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Joe R. Lansdale, Timothy Truman and Jonah Hex
 

Right now you likely know JONAH HEX as a very bad movie, currently classified as the biggest bomb of 2010, and that’s a shame. What you should know HEX for are the three comic miniseries--or at least the first two of them--published by Vertigo in the 1990s, written by Joe R. Lansdale and illustrated by Timothy Truman, with inks by Sam Glanzman.

     Jonah Hex, a gruff gunslinger with a nasty scar on the left side of his face, has a varied history. He first appeared in DC Comics’ WEIRD WESTERN TALES in the early seventies, and become the star of his own self-titled western series in 1977. JONAH HEX ended in 1985, giving way to a short-lived series entitled HEX, which saw Jonah transported forward in time to a post-apocalyptic future. His next appearance was in the three nineties-era miniseries under review, after which JONAH HEX was resurrected once again as a monthly series in 2005, leading to the dire ‘10 film version.

     I’ve never been able to work up much interest in Hex’s exploits before or after the Lansdale/Truman years, but in their hands he’s pure magic. Joe Lansdale, as anyone who’s read his novels DEAD IN THE WEST or THE MAGIC WAGON well knows, is the hands-down master of the Weird Western, and in his HEX scripts he offers a full blast of gritty violence and creepy crawly fun.

     JONAH HEX: TWO-GUN MOJO, from 1993 (and issued as a trade paperback in ‘94), was the first of the Lansdale-Truman JONAH HEX minis, and it’s a doozy. I don’t know a lot about the Jonah Hex that came before, but his new and improved Hex is a unique and compelling personage, a trash-talking tough guy with a sarcastic streak a mile wide (a running joke has Hex telling people how he got his scar: “I cut myself shaving,” “I bit the side of my mouth,” “My mother kissed me too hard,” etc).
     This five-issue series takes place in late-1800’s Texas, where Hex is saved from the gallows by an old man known as Slow Go. The two team up, but Slow Go is killed…by the reanimated corpse of Wild Bill Hickok! The zombified Wild Bill previously appeared in Lansdale’s MAGIC WAGON, and gets even more face time here. The cadaver is part of a traveling carnival run by a would-be sorcerer named Doc Williams, whose companions include a skinny Indian, an extremely fat woman and a dwarf. Among other things, the Doc seeks to summon “all you dark elders and such!”
     It all comes to a head up in a climax involving cannibalism, eyeball mashing, kneecap piercing and brain spillage. It’s pure Lansdale, with all the unflinching grue and Texas-bred outrageousness that have come to define his writing. Timothy Truman also shines, with dark-hued, hard-bitten artwork that fits the material like a glove.

     1995’s JONAH HEX: RIDERS OF THE WORM AND SUCH was Lansdale and Truman’s second 5-issue HEX saga. Taking its cue from Robert E. Howard’s 1932 story “Worms of the Earth,” Lansdale’s narrative concerns a race of age-old mutants living under the Earth. Jonah Hex chances upon evidence of the worms’ dominion in the form of mutilated animal carcasses, and along the way falls in with a dude who runs Wilde’s West, an artists’ retreat inspired by a meeting with none other than Oscar Wilde. But Wilde’s West is located directly over the worms’ underground headquarters, and said worms are looking to expand their menu from animals to humans! There’s also a romance, with Jonah falling for a full-figured woman who’s good with a gun.
     Lansdale was quite inspired here, with his usual quotable dialogue and spot-on eye for the outrageous, while Timothy Truman’s burnished art is among his absolute best work.

     Lansdale and Truman reteamed, unfortunately enough, for JONAH HEX: SHADOWS WEST in 1999, their final (to date) Hex saga. If nothing else, it’ll make you realize just how fine the preceding installments are, as SHADOWS WEST is considerably less auspicious in every department.
     The story, contained in just three issues, is scant and perfunctory in the extreme, with Hex attempting to save a woman and her freakish child--a bear-human hybrid--from the denizens of Buffalo Will’s--yes, Will’s--Wild West Show. That about sums up the narrative, which despite some good moments has none of the inspired craziness of the previous entries. Nor is Truman’s artwork up to the standards of MOJO or RIDERS, having been drafted in standard comic book style with none of the burnished beauty of Truman’s earlier HEX art. It’s a major let-down, although I still feel you’re better off reading SHADOWS WEST than the monthly JONAH HEX comics that preceded and followed it--and it’s certainly preferable to the movie!

 

--6/27/10 

     

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