ALL-STAR WESTERN #31 (Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Cliff Richards, José Luis García-López) is alarmingly familiar.
Maybe it’s because the team which has given us over a hundred issues of Jonah Hex’s criminally undersold adventures knows that the end is near. After all, DC did recently announce the series’ cancellation for a mere three months from now.
Or maybe it’s because Hex just got back from one of the wildest stories in his life. In the past year, readers have seen the confederacy-clad bounty hunter transported to the present day New 52, committed to Arkham Asylum, in court with Bruce Wayne, battling Swamp Thing with John Constantine, ingesting Alan Moore’s infamous fantasy-inducing Black Mercy, flying over Metropolis with Superman, espousing his thoughts on gay marriage, and finding an unlikely sidekick in perennial fan favorite Booster Gold.
But now, it seems the status quo has been restored (plus or minus a facial scar), and Gray and Palmiotti are back to business as usual in the old west.
Our story this month begins in familiar territory– Jonah and occasional companion Tallulah Black on the cusp of a bar fight– continues on through familiar territory– the eruption of said bar fight– and culminates in familiar territory– raucous, uninhibited lovemaking.
But, maybe, the best reason of all for ALL-STAR WESTERN #31’s familiarity is its surprising coda– and its implication that this may be the last “normal” day Jonah Hex will ever see.
Of late, Jonah Hex’s escapades might have been more appropriately branded as WEIRD WESTERN TALES. But this month, Gray and Palmiotti deliver what is undeniably an ALL-STAR WESTERN. The gritty bon-mots and brutal violence of this issue have long been Hex’s bread and butter, and for the faithful reader who just wished Hex would stop screwing around in the 21st century and get back to the untamed frontier, it feels like coming home.
And it’s not just the dedicated western fan– there’s a joy to Jonah Hex himself here that we haven’t seen in a long time. Jonah’s return to the 19th century has been a rocky one until now. This is the issue where a long-vexed Jonah Hex laughs again. This is the issue where Jonah Hex gets his groove back. This is the issue where, you can tell, everything is going a little too perfectly for it not to immediately go to hell in a hand basket.
All flavors of genre fiction come with their own unique set of tropes. The milieu of the cowboy western is not an exception. Palmiotti and Gray are fanatical in their dedication to the format, and take pains to explore and pay tribute to them whenever they can. The problem, though, is that these particular hyper-specific narrative conventions are over a hundred years old. Jonah Hex’s rare personality is usually enough to keep a reader engaged, but for those not already sold on the western format– an audience which last year’s The Lone Ranger disaster proved is much, much smaller than anyone in the entertainment industry believes– dragging yourself through the dust clouds and tumbleweeds can be kind of a slog when the vast, sandy expanses of the wild west all look the same.
Never is this more apparent than in Gray and Palmiotti’s attempts at a backup feature, usually starring other lesser known characters from DC’s long forgotten stable of western heroes. This month brings us part two of two in the story of “Madame .22,” which somehow fails to engage even with the surefire premise of “a cowgirl goes to hell.”
It’s more telling than anything that this is the first issue in ALL-STAR WESTERN’s run where the backup character shares billing on the cover with Jonah himself. So unremarkable are the events of this issue for Jonah, the artist was forced to mine the unpopular, experimental backup features for an interesting visual.
If I had to make a list of my top five favorite DC Comics characters right now, I can almost guarantee that Jonah Hex would make the cut. Nobody doesn’t care like Jonah Hex doesn’t care. And even when he’s not doing much, it’s a treat to just hang out with him for a while. Palmiotti and Gray’s treatment of the character and his world has long been a part of my life, and I’m doing my best to cherish these final months with him.
Maybe you’re a Jonah Hex fan, too. Maybe you’re considering some fan campaign to keep him from getting the boot. My advice: don’t. Jonah’s had an amazing run. He’s gunslung with the best of ’em, and every cowboy needs to ride into the sunset some time. For our (usually) scar-faced bounty hunter, maybe that time was before The New 52, in JONAH HEX #70.
But, thank god, someone at DC clearly loves Jonah as much as I do, and he’s been given a way better shot than the market demands. And if you asked Jonah Hex himself? I bet you I know what he’d say. He’d tell you to just leave him alone already. You’ve been crowding him long enough.
Maybe then, finally, Jonah Hex can have ALL-STAR WESTERN #31 every day of his life.