The ninth and last in a series of posts on my favorite pamphlet comics of the decade
Jonah Hex #35, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, and JH Williams III. Published by DC Comics, November 2008.
The pamphlet spent this decade dying. Everyone knew it, not everyone cared, few did anything about it, and the ones who did tried their hands at evolving it into something that might stand up better against the new millennium. Sometimes this produced interesting results, but sometimes not. None of them succeeded. The pamphlet is still on its way out. Further gone every Wednesday.
Maybe the only way to save it would have been to simply ignore the quibbling about the format's inadequacies, to simply believe in the pamphlet as it stood and produced comics that showcased its greatness, rather than trying to change it into something else.
Maybe they should have made more comics like this one.
Here we are at the end of a series of posts in which I've tried to explore the deep end of the pamphlet, the permutations it undertook as attempts to survive what continues to seem an inevitable death. But the point, the real thing I've been trying to say here, is that the pamphlet is being unnecessarily buried. That it was the very best, and it could still be, if our medium's geniuses only gave it their patronage. Jonah Hex #35 is the most ordinary kind of pamphlet -- standard price, standard page count, a non-anniversary and non-round-numbered issue of an in-continuity ongoing series. The only thing to distinguish it from everything else on the rack that week was its content. Just like it's been for the decades of history the pamphlet's seen through. Just like the other works of genius that this format produced.
In simpler times, when pamphlets were it as far as comic books went, there was a way to do things. The writers would write a genre script that was low on pretention or fat and high on excitement, and then they would hand it off to an artist who knew what he was doing and be shut of the thing, knowing it was in good hands. A method that produced classics that range as wide as this one's -- from "Master Race" to "Flash of Two Worlds" -- is a tough thing to put out to pasture, and as it happens, here it produced one more piece of stone cold comics greatness.
Sometimes in this medium the best script isn't the Alan Moore opera or the Neil Gaiman flight of fancy, but the simple done-in-one comics issue. The story that's perfect not because of its virtuosity but just because there isn't anything wrong with it. That's the kind of script writers Palmiotti and Gray turn in here. It's a classic hard-boiled Western, complete with plot twists, double-crosses, nasty fights, and just the right amount of cheeky character bits. The story is almost crude -- it lurches into a kind of asymmetrical three-act structure, blurting out violence and snapping off memorable lines when least expected, approximating the tone of a vintage tall tale with a shambolic bluntness that at times seems like it must be accidental. It concerns a couple of days in the life of Jonah Hex, DC's resident lone-wolf, bounty-hunting badass, opening up with a gun-battle scene that falls just short of half the issue, continuing through a scandalous encounter between Hex, Marshal Roth, the provider of the bounty for winning said battle, and his wife. A quick, downbeat ending is included more than flowed into, and then the credits roll unceremoniously.
What might be missing in this description is that such a mess of a script is perfectly suited to the kind of down-and-dirty Western comic that Jonah Hex is, making up in crudity and grit what it lacks in schooled slickness. Like a Johnny Cash song, it might not be the prettiest thing in the world -- but it's got soul, a rare thing to find in comics writing.
If Palmiotti and Gray have an instinctive -- even iconoclastic -- understanding of the Western, that's not enough to make a good comic by by itself. Such purposefully atonal yarn-spinning could easily be ruined by a bad artist, or just an unsympathetic one. Fortunately Palmiotti is in high standing with the powers-that-be at DC Comics, and for this issue was able to requisition one of the best.
JH Williams III is a world-class comics artist, but he also does more for the stories he draws than most writers do for the stories they script. If Palmiotti and Gray understand how to write a good Western, Williams understands not only how to draw one, not only how to make all the facets of it shine their brightest, but also how to bring out facets in it that are all his own; that weren't even necessarily always there. He understands the comics medium with a skill that only comes along very rarely, and uses this comic, a random single issue of a low-selling cowboy comic, to cut loose with a murderous ferocity, tearing holes in the already ragged script he is entrusted.
