Friday, March 24, 2006

Death & the Acrid Smell of Gunsmoke

By the 1970s the fire of the once-mighty Western was burning low. The wild popularity that had previously greeted the genre was over, and audiences appreciative of its charms were rapidly drying up. Long over were the days of noble cowpokes shooting it out with black-hearted outlaws and taming savage red-skinned caricatures against Monument Valley backdrops. The brief, glorious resurgence from Europe had written its own epitaph then descended into self-parody. A few of the long-running Western comics were still chugging along but their days were numbered--the end of the decade would spell the end of them.

With one exception.

Out of the twilight appeared, in 1972, "Weird Western Tales," DC Comics' attempt to reinvigorate a flagging genre book by adding horror elements (and the word "weird" to the title, after Carmine Infantino discovered that books with the word in the title sold better--true story).[1] The experiment mostly failed but it did have one grand success story. Jonah Hex would go on to outlast his peers in the genre and continue a relatively healthy run right into the mid-1980s. There followed in the next two decades an ill-conceived sci-fi sequel series (Hex transported to the far-future), a commendable (and very funny) trilogy of Vertigo mini-series and now, a new monthly. To compliment the latter event, the folks at DC have published a large collection of the earliest Hex tales in their new "Showcase Presents" format.

The Showcase format is modeled on Marvel's Essential books. DC is long overdue for such a line and they couldn't have chosen a better subject for the treatment than Jonah Hex. This was one of the books I read when I was younger, sometimes regularly but mostly irregularly. Looking back, I'm a bit surprised it wasn't more regularly than not because it's one of the few books of which I don't remember ever reading a bad issue. Some were better than others of course. As I remember it though, the book's overall quality was consistently high.[2]

Reading the new Showcase collection now, however, I don't think my youthful mind then realized just how high. In fact, it's fair to say that the fact that I never made it a point to obsessively hoard every issue on which I could lay my hands testifies to my own gross underestimation of the book's quality. After sequentially devouring the generous helping of Hex tales provided by the new collection, I'm in awe of it. Put simply, this is some of the best work I've ever seen in a mainstream monthly. Rock-solid writing, rock-solid artwork and, over 30 years after their initial publication, they haven't aged a day.[3]

Jonah, an iron-tough post-Civil-War-era bounty hunter and gun for hire, is a grim misanthrope, with as bleak an outlook on life as had ever been displayed by any major character in a mainstream comic.[4] His was a tale of constant violence and he was capable of remorselessly exterminating fellow human beings with no more thought than he would give to swatting a mosquito. His proficiency as a man-killer had made him something of a legend. Wherever he went, people told stories as he passed by. They found confirmation of the worst of it in his hideously disfigured face, which seemed an outward reflection of a hideously disfigured soul.

While he often plays to this perception to his own advantage though, Hex isn't merely the monster all of this suggests. He is all of those things, to be sure, but as we quickly learn, beneath all of this ever-present ugliness he's basically a good man, moral, honest, and with a strong sense of fairness and of justice.

Not that it seems to matter very much in the world in which he roams. The tone of the series is set in the original Hex story, "Welcome to Paradise" (from All Star Western #10), which sees the businessmen of Paradise Corners hiring Jonah to stamp out a gang of outlaws who'd been terrorizing the town. Jonah takes out the trash in short order, to the delight of the businessmen, but when he then begins talking about retiring and taking up residence in town his employers are horrified and tell him, rather unconvincingly, there isn't any place "in the whole territory" available at the moment. After he leaves, they indulge in a collective sigh of relief: "Have a savage like that living among civilized people like us? No sir!" Worse, a woman whom Jonah had earlier saved from one of the outlaws takes a shot at him as he rides by. She's furious because, in saving her, he'd become a hero to her son and he's, as she puts it, nothing but a "murderin' hellion" and certainly not someone she wants her son to emulate. "I put that bullet through your hat to show you that you're not welcome 'round here!" Through all of these indignities, Jonah puts on a hard, don't-give-a-damn front. As he leaves town though, he comes across a sign reading "Welcome to Paradise Corners." He stops, reads it, then angrily smashes it to the ground with his fist and rides away.

