I’m not really much for Black Friday shopping, but when my friendly local comics retailer (Bridge City Comics in Portland) announced that they would be extending some very generous discounts to subscription box customers on Black Friday, I decided to take the opportunity to pick up a few books that I had been reluctant to pay full price for. Needless to say, I went a little crazy…
I came home with a sizable stack of hardcovers and trade paperbacks:
Almost Silent and What I Did by Jason. I’m a recent fan of the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, and over the past year I have managed to pick up most of the volumes of his work that Fantagraphics has published. However, two early titles, Tell Me Something and The Iron Wagon, have gone out of print and I’ve had a tough time finding them. Fantagraphics eventually reprinted them, but in collected editions, each book I needed collected with several that I already had. This is the sort of thing that drives collectors crazy. But the sale managed to restore a little of my sanity as now I have picked up both collected editions, which in any case are much nicer hardcovers, as opposed to the original slim paperback printings.
The Incredible Hulk Volume 1 and 2 hardcovers. Marvel continues its utterly bewildering numbering system for their hardcover collections, as The Incredible Hulk Volume 1 starts with issue 34 of the Hulk series that started in 2000. I read some of this material when it came out as single issues and I remember enjoying it, so it’ll be nice to read the entire storyline. Plus, a fair amount of it is drawn by John Romita Jr, who is one of my favorite artists, and Volume 1 also includes a great Hulk story by Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben.
JLA Year One by Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn and Barry Kitson. Generally speaking I love the DC comics superhero titles, but lately it seems like a lot of my favorites are being written by writers that I don’t care for, or going down editorial avenues that I find tedious and uninteresting. So I’m always on the lookout for older DC books that are outside current continuity, but feature writers and characters I like, and this re-telling of the JLA’s origin looks like it might fit the bill.
Doctor Who: The World Shapers by John Ridgway and a variety of writers. The comics material from the British Doctor Who Magazine has proved to have a very long shelf life, having been reprinted multiple times by several different publishers. IDW has done a great job so far of publishing superbly colored versions of these stories (originally published in black and white), but for reasons unknown they have chosen to skip a major chunk of the Sixth Doctor’s comics adventures. Luckily this volume, published by Panini Books, covers most of the stories IDW will be skipping, although rather disappointingly in the original black and white. The book’s original $32 cover price was way too steep, but the Black Friday discount has talked me into it…
From the $3 table: JLA Ultramarine Corps and Metamorpho Year One. Grant Morrison writes the JLA with Ed McGuiness’s attractively chunky illustrations. The book is padded out with a JLA/WILDCats crossover story, also by Morrison, that I guess they figured they couldn’t get anyone to buy separately. The Metamorpho story is written by Dan Jurgens, whose recent work on Booster Gold and Vanishing Point has been very entertaining.
Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. I have to admit, I bought this shrinkwrapped hardcover mainly for its stunning cover by Keith Giffen, depicting a gigantic Darkseid with his stony hand filled with hundreds of featureless bodies. I do like an ‘80s superhero epic though, and I haven’t read this one before.
Over the next several weeks (as I have time to read them) I hope to review each of these books in more detail. I wonder which one I should read first?
— Jefferson Powers
As I’ve mentioned before, when I started reading comic books in the early 1980s I was mainly a Marvel fan. I read a few DC books like Warlord and Jonah Hex, but nothing that was closely connected to their superhero continuity. I didn’t really start paying attention to the DC Universe until after Crisis on Infinite Earths cleaned up DC’s hopelessly bogged down continuity and paved the way for creators like John Byrne, Frank Miller and George Perez to revamp the likes of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and make them more accessible to new readers.
I became an instant convert and embraced the DC Universe with open arms. Byrne’s Superman and Perez’s Wonder Woman both did a great job of reintroducing the characters and streamlining their continuity into reasonable backstories that were textured without being overwhelming. Mike Grell’s take on Green Arrow was refreshingly naturalistic, using the character’s lack of supernatural powers to focus on urban drama rather than fantasy heroics. Even Keith Giffen, JM DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire’s Justice League took an inherently absurd idea, that of a team of superheroes, and managed to play it for laughs without it seeming out of place.
I never really bothered going back to see if anything interesting had been done before Crisis. For the most part it didn’t seem like I had missed much, with one possible exception: it seemed like Marv Wolfman and George Perez had been doing some interesting things with the Teen Titans, but in an age before convenient trade paperback collections, it always seemed like a bit too much work to catch up.
