounty hunter who, as is hinted at in this book, was a Confederate soldier that suffered some kind of horrible trauma during the war and was scarred and disfigured thereafter. He is also something of a superhero (or anti-hero, I suppose) who has superhuman reflexes and shooting ability, and he seems to be able to survive just about anything. (In one story in this collection, he is riddled with bullets from a Gatling gun, but is somehow able to keep right on going and complete his mission.)

Overall, the art in this book is all pretty good---colorful, full of detail and movement, in that busy, straight-forward, 1970’s sort of style. (Do you know what I mean?) It’s not the most mind shattering work, but it’s solid, easy to follow, dynamic action drawing, and the artwork definitely fits the mood for this book, which is dark and dangerous, but with a few sly, humorous jabs thrown in from time to time.

Speaking of the overall mood, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more “WEIRD” in this collection. (I was spoiled by the Vertigo book, which was VERY weird.) There is one story here, starring El Diablo (not the Mexican wrestling character,) that has a supernatural element to it, but the rest of the stories are just western shoot-em-ups, with a high body count and dirty, double-crossing going on all over the place. There is a bit of gallows humor to the Johan Hex stories, and there is a weird twist in the Scalphunter tale (that I won’t reveal, in the off, off chance you decide to hunt this book down and read it,) but overall, these are just cowboys and bandits and “injuns” shooting at each other and cutting each other off at the pass. It’s pretty standard, Hollywood stuff---which brings me to my main concern/complaint…

This is definitely NOT a politically correct book. Although several of the characters in this collection show some sympathy for Native Americans, terms like “savage” and “heathen” are frequently used as descriptors for the Native American characters, and the overall portrayal of these folks is swimming in standard, Hollywood “cowboy and Indian” tropes. It’s very tough to read for me. I’m not trying to suggest that the creators are intentionally being racist, but the Hollywood bias is clear and powerful, right down to the “noble savage” ideology and the “mysterious shaman” motifs. There’s even an Indian burial ground, for goodness sake… Again, this is a product of the time in which the stories were written, and although we can’t go back and change how people thought and spoke in the 1970s, I think it’s fair to point out this bias for potential readers of today.

Another potentially distracting thing for some readers would be the dialog. The authors often use “dialect” in the panels, so you get weird things, like “hoss” for “horse,” and silly lines like this:

“Whut kind’a senseless killin’ warh thet? Those injuns warh only carrying game back to thar squaws!” (p. 54).

Seriously. It’s a bit tough to take, sometimes. I mean, Mark Twain uses dialect writing in his work (and I absolutely LOVE The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,) but he was a master with a near perfect ear---and it’s still tough sometimes to understand what Twain is trying to say. Here, you have to read some of the lines aloud just to figure out what they MIGHT be getting at.

Overall, the book is passable, gun-fighting action. The stories themselves aren’t very long, they’re all pretty well written, and the artwork is good, but for me, it just wasn’t particularly exciting. (Though, as I mentioned above, I’m not really a fan of western stories, and it’s completely possible that my expectation that this would be a “weird” western anthology led me to undue disappointment.) The ghostly El Diablo tale is kind of fun, and the Jonah Hex chapters have some humorous moments, but I wasn’t super thrilled with the book as a whole.

The collection, it should go without saying, is long out of print, and it’ll run you between $10 and $20 on eBay, but I wouldn’t recommend paying that much for it, unless you are a huge fan of western stories. If you can find a copy for a buck or two in a used shop, it might be worth it for a short-term diversion. (The copy I have is pretty badly beaten up, so it’s not really a collectible anymore---and the printing ink and paper that were used for this copy were so cheap that it does have some smears from where somebody’s greasy fingers mushed the pages, which makes it tough to read some of the words in spots. These pages were originally present at full comic size, then shrunk down for the digest reprints, so when you couple the smaller lettering with the smeary inks, you get a book that is sometimes tough to read…) But, as I mentioned above, the artwork is solid, and the character of Jonah Hex is interesting---sort of an anti-hero, smart-ass with a quick trigger finger and a heart of bronze (not gold by any means, but hey!) The book isn’t a total loss, but I wouldn’t pay too much for it. (Now I need to read Joe Lansdale’s Two Gun Mojo again and see if I still like that one!!!)

Later!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)

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