Saturday, June 12, 2010

Comic Book Review: Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo

Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo
By Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Truman, and Sam Glanzman
Vertigo Comics 1993

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo wasn’t my first experience with weird westerns, but it might as well have been. This is the story that inspired me not only to try my hand at penning weird westerns, but also to read about the history of the Old West—something no schoolteacher or college professor could ever claim. It also set me on the trail to finding every bizarro western I could get my hands on and is thus responsible for Strangecoach as well.

It’s also the first story I ever read written by Champion Mojo Storyteller, Joe R. Lansdale.

I’d been searching for books by Mr. Lansdale ever since I read Stanley Wiater’s Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror, a birthday present from my brother who encouraged my interest in horror fiction with this collection of interviews featuring such usual suspects as Stephen King and Clive Barker, and several other authors whose books I sought after being introduced to them in these pages.

It was Joe R. Lansdale’s books I was most interested in finding after reading this line from Mr. Wiater’s introduction of the author: “[Mr. Lansdale’s] Western-horror novel Dead in the West reads like Zane Grey’s (and George A. Romero’s) worst nightmare in it’s unflinching descriptions of mutilation and mayhem.” As a fan of Clint Eastwood’s westerns (thanks to my Mom, who insisted Mr. Eastwood played roles other than Dirty Harry, and rented The Good, the Bad & the Ugly on video to prove it to me) and George A. Romero’s living dead flicks (thanks again to my brother, who had no problem warping my young impressionable mind when we were kids, but has since turned his back on Romero’s zombie epics now that he’s a respectable husband and father), Mr. Lansdale sounded like a writer who was up my alley.

But in the suburbs of Long Island, Mr. Lansdale’s books were nowhere to be found in either used or new bookstores. Worse still, the booksellers stared at me with blank expressions when I asked if they carried any of his books, having never heard of him.

So when DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint launched in 1993 with an announcement that Jonah Hex—DC’s scar-faced bounty hunter, whose title survived longer than any other western comic book (92 issues in 1985)—was going to receive a makeover in the hands of Mr. Lansdale and his collaborators, artist Tim Truman (Grimjack) and inker Sam Glanzman in a horrific and humorous adventure of dark magic and western gunplay, I was thrilled that I was finally getting the opportunity to read this author’s work—and on one of my favorite characters too.

Invited to a necktie party he just couldn’t refuse, on account of being trussed up and dragged behind a horse, Jonah Hex is nearly done in by some outlaws when he’s rescued by Slow Go Smith, an older bounty hunter with poor sight and even poorer aim, who manages to kill the outlaws…and most of their horses. Obliged to Slow Go, Jonah accompanies him to Mud Creek, Texas (a fictional town featured in many of Mr. Lansdale’s stories), to collect the reward for the outlaws’ heads.

Mud Creek is, as Hex observes, “a regular paradise—if you was a maggot.” Folks there charge two bits for pictures taken with dead outlaws and prepare picnics to watch hangings, while their sheriff works hard searching for justice at the bottom of a bottle. It’s the perfect environment for Doc “Cross” Williams to ply his trade.

Advertising himself as an alchemist, physician, and paraphysicist, Doc is a pointy-eared, pointy-toothed, goggle-sporting snake oil salesman, traveling across the west in his “Wagon of Miracles” with a trio of circus freaks selling his Sweet Brown Tonic, guaranteed to cure whatever ails folks. He’s also a body snatcher, using parts as ingredients for an elixir much stronger than his tonic—a voodoo potion that turns people into zombies, not the flesh-eating kind, but the obedient kind Doc can command and who suffer from such useful side effects as increased strength and agility.

Unfortunately, Hex and Slow Go are in the wrong place at the wrong time, catching Doc in the corpse-stealing act and trading gunfire with his star zombie—Wild Bill Hickok, who’s a better shot half-dead than he ever was alive. When the smoke clears, Slow Go is a goner, Doc and his troupe are gone, and Hex swears to track them down, avenge his friend, and put Hickok back in the grave where he belongs.

Joe R. Lansdale’s one-of-a-kind imagination fills Two-Gun Mojo with strong characterization, funny dialogue, relentless action sequences, and unexpected moments. Even if he had left out the supernatural elements, it would still qualify as a horror story of frontier life in its depiction of violence, bigotry, and general absence of human decency.

Hex’s point-of-view narrative drives the story with a wicked sense of humor that remains intact no matter how dangerous or strange the situation. The origin of Hex’s scar becomes a running gag as he offers different explanations of how he acquired it for everyone who asks from “damn toothpick slipped” to “damn chigger bite.”

A man of principle, Hex follows his own moral code, righting wrongs as he sees fit, relying on his wits just as much as his guns. A loner by nature, he doesn’t seek companionship, but values those friends he makes along the way, however brief their time together, trading insults with them faster than lead with his enemies.

It is his friendship with Slow Go that puts Doc Williams on Hex’s most wanted list. Despite his ineffectual gunfighting abilities, Slow Go earned Hex’s respect because of his courage in helping others regardless of how the odds were stacked against him. By contrast, Doc is a dangerous coward, literally using others for his own benefit and to do his dirty work while keeping himself out of the line of fire. Encountering more brave souls who fall victim to numerous gutless ones, Hex is driven to see justice done.

Tim Truman’s and Sam Glanzman’s artwork is palpable, bombarding the reader’s senses with such Old West atmosphere you can hear flies buzz, smell manure, and taste Hex’s cheroot smoke. Each and every character is distinct from one another, attired in a variety of period clothing and brandishing a wide array of firearms, demonstrating the artists’ commitment to authenticity, and their genuine love for the era.

And Hex’s visage has never been more horrific. Long-time readers know his face was branded with the “Mark of the Demon,” and even though it’s not mentioned in this story, the description is apt.

Rounding out the art team, color artist Sam Parsons adds striking depth to the already raw characters and gritty environment, and his use of moonlight and shadows for night scenes are especially impressive. Letterer extraordinaire Todd Klein amplifies Doc’s ramblings with clever designs that brings the insanity out of the character’s voice.

Two-Gun Mojo remains my favorite Jonah Hex story. It was also the perfect introduction to Joe R. Lansdale’s writing, and I’ve been a faithful reader of his novels, short fiction, and comic books ever since, regardless of genre, because Mr. Lansdale is his own genre and his stories never fail to entertain me.

Collected into trade paperback in 1994, Two-Gun Mojo is currently out-of-print in book form, but is now available as a motion-comic—released to drum up interest in the Jonah Hex film.

Based on the trailer, the film could use all the help it gets.

No comments: