Saturday, March 09, 2013

Review: All-Star Western Vol. 1: Guns and Gotham

DC's relatively long-running Western comic starring Jonah Hex by the writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray was changed somewhat slightly by the publisher's "New 52" refurbishing, its name being changed from Jonah Hex to All-Star Western (it was also expanded by about ten pages, with Palmiotti and Gray written back-up features starring various other super-cowboy types).

Although "All-Star Western" is the name of an old DC comic book, the title was less precise than Jonah Hex was and, given the change of setting from the Old West to late 19th Century Gotham City, not entirely accurate—the lead stories were only "Westerns" in the sense that they had a cowboy in them, otherwise they were technically Easterns. Given the general quality and perception of the 2010 film Jonah Hex, perhaps its understandable that DC would want to distance themselves as far from that particular title as possible.

So despite the new title, the tweaking of format and price tag and the new setting, Palmiotti and Gray were joined by a new artist in the form of Moritat, and Hex was joined by an unlikely partner, buddy cop style, in the form of Amadeus Arkham (who would eventually found the asylum that Batman's enemies are kept in when his writers and artists aren't using them).

It is sometime in the 1880s, and Hex has come to Gotham City in pursuit of a vicious, Jack The Ripper-like serial killer who is also of interest to young alienist Arkham, and the two form an unlikely and uneasy alliance to get to the bottom of a great deal of bizarre criminality in young Gotham: In addition to the ritualistic killings, there's a secret society, mass kidnappings and forced labor.

Like the inferior Demon Knights, this is an example of the historical superhero comic, and while the mode is that of the Western (again, defined as "containing at least one cowboy"), Palmiotti and Gray make great use of DC continuity and shared setting in order to form unexpected and unlikely connections to other DC Comics.

In addition to Arkham, a character Grant Morrison more or less created in 1989's Arkham Asylum graphic novel, other references to Morrison's work include the Crime Bible and the religion devoted to it, as written about in 52 and elsewhere by 52 writers Morrison and Greg Rucka, and the inclusion of The Miagani, an indigenous tribe of bat-worshiping Native Americans that live in caves beneath Gotham City, and a monstrous giant bat, which played small roles in Morrison's Batman run (Particularly in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne). Nods are also made in the direction of Scott Snyder and company's Batman: Gates of Gotham series, and the prominent families of early Gotham, which Snyder would devote more time to in his Batman run (and Palmiotti and Gray would base more stories around in the future).

This book contains the first six issues of the series, accounting for about two adventures of Hex and Akrham in Gotham. Moritat's art helps place this among the strongest of the 2011 relaunched line. His storytelling is impeccable, and he fills establishing shots and long shots with rich detail.

The writing is, as it was in the 70-issue Jonah Hex series, decent genre fare; rarely if ever transcending the expectations of a dark, scarred killer cowboy hunting and fighting human monsters for money and/or justice, but the change of setting and verbal sparring partner/point-of-view character certainly give it a new coat of paint, which has a relatively restorative effect on Palmiotti and Gray's Hex.

Like all comics though, this one lives or dies by the art, and, thanks to Moritat, it's quite vital. As with Action Comics Vol. 1, the back-ups are collected and included at the back of the book. The serial format of these seems to be about eight pages of story per issue, starting with All-Star #2.

There's two full stories here. The first stars the original El Diablo, the character Lazarus Lane created in 1970 by Robert Kanigher and Gray Morrow (Modern versions of the character were attempted by Gerard Jones and Mike Parobeck in 1989 and by Jai Nitz, Phil Hester and Ande Parks in 2008). This one features Lane as the whip-wielding spirit of vengeance, pitted against a zombie horde raised by native magic. It's drawn (impeccably) by Jonah Hex vet Jordi Bernet.

The second stars The Barabary Ghost, an apparently new creation by Palmiotti, Gray and artist Phil Wil Winslade (oddly, she's the only character to get "created by" credits; not even star Jonah Hex gets a "Created by Tony DeZuniga and John Albano" credit). She's a Chinese immigrant whose large family was whittled down in a violent war of attrition with a crime boss from the old country; to avenge them she dresses like the 19th, Chinese-American version of Dark Horse's Ghost and pretends and uses fireworks as weapons. More-or-less straight genre fare, although I suppose there's always something to be said for striving for diversity in big publisher genre characters, and Winslade's art is pretty great, but his style is not as much to my liking as that of Moritat or Bernet (Make no mistake, Winslade is an excellent artist, but I have greater personal affection for the styles of the other two artists involved in this book).

Of the handful of "New 52" relaunches I've sampled in trade paperback form, this is one that made me happy I read it. It's head and shoulders above most of the others I've read, and if the writing isn't as inspired, ambitious or fun as that in Action Comics, it makes up for that deficiency by boasting better and more consistent artwork.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a recommend amidst all the facepalming. I'll check this out, as I've a love of Weird Westerns. ('High Plains Drifter', 'Greaser's Palace' being the defining polarities of the w.w. as a genre, to me...)

Did you ever do the Vertigo Hex run? I kept kind-of leafing thru 'Riders of the Worm' back in the day but never really tried to track down the series, as my hometown LCS was spotty with ordering at best. Vert-Hex has remained dormant in the back of my mind as one of those things I should investigate some week when the weekly Wed. haul comes up dry.