Man, I just about read the ink right offa these pages when I was just a young ‘un. And I just read ‘em agin right now. If you’re of a mind to, sit back and whittle awhile and I’ll flap my yapper concernin’ ‘em. Anyway, this…
What follows is a gentle amble through the contents of a comic from 1981. That’s all. It should not be taken as the latest shaky salvo in an attempt to prove old comics are better than new comics. Because they aren’t. Or rather; sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. A good comic is a good comic no matter when it was made. It’s what makes it a good comic that’s of interest. And that’s of interest because it’s never constant. So, you know, don’t take this as a personal attack on modern comics from an old man having trouble adjusting to the fast moving world of today (Indoor plumbing! Ladies in trousers! Talking apes!) Oh, you can if you want. Life’s too short to be writing provisos this long. So, I read an old comic and this is what happened inside my head as I did so.
JONAH HEX #55 Art by Tony DeZuniga Written by Michael Fleisher Coloured by Bob Le Rose Lettered by Shelley Leferman DC Comics, $0.61 (1981) Jonah Hex created by Tony DeZuniga & John Albano
I’m a traditional guy, so let’s start at the beginning; let’s start with the cover. It’s worth doing because this issue of Jonah Hex is graced by one of my all-time favourite covers. I just totally groove on the daring use of perky yellow to frame a typically DeZuniga-n scene of dust, desperation and violence. The huddled group being picked off by circling riders is a scene immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with the tale of General George Custer. This being a not unlikely freight of knowledge for the audience of a comic about a violent cowboy. Whether such familiarity was formed by hagiography or revisionism (e.g They Died With Their Boots On (1941) vs. Little Big Man (1970)) the clear inference in the image is that there ain’t no one getting out of here alive. Even allowing for you being a real smart alec and knowing Jonah’s likely to be okay because, well, this wasn’t the last issue of Jonah Hex, there still remains the question of how. I saw that cover and I wanted to know what was going on behind it. That’s some powerful cover medicine right there.
Image by DeZuniga, Fleisher, Le Rose & Leferman In a move which would give modern creators conniptions this comic just jumps right on in, picking up as it does immediately from the last issue’s cliff hanger. I think it’s called in media res but I could be wrong; never was one for book learning. True, this page basically reiterates the end of the previous issue which is Bad now, but was Good then because back in days of yore you could never gauren-damn-tee that the previous issue had made it across the ocean, and the idea that single issues of Jonah Hex would be collected between two covers was still a pretty plumb loco proposition. We join the action as, apparently, Jonah Hex and a pretty senorita called Carmelita have just escaped from El Papagaya only to confront the guns of a bunch of grey coats hot for Jonah’s hide. We’re only a page in and, in a shock move, Carmelita The Senorita turns out to have been working for the Fort Charlotte Brigade (FCB). These being the grey coats in question, who are a bunch of ornery owl hoots who want Jonah to pay for his betrayal of his own troops at Fort Charlotte. Jonah is innocent of course; well, Jonah is innocent of that particular charge at least. So, Carmelita The Senorita throws Jonah to the FCB and Micah, the leader, throws her some gold. Man, this comic is moving like a freight train. Say what you like about Michael Fleisher (just run it past a lawyer first) but the dude’s Jonah Hex books have got some momentum.
People mill about for a bit and introductions are made; motives established. Your basics; your meat and potatoes. You know, solid stuff; stuff I’d like to see more of. I like that DeZuniga’s drawn one of the FCB swigging from a canteen. That’s a nice touch; people aren’t just standing about lollygagging. Hey, I wonder what’s in that canteen, maybe it pays off later? Yeah, Tony DeZuniga (1932 – 2012) drew this. I should talk about the art. Everybody on the internet has been told to talk about the art; to tell you how it makes them feel. Tony DeZuniga’s art makes me feel like a leopard in heat; it makes me feel like a motherless child; it makes me feel like a shopping trolley that won the lottery. Tony DeZuniga’s art makes me feel like I just saw some heavily photo referenced pictures the artist made cohere into a satisfactory whole via lashings of gritty spackle and high contrast lighting. And that, muchachos, that’s a good feeling because DeZuniga was a good artist even if his realism is often slightly undermined by stiff staging. Dusty is the word when it comes to DeZuniga; I unconsciously wipe my hands on my shirtfront after reading a DeZuniga book. I also do that after eating crisps and then blithely walk around with crisp crumbs down my front like a simpleton. Drives milady nuts, that does.
