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The Acrid Smell of Gunsmoke

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He had no friends, this Jonah Hex…but he did have two companions…One was death itself…the other, the acrid smell of gunsmoke.

With these words, the tone is set for the story of the toughest, ugliest, yet undoubtedly greatest bounty hunter in the West. First appearing in DC Comics’ All-Star Western #10 in 1972, Jonah Hex has terrorized lawbreakers ever since. Now, in the capable hands of co-writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray and artist Luke Ross, Hex has returned in all his gritty glory in the first trade paperback of the series, Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence.

From the moment one looks upon Hex’s scarred visage, it’s clear that what follows will be no classic Western of white hats and black hats. The story of Jonah Hex is one of unsettling grays and the uncompromising realities of life in the untamed West. In honor of this subtle subversion of the expected, Palmiotti and Gray deliver a series of stand-alone vignettes rather than a full six-issue story arc in these pages.

When we first meet Hex, it’s in a field of freshly slain corpses and a shower of money that is meaningless to the principled bounty hunter. Like the cynical detectives of hard-boiled noir, Hex has seen his share of hardship and death yet never strays from his own unique moral code. It’s this resolve that drives him to find the lost son of a wounded hunter, even when the search takes him to the seedy world of circus dogfights and abused children. It’s telling that in this inaugural adventure, Hex finds a pyrrhic victory at best as well as a rather gruesome form of justice for the story’s villain. In Jonah Hex’s world, good does not always triumph and the hero himself remains a figure we are sometimes uncomfortable with.

These themes continue in the second story as Hex and a wronged young woman pursue a stolen cross to a silver-mining town run by a blatantly racist and corrupt overseer. Again, the dangerous line between justice and vengeance is examined and the story’s sinners make their own fate in a terrifying fashion.

A bit of levity is added to the collection by the appearance of another of DC’s Western heroes, the nattily-dressed pacifist, Bat Lash. Like Hex, Lash is a study in contrasts and subverted conventions—a cowboy who disdains violence, a somewhat dandy pretty boy who can nonetheless hold his own when the time comes. Palmiotti and Gray cleverly play Lash’s friendly, talkative nature against Hex’s stoic, tough-guy act, yet the two are bound together in their pursuit of true justice.

Most of the book’s stories are beautifully illustrated with almost photo-realistic detail by Luke Ross. Paired with the incredibly rich colors of Rob Schwager, Ross’ art is dazzlingly cinematic. One can almost feel the desert sun, the cool Western breezes, the thunder of the guns, and the roar of flames. If Ross errs in any way, it’s in his tendency to give Hex an Eastwood-style handsomeness (not to mention an obvious photo reference) rather than making him the ugly, old coot we know he should be. Hex’s co-creator Tony DeZuniga does not take this path in the story he contributes to this volume (Hex and his bounty trapped in a station house during a shoot-out). He renders the character in a rougher, less polished style. It’s not as easy on the eyes but the gritty, jagged linework of this story seems appropriate to the subject matter.

Ross returns with the melodramatically named “Chako Must Die,” which skirts skillfully between the humor of a motormouth Mexican bandito and a gut-wrenching tale of rape. It is here that the book’s mature, Comics Code-free approach is put to best use. While no graphic violence or molestation takes place on panel, the identity of the piece’s villain provides the most honestly shocking and dramatic moment of the book. Palmiotti and Gray do not flinch from showing the true evil that Hex comes across in his line of work.

Finally, we get a fleeting glimpse of Jonah’s softer side in the last tale of the collection, when a town of religious zealots and strange dealings brings a reunion with a lost love. As ever, happiness is brief in Hex’s world and the grasping hand of death never far behind him.

With its non-traditional hero, disturbingly honest realism, and stunning artwork, Jonah Hex is perhaps the finest example of its genre in comics today. Whether you’re a longtime Western fan or someone (like me) who never thought you cared for this kind of story, Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence will cause you to look at the Old West in a way you never did before.

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