All of which brings us in a roundabout way to DC Universe Legacies, a series which attempts to cast a new eye on the DC Universe by observing the various eras of its history through the eyes of a retired Metropolis policeman who saw it all, but mainly as a bystander. DC tried something similar in 1986 with History of the DC Universe, but that was really a heavily illustrated prose book rather than a proper comic, and it lacked the accessible, human point of view provided by Legacies’ narrator.
Each two- issue story examines a different era of DC’s history and uses a different artist whose style complements the issue’s time period. Scott Kolins provides a two page framing sequence in each issue, tying the stories to the modern day. Issues 1 and 2, covering the Golden Age, are illustrated by Andy and Joe Kubert. Issues 3 and 4, covering the Silver Age, is illustrated by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, a mainstay illustrator for DC at that time, and inked by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons. And this month in issue five the Crisis era begins, and who else but George Perez could illustrate it?
In many ways, Perez’s artwork encapsulates what was both good and bad about DC Comics in the 1980s. His work is lush with painstaking detail, and strikes a delicate balance between realism and expressiveness that most comics illustrators never master. His crowd scenes (which he seems to love to draw) are amazing, very well composed ands filled to bursting with dozens and dozens of characters…
…and maybe that’s the problem. I mean, Perez’s artwork is beautiful to look at, but…who ARE all those characters? I’m sure there are plenty of diehard fans who can name all the characters in any given crowd scene (I can usually name most of them), and it’s a treat to see all those obscure characters in the background when you know who they are. But at the same time, the pages sometimes seem to strain under the weight of all those characters inhabiting the same world, and that’s the very thing that, more often than not, prevents DC’s creators from telling accessible stories, and the thing that Crisis on Infinite Earths was supposed to alleviate.
It’s not just that there are too many characters in the DC Universe, it’s that they won’t let us forget that there are too many characters. And maybe they try a little too hard to fit all those characters on the same page.
— Jefferson Powers
It’s no secret that I love westerns. Whether in film or comic book form, there’s something about the aesthetic of the wild west that I find absolutely compelling, and while the genre is as burdened with overused clichés as any other, it has also proven to be a uniquely versatile backdrop against which any number of original stories can be told.
This week the comic book stands held three western issues from three different publishers: The Lone Ranger #23 from Dynamite Entertainment, Pale Horse #3 from Boom Studios, and The Sixth Gun #3 from Oni Press.
Dynamite’s The Lone Ranger ongoing series has been of consistently high quality from the beginning, but recently that quality has started to slip a bit. The ongoing story of the Lone Ranger’s quest to bring his brother’s murderer to justice has dragged on for a bit too long, the hero’s final confrontation with cartoonish psycho killer Cavendish having been postponed month after month while the Ranger worries over his brother’s beautiful widow and son, and Cavendish commits more and more brutal acts of cruelty just to prove what a villain he is. I applaud writer Brett Matthews for attempting such a long and ambitious story, but at the same time I think the formula of the original Lone Ranger radio and television series worked the best, with the Ranger and Tonto travelling from town to town righting wrongs for no other reason than the fact that no one else would.
That said, the book has its fair share of originality to it, mostly centered around the character of Tonto, who is far from the agreeable sidekick, adopting an almost antagonistic relationship to the Ranger and even getting the girl for a change as he carries on a romance with the aforementioned beautiful widow.
I had high hopes for Boom Studios’ Pale Horse. I have thoroughly enjoyed their Fall of Cthulhu, an excellent series that evokes the work of H. P. Lovecraft without being too derivative. Pale Horse is cowritten by Fall of Cthulhu scribe Michael Alan Nelson, but unfortunately it exhibits none of the same originality, instead falling back on every overused cliché in the book. When his Native American wife is brutally murdered, stone faced killing machine Cole goes on the revenge trail, dispatching her killers with cold efficiency and of course becoming a wanted man in the process. Pale Horse even makes use of the western genre’s time honored tradition of swiping ideas from Japanese samurai epics, in this case Lone Wolf and Cub, as Cole’s only companion is his dead wife’s son, a silent young child.
