Or – “He Died With His Boots On…”

I’ve occasionally talked about how the future setting has allowed the creators of Legion of Super-Heroes to take risks that other books couldn’t, such as the death of Ferro Lad, or the weddings of several major characters.  Likewise, Jonah Hex has the benefit of living in our past, meaning that his entire LIFE is history.  Thus, the story of how Jonah died was told within a decade of his creation, and the spectre of that death has resonated through every Hex story since…

I’ll say this, though:  It ain’t pretty.

DC SPECIAL SERIES #16: JONAH HEX SPECTACULAR
Writer: Michael Fleisher/Denny O’Neil/Gerry Conway
Penciler: Luis Dominguez/Russ Heath/George Moliterni/Dick Ayers
Inker: Luis Dominguez/Russ Heath/George Moliterni/Danny Bulanadi
Cover Artist: Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez
Letterer: Ben Oda/Shelly Leferman
Colorist: Bob LeRose/Jerry Serpe
Editor: Larry Hama
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: $1.00
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $80.00

Previously, in Jonah Hex:  Raised by a terse and abusive father, Jonah Hex was sold to a tribe of Apache as a slave before the age of 13.  Eventually winning the respect of the tribe, he fought in the American Civil War before being marked as a traitor by his adoptive people, his face horrifically burned to mark his status as pariah.  Though he has occasionally been pulled forward in time to the modern era, Jonah Hex mostly kept to himself, with his only constant companions being whiskey, death and the smell of gunsmoke.  As the 20th Century dawns, Jonah has made no effort to change his way of life, regardless of the sweeping changes that are erasing his world, as the Old West gives way to the new century…

At first, it seems that age has taken it’s toll on the tracking powers of Jonah Hex, as the varmints (I really love sayin’ “Varmint!”) he is following catch sight of him and send half their number to bushwhack the last bounty hunter.  The two cowboys find him on the bluff, but even a slow septuagenarian Jonah Hex is a dangerous Jonah Hex…

Russ Heath always seems to draw Jonah with a resemblance to Clint Eastwood, something that is particularly evident here, and he even manages to presage what the actual 70-year-old Clint looks like, which is pretty delightful.  The people of 1904 have little idea what a man like Hex is all about, and his interactions with turn-of-the-century policemen serve to underline how out of time a man like Jonah is.  He’s keenly aware of his age, remarking as he turns in his bounty, “A man stops livin’…  He starts dyin’.”  Even those who want to understand him end up reminding Hex just how old he is…

Jonah does agree to let the man interview him, and the process turns into a months-long recollection of the Old West that was, even teaching the young writer some of his tricks.  Jonah ominously turns down an offer from a traveling Wild West carnival, and has another run-in with the George Barrow gang.  (For anyone taking note, it never goes well when someone tries to kidnap Hex’s wife.)  The Barrow gang is taken out, with the exception of George himself, thanks to young Michael Wheeler (who I have a suspicion may be an author avatar of Hex creator Michael Fleisher.)

Returning to town, Wheeler is distracted by a new-fangled automobile, while Jonah slinks into the saloon for entertainment of a more amenable (i.e. old-school) type…

There’s a concept called “Chekov’s Gun,” which states that a plot element established in the first act should always come to fruition by the end, and in this case, the gun is actually Jonah’s failing eyesight and spectacles.  Much as Wild Bill Hickok before him, Jonah’s game of poker has a fateful ending…

Barrow attempts to flee the scene, but is waylaid by Jonah’s police officer friend before he gets five steps out of the saloon…

Wheeler gathers the dying Hex, and is witness to the last words of the last bounty hunter before bringing him home to Tall Bird for a traditional funeral ceremony…

This story actually give me goosebumps with it’s creepiness, and it continues going downhill with every scene.  Jonah is dead, his writer friend and wife left to die in the fires of their burning home, and the opportunistic Lew Farnham gets his star attraction anyway…

I’m pretty sure that Marty McFly wore that outfit in Back To The Future Part II, actually.  In a final fit of irony, Jonah’s final “bounty” comes a week post-mortem, much to Farnham’s surprise.

It’s a pretty awful fate for a character who just wanted to be left alone to live his life, doesn’t it?  Well, don’t worry, Faithful Spoilerite.  This is a comic written in the 1970s, the decade of lassitude, ennui and lust in the heart, so…

It.  Gets.  Worse.

Farnham himself is gunned down by criminals, while counting the money that he earned off Jonah’s dessicated corpse, and the body of Jonah Hex is stolen and sold to an antique store.

That is SERIOUSLY creepy…  Throughout the run of his series, even today, Jonah is portrayed as a man with a code of honor that mitigates his worst instincts, and to see such a man turned into a gaudy painted decoration in a grotty little amusement park is a punch in the gut.  Bear in mind that this is 1978, an era where just about nobody had ever died save Gwen Stacy and Ferro Lad, and you have to imagine that this was a startling thing to find on your local newsstand in the Carter years.  The rest of this book (damn near 70 pages for a dollar, which makes me sad for other reasons) features a GORGEOUSLY drawn story featuring Bat Lash…

If you don’t know Bat, the story clearly makes his whole gimmick explicit in a skillful sequence of panels…

The issue is wrapped up by a tale featuring Scalphunter, another of DC’s 70’s Western heroes, one who would later be a recurring character in James Robinson’s Starman series.

The punch of the first story renders Scalphunter’s tale pretty unmemorable, even dealing as it does with the hot-button issue of racism in the old west.  The end of Jonah Hex’s life was still canonical even after Crisis On Infinite Earths, as more than one story featured Jonah’s body, including a horrifying moment where a time-traveling Jonah came face-to-face with his dead, stuffed self.  When this book showed up in the store a few weeks ago, I practically leapt with joy, having searched for the thing off and on for years, but I was still surprised at the power (and the immense sadness) of the last Jonah Hex story.  It’s a bleak one, but somehow perfectly in keeping with Jonah’s tragic life, and DC Special Series #16: Jonah Hex Spectacular earns a heartfelt 4.5 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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2 Comments

  1. April 30, 2012 at 1:54 am — Reply

    I may not have this right, but I think some later stories said his body eventually found its way back to the hands of his elderly wife, where it repeated the eerie posthumous murder of some guys threatening the aforementioned widow.

    Only Jonah Hex keeps killing decades after his death. With his own stuffed hands.

    • April 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm — Reply

      That would probably be Secret Origins #21, I think. I’m familiar with, but haven’t ever read the issue. I vividly remember Keith Giffen’s rendition of Jonah finding his own corpse in the future of the Mad Max style “Hex” series, and finding it to be not creepy, but a comforting realization that he would, eventually, make it home.

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