So, yeah, see how happy Carmelita is! See how she laughs! I wonder what brought her to this pass. What kind of life she must have had to make her betray trust for gold. What an interesting female character, I look forward to learning more about her in the pages ahe..oh, she just got shot off her horse. It appears Carmelita will not be joining us for the rest of the issue. I wasn’t expecting that; a brutal move but certainly an arresting one. Now here’s a thing, many people die in this issue and DeZuniga, more often than not, got to draw a big jammy splash of gore erupting out of the appropriate area. In 2014 and in comparison to, say, the idiotically violent Damian: Son of Batman these are just papercuts, but in 1981 and compared with, well, anything else in a kid’s reach this is like Sam Peckinpah level shit. This is one violent-ass comic, you just wait. I don’t know how they got away with this; I’m glad they did. This kid just ate it up, and I turned out alright. Cough.
Like many of the supporting cast suspense is short lived in Jonah Hex and it is immediately revealed that El Papagaya shot Carmelita The Senorita. He also calls her a “puta” which, children were unhelpfully informed via a footnote, meant “tramp”. In 1981 in England a tramp was usually a male of advanced years who had chosen a life of vagrancy and begging. This is not the same as a homeless person who can be any age and has had the choice made for them and whose presence is a living indictment of any society in which they exist. Boom! Boom! Try the organic chicken sourced from Fair Trade vendors! Tramp also means "whore", but don't tell the Kids! This issue of Jonah Hex was surprisingly educational; by reading it you would also learn the following terms: pistolas (pistols) and compadres (companions). Enough to get anyone through a weekend break south of the border!
Image by DeZuniga, Fleisher, Le Rose & Leferman Meanwhile, back at the rocky outcrop we find El Papagaya. Now, El Papagaya is a rare thing in Jonah Hex; a recurring villain. This rarity being down to Jonah’s tendency to deal quite decisively with anyone posing a threat to him. He’s prone to go blood simple at the drop of a hat, that Jonah Hex. But El Papagaya is a wily one and always lives to taunt another day. Because that’s the big thing about El Papagaya; his taunting. Loquacious only begins to describe him. He’s called El Papagaya which means parrot because he has one but also, he never shuts the hell up. Well, I think that’s funny. I think El Papagaya is a funny guy he’s so blatantly disingenuous but at the same time totally transparent. He’s probably modelled on the kind of big hatted stereotypes that gave Humphrey Bogart a bad time in those old movies. But El Papagaya has a parrot and is dressed as flamboyantly as an ice skater so he’s better.
It’s a tight bind Jonah and his crew are in and no mistake. To escape Jonah sets light to the dry grass so that the smoke will cover their exit. I know this because it is mentioned several times in the course of two pages. Now, unless Michael Fleisher thought his audience were prone to sudden attacks of amnesia, this isn’t particularly smooth writing. I don’t really know why it’s mentioned so much but I think comic writers used to be a bit insecure and made sure there were lots of words on those pages for a couple of reasons. One is, I guess, they didn’t know who’d be drawing it or if they did they had no guarantee how it was going to turn out. They couldn’t just fire off a chummy E-Mail and get a scan back thirty seconds later. Pure supposition this; also, they were very, very clear about what was going on to avoid any possible confusion. This means this comic is overwritten to Hell and back but it also means I’m not going “Wait, What?” at any point. Anyway, El Papagaya obligingly lets the smoke build to a sufficient density to permit our band to escape.
Now here’s some sexy shit; two whole pages of an old man and his slave talking in a graveyard. It’s not even very good talking but there is plenty of it. Now, the poor quality and large quantity are quite in line with current trends but, unfortunately for him, Fleisher’s made the schoolboy error of putting information in his dialogue. This makes it exposition (which today is Bad) instead of aimless drivel which is stellar character work (which today is Good). Exposition isn’t actually bad in and of itself but there is such a thing as badly executed exposition. Which this is. There’s so much of it in fact that Turnbull’s face is obscured throughout by his exposition bloated word balloons. That’s on purpose that is; so we can’t see him but I don’t really know why that is.
Why we can’t see his face that is. I mean we’re unlikely to recognise him. It’s not like eventually he’s revealed to be Harry Osborne’s dad or anything. He’s just some mad old, bald, fat white guy. Oh my God, it’s me! It was me all along! No wonder they hid his face. It all makes sense now! I’m joking; I’m not fat. Anyway, there’s all this exposition about how Jonah Hex caused Turnbull’s son to be killed and how, By God, Turnbull will see Jonah Hex in his grave for it and all that kind of spittly lipped, stick waving thing. To be fair, this stuff does do a few things, although it does none of them subtly. It corroborates the mission of the men who have captured Jonah Hex so we know they aren’t just delusional lunatics; allows Fleisher to (and it is quite smart this) put the truer spin in the mouth of Solomon so that Turnbull can bat it away out of hand showing both a) Turnbull just wants someone to pay; the truth is moot and b) Solomon’s superficial equality is purely that; superficial. Yeah, it’s clumsy as a sprinter with wooden legs and real feet but it still gets quite a lot of stuff done. It’s convenient to forget that this is the fundamental purpose of a genre comic; getting stuff done. (I know I repeat that later; that’s for reinforcement not because I didn’t re-read this for glaring shittiness. Oops! Missed a bit!) Also, after all the words the sudden silent panel where Turnbull kneels at his son’s grave actually has some impact. Surprisingly so; bonus points for that one.