Oni Press introduced The Sixth Gun as one of this year’s Free Comic Book Day books, and apparently the book was so sought after that they were forced to reprint the first issue last month when #2 was published. I can certainly see why, as the book is an eye-catching treat. Artist Brian Hurtt has mastered a semi-cartoony drawing style reminiscent of Bruce Timm’s, fluid enough for the characters to have exaggerated, expressive faces and body language, but not so much that the reader can’t take the story seriously, and colored subtly enough to add depth without being overbearing.
The story, by Cullen Bunn, can only be described as a heroic fantasy tale that just happens to take place in the old west instead of Middle Earth or Cimmeria, and it proves my point about the versatility of the western setting. It is far enough in the past that magic and the supernatural don’t seem terribly out of place, yet near enough that the appearance and language of the characters aren’t so archaic as to be hard for modern readers to relate to.
More importantly, The Sixth Gun really embraces the idea that the American West was the last great frontier, a vast, unexplored, lawless land where anything might be possible.
— Jefferson Powers
Mike Grell’s Warlord has always been one of my all-time favorite comics. It is one of the first series I ever collected, anxiously awaiting each new issue to appear on the spinner rack at my local grocery store, and Grell’s artwork was some of the first that I can remember noticing a distinctive style that made it stand apart from the other comics I was reading.
The story is deceptively simple: in 1969 a US spy plane is shot down over the North Pole, its trajectory taking it through an immense opening leading to the interior of the Earth, which is hollow and has a whole other world on its inner surface. It is a savage world of dinosaurs, magic and adventure, and Travis Morgan, the spy plane’s pilot, takes to it like a fish to water, abandoning any attempts to find a way home almost immediately.
DC first began publishing The Warlord in 1975, when Marvel’s successful Conan comics had spawned hordes of imitators. The Warlord offered readers more than just a Conan clone, however. It had a lush, visually striking setting, a well developed cast of supporting characters, and in Travis Morgan, a hero with a modern point of view who could comment on the fantastic situations using contemporary language that readers could easily understand and relate to.
From the start, Travis Morgan is portrayed as more than just a vanilla hero. While he quickly rises to the challenges of the primitive world he finds himself in, it is clear from the start that he does so more out of a thirst for adventure than any particularly noble need to protect the innocent or do the right thing. In the first storyline he leads a group of slaves to freedom, and even manages to marry the restored queen of the kingdom he frees from a tyrannical sorcerer, but when it comes down to anything resembling actual responsibility, he quickly sneaks off to have more adventures.
The series’ original run lasted for 133 issues over 14 years. The first fifty were written and drawn by series creator Mike Grell, which largely accounts for the consistency of the main character and the distinctive look of the series. Other writers and artists such as Cary Burkett, Dan Jurgens and Michael Fleisher who took on the series after Grell’s departure had a highly developed series and cast of characters to work with. Grell wrote a revival miniseries in 1992 which had a somewhat darker tone, putting the focus squarely on Morgan’s shirking of responsibility and downplaying the high adventure.
The character and setting have made occasional appearances in other DC comics, most memorably in Mike Grell’s 1990s run on Green Arrow. Grell used to get friendly criticism about the fact that the way he drew them, Travis Morgan and Oliver Queen looked very similar, so when the Warlord wanders into Green Arrow’s home town, he is mistaken for the emerald archer and constantly attacked by Green Arrow’s enemies.
After an extremely ill conceived and poorly received reboot attempt in 2006, Mike Grell returned to the series in 2009 to tell the story he had always wanted to finish the series on, that of Travis Morgan’s death and succession as Warlord by his son Joshua, who he believed he had been forced to kill years ago. Grell alternated art duties with Joe Prado and Chad Hardin, and while it was nice to see Mike Grell draw his characters again, there is a roughness to his artwork that may be a telling testament to Vince Colletta and the other inkers he had on the original series.
Issue 16, published this week, is the current series’ final issue, and while according to Grell and DC it is a planned ending rather than a cancellation, it still feels abrupt and rushed, as Morgan’s son races to prevent an alien invasion of the interior world while also warning the people on the surface of what’s coming.
The Warlord’s appearances in other media have been scarce. A line of toys based on some of the series’ characters was released in 1981, no doubt intended to compete with the very successful Masters of the Universe line. Morgan’s only on-screen appearance so far has been in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Chaos at the Earth’s Core” (which sadly did not also feature Green Arrow).
