‘Jonah Hex': Where a Murderer’s Row of Artists Knock It Out of the Park
It almost goes without saying, but art is the most fundamental part of the comic book experience. It can make or break someone’s story, provide hours of enjoyment for a careful reader, and create images and scenes that linger in our memories for decades. Now, what if I told you there was one comic that featured art from J.H. Williams III, Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet, Rafa Guerres, Fiona Staples, Phil Winslade, Eduardo Risso, Phil Noto, and Giuseppe Camuncoli? Doesn’t that sound like something worth reading? That’s a murderer’s row of artists, and Jonah Hex has had all of them.
If you look at the artists who have blessed Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Jonah Hex, the first thought that runs through your mind will probably be, “What’s up with all the great artists who’ve worked on Jonah Hex?” It’s weird, isn’t it? For one thing, Jonah Hex isn’t even remotely a mainstream DC comic. It’s not where you go to get a hundred thousand eyes on your work. There are no capes, people die by the dozens, multi-part arcs are rare, the crises are more ongoing but not all that Infinite, and Hex isn’t even really a hero, to be honest.
On top of that, it’s a Western. When’s the last time those were popular? You would think that a book like Justice League of America or Batman would get the caliber of artists that have served on Jonah Hex, right?
There’s a lot to like about Jonah Hex, and I can think of several reasons why artists would take a chance on illustrating the series. The series is composed almost entirely of done-in-ones, making it easy to hop on and hop off at will. Since each issue is different, it’s easy for an artist to get the kind of story they want to draw, and judging by interviews, Palmiotti and Grey are great at working with their artists.
On top of that, I imagine the editorial oversight on an issue of Jonah Hex comes down to “Make the violence a little less gory and please give that barmaid a shirt.” You don’t have an editor telling you to square up Superman’s chin, or change Batman’s bat-symbol, or turn Blue Beetle into Robin because Blue Beetle is dead this week. A little creative freedom goes a long way. Some artists have a lion inside them waiting to burst forth, and all it takes is an opportunity. Jonah Hex seems like an opportunity to me.
The proof is in the pudding, really. The ongoing artist of Jonah Hex is Jordi Bernet, a man who is a legendary comics artist. He’s in the same class as Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, and Moebius — the kind of artist who is practically flawless, able to render anything and everything he puts his pen to. Having him as an ongoing artist is a tremendous boon to the book, as the worst his art gets is “good.”
Bernet doesn’t miss, and he draws Jonah Hex because he likes working on it, according to interviews. His work isn’t super realistic, but his style lends itself equally well to gritty violence and slapstick comedy. His men are rugged, his women generally aren’t, and all of it looks just like a Western should.
Or how about JH Williams III, current superstar artist of Batwoman, and past artist of Promethea and Seven Soldiers. He dropped in for #35, an issue about a couple that was plotting to use Jonah Hex to… give them a baby, to be delicate about it. It wasn’t a landmark issue, or a special anniversary, or even a blow-out issue with extra pages and a six-page spread. It was just another issue, a tale of Jonah Hex encountering a twisted husband and wife.
But J.H. Williams III knocked it out of the park, bringing his trademark painterly style and incredible layouts to bear on this regular old story about the tale of Jonah Hex encountering a twisted husband and wife.
Darwyn Cooke has drawn a couple of issues, as well. Since The Spirit ended, Cooke has done very little interior art for DC Comics, or really for anything but Parker: The Hunter, his award-winning series of graphic novel adaptations of Richard Stark’s novels. Cooke’s latest issue of Jonah Hex, #50, is a fairly straightforward Western story that very quickly goes from funny to tragic, and then all the way to outright murderous. Cooke, ably assisted by Dave Stewart’s colors, handles the dark material well, and you feel every grimace and gunshot.
The artist for the upcoming issue #66 is Fiona Staples, who isn’t as well known as JH WIlliams III or Darwyn Cooke, but she absolutely deserves to be. She’s only done a few books for DC so far, and the most notable of them is North 40, a Wildstorm series written by Aaron Williams. North 40 shows exactly what happens when the supernatural hits a small town like an out of control train filled with nuclear bombs and dynamite.
Staples’s art was expressive and grotesque when it needed to be, and brings to mind Phil Noto, who has also provided interior art for several issues of Jonah Hex. I expect Staples to use her turn at bat to her benefit. Judging by her first cover, below, she’s already off to a roaring start
Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have managed to build the kind of comic we need more of: a book where an artist can come in, show off, and move on to the next project. It’s an art showcase, like Wednesday Comics or Solo, but wrapped in a Western’s clothes. Over the past five and a half year’s worth of issues, Palmiotti and Gray have provided a stage for artists of all types of styles to perform on, and in doing so, created the kind of comic book that’s consistently entertaining and easy to drop in on. Jonah Hex is a rare beast, but I’m glad it exists.