The story is heavy-handed, but quite effective in contrasting the good man beneath the apparently monstrous persona with the real horror that frequently lies beneath the well-scrubbed, smiling face of normal, "civilized" society. This becomes a recurring element throughout the series and often forms the substance of Jonah's wonderfully sardonic sense of humor.

He came by his bleak outlook honestly. At some point, it seems malevolent fate began to take a keen and enduring interest in the man named Jonah Hex and his life had been a relentless horror show ever since. A good deal of his time is spent in hunting down wanted desperadoes and he doesn't waste time on the small fry--his targets are as remorselessly sadistic as villains come. Forget slitting their own mother's throats for a buck; most of these guys would do it just for entertainment. The stories are always violent--often incredibly violent, for a Code-approved book of their era--but the physical violence often pales in comparison to the violence inflicted upon the soul of Jonah Hex. Over and over again, he sees good people die merely as a consequence of their association with him. He, himself, accidentally kills one of his very few old friends. Another betrays him. A woman whom he'd come to love turns out to be an outlaw who was only using him for protection from those looking to bring her to justice. And so on. In these tales of an unrelentingly savage, lawless land, this vicious, scarred murderer is often the most virtuous character on display but he scores no karmic points for his virtues--he is, in fact, consistently made to suffer for them. The overarching story of Jonah Hex is that of a good man lost forever in Hell.

Hell, in this case, is the Old West as rendered by the remarkable Tony DeZuniga, the first (and, for my money, the definitive) Jonah Hex artist. DeZuniga's Hex work is one of the best arguments yet for the Essential/Showcase books' color-free reproductions (an element of the format that often faces misguided criticism from a handful of more-vocal-than-thoughtful commentators). His Hex always looked great; his uncolored Hex line-art is nothing short of breathtaking and actually manages to beg the question of why the book wasn't published this way in the first place. DeZuniga uses space masterfully, adopting a minimal, almost impressionistic approach to less relevant background features while concentrating an astonishing amount of detail in the characters and objects upon which his panels are centrally focused. Hex's world, through DeZuniga, looks worn and grubby. We see every wrinkle in the characters' clothing, every speck of mud on their boots, every line in their faces. We know one of DeZuniga's unwashed range-riders stinks because, looking at him on the page, we can smell him.

Most of the other artists represented in the Showcase volume largely adopt a variation on DeZuniga's established approach. Noly Panaligan puts in a solid run, favoring heavier line-work than DeZuniga. George Moliterni takes things in the opposite direction, going for an even lighter approach and using much wider angles on everything. The volume's only misfires, when it comes to the artwork, are a single uninspiring issue by Doug Wildey, and, most surprisingly, the two issues by the normally-solid Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, which are astonishingly flat and lifeless and well below the quality of the artists' regular output.

On the writing side, the Showcase volume reprints the complete run by John Albano, Jonah's first writer. Albano is often overshadowed by his successor, Michael Fleisher, which is a shame, because his 10 Hex tales are excellent and some of the best in the collection. Particularly impressive was "The Hangin' Woman," from Weird Western Tales #17. In this very black tale (featuring the best artwork DeZuniga offers in the entire volume), Jonah is hired to bring in a gang of homicidal hooligans who like to play with dynamite. He gets the case after they use a few sticks of it to blow the local sheriff to spaghetti-sauce right in the middle of town. His employer is a wheelchair-bound, stogie-chomping old crone, a judge, as it turns out, and ominously known as "The Hanging Woman." Her name--no kidding--Judge Hatchet! Jonah brings down the bad guys but then he uncovers something disturbing about Judge Hatchet and her sons and decides his job isn't yet finished...

