Monday, December 27, 2010

Jonah Hex #62

What can you say about Jonah Hex? He’s a wild west bounty hunter with an ugly mug and a knack for disaster; a walking, talking tankard of trouble with a mean streak longer than the scar on his cheek. This month, rather than chasing bounties on the lam, Hex is pulling a more legitimate paycheck: escorting a mysterious, silent package through the lawless countryside with a small group of hired guns to watch his back. Only, as fate would have it, that quiet package isn’t nearly as innocent as one might think, and it brings along its own set of criminally-minded, gun-toting admirers.

Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti spin this unconventional yarn, part Fistful of Dollars and part Freaks, into an offbeat, fast paced one-off storyline. Having no experience with Hex myself, the ability to jump right into this tale and understand what’s going on without half an issue’s worth of back story was a genuine blessing, and one that’s become far too difficult to find in modern comics. If you’ve seen a western and appreciate a nice slice of suspense, you’ve already got all the tools you’ll need to comprehend and appreciate Jonah Hex #62.

Of course, working within the framework of a self-contained story carries certain restraints and limitations of its own, especially when 95% of the cast is comprised of fresh faces. It’s no easy task to establish a character, make your audience care one way or another for him and tell his story, all as the subtext to a greater saga, within such a short page count. Having said that, Gray and Palmiotti manage to do exactly that… a dozen different times. It helps that the story is largely character-driven, with the single plot point of a risky escort job providing all the loose framework that main narrative really needs. Still, our dual writers deliver on their promises and manage to establish a strong, versatile cast, share enough about them to make the audience care about their grand fate, and then ultimately get them what they’ve got coming by the time we reach that final panel.

The latest in a series of guest artists to make a stop on Hex, Eduardo Risso doesn’t take long to get comfortable with the cast or the setting. Risso has his share of supporters and haters, and though I consider myself to be planted firmly in the former camp, I have a hard time picturing anyone in the latter finding anything to complain about here. On a stone-cold serious book like 100 Bullets or Logan, Risso’s wild, untamed transgressions between the serious and the nutty could come across as aloof and out of place. Here, directing a troupe of misfits, circus freaks and outcasts on their bizarre adventures in the old west, those dual personalities feel right at home. Master of the establishing shot, Risso has a field day with the gorgeous scenery of America’s untamed territories before turning his eye to the grizzled, unmistakable visage of the protagonist and his cohorts. When the story slows down to catch its breath around the middle of this issue, Risso is right there to keep the ball rolling and give his readers something to appreciate. He turns in fantastic work this month, and it’s regretful that his stay with the character is destined to be such a short one.

It may not be the most refined work, nor the most intellectually challenging, but the present state of Jonah Hex is still worthy of a closer look. Gray and Palmiotti are clearly enjoying themselves, taking liberties with the lead and with his supporting cast, going nowhere in particular but still getting into adventures. The short-term addition of Eduardo Risso really puts them over the top this month, but this is a series worth keeping an eye on even after he’s out of the picture. Buy it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8

Action Comics Annual #13

If it’s as odd for you to consider the prospect of an Action Comics without the Last Son of Krypon as it is for me, this Annual edition should throw you for a bit of a loop. Granted, the series wasn’t always so intently focused on Superman, and given the retro movement that seems to be sweeping through the industry, perhaps a change of focus isn’t completely out of left field. While Annuals have never been particularly renowned for their continuation of the monthly’s ongoing storylines anyway, this year’s installment takes that concept a step further. Rather than a single, double-sized story, Action Annual #13 has opted to go the anthology route, with two feature-length stories and an extra-brief backup tale featuring a few of DC’s non-leading men.

In “Father Box,” Paul Cornell and Marco Rudy explore an undocumented meeting between an ancient intergalactic menace, Darkseid, and Metropolis’s own locally budding mad genius, a young Lex Luthor. It’s an unusual tale, one that moves in leaps and bounds, jerking readers away from their expectations just as soon as they’ve been developed. One moment we’re enjoying a charismatic baby-faced Lex, clawing his way up from the streets in a cash-strapped, crime-soaked younger Metropolis, the next a glowing pink door materializes in his office and we’re jolted off, literally, to another dimension. It’s an enjoyable little romp, matching laid-back, adventurous storytelling with free form, unusually composed visuals, though I couldn’t help but notice the unanswered questions that kept tugging at the back of my mind. Why does Darkseid come off less like a power-hungry evil tyrant and more like the Mad Hatter? What era are we in, when Luthor and Perry White are still bright eyed and bushy tailed, but civilians stroll around with smart phones in their hands? It’s a bouncy, energetic action / adventure playground, but not one that grants more than a fleeting glance to the structures of continuity. For better or for worse.

Cornell again spotlights young Luthor in the issue’s second tale, “A Father’s Box,” this time with artist Ed Benes at his side and Ra’s al Ghul teaching Lex a few lessons. Told almost exclusively in prose, this anecdote works as a deliberate, casually paced counterpart to the first. Here, the writer’s take on the well-examined central figures is more honest and recognizable. It’s not the joyride that Lex’s encounter with Darkseid was, and as such it pales in direct, immediate comparison. On the whole, though, it’s a more complete, enjoyable story.

Though neither tale (nor the five-page Batman Beyond backup yarn) seek to further any current narratives, they do provide a certain degree of added depth to each character enjoying the spotlight. Naturally, there’s that lingering question of where these adventures belong in the grand scheme of things, if at all, brought on by the strange disconnects and missteps I’ve mentioned above. But, assuming they are legitimately in-continuity, both stories add a certain degree of depth and lore to three of the publisher’s most highly regarded demons. This isn’t required reading, but it’s worthy of a borrow.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7