Back at the camp Jonah and the FCB take a break from TCB and indulge in some more expositionary chit chat. Jonah has noticed that one of their number is a little short in the tooth to have been at Fort Charlotte but, alas, his Dad wasn’t. Jonah tries to explain what (whut) happened but the kid is having none of it and plumb hawks one up right in Hex’s bacony face. Even though there are a lot of words here DeZuniga does a good job keeping things interesting by dropping detail out entirely at some points so the central image is bracketed by blankness and varying the POV as things progress. When the script slackens the art keeps things taut; it’s a joint effort. Words and pictures, you know how that goes. This scene’s pretty important (hey, maybe it pays off later?) but its immediate significance is in the fact that in its first panel the dude with the water flask is going “hic!” Maybe he drank his water too fast and got an upset tummy? Do you think that’s going to pay off soon? Do you think this piece is ever going to end? (Maybe it’ll be like the Tristram Shandy of nostalgic old man comics writing? maybe my heart will give out first?) Remember when drunk people went “hic”? They used to do it in movies too. In real life though they just get angry and violent. Ah, good times. Hic!
We’re on page 8 (PAGE EIGHT!) now, in case anyone’s keeping score and things start moving like a heated tomahawk through someone’s face from hereonin. So far the comics been overwritten (like this piece; like that was on purpose!) and expositing like expositing is a real thing, but Fleisher’s been setting it all up. All the pieces are now in place; El Papagaya’s in pursuit, Hex has connected with the kid, there’s a boozer loose and it’s all about to pay off over the next few pages. And you best believe it’s going to pay off in death and sorrow. Hey, Kids! Comics!
Page eight is where the ordure becomes authentic. Despite Hex’s protestations the boozer (Shenandoah!) wobbles off and picks up a feather from the ground. Why, what harm coul…OMG! A feather! Like a parrot has! It’s El Papa..the ground immediately appears to eat Shenandoah and there is a child scarring two panel sequence of him falling onto some stakes (GHAAAAAAAAAA!). You don’t see anything really. Just the falling body suspended above the stakes below and then an inset of his screaming face, which has been charmingly hued a deep red. That shit sure shook me up when I was a kid. It was AWESOME! GHAAAAAAAAAAA! Hell, yeah! I wouldn’t get this excited again until I saw Walter Hill’s magnificent beast of a movie Southern Comfort (1981; coincidence?). In all honesty I get mixed messages from Walter Hill films. Do you think Southern Comfort knows it is skewering machismo even while it seems to be paying homage to it? It doesn’t really matter because, Powers Boothe. Anyway, I have a weak spot for fiction involving people in a hostile environment being picked off one by one. Some folk are like Hmm, chocolate or Awww, cats but me, I’m all Aw yeah, people in a hostile environment being picked off one by one! And it’s all this comic’s fault. Mind you, it hasn’t escaped my notice that people in a hostile environment being picked off one by one is basically Life, so there you go. Anyway everyone knows how that people in a hostile environment being picked off one by one stuff goes and that’s how this comic goes for the remainder of its pages.
The point, he said realising he was late to take his kid to Cubs and he had paced this badly, is that this tale of Jonah Hex is 17 pages long but, boy howdy, it covers some distance. The actual comic book is a mite longer since there is also a one pager about dead sheriffs, a letter column and a Gary Cohn and Tom Yeates strip called Tejano. Consequently Fleisher and DeZuniga don’t have space to faff about, so they don’t. By the 8th page Fleisher and Dezuniga have worked like ditch diggers to get the reader up to speed with who everyone is, what they want and how they all relate to each other while also defining a deadly scenario to shape the events following. None of it is elegantly done but it all gets done. Round these parts that’s what genre comics are all about; getting’ it done. Fleisher and DeZuniga get it done quick and dirty and it all ends with an overwrought moment of emotion which is still not entirely unmoving despite its relative lack of sophistication. Jonah Hex #55 (“Blood Trail”!) mebbe weren’t quite as good as I remembered, but it still entertained like all get out and that makes GOOD! Did it deserve all those words? No, but like the man said, “Deserve’s got nothin' to do with it.”
As the sun sets sadly on the West Jonah Hex#55 (“Blood Trail”!) couldn’t be more – COMICS!!!