The incomparable Michael Fleisher assumes the writing duties with issue #22, beginning what would turn into a more-than-10-year run that would more closely associate him with the book than anyone who worked on it. In these issues, Fleisher begins to significantly flesh out what Albano had established. He immediately begins filling in Jonah's background and sets up a nemesis from the past who will plague Jonah for many issues. In one tale, Jonah breaks up an assassination plot aimed at President U.S. Grant, nearly getting himself killed in the process. In another, Jonah, temporarily blinded, must flee cross country to evade gunmen looking to take his scalp. One of my favorite of the Fleisher stories from the volume is "The Meadow Springs Crusade" (Weird Western Tales #27), which is basically a comedy. A feminist crusader looking to bring women's suffrage to Kansas finds her campaign plagued by masked agitators and hires Jonah--most definitely NOT a supporter of women's suffrage--to act as her bodyguard. The comedy in the issue works very well and it's a testament to Fleisher's skills that he's able to make it mesh so seamlessly with the book's usually bleaker tone.

The writing in the Showcase volume never becomes repetitive or descends to self-parody (both very easy to do with this kind of material). The cliche elements that pop up from time to time are handled well and are never groan-inducing (or they didn't get any groans out of me, at any rate, and a cliche rarely needs to work very hard to get a groan out of me). It's remarkable how well these stories hold up more than three decades after their original publication. "Jonah Hex" isn't merely a cut about the standard-issue sagebrush saga; it's a cut above a good deal of what the mainstream regularly produces and deserves a lot more recognition and respect that it has ever gotten.[5] Hopefully, the Showcase volume and the higher profile offered it by the new series will help see that it gets it.



[1] The book had originally been titled "All Star Western." It became "Weird Western Tales" with--appropriately enough--issue #13. (The format change was already underway before the official title change)

[2] Whatever mad distemper inspired my own decade-long exit from comics--an exit which saw the eventual dissolution of all but about three-dozen books of my former collection--didn't cause me to get rid of the three Hex comics I still had from the days just before I gave up the habit.

[3] With the exception of a few clunky elements, mostly in the first few stories.

[4] This was, of course, before such bleak outlooks became a fad.

[5] The same can not be said, however, of the series of tales DC unwisely chose to round out the Hex volume--a collection of unrelated stories drawn from All-Star Western which, in spite of some first-rate artwork from DeZuniga, Gil Kane, and Jim Aparo, only succeed in demonstrating, rather dramatically, why Jonah Hex eventually took over the book, and caused tales like these to disappear from its pages.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Ultimate Waste: Some Ugly Ruminations on "Ultimate Avengers"

In the wake of the success of several live-action ventures based upon its popular characters, Marvel has embarked upon a collaboration with Lion's Gate Films aimed at creating a series of animated features. First up is "Ultimate Avengers," which hit DVD on Feb. 21st.

There's no more perfect candidate for screen treatment than the excellent "Ultimates" series by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. The book had offered a mature, psychologically complex tale that fixed many of the holes in the regular Marvel Universe Avengers book and was intentionally cinematic in its storytelling, something that could be brought to the screen with minimal alteration. The film project offered a golden opportunity to produce something quite unique, a groundbreaking film that would have heralded a triumphant entry by Marvel into the field of animated comic adaptations dominated since the early 1990s by their rival DC.

Unfortunately, Marvel is, it seems, still stuck in the increasingly distant past with respect to animated adaptations, still dedicated to the notion of grinding out Saturday morning kiddie cartoons in the mold of the mid-to-late '80s/early '90s and pretending as though "Batman The Animated Series" and its successors never happened.

Every aspect of "Ultimate Avengers" is, in fact, identical to animated product of that earlier era--incredibly cheap animation, horrible "G.I. Joe"-style music, voice "actors" who can't act,[1] reading embarrassingly awful dialogue from writers who can't write.[2] If you've seen the '80s "G.I. Joe" series, the "Transformers" show of the same era, or the early '90s Marvel cartoons, you've seen everything "Ultimate Avengers" has to offer. The film is a mess and, frankly, an inexcusable one.