Part of understanding the medium is understanding what kind of story you're drawing, and from page one it's obvious that Williams has his boots on. He drops his usual fine pen line for a crusty, brush-inked action-flurry, evoking John Severin and Alex Toth with linework so grimy you can feel the dirt on your fingers as you turn the pages. It's quite a metamorphosis of style, but it's easy to skim right over it because it serves the tone of the comic so well, and through it all Williams' illustrative grace remains.
Williams plays fairly straight with the layouts here, and it's a good thing. Whereas normally his pages read as more designed than broken down, and thus occasionally lose the flow, here his panels snap to the staccato beat of gunfire, exploding in violent bursts of experimentalism as warranted.
But there's more going on here, a lot more, as we get a four-panel sequence that takes seven pages to unfold, running as an unobtrusive parallel to a sequence where Jonah Hex takes a gang's garrison by storm, rescuing a cadre of marshals hemmed in by machine-gun fire. The sequence in question, however, executed in a very modern ink wash that makes a striking contrast with the rest of the crudely-brushed art, has little to do with that rescue. Instead, it forms a mini-story that gives an
of the events occuring in the main plot. It's a vicious, unexpected burst of pure artistry, something almost no other artist would bother with, and beside emphasizing the drama of the proceedings, it gives a clear message about what kind of comic this is going to be: balls-to-the-wall uncompromising. Not only that, it shows Williams' versatility in how he depicts what happens in a comic. For the classic Western shoot-out, he adopts a rough-hewn, classic style. But for the modern, left-field bits, he draws like a pure virtuoso.
Another style change quickly follows, as the scene shifts to dinner with Hex, Marshal Roth, and his wife Marcy. Tension is palpable -- Hex is ill-at-ease with people, only wanting his money, and there's something weird going on with the Marshal and Marcy -- but everyone is too polite to break it. This isn't the kind of scene you'd see in a Silver Age Western; too slow-moving, too atmospheric. Williams switches it up accordingly, to a slightly more detailed style recalling Moebius' work on Blueberry, which was exactly the kind of comic you'd get a scene like this in. The inking gets more intricate, the compositions get weirder, and Hex's facial deformities get worse as the story gets more adult.
The men move out onto the porch to smoke and drink, and the art gets even darker, more detailed, and grimier -- Tim Bradstreet-esque -- as the plot goes even more "mature readers". Turns out the Marshal is sterile, his wife wants a baby, and Hex is an ideal surrogate. Turns out they've drugged his whisky to make extra sure he'll comply with the plan.
Suddenly Williams' full style bursts forth along with the drug's hallucinations, amplified by Dave Stewart's blazing color work. This is a modern comic now, with a thoroughly twisted modern plotline, and it looks for all the world like one, with computer effects acting like killer guitar distortion --
-- and perhaps the most intense psychosexual image ever published in a DC Comic.
Hex fights off the date-rape before it can occur, and the dawn comes up like thunder as he vomits out the poison.
The conclusion goes back to classic Western territory, as the Marshal plans revenge on Hex but can't bring himself to act, and the hero rides off into the sunset. Williams settles on a fusion between his modern, thin-line style and the cruder style he started the story with, as if the simplicity of the end has been tainted by the shocking plot complications that preceded it. The final panel sums up the conflicting classic-modern flavors of the book more elegantly -- crunchily-inked leaves falling over a delicate ink-wash hawk. The past and the future together, each a part of an austerely gorgeous whole.
It's also about as good a panel as you could choose to illustrate the way things were for the pamphlet in the 2000s -- virtuosic, modern stabs at a venerable format. Artworks worth returning to again and again. The promise of more to come, just like at the end of any comic issue, but -- and from here looking forward it looks to be a sad certainty -- this is really the end. So if it is, and if we find it hard to toast the 2020s with a list of pamphlets because there are none to be found anymore, let these beautiful images the pamphlet has shored up for its decades of existence speak loud against its demise. Here, in our industry, in our medium, in our art, in our lives, there once stood a format that gave us beautiful dreams. It seems that it will die -- it is dying -- it is not dead yet. Let us enjoy it while it lasts, and never forget what it has given to us, even in its waning days. Let us never forget that it can always give more, if only we allow it to.