Thursday, October 31, 2013

Weird Western Tales and Jonah Hex

Comic Book Artist: With the Code changes, you could use the word "Weird," and boy, you used it everywhere!
Joe: I started using the word and Carmine decided that "Weird" sold anything. Weird War, Weird Western, Weird Worlds, Weird Mystery. We were pals and would share ideas.

 Joe Orlando interview with Jon Cooke, Comic Book Artist # 1



Since Weird War Tales was the first "Weird" title, edited by Joe Kubert, Orlando may have incorrectly stated that he used the word first. It may have originated with Joe Kubert, original editor of Weird War, or publisher Carmine Infantino. However it began, "Weird" had an effect on sales, and DC followed up with Weird Western Tales. All Star Western was an ongoing title that tried out a variety of new characters in an attempt to find one that connected with an audience. Early issues cover featured  Outlaw and Billy the Kid, with an occasional appearance by El Diablo. Reprints included Pow-Wow Smith, Buffalo Bill, Bat Lash and the Trigger Twins. Aside from some interest in Bob Kanigher's El Diablo, which featured art by Gray Morrow and Alan Weiss, nothing clicked. In issue # 7 the letter column explained that the title had reached the end of the trail, but it was given a last minute reprieve. Three issues later a new character was introduced that would become a success.  



Although All-Star Western featured some beautiful covers by the likes of Neal Adams, Gray Morrow and Tony DeZuniga, sales remained weak. All-Star Western # 7, Sept 1971. Tony DeZuniga cover. 


 All-Star Western # 10, introducing a new character: Jonah Hex. When  asked about the creation of Hex, editor Joe Orlando responded to the question of who created Jonah Hex in the letters page of Weird Western Tales # 26:

 "Jonah Hex was  created by John Albano and myself, and the artistic creation of the character was a combination of our talents and Tony DeZuniga's." 

In Comic Book Artist # 1, he noted :

"That was John Albano's concept. He came in with the story and I contributed to the character as it went on." 

While earlier western characters at DC were clean-cut or satirical (such as Bat Lash), Hex was a grittier type. With the relaxation of the Comics Code a cowboy no longer had to shoot guns out of criminals hands (even Marvel's Rawhide Kid was allowed to finish off an owlhoot or two). Like Conan the Barbarian, Hex was a violent character who killed his enemies at the drop of a hat. Neither attractive nor lovable, Hex was patterned after contemporary western movies, which grew more explicit in the 1960's. Films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969) were awash with bloodshed and violent images, and although comics could not duplicate those situations, they did move past their earlier restrictions.  


DC initially thought El Diablo might take off as a lead feature, as evidenced by his appearance on the cover of the re-titled Weird Western Tales, but despite his supernatural trappings he was soon returned to back-up status. Excellent cover art by Joe Kubert, Weird Western Tales # 12, July 1972. Image from the GCD.

           
El Diablo makes a second cover appearance in an attractively composed and subtly colored cover by Neal Adams (Adams may have colored the cover; he stated in an interview once that he penciled, inked and colored his covers at DC, although I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule). Weird Western Tales # 15, January 1973. WWT # 16 would be El Diablo's final attempt as a headliner; sales picked up when Jonah Hex was introduced and starred, as noted in the letters page of issue #15. The writing was on the wall, and starting in issue # 17, Jonah Hex became the lead (and cover) feature .


Weird Western # 15 also included two short non-feature stories. Westerns was one of Gil Kane's favorite genres to draw, and while he produced tons of excellent covers for Marvel's westerns, at DC he worked on  a few interior stories such as "Hang Him High". Jack Oleck script, John Costanza letters, unknown inks. 




An example of editor Joe Orlando's letter column, Trail Talk. Thoughtful letters and insightful answers made the letter page worthwhile. Orlando states: "It would have been much easier to put out "half a dozen "kid" titled western heroes - all fighting in improbable situations - and all exactly alike" 

Orlando was clearly pointing to Marvel's line of mainly reprint western comics, and, much as I like them, he did have a point. DC invested more effort into their non-superhero material, producing a high level of quality stories and artwork.


Tony DeZuniga brought a gritty feel to his western stories. His images in Jonah Hex evoke a stark and dusty landscape, and  it became the template for others to follow. "The Hangin' Woman", John Albano script, Weird Western Tales # 17, May 1973.    



El Diablo was the back-up to Jonah in this issue, but would make only two more appearances (WWT #'s 19 and 32). With the exception of a few fillers, Hex would star in full-length stories. Neal Adams, Alan Weiss and Gray Morrow drew earlier Diablo stories, but the versatile Alfredo Alcala drew this and two later episodes. "The Demon of Bad Rock Mountain", Cary Bates story, Alcala letters.     


By issue # 18 there was no doubt that Jonah Hex was the star. While his scarred face and huge eyeball could stop a clock, it sold comic books. Jonah's name was added to the masthead and the original logo was minimized. The wordless cover to Weird Western Tales # 20, December 1973, is an example of the picture effortlessly telling the story. Luis Dominguez was a prolific cover artist for DC in the 1970's, specializing in mystery, war and westerns.  


Another example of DeZuniga's effective art, in particular panel two, with his use of lighting and lines around Hex. "Blood Brothers", Arnold Drake script, Ben Oda letters, Weird Western Tales # 20  

        
An abundance of movement and dramatic camera angles highlight this Gil Kane penciled and inked page from issue # 20, the last non-character genre back-up to appear.  "Turnabout!", Sergio Aragones plot, E. Nelson Bridwell script, Ben Oda letters.


