Friday, June 17, 2011

Comic Book Review: Weird Western Tales (2001) #'s 3 & 4

Weird Western Tales
by Various
Vertigo Comics 2001
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Thriller)

Vertigo proves that there’s more to Old West yarns than meets the eye with the six more stories of Weird Western Tales.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

The cover of issue three by Fastner and Larson is the most humorous of the four issues. The expressions on the characters’ faces are priceless.

Scott Cunningham’s and Danijel Zezelj’s “Settlers” concerns a family who have been seeking gold for so long, the son doesn’t know any homestead but the open sky. The father stumbles upon a claim being mined by “Indians” of a tribe never before encountered, and his attempt to jump it. A bittersweet tale highlighted by Zezelji’s art which is reminiscent of Mike Mignola’s especially in his depiction of the “Indians” and their mining equipment.

“The Confession of Gabriel Winters” written by Nicholas Burns and beautifully illustrated by Doug Wheatley features a dying bounty hunter desperate to clear his notorious reputation by confessing to a priest. The atrocities Gabriel Winter has committed are brutal and many, and his belief that he has been blessed with this work is all the more appalling. Wheatley creates both horrific and tender imagery from a vulture-eaten corpse to a tearful eyed child. Burns’ dialogue was so well-written, I could hear the desperation in Gabriel’s voice and the disgust in the priest’s.

The setting is October 1963 in Texas in “Once Upon a Time in the Future” by Brett Lewis and Eduardo Risso. For more than one-hundred years the Union and Confederate States of America have maintained a bitter cease-fire between them. A flaming red-haired female marshal who hasn’t aged since the war began is working behind enemy lines on a secret mission. This is by far the weirdest of the weird westerns in this series. Lewis’ ambiguous story is intriguing nonetheless and Risso illustrated a unique desolate environment. I would like to see this story continue.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

On the cover of issue four is a gambler caught cheating. This is a fun design by Jordi Bernet and colored by Mark Chiarello.

Owen is a browbeaten husband in Peter Milligan’s and Duncan Fegredo’s “What a Man’s Gotta Do.” A fan of the Duke, Clint, Coop, Shane, and other mythic Hollywood cowboys, Owen decides he’s not going to take it anymore and recapture man’s true pioneering spirit. He dresses up in cowboy gear and fights back against his female oppressors—his wife and boss. But he’s not the only male looking to find his roots. Milligan’s story is hilarious and Fegredo perfectly captures Owen’s transformation from henpecked husband to trail boss.

“Savaged” is the harshest tale in this issue. Bruce Jones’ story follows a homesteader’s degradation as his family is captured by a Cree tribe. The chief takes his wife and son as his own, and he is relegated to a camp joke—feeding with dogs and sharing a teepee with a large woman who beats him. The years of abuse take their toll, but he never surrenders hope for revenge. Cully Hammer provides comic and terrifying illustrations in rendering the homesteader’s humiliation and making the reader feel both sympathy and fear for him. Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh deserves mention for her use of color throughout—fiery orange and reds as the Cree attempt to destroy the homesteader to cool blues and blacks as he takes back his dignity.

Ending the series on a light note is “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” written by Jen Van Meter and illustrated by Dave Taylor. Three cowboys transporting cattle—and their dead friend—to market discover its not easy keeping a body from falling prey to various natural and unnatural hazards. Van Meter keeps you smiling as you travel alongside these cowpokes, but manages to slap you in the face by the end. Taylor’s vistas that the cowboys travel through are particularly good.

These last two issues of Weird Western Tales equal the first in quality.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Comic Book Review: Weird Western Tales (2001) #'s 1 & 2

Weird Western Tales
by Various
Vertigo Comics 2001
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Thriller)

The Tall Tale came out of the period of United States western expansion in the 1800s, and is considered a legitimate American literary form. Told around campfires, passed down by word of mouth, these tales gave birth to such recognizable fictional figures as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Deadwood Dick. Thanks to dime novels, real-life frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid were depicted as superhuman. The wild exploits of both the real and unreal people of the Old West have become legendary. These myths—combined with the superstitions derived from European forefathers—resulted in a genuine folklore that could only come from an American identity.

DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint acknowledged this with the publication of Weird Western Tales. Originally a series that ran in the 1970s (featuring gunslinger Jonah Hex), the stories were action-packed adventures without any hint of the fantastic. Each issue of Vertigo’s series demonstrates that the possibilities inherent in the Western genre are endless.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

The cover art of the first issue by Darwyn Cooke is a definite eye-grabber, informing the reader that this ain’t no pony ride ‘bout Cowboys and Indians they may be used to seeing. Covered in black widow spiders with a tentacle emerging from the ground beneath her, wrapping itself around her, stands a rather busty gunslinger. Five holstered six guns drape off her hips, and pinned to her flowing duster is an array of sheriff’s and marshal’s badges. Instead of a revolver, she’s firing from a machine pistol while the frontier town behind her (and some fleeing horses) are engulfed in flames. Cooke’s style reminds me of Bruce Timm (who I thought was the artist of this cover), and it’s easy to imagine this animated.

Unfortunately, there is no story in this issue relating to the cover, but “Tall Tale” by Paul Pope, “Serial Hero” by Dave Gibbons, and “This Gun for Hire” by Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett lead off this series with many entertaining surprises.

In “Tall Tale”, writer/illustrator Paul Pope sets the tone and background of the series in a great introduction by referring to those legendary names mentioned above as “the original American superheroes.” Some, like Wild Bill Hickok, drew his share of enemies as well as admirers thanks to the exaggeration of his skills by dime novelists. A mangy badman by the name of Charles E. Bowles arrives in a frontier town screaming for Hickok’s head. He believes Hickok faked his death and has been hiding out as a saloon owner. Sure enough, his target looks like Hickok, goes by the name of Bill Hickson, and insists Bowles is mistaken. And in finding out his true identity, Bowles gets more than he bargained for.

This is a good story with the most unexpected twist of the three in this issue. Pope’s illustrations are gritty—appropriate for the Old West setting, and it’s obvious he referenced pictures of Hickok. However, the coloring by Lee Loughridge was too dark (black, gray, and dark red) and muted some interesting details Pope drew. For example, Bowles’ cowboy hat is made out of an animal, and I couldn’t tell if it was a raccoon, beaver, fox, or skunk. It’s a minor complaint, but it’s these unique touches that stand out and deserve a little notice.

Dave Gibbons’ “Serial Hero” concerns a Lone Ranger-type silver screen vigilante by the name of “Jeff Justice.” Too much booze and an affair with the wrong woman ended his career. Now, Arnold Janowski makes his living doing odd jobs for a Wild West Rodeo. But when the daughter of the show’s owner is kidnapped, and Arnold becomes a suspect, he decides to don the mask and become “Jeff Justice” for real. In his search to find the girl and clear his name, the path he follows takes a dark turn.

A prose story heightened by Gibbons’ realistic illustrations (rendered in movie-tone black and white), “Serial Hero” is a great character study. Justice/Janowski is a combination of Hollywood’s stereotypical cowboys—the white-hatted lawman, and the anti-heroic gun-for-hire—but revealing a humanity rarely portrayed in western films.

Winfred Bartlett heads west to realize his dream of becoming a self-sufficient farmer in “This Gun for Hire.” Writer Greg Rucka puts his meek protagonist in conflict with ranchers determined to run him off his land. With the law unwilling to protect him, Winfred mail-orders a six gun, and despite practice, remains a lousy shot. But when the inevitable showdown occurs, Winfred has more of an edge than he imagined. Illustrator

Rick Burchett has some fine work here, especially his mountain landscape at the start of the story, and his use of silhouettes throughout.

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

Issue two cover art by Dave Taylor looks like it could have come from the brush of Old West painter C.M. Russell. A lone, long-mustached cowboy sits astride a white horse in a desert under a blue sky. It took me a moment to notice the two dozen arrows sticking out of the horse.

Joe Pruett and Marcelo Frusin’s “First Among Men” features a gang of outlaws whose crimes are planned by a greenhorn they barely tolerate. To go into further detail would spoil the story, but the greenhorn is the key to the outlaws’ livelihood more than they know. Pruett’s dialogue between the bandits is full of deadly humor (including a funny reference to Time Life’s Old West series of books), and the blend of Frusin’s illustrations with Nathan Eyring’s colors is a wide-screen spectacle featuring blood-splatters worthy of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

In “Palomino” a young journalist from the east is assigned to find the west’s legendary heroes. Instead he finds himself surrounded by a group of men who’ve seen too many sunsets, but have some good stories to tell. An ex-outlaw reveals how a horse he loved saved his life—under very unusual circumstances. Darko Macon writes a solid tale, and Paul Gulacy’s illustrations are exceptional, especially in panels without dialogue balloons where the expressions of the characters speak volumes.