To my knowledge, no serious thought has ever been given to a Warlord film or TV series, not even during the 1980s fantasy film boom brought on by Conan the Barbarian, or the slew of 1990s syndicated TV series inspired by Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess. This is probably just as well given DC’s poor track record with translating their more obscure characters to the screen (see Constantine or Jonah Hex, or better yet, don’t). But if the upcoming Conan and Thor films are successful, Hollywood may give Warlord another look. Hopefully they’ll recognize what made the series different, rather than what made it the same.
— Jefferson Powers
I find J. Michael Straczynski to be a very frustrating writer. If his work was merely bad or uninteresting it would be easy to dismiss him, but unfortunately he is a good writer who frequently comes up with fascinating ideas for the comics he writes. The central premise of his Supreme Power series from 2004, that no one could wield the power of a Superman, Wonder Woman or even Batman without being hopelessly insane, had been touched on before, but never with quite the intensity or attention to realistic historical detail. The problem with Supreme Power, and with most of the series that Straczynski writes, was that he never really finished it, he just let it fizzle out.
Even more disappointing than Supreme Power was the Thor relaunch in 2007. It had a wonderful premise that followed on perfectly from the destruction of Asgard in the previous Thor series, with Thor seeking his fellow Asgardians who had been reincarnated in the forms of mortals and scattered across the world, and establishing a new Asgard in, of all places, Oklahoma. It was a great set up for a series, and the new Asgard’s small town Oklahoma neighbors provided some much needed comedy relief for the traditionally humorless series. But Straczynski seemed to get bored with the whole thing pretty quickly, and he rushed through the search for the Asgardians, then fell back on the same old tired “what’s devious old Loki up to now” plots that have plagued the book for years.
Don’t even get me started on The Twelve, a proposed 12 issue miniseries about Marvel’s forgotten 1950s characters, which never made it past issue 8.
So it was with great irritation that I read that Straczynski would be taking over writing on Superman, one of my favorite ongoing superhero books. I decided that I would have none of it, I wouldn’t set myself up for disappointment again. He was starting with issue 701, so I would end my collection with issue 700, a nice round number. Unfortunately for my plan, Straczynski’s story actually started at the end of issue 700, and in spite of myself I was intrigued enough to want to read on. I read issue 701 with every intention of hating it…
But I have to admit, it was one of the more enjoyable Superman comics I’ve read in quite some time.
The story starts with Superman deciding that he spends too much time up in the sky, that he’s lost touch with the regular people that he’s dedicated his life to protecting. For the most part I agree. The “New Krypton” storyline that has consumed the Superman books for the past two years has been epic and ambitious, but it’s also been a bit too much about fighting and conflict between various super beings, which is all too prevalent in most modern superhero comics. I like Superman best when the stories are about him helping people, whether it’s saving them from burning buildings or getting their cats out of trees, and that seems to be the thing Straczynski’s storyline is going to focus on, as Superman decides to forego flying and walk from one end of the country to the other.
The pacing is nice and leisurely, spending time on little incidents of Superman connecting with ordinary life and ordinary people. No other costumed characters appear in the story at all, and other than a very brief appearance by Lois Lane, none of Superman’s regular cast of supporting characters appear either. It’s just scene after scene of Superman using his powers to help people, and it’s very well written. The dialogue is some of the most natural I’ve seen in a Superman book in years, and this is where Straczynski’s vast experience as a film and television writer are on display. The writing is humorous without being resorting to comic relief, and emotional without being sentimental.
Superman says he’s going to walk the length of the country. Given Straczynski’s recent track record, I’m betting he’ll either give up by the time he gets to St. Louis or we’ll jump ahead to his arrival in Alaska. But if he doesn’t, if Straczynski takes his time to explore this idea before jumping to one of the many other great ideas I’m sure he already has for the character, it could be a journey worth sticking around for. I guess we’ll see.
— Jefferson Powers
Tom Strong really has it all. A generically heroic main character with a dramatic origin, a love interest that is integral to the story, several appropriately cartoonish villains, and not one but two comic relief sidekicks – a talking gorilla and a stuttering robot. He even has a sensible, yet instantly recognizable costume. Tom Strong seems like an easy mark for a movie, so why hasn’t Hollywood fed it into the meat grinder yet?