Doug Wildey was no stranger to western comics, having drawn the Outlaw Kid at Atlas for many years. Here Wildey uses rain and zip-a-tone effects to create a distinct mood. "Face-Off with the Galagher Boys", Michael Fleisher script; Russell Carley, script continuity, Doug Wildey, letters? Weird Western Tales # 26, February 1975. 

Michael Fleisher took over the writing of Jonah Hex beginning with issue # 22, and continued uninterrupted until the demise of Hex's own comic in 1985. Fleisher took to the character and produced a run of consistently worthwhile stories, aided by artists such as Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Vincente Alcazar, E.R. Cruz, Russ Heath, and a long run by Dick Ayers (teamed in many issues with Tony DeZuniga). For a detailed examination of Jonah Hex, including summaries of every issue and examples of the artists I mentioned, check out this exceptional site:

In an interview on the hex blogspot, Fleisher had this to say about his efforts on Jonah Hex:

"my work on Jonah Hex was indisputably my best work, and "The Last Bounty Hunter" was probably my most path-breaking story. For me, the experience of writing Jonah Hex was always close to magical."

Jonah Hex remained the star of Weird Western until issue # 38, when he graduated to his own comic. He was replaced by Scalphunter, a series starring a Native American, created and initially written by Michael Fleisher, with art by Dick Ayers and George Evans. the character lacked the uniqueness and dramatic punch as Hex, but held up for thirty-one issues. Weird Western Tales was cancelled with # 70 (August 1980), although the title has been revived from time to time. Jonah Hex was brought into the future after his first cancellation, of which the less said the better. In recent years he returned to his western roots, was given a new series, became the subject of a largely unheralded movie in 2010, and currently resides in an anthology title with a familiar name - All Star Western. Unfortunately Hex was again brought to the future - present-day DC - with its continuity and fantastic characters. Jonah Hex works best alone, on the fringes of society, not in the gaudy world of superheroes. 

The original run of Weird Western Tales is worth noting for its diversity in story and art, as well as being home to the early years of Jonah Hex. From a historical standpoint, Weird Western (and its earlier incarnation, All-Star Western) attempted to make the leap from the colorfully garbed cowboys that permeated the comics landscape to more realistic fare. At the least, it was a showcase for artists and writers who were uncomfortable with superheroes, and sought to create a world populated by ordinary people and settings. As mainstream comics became more fan oriented (and run by fans), there was little interest in creating quality genre material. Editors like Joe Orlando, Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert and Murray Boltinoff  excelled in producing such fare. Interest in superheroes became predominant (and one could argue myopic) limiting the playing field. The standalone comic and hero is a thing of the past; the identity and individuality it focused on is lost in endless cross-overs and universe spanning theatrics. The smaller story featuring a lone hero  is still an effective storytelling device in my estimation. Is THAT weird??



      

10 comments:

Rockett Davey said...

This is One Good Blog
You made me Interested in WEIRD WESTERN TALES
-Sam

Steven Thompson said...

Double check me on this but I don't believe "Weird" was one of the words specifically forbidden by the original text of the Code.

Nick Caputo said...

Sam,

Thanks for the kind words.

Steven,

I'm not certain if weird was specifically forbidden by the code, but I suspect it was avoided as a cover title to avoid any Code issues, especially since many of their rules were arbitrary.

Kid said...

You've got me interested in them now as well, Nick. Great covers. To think of all the comics I didn't buy when I could afford them, which would probably cost me a fortune to acquire now.

Nick Caputo said...

Kid,

There are still so many comics I'd love to see and read. I don't purchase as many old comics as I used to, but find so many genre comics fascinating.

And even if I had access to them all, where would I have the time to read them? As Burgess Meredith in the role of Henry Bemis said in "Time Enough at Last":

"It's not fair..It's just not fair.."

Professor Fester said...

pertaining to the use of the word "weird" in the title:

comics code General Standards Part B, Section 1 states:
"No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in the it's title.These words may be used judiciously in the body of the magazine"

There is no mention of the word "weird", however, I am using the code as printed in Charlton's "The Comic Book Guide For The Artist-Writer-Letterer" as reference, which was published in 1973, and it's entirely possible this was after the revisions had taken effect.

Michael Payton said...

I've been pretty happy with the modern Hex books. Even the Gotham and modern era settings still works as long as Jonah remains Jonah. As long as he remains teue to who he is, he could probably work in a sitcom. Besides, the image of him on a motorcycle really does kinda work. Gives him a chance to meet John Constantine as well. See who is comic's biggest bast**d. :-)

I don't think it will last too long. Jimmy and Justin's 100th Hex story will be with All-Star #29 next spring. There's a lot of changes coning to DC that month. Wouldn't be shocked if this story ended then.

It has inspired me to read the older issues. I found a complete run of All-Star/Weird recently. It's funny how little Jonah Hex has changed.

Really looking forward to more classic Hex next spring ng with the second Showcase volume. Gonna be a lot cheaper than finding those single issues.



Nick Caputo said...

Michael,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I've enjoyed many of the Hex stories in the past few years, but feel he works best in his own setting.

It's been a while since I've re-read many of the old Hex comics. I only have a few of the originals. My brother had them in his collection but sold them years ago, so it might be worthwhile for me to pick up the Showcase issues.

Kid said...

Nick, what did you think of the Hex movie (if you saw it)? I didn't, but it got some pretty poor reviews.

Nick Caputo said...

Didn't see the Hex movie, but I don't think it was very good from what I've heard. I might check it out sometime, though.