Ask Chris #309: The Nuclear Ravaged World Needed A Hero, But What It Got Was ‘Hex’ [Sci-Fi Week]
A: Hex is legitimately one of the most interesting comics of all time, largely because it's one of the greatest examples of how weird comics can get when they're built on the laws of the superhero genre. It shows you what can happen in a medium that was built on the idea of stories that are meant to exist in perpetuity, where old concepts and ideas are never really fully discarded, just rebooted and repurposed to suit the needs of the time, and how those ideas can double back on themselves and become more than what they were.
And more than that --- maybe more than anything else --- it's the prime example of how superhero comics are built on the idea that there's no idea that's so weird that we can't at least give it a shot for eighteen issues.
So yeah, Hex is absolutely fascinating. It's just not very good.
One of the things that makes Hex so interesting --- and there's a whole lot of weirdness in that book that I find endlessly compelling --- is that it's the kind of book that could've only really happened the way that it did, when it did. It's the product of a very specific time, not just for pop culture as a whole, but for DC Comics in particular.
And that makes sense, considering that the same thing could be said of Jonah Hex himself as a character.
See, even though they'd soldier on for the next few years in some form or another, Jonah Hex was really the last gasp of the Western genre in comics. It's something that I've written about before, way back when there was a Jonah Hex movie in theaters --- remember that? Don't worry, nobody else does, either --- but the quick version is that Jonah's creation in 1972 was rooted in bringing the aesthetic and thematic changes that had happened to the Western genre in films into comics.
There's no way to look at Hex without seeing him as comics' answer to the morally gray characters in movies like A Fistful of Dollars and The Wild Bunch in the previous decade. The genre had been defined, like most everything else in mainstream comics, along pretty strict good-guy/bad guy lines, where the closest we got to morally complicated was a masked outlaw that was secretly a good guy. With Hex, though, we had a character who was a full-on antihero, an ex-Confederate soldier who still wore his grey uniform, had a face like Harvey Dent, and acted with all the brutal self-interest that the newly-cracked Comics Code could allow.
The only problem was that Westerns were on the way out. Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah may have given them a decade or two of new life in movies before they truly fell into being a niche genre, but comics were going all out on consolidating around the superhero genre. It's something that had been happening for years, but by the mid '80s, westerns, war comics, romance, and horror were getting pretty scarce. Even tried-and-true subgenres of adventure strips, like the swords-and-sandals fantasy of Conan and sci-fi, were being shuffled to the side.
It wasn't just in comics, either. In film, the public had also lost the taste for westerns, and by the early '80s, it's pretty easy to argue that the tropes that made a western a Western --- a stranger coming to town, the amorality of Leone and Peckinpah, a fighter hanging up his guns and having to take 'em back up to stand against something worse --- were being seen most prominently in other genres.
Remember that. It's going to be important later.
With comics, though --- particularly DC comics --- there was something else going on that laid the foundation for a book like Hex, and to see it, you only have to look at those blurbs on the covers. Hex came out between 1985 and 1987, and as you probably already know, that was an era that was marked by experimentation and innovation. This was the time of Watchmen, of The Dark Knight Returns, and most importantly, of Crisis On Infinite Earths, which --- for all its problems --- really was the biggest shakeup in comics history.
Everything was up in the air. If the Flash wasn't the Flash anymore, if Superman could be restarted with new takes on Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and the whole planet Krypton, if the Justice League --- the Justice League! --- could be a sitcom full of third-stringers, then why couldn't Jonah Hex jump into that new kind of western that everyone was so excited about? Why couldn't Jonah Hex, a character who had become more interesting than his genre, just become Mad Max?
Make no mistake, it's just like you said in the question: Hex was absolutely DC's Mad Max, to the point where he even swapped his standard uniform for a set of Road Warrior-esque leathers at the end of the first issue. Dude even lost his hat to cut the proper profile. The only big difference is that --- in a move that feels retroactively ahead of its time from here in our post-Fury Road world --- Hex cast water as the scarce resource that the new wasteland economy was built around, rather than the guzzalayne that would power a fleet of murderous dune buggies.
And really, that's amazing --- and it's the kind of thing that can only happen in a genre that's built on the things that you see in superhero comics, reboots and continuity and characters who live in a universe defined by rules that demand that they just accept things like time travel as part of their day-to-day lives.
The problem is that the execution doesn't quite live up to its premise.
Before we go any further, I want to take a quick moment to talk about the creative team. Generally speaking, Michael Fleisher --- who wrote, edited, and came up for the concept of the book --- is great. I mean, in addition to writing some of the most enjoyably bizarre stories I've ever read, that dude literally wrote the book on Batman --- 1976's Encyclopedia Of Comic Book Heroes Volume One, in which he went through every Batman story published up to that point and annotated every character, every gadget, every piece of the Caped Crusader's history.
So yeah. He's something of a personal hero.