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tom Strong was part of the America’s Best Comics line created by Alan Moore for Wildstorm back in the late 1990s, a line which also included Top Ten, Promethea and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Tom Strong was Moore’s attempt to bring the concept of the superhero back to its pulp roots, and has as much in common with Doc Savage or the Shadow as it does with Superman.
Referred to as a “science-hero,” Tom Strong is raised in a high-gravity chamber and educated by his scientist parents on the fictional island of Attabar Teru until an accident kills his parents and releases him from the chamber as a teenager. He grows up among the natives of the island, and his exposure to a local root combined with his time spent in the gravity chamber results in him being nearly perfect physically and mentally, and extremely long lived – although born in 1900, by 2000 he looks to be in his early 40s.
He has adventures throughout the 20th century, fighting Nazis, killer robots and sentient Aztec temples, and frequently travelling in time and visiting alternate realities. He is ably assisted by his wife Dhalua and their daughter Tesla, both natives of Attabar Teru with similarly long lifespans, as well as by Pneuman, a steam powered robot butler, and Solomon, a gorilla who talks like an Oxford science teacher. His recurring villains include Paul Saveen, a classic 1920s sinister stage magician, and Ingrid Weiss, a buxom Nazi obsessed with bearing Tom’s children to jump-start the master race.
The current Tom Strong series, written by frequent Moore collaborator Peter Hogan with artwork by original series co-creator Chris Sprouse, concerns Ingrid Weiss and the son she tricked Tom into fathering, and their plot to change history, creating a world where the Nazis win the war with the help of a race of robots from Atlantis. It’s been done before, but Hogan and Sprouse have so far managed to pull off the story with enough charm that it feels fresh.
The most important thing about the Tom Strong comics is that they are bright, cheery and fun, telling exciting and engaging stories without lapsing into the dark angst that seems to pass for sophistication in many mainstream comics today. The series seems tailor made for a Hollywood summer blockbuster, with its world threatening plots and larger than life characters.
And besides, Alan Moore hasn’t had a reason to complain about Hollywood since last spring’s Watchmen movie…
— Jefferson Powers
After several years of closely connected storylines, DC’s various Superman titles are now going in different directions, and perhaps the most dramatic change is that Action Comics, the title that Superman debuted in back in 1938, will now be headlined by none other than Lex Luthor.
When I first heard about it I was intrigued by the idea. Under the right writer Luthor is a fascinating character, and Paul Cornell, a veteran of British television (including the critically acclaimed Doctor Who episodes Human Nature and The Family of Blood) should bring a fresh perspective, and Cornell’s characterization of Luthor is definitely a highlight of the book. While he occasionally lapses into the tired ruthless corporate CEO cliché that has plagued the character since the 1980s, this Luthor has a cocky sparkle to him, and Cornell’s sharp writing makes me believe two important things: that Luthor is A: a genius and B: completely insane.
The story itself is serviceable, picking up where Luthor’s involvement in the Blackest Night storyline left off. His exposure to the orange power ring has left him even more greedy for power than he was before, and so he embarks on a quest to find a way to create his own power ring. He is assisted by the usual corporate toadies, but also with what may end up being one of the more interesting characters in the series: a robot duplicate of Lois Lane, programmed to challenge Luthor, to give him, in his own words, “a viewpoint that’s not entirely about need.”
Of course Luthor follows this explanation of the robot Lois’ purpose with the following statement, which really sums up the tone of the writing: “That will be especially useful when I’m becoming a god in space.” The plot really isn’t all that important, it’s just a vehicle for Luthor’s character.
Paul Cornell seems to have a firm handle on that character, and so far he has avoided the pitfalls that usually befall villain-led books, largely by avoiding having Superman or any other heroes appear in the story at all. This is Lex Luthor’s book, and the story is told squarely from his point of view. In his mind at least, he is the hero.
— Jefferson Powers
It seems to me that so far, movies based on DC Comics properties fall into three broad categories. On one end of the spectrum we have well made films by directors who understand the material, such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight or Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie. In the middle, well-intentioned near misses like Superman Returns, V for Vendetta or Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. And on the other end, studio-manufactured disasters like Constantine or the Joel Schumacher Batman films, formula summer “event” movies made by people who are only interested in replicating the success of previous films.
So where does the Jonah Hex film fall on this scale?