More than that, it's a tragedy, an utterly wasted opportunity. Instead of the classic it should have been, we get just another Saturday morning cartoon aimed at 7-to-10-year-olds, but with a PG-13 rating.

...which brings me to another point: The PG-13 rating slapped on this clinker is a joke.[3] The movie is aimed squarely at the kiddie bracket and does literally nothing to earn that PG-13 rating. There's no gore, no cursing, no sex. It's actually far less mature than the prominent DC/Warner Bros. animated television productions of the past decade and could, in all likelihood, be run on children's television without altering a frame.[4] In a more reasonable era, it would have gotten a G rating. Even in this barbaric age, however, it's difficult to imagine any reasonable observer branding this with anything above a very soft PG.

The rating smacks of a marketing campaign. With that thought, it should also be noted that the film's pre-release ad campaign, which promised a more literal adaptation of the book, amounted to a colossal--and intentional--lie, arguably an even bigger one than the absurd rating. The teaser trailer released late last year--the only good thing on the "Fantastic Four" DVD--was made up, mostly, of scenes taken directly from the comic and rendered in fantastic animation. That, combined with the announced rating, created much anticipation among those of us hoping for a faithful adaptation but as it turns out, not a single frame of that material, shown in the teaser, is actually in the movie.

If I sound as though I'm somewhat vengeful towards the film, I was one of those duped by this campaign.

There doesn't seem to be much point in going into the "plot." There really isn't one--it's just a random stew of elements from the first volume of "Ultimates" with some regular Marvel Universe "Avengers" material thrown in. As I've been a fairly vocal critic of the regular Avengers comic, I feel compelled to point out that these inclusions from that original book are not the source of the problems with the "plot" and "characterization" in "Ultimate Avengers." As lame as "Avengers" has historically been, it would be wrong to smear that book with being the poison at the heart of this pooch.[5] Even at its worst--and the worst for the Avengers is as bad as mainstream books get--the Avengers was far more intelligent and thoughtful than "Ultimate Avengers." The two could still be mixed together and create a great movie (though I'd argue for a straightforward Ultimates flick). The deadly mixture here isn't of "Ultimates" and "Avengers"--it's of the comics and the most cretinously idiotic available breed of knockoff children's cartoons and it's the latter that poisons everything.

To speak bluntly--and vengefully--I'd love to see Marvel fall flat on its considerable ass on this one. This is impossible, of course--they spent virtually nothing on this trash, which means its pretty much guaranteed a hefty profit. Ominously, the second "Ultimate Avengers" release is already in the works, to be followed by an Iron Man and Dr. Strange project. After this one, I'd rather these other projects never occur. If the folks at Marvel ever gets their animation act together, they're sitting on a goldmine. If, as it appears, they're merely going to continue to pretend it's still the 1980s, I'd rather not see these other properties dragged through the mud in this manner.



[1] The sole exception is Olivia D'Abo, who brings more life to the Black Widow than the film deserves.

[2] All of this begs the question, "what on earth were they thinking?" If this was going to be an Ultimates film, it should never have been a project aimed at young children. If creating just another Saturday morning cartoon for very young children was the goal right out of the gate, there's a wealth of source material out there from which to choose (including the original Avengers) but they'd have to have gone with "The Authority" or "Supreme Power" to get something in the superhero genre less appropriate than "Ultimates."

[3] The fact that the filmmakers were willing to accept a PG-13, though, only makes the movie that much more of a tragedy, as the comic could have been properly adapted under that very same rating.

[4] That's no longer merely a supposition--Cartoon Network recently announced that they plan to do that very thing.

[5] The DVD's only redeeming feature is "Avengers Assemble," a great little documentary about the comics, principally the Avengers. It has George Perez, Tom Breevort, Kurt Busiek, Mark Millar, Joe Quesada, etc. It spends a great deal of time with Perez, who clearly loves the characters and loves working on them. I wish this had been a bit longer. It's so much better than the movie that the viewer is left wondering why it wasn't the main feature, with the "Ultimate Avengers" rubbish as an extra.