ALL STAR WESTERN #33 (Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Staz Johnson, Fabrizio Fiorentino, Guy Major) is, counter-intuitively, a comic out of its time, out of time.
It’s a funny thing to say about the last in DC’s long, historic line of western comics, which has spent such a significant portion of its New 52 run displaced in the 21st century. But now that it’s returned back to the good old 1800s, ALL STAR WESTERN’s recent tales of the bounty hunters Jonah Hex and Tallulah Black feel just like the kind of stories that got kept this essentially American genre’s fans’ blood pumping through the 1970s.
That’s whole lot of dates. But for that rare and discerning western comic fan, no date is more important than August 27th- one month from this week- when Conner and Palmiotti’s long running series finally reaches the end of its trail.
And yet, in the face of impending cancellation, the creative team continues to deliver stories true to the genre. One of the last bastions of the western comic are about to go dark. But before it does, it’s determined to have us remember it as it was.
As the past three issues have done, and so many others before it, this story opens with our heroes surrounded by guns, hands tied (in this instance, literally), and nothing but their wits separating them from their enemies and impending death. As usual, their wit proves more than enough to keep them separate. You’d think I’d be tired of it by now. But Hex and Black are so wily, their wit so electric, that they always manage to keep it fresh.
Tallulah, of course, has been Gray and Palmiotti’s greatest contribution to the Jonah Hex mythos. And this month, we see a fitting tribute to that in Jonah’s introductory text. For decades, it’s been said that Jonah Hex rides with two companions: “One was death, and the other the acrid smell of gun smoke.” But this month’s introduction rightfully adds a third: the gnarled, gritty Tallulah Black. She’s drifted in and out of Hex’s life since this creative team’s run began in 2005, but like the dying boy trying in vain to save his plague-ridden village in ALL STAR WESTERN #33, she’s here not to save us, but just to hold our hands into the end. I couldn’t imagine a better partner for our final ride with Hex.
There is one dimension which doesn’t match up with classic western comics, though: the art. Johnson and Fiorentino’s closeups, scenery shots, and dynamic paneling have made this run truly feel like an extended spaghetti western film, that holy grail the comics in this genre have long attempted to emulate. Gray and Palmiotti have proven themselves perhaps the best western writers in comics today, but they’d be nowhere without their litany of mind-blowing artists which have accompanied them for the past nine years. For a comic very concerned with time and where one belongs within it, the quality of the art we find in ALL-STAR WESTERN transcends it.
There’s a reason people don’t buy western comics like they used to. The farther we get from the days of manifest destiny, the less relatable it becomes- and in the information age, where the unforgivable atrocities of the time are known to every schoolchild, it’s difficult to romanticize that time as we did in the 20th century, where this genre was at its zenith.
It’s appropriate that as a historic comic, Conner and Palmiotti are very engaged with Western traditions. But for those with no taste for the intricacies and variations they play within those tropes, these recent issues of WESTERN can feel somewhat repetitive. If you’re a person who feels that once you’ve seen one western, you’ve seen them all, then this book isn’t for you.
The western genre has never been my favorite. I’ve never heard a Morricone soundtrack play as John Wayne gazes into the eyes of his mustachioed opponent. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen a man and his horse ride into the sunset as we fade to credits. And whenever I saw Scooby-Doo and the gang explore yet another ghost town in the wild frontier, I usually changed the channel.
And yet, for DC, ALL STAR WESTERN represents something different. It’s been increasingly difficult to pick out a unique voice in the chorus of 52 comics orchestrated by Dan DiDio and Jim Lee. The grit in ALL STAR WESTERN’s throat has allowed it to stand apart. But its direction is one which the public no longer demands.
A few months ago, when ALL STAR WESTERN’s series was put on the block for cancelation, I went to a popular comic message board to put a thread up about the series, so we could get together and reminisce about its past nine excellent years. I didn’t get a single reply, and it was buried within days by topics about the Justice League, DC’s film and television projects, and complaints about The New 52.
Like so many Hex meets, it seems this series is destined for a shallow grave in the wasteland, with only a makeshift cross of sticks to indicate that anything of importance had ever lived here. But some will remember. And while Palmiotti enjoys wild success on HARLEY QUINN, I hope that he and Gray never stop telling comics outside of DC’s brand-codified mold.