The film’s credits read “based on the comic books written by John Albano, illustrated by Tony DeZuniga and published by DC Comics,” and while it’s nice that the filmmakers chose to credit Hex’s original creators, the film bears only a superficial resemblance to the Jonah Hex comics of the 1970s and ‘80s. It is much closer in tone to Joe R. Lansdale’s Vertigo Comics treatment of the character in the mid-1990s. Where in the original Jonah Hex stories published in Weird Western Tales there was a subtle atmosphere of dread and wry irony, Lansdale chose a much more overt sense of weirdness, populating his Hex tales with zombies, crazed albinos and other outlandish monsters.
The film doesn’t go quite this far, but it does contain a few supernatural elements, the only purpose of which seems to be to provide exposition for the by-the-numbers plot and a suitably big “save the world” threat for the final act.
The whole movie has a slapped-together feeling to it, as if the filmmakers wanted to make a Jonah Hex film but had no idea what it should actually be about. You can almost hear the producers checking off all the summer action movie elements like a laundry list: tragic hero, check; beautiful woman in peril, check; insane villain, check; explosions and ridiculous weaponry, check; and so on. John Malkovich’s turn as Quentin Turnbull was straight out of the comic book villains’ play book, but at least his presence in the film is necessary to move the plot forward. Megan Fox’s character Lilah seems to be there solely to provide a reason for Megan Fox to be in the movie. A badly animated origin story and bizarre dream sequence ending seem to be late attempts to address the film’s abrupt scene changes and general lack of any real substance, and even with these rushed additions the film clocks in at a very short 80 minutes.
I imagine he had a hard time acting through the grotesque makeup required to give him Hex’s signature facial scar, but nonetheless Josh Brolin turns in a very one-dimensional performance, trying much too hard to be tormented and sarcastic at the same time, and failing at both. He comes off as a swaggering bully with none of the ironic charm he has in the comics.
Maybe that’s the whole problem. Jonah Hex is an unusual character, not exactly likeable and certainly not a handsome heroic type. Often he is the hero only because the villains he’s fighting are worse bastards than he is. He works great as a comic book character in stories that only need to be entertaining, not carry a film franchise, and maybe his story just doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter mold of the Hollywood summer blockbuster.
Maybe the world doesn’t need a Jonah Hex movie. It certainly didn’t need this one.
— Jefferson Powers
It’s always amusing watching DC Comics scramble to get something into the bookstores to tie in with the release of a film or TV series based on one of their properties, especially if it’s a lesser known one. Last year’s Watchmen was easy – there’s only the one book, and the film was, at least visually, a close adaptation of it. It’s when the film or TV series strays wildly from its source material (as they invariably do) that DC feels the need to help the potential new readers out by making it clear that yes, this is the book they should buy.
In the case of the recent Human Target series a simple “the inspiration for the television series” blurb on the cover of the trade paperback should suffice, but DC chose to confuse the issue by also releasing a new Human Target miniseries based on the show, no doubt their way of compensating for the fact that the TV series, while quite good, bears virtually no resemblance to the comic book series it is based on.
To tie in with the hopelessly ill-conceived Constantine film, we got Hellblazer: All His Engines, an original hardcover graphic novel. Not a bad book, but the central purpose of the plot seemed to be to move the series from its usual British setting to Los Angeles, where the film takes place. Had the movie been successful and spawned the inevitable sequels, the monthly Hellblazer series would likely have been permanently relocated to bring it in line with the film series. Luckily for everyone (except the filmmakers), the movie was a flop, All His Engines was largely forgotten, and John Constantine is back in England where he belongs.
All of which brings us to Jonah Hex. To tie in with the upcoming film DC has just released No Way Back, an original hardcover graphic novel by the current Jonah Hex writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, with artwork by comics legend and original Jonah Hex artist Tony DeZuniga.
Thankfully, No Way Back does not appear to be an attempt to bring Hex’s comics continuity in line with the film. Instead it has the more basic task of explaining just why Jonah Hex is such a complete bastard, while also giving some background on El Papagayo, a long time Jonah Hex villain who to my knowledge does not appear in the film.
It is a relentless and unforgiving story that uses many of the standard clichés of the western genre, but still manages to deliver some surprises along the way. Jonah Hex’s night of drinking and whoring is interrupted when he is presented with a wanted poster depicting his long-lost mother, which sends him on a journey to find her and confront her about why she left him with his alcoholic, abusive father to run off with a traveling salesman. From here the story takes some interesting twists and turns, all the while rooted in classic western themes of revenge and redemption.