An almost completely dialogue free story, the surreal “Devil’s Sombrero” by Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman [they collaborated on such weird western comics as Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo, Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such, Jonah Hex: Shadow’s West, and Red Range] presents an unnamed Mexican, dying of heat exhaustion and thirst in the desert. From out of a cave sails a sombrero that lands on his head, transforming him into a handsome and healthy bandito, endowed with skills Clint Eastwood would envy. Even with minimal dialogue, Lansdale is able to combine both humor and pathos. What can be said about Glanzman’s art? He is a consummate western illustrator and its easy to hear the creak of batwing doors, the jingling of spurs, and the clatter of poker chips just by gazing at his work.

For those seeking something different from the spandex-clad majority cluttering up the racks at your comic store, look no further. Weird Western Tales is full of mucho talent and mucho fun.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Comic Book Review: El Diablo

El Diablo
by Brian Azzarello, Daniel Zezelj, and Kevin Somers
Vertigo Comics 2001
(Review originally posted on Feo Amante's Horror Thriller)

Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.

After the success of Vertigo’s three limited series featuring DC Comics’ Western gunfighter Jonah Hex, it was inevitable that the company would sift through its roster of frontier figures and see if gold could be struck again.

The nugget found is El Diablo. Originally a backup feature in the original Jonah Hex series from the 1970s and 1980s (and possibly some other DC Western titles), El Diablo was a supernatural Zorro. Clad in black with a red mask, he wielded a bullwhip and a six gun in the cause of justice. His alter ego was Lazarus Lane, the comatose victim of a lightning strike under the care of a Shaman named Wise Owl (think Alfred, Batman’s loyal butler). Using his magic, Wise Owl could bring Lane out of his coma, but only as El Diablo.

In this new incarnation of El Diablo, writer Brian Azzarello and artist Daniel Zezelj have put together a great character study wrapped in a mystery. What they failed to do was write a story about El Diablo.

Moses Stone is the Sheriff of Bollas Raton. Once a bounty hunter, he’s now looking to forget his past notoriety and start raising a family. He knows how to keep the peace in his town and is not above allowing outlaws to stay in town for some drinking and whoring as long as they stay out of trouble.

Stone’s law and order is disrupted when a band of outlaws are gunned down, and Stone himself is tortured by the perpetrator believed to be the mythical El Diablo, a hissing specter who wanders the lawless land dispensing justice. Spirit or not, there is a $10,000 price on his head (from a wanted poster sanctioned by one Lazarus Lane), enough for Stone to draft a posse to pursue the vigilante. El Diablo made sure Stone knew where he’d be heading: the town of Halo, where the sheriff says he was born.

It isn’t long before the hunters become the hunted as El Diablo begins to dispatch the posse. Those members who do survive to arrive in Halo suspect that Stone is hiding something from them, especially as the body count rises and only Stone is present at every murder blaming El Diablo.

Once Stone’s mysterious past is revealed, it catches up with him in an unexpected double twist finale where justice is served not by a spirit of vengeance, but by the very same law and order Stone claimed to represent.

El Diablo is a well-written mystery set in the Old West. The story would have worked even without using El Diablo. Here, he’s more of an intrusion than anything else. He appears, kills some people, hisses, and disappears. His purpose here is to guide Stone back into his past—a past he thought buried, and a past he never imagined existed.

Azzarello’s unveiling of Stone’s true colors is well done. His other characters had great potential (specifically Paw Paw—a half white, half Apache bounty hunter) and I was disappointed when they became merely cannon fodder.

Zezelj’s art with shaded coloring by Kevin Somers wasn’t very clear in many ways. I had difficulty telling some of the characters apart, but I give them credit for creating a unique look and each issue contains memorable imagery.

Tim Sale’s covers are very impressive. The silhouette of El Diablo, pistols drawn hovers over Old West landscapes with newspaper clippings behind him are all great montages.

All Covers
Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.