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Sunday, March 14, 2004

Riders of the Quarter Bin and Such

Went quarter bin diving today, and came upon some really interesting stuff. Actually, the price was fifty cents, but I find the title 'quarter bin' kind of romantic. At St. Mark's, I picked up two issues of DC Comics' original Jonah Hex series, a late 70's Western anti-hero book done in a romantic lone cowboy style with the sensibilities of late 70's American cinema. Late '70s mainstream comics are loaded with genre books; kung-fu,(Iron Fist, Shang Chi, White Tiger) Horror (Journey into Fear, Tomb of Dracula(a lot less cheesy than it sounds) Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider) and Westerns. In the late 70's, we find that a lot of the niches and genres of comic books are just catching up with the cinema of twenty years prior, though with the moral sensibilities of the post-Vietnam, post-Nixon era. What does that mean? I don't know. Leave me alone. I'm not a fucking culture-critic, I'm a cowboy.

The issues I pick up are #3 and #13. #3 is actually the real prize and the one I'm going to talk about here. I would have paid twenty, thirty bucks for this thing. A stand alone issue, the cover presents a startled Jonah Hex surrounded by gunmen as sidebar shows a WANTED poster for the reader's edification. With his one deformed eye and the bizarre welt that covers his lips, Hex has a "$10,000" reward on his head. The art, by an artist I've never heard of named Jose Luis Garcia Lopez(phew!) is impressively cinematic. No, I won't even go there, it is mimetic and articulate in the grapheme/lexeme game that is comic-book communication, articulating the spaces between images through juxtaposition, angles, panel shapes and placement, closing in and zooming out on its subject. It's not 'filmic', it's 'comicy'.

Panel 1: close up on the text: 'Jonah Hex' on wanted poster, towards the right, Hex on his horse can be seen from afar

Panel 2: This panel is a little larger, zoom out on wanted poster, viewing tree on angle, Hex has abrasively halted his horse, clearly seeing his own image.

Panel 3: panel same size,, Hex yanks poster from the tree.
CAP:Jonah hex was a tracker, a gunfighter, a hunger of men. He was the greatest master of the sixgun the west has ever known. but now a 10,000 reward awaited any man wily enough to slip a hangman's noose around his neck or put a bullet in his back, because Jonah Hex was the hunted, Now he was..

(Title Font) THE FUGITIVE!

See? Like that. You have to read the fight scenes to appreciate the artist's "cinematography". In this particular stand alone issue, Hex wanders, wounded, into the home of a blind man who is a devoted Christian. Man:"There's no nned to knock with suckh vilence, brother! Travlers are always welcome here! Come in!" The panel presents a foreground image of the Holy Bible (braile edition) as the blind man and Hex speak in the background. Realizing that they only have 22 pages to either become friends or fight to the death, and either way to reach some kind of moral resolution, by the next panel the blind man is carrying the wounded Hex into the warmth of his home.

Hex: Rattlesnake spooked muh horse while, uh, ah wuz-Hey! Wait a minute! Yo're blind!
Man: Sightless, perhaps, brother Wilson. But not blind! Only those who have rejected the admonitions of our savior and chosen the path of the bloodshed and violence may truly be said to be afflicted with blindness!

See where this is going? If not, check out the "Electric Light is Pure Sex" Essay below. The pacifist's Paulian revelation grants him supercession and moral highground over the other characters. In return for his spiritual serenity, he is blind, like Saul on the road to Damascus. In a plot device straight out of Dukes of Hazard (but remember this is '77, so it's ahead of its time) the blind man's home is being evicted by 'Matt Henson's Men!' Henson's lackeys are lobbing firebombs and shooting up the blind man's building, supposedly a regular occurence meant to frigthten him into selling his property. Hex decides to make a stand:

Hex:Quick! Whar yuh keep yore bible at?
Blind Man:M-my Bible?

Hex walks outside into the view of Matt Henson's men with his hat pulled down and his Bible in his hands, opened, stoically reading it, his eyes covered so that he resembles the preacher.

Bad Guy 1: Haw, haw haw! If'n it ain't our little blind Quaker boy!

Bad guy 2: Here his house is bout tuh burn down, an' all he kin think Tuh do is waltz around Readin' is bible!

Bad Guy 1:C'mon, grampaw! Whut's it Say in the good book? C'mon, don't be shy! Tell us! Ha ha!

(Hex looks up, his deformed eye glaring out and his scar showing)

Hex:As you wish, little brothers! This verse says: Him whut lives like a skunk, Shore Gonna Die like a skunk!

Bible in hand, the analogy isn't lost on me. In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. Hex's limited aperture allows for certain kinds of knowledge; a moral bias, a survival instinct, a tactile understanding of the physical world. The preacher's blindness, Biblically ordained, arranges light within himself, divinely distributed but self-contained. Blissful in his pacifism and moral ideals, he has no sense of the realities of physical danger or the impracticality of his ideals.

By the end of the next page, Hex has killed 5 of the bad guys, in the course of 4 panels. Now, I've read some violent comics, but that's a death per page ratio that doesn't even show up in issues of The Punisher from the 'grim and gritty' 80's, let alone any other 70's comics I can think of. The cinematography, anatomy and attention to physics is really impressive. Hex's legs give under the weight when he fires both his guns at once,his hat glides off his head as he dashes to the side to dodge bullets. John Woo shit.

By the end of the comic, Hex has disapeared from the town, wandering off into the desert on his horse before any one knows he's gone.

What's interesting about this character, and there's a lot that's interesting about this character, is that he's a true anti-hero. He doesn't exactly wander around doing good from town to town, this issue leaves his morality vague. While he saves the blind man's daughter, she's only imperilled to begin with because of Hex. The lone-man vision is in sync with some of the films of the 70's, Robert Altman flicks, Dennis Hopper's role in Easy Riders. The free-wheeling, dangerous, morally ambiguous white male.

A little research (And by 'research' I mean 'google') gives me some history on Hex's character. Premeiring in Weird Western Tales in the early 70's, he gained his own book in '77, where he became a bounty hounter "framed for a crime he didn't commit" on the run from the law. Interestingly, since the character was placed in the America of the late 19th century, the details of his death were revealed in mainstream DC mythology before his own series even alluded to the subject. His death occurs in 1904, shot in the back by an old enemy while cleaning his gun. A show business entreneur then obtained his body, stuffed it, dressed it in a white suit far more upscale than the one he wore in life, and took him on tour as an old time Western gunfighter. When the show ends, his body is consigned to a warehouse, where it is later on taken on tour once again years later. The body turns up at a Western themed amusement park in 1972, and is spotted in the DC universe as late as 2048, where a time-travelling Hex(long story, think "re-branding old character", "early 90's", and "Genre-swapping") comes face to face with it. Whoa.


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