The writers take great pains to ensure that the cast of characters are as well-rounded as possible, presenting us with a hero it’s very difficult to love, and a cast of villains it’s all too easy to sympathize with. Hex finds himself coming to the aid of a religious community who are willing to do some surprising things to protect their town, and even their leader is steeped in moral ambiguity, with his too-young wife and stranglehold on the town he runs as both preacher and sheriff.
The artwork in No Way Back is less successful. Tony DeZuniga co-created the character and did some phenomenal work on the series back in the 1970s and ‘80s, but here his work is overly sketchy, relying on thick patches of black to fill in the panels. Colorist Rob Schwager does a good job salvaging the art by adding a lot of texture to areas DeZuniga lets trail off. Ultimately, the story is compelling enough that the art doesn’t detract from it, but it is a bit of a shock after the consistently excellent work by a variety of artists that has appeared in the monthly Jonah Hex series.
A few months ago in Jonah Hex #53, we were introduced to Lana, a saloon showgirl who bore a striking resemblance to Megan Fox’s character in the film. I remember rolling my eyes when I saw the cover and thinking “here we go…” Throughout the story she behaved as expected, and they seemed to be setting her up as a regular supporting character, thus bringing the comic in line with the film. It was that expectation that made the twist at the end of the story all the more effective.
That’s the strength of what Palmiotti and Grey do, both in the monthly Jonah Hex series and in No Way Back. They’re working in a cliché-ridden genre, so they use those foregone conclusions to set up twists and turns that the readers never see coming.
The filmmakers would do well to do the same.
— Jefferson Powers
The frustrating thing about Michael Bassett’s Solomon Kane film is that it comes so close to getting it right. The cinematography and gloomy atmosphere capture the somber tone of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane tales very well, and there is a scene in the film where Kane encounters a mad priest who keeps a “congregation” of gibbering cannibals locked in the basement of his ruined church that feels like it could have been directly adapted from one of the original stories.
James Purefoy (HBO’s Rome) is well cast as Solomon Kane. Even the film’s basic plot, in which Kane must battle a band of grotesque raiders led by an evil sorcerer to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a travelling Puritan family, rings true, and is similar to the plot of Howard’s “The Moon of Skulls.”
The problem is in the characterization of Solomon Kane himself. Howard’s character is a mysterious wanderer, a Puritan who fights evil for no other reason than his own righteous fury. The strength of the stories is in the visceral action as Kane fights his near-hopeless battles against exotic backdrops such as the Black Forest in Germany or the jungles of Africa. It’s not particularly highbrow material, but it is exciting entertainment.
The film introduces us to a Solomon Kane who is a brutal, vicious and greedy mercenary. While looting a castle of its gold in Spain, Kane meets “the Devil’s Reaper,” a creature who informs him that the Devil has laid claim to his soul. Kane manages to escape, and we next meet him several years later, living a life of quiet contemplation in a monastery, where he has renounced violence in an effort to redeem himself. The monks send him packing for reasons that remain unclear, and while travelling he falls in with a Puritan family. They are beset by raiders who kill the father and his young son, and kidnap the teenage daughter, Meredith. With his dying breath, Meredith’s father tells Kane that his soul will be redeemed if he rescues her.
This is all a fairly by-the-book Hollywood way to give the character a background and motivation that will be easy for the audience to understand, but it backfires. Kane’s reason for wanting to rescue Meredith now appears entirely selfish – it’s his own escape from damnation in the fires of Hell that he is fighting for. These waters are further muddied with a back story involving Kane’s father and brother, another attempt to give him a personal connection to the events going on around him.
There is a character-defining scene at the beginning of “Red Shadows,” the very first Solomon Kane story, published in Weird Tales in 1928. Kane comes across a young girl, dying in the road after having been attacked by brigands. “Men shall die for this,” he vows, and spends the better part of a year tracking down her killers. The thing that makes the character interesting is that he is so driven to avenge the girl’s death, in spite of the fact that he has no personal or self-serving reason for doing so.
The film really misses this fundamental character point, that Solomon Kane is simply a good man who stands against evil because he must. Like any hero should be.
— Jefferson Powers