And on the art side, Hex was designed and, for the first 14 issues, drawn by Mark Texeira, before Keith Giffen took over to finish out the book's last four issues. That's a lot of talent, and considering that the writer was also the editor and that --- according to Fleisher --- executive editor Dick Giordano made the decision to put out the book without the Comics Code, one pretty much has to assume that for a year and a half, the people behind Hex got to do pretty much whatever they wanted.
And yet, something didn't click, even if it does have some of the best "Next Issue" blurbs ever.
Weirdly enough, it's not the time travel aspect of the book that created the problem. That's easy enough in the DC Universe, although the way they go about it creates a pretty weird issue in and of itself. Initially, Hex is brought from 1875 to the nuclear-ravaged world of the 21st century by a madman who's collecting great warriors from various time periods so that he can pit them against each other for entertainment. And, you know, that's all well and good, but it does kind of raise the question of why, if you have a time machine, you would choose to stay in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland.
Again, this is the DC Universe. We know for a fact that if you head in either direction, you can go back to the 20th Century and live a pretty comfortable life under the protection of friggin' Superman, or forward into the post-scarcity utopia of the Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion even makes a weird two-panel cameo just in case you forget. So why stay in the bombed-out ruins of Seattle in the Space Needle, which is buried under sand right to its very tip, for some reason?
It is, however, a question that gets its answer: Bornsten, the guy who built the time machine, has decided that ruling over the wasteland is easier than getting a real job, and so he's planning on pillaging the technology of the past in order to clean up the world's water and muscle out the crime syndicates that have a monopoly on water-purifying Soames tablets, the all-purpose currency and plot devices. So, you know, basically just the plot of Fallout 3.
But right from the start, it's a pretty shaky foundation, and Hex himself vacillates between a grudging acceptance of and incredible adaptability to his new circumstances and slack-jawed wonder at the sci-fi technology that's all around him. And again, that's a necessary evil --- you don't want your super-competent Western hero just getting run over because he doesn't understand the concept of a motorcycle or whatever, but Hex is also pretty quick on the uptake about stuff like water conducting electricity, or hand grenades, or how to make fuel lines explode.
Dude even drives a monorail at one point, but to be fair, it doesn't end well.
No, the larger problem comes from an inconsistency of the setting.
I don't mind presenting different views of what post-apocalyptic society looks like, but there's not much there to unify the world that Hex finds himself in, nor is there a whole lot to distinguish it from other pretty generic sci-fi settings. By his nature, the character really works best in the context of that desert wasteland of the early issues, but halfway through the run, he ends up going to New York, which is basically just in Blade Runner times.
That, incidentally, is where he meets Post-Apocalyptic Batman.
That has its own set of questions that go far beyond what we're given on the page, although that stuff's pretty interesting to. I mean, if you're going to do Post-Apocalyptic Batman, why not go all the way and set your story in Gotham City? Why New York? And if you're already taking your cues from Mad Max, why not look to another semi-apocalyptic "western," Escape From New York, to inform what you're doing so that it feels like there was actually an apocalypse?
Again, those two ideas, the lawless west and the dystopian megalopolis, can exist side-by-side. I mean, that's the entire trick of Judge Dredd and its Cursed Earth --- something that, since the original Cursed Earth Saga had been published in 1978, could've also been an influence on Hex. But here, it just feels like a set of mixed-up ideas that don't serve the setting or the character.
To be fair, the story moves at a pretty admirable clip --- I think the record will show that I love stories that move fast and cram in a lot of ideas --- but here, it never quite comes together. It buckles under the strain of having too much going on without any unifying focus, and Hex alternates between questing for a way to get back to his own time, and just accepting his new life in the future in a way that makes both the character and his story seem aimless.
It has some very solid moments, and the way that it ends, with Hex discovering his own stuffed, taxidermied body as part of a carnival side show as proof that he eventually makes it back to the Old West, is actually brilliant and fantastically dark...
... but overall, Hex itself never quite works.
But it did leave a lasting mark.
For a lot of characters, the weird, short-lived failed experiment where they were dropped into another genre would probably be glossed over --- nobody ever really talks about that time that Ray Palmer was a tiny little barbarian king, for instance, and Sword of the Atom is far more highly regarded than Hex was. But for Jonah Hex, this wild adventure into Mad Max times just somehow added to the weird mythology of a character that had been specifically created for, well, Weird Western Tales.
It came through in later depictions, and perhaps most prominently, on the Justice League cartoon, where a time travel story that sent the League back to the Old West found Jonah Hex easily identifying them as Time Travelers and then gruffly --- and briefly --- explaining himself with a terse "I've been around." It's a piece of his character that would follow him to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and then later to a live-action portrayal on Legends of Tomorrow.
Whether or not creators choose to acknowledge it in comics, it's in there, a piece of his character that makes Hex even better, and would put him in the position for virtually every story that would follow in one way or another.
Hex may not have landed as well as some of the other new takes and reinventions that DC was rolling out in the mid-to-late '80s, but that it happened at all is not just a snapshot of a time, and a textbook example of how superhero comics can work; it's one of the most fascinating pieces of comics history --- at least in terms of strange '80s back issues.