DC New 52: I read All Star Western #1

29 Sep

by Mike Hansen

Wow, I’m actually writing about a comic the week it came out. I’m so relevant now…

First, some mood music…

I had mixed feelings about whether to pick up All Star Western #1. On the one hand, it’s a continuation of the solid Jonah Hexseries by writers Justin Gray and  Jimmy Palmiotti, and the handful of issues I’ve read have all been very good. On the other hand, it’s now $3.99 an issue: granted, there are now 28 story pages, but considering that I can often get used graphic novels for $4-5 with 80-200 pages of story content, it’s hard for me to justify the price. But I figured, what the hell; it’s the first issue, and it’s a new story direction, so I gave it a shot.

All Star Western #1 cover

"DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO - never mind."

Bottom line? Overall, I liked it. In fact, it’s the best of the New 52 titles I’ve read start-to-finish so far (not that that’s necessarily saying much, given how terrible a few of them have been)…

Like Men of War #1, I really dig the cover to All Star Western #1. Artist Moritat does a great job conveying a lot of information with a minimum amount of linework and color – it’s very Matt Wagner-esque, in fact. The “Welcome to GOTHAM” sign stands out thanks to the sharper linework and white lettering, which ought to sell the fact that this ties in more closely to DC “continuity” (for what that’s worth) and hopefully sell copies to Batman fans. This element is a bit overdone for the cover as a work of art, but as a sales tactic it pretty much nails it. The contrast between main character Jonah Hex and the grimey, almost hellish Gotham landscape suggests that this will be a badass story: a man of the West moving to a civilization that he may not be prepared for – and that may not be prepared for him: a very “Wolverine”-type scenario. It’s a nice touch to see Hex light up a cigarette, the light revealing the menace in his disfigured face: something we don’t see from supposed top badass corporate superhero Wolverine, thanks to Marvel CCO Joe Quesada’s no-smoking-in-Marvel Comics policy…

Comics has had a number of great series featuring wandering adventurers. In the original Wolverine miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, the main character is transformed from a psychotic killer to an honorable warrior. In Usagi Yojimbo, the titular wandering samurai keeps his good nature and strong character as he encounters both danger and humor. Groo the Wanderer features the brainless travels of a happy-go-lucky fighter (and his dog), with tales both poetic and witty (despite the moronic main character). But All Star Western‘s Jonah Hex is a stone-cold badass, the closest that American comics has to the darkest of Clint Eastwood westerns.

Moritat’s work on the interior story pages is pure linework, in a bit more cartoonish style, but it fits the tone of the story well. Gray and Palmiotti have crafted the beginnings of a murder mystery, with bounty-hunter Hex being called to 19th-century Gotham City to investigate a series of murders. The victims are all prostitutes, with pretty strong nods to the Jack the Ripper murders and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s masterwork From Hell. The first few pages set up the story in quick but effective fashion, with Doctor Amadeus Arkham (who it’s safe to assume founded Gotham’s notorious Arkham Asylum) narrating what it must be like for a wilderness man like Hex to be in an industrial city: the style is very Sherlock Holmes, if Dr. Watson was a pioneering psychologist and Holmes was a vicious killer for hire.

Unlike other New 52 #1s, many of which spend their entire story space with boring setups and expository character introductions, All Star Western gives us characters who are defined by their personalities and actions. Lesser writers would have written the first issue with Hex in some pointless gunfight to show off how tough he is, then receiving a telegram asking him to come to Gotham, then him thinking to himself what a hellhole Gotham is while he drinks in a bar, then getting on a horse and going to Gotham, then arriving and fighting the alleyway muggers he encounters on pages 2-3 of the actual comic. And, if we were lucky, he would show up to find out about the murders.

Instead, all of the setup is taken care of in less than 9 pages, giving the writers plenty of room to explore the drama and let the readers get to know the characters as they go about their business. THIS is how it should be done in the other #1s. The story has terrific pacing, with some pages having only 1-3 panels balanced by plenty of 4-6 panel pages – plus a final page with 20 (!) panels (as opposed to most New 52 #1s that end with cheesy, wasteful splash pages).

I should also note that the limited palette used by colorist Gabriel Bautista is very effective, with most scenes defined by just one or two major colors. It fits the tension and tone of the story very well – even the “mysterious hooded woman” popping up everywhere in every New 52 #1 like the pre-Crisis Monitor on crack is colored as part of the background, instead of being the unnecessary fan-service distraction seen in many other titles. (Like I really care if this story “counts” as part of an overall continuity, when all of the best stories that DC has published were all well outside of its continuity…)

Jonah Hex (film)

Move on, nothing to see here... (Image via Wikipedia)

My other favorite element of this story is the use of the “unreliable narrator.” The story is narrated by a physician obsessed with psychology, a then-new field of scientific study, and has his own way of looking at the world. His point of view is a near opposite of Jonah Hex’s, and it makes the story far more interesting than just a series of talking heads (a weakness that even the great-looking Justice League #1 had). Dr. Arkham’s interest in the murders seems less to do with seeking justice than a fascination with the murderer himself (or herself), which could explain why Arkham Asylum is founded on such a now-antiquated concept of mental-health care. I’m curious if Arkham’s way of looking at everyone as case studies will lead to his tragic downfall, or if his encounters with Hex will have a dramatic impact on his later goals and accomplishments.

It takes a lot of creative talent to make me care about a corporate-owned comics character, but the All Star Western team pulled it off. I’m thankful that DC recognized and appreciated their previous work enough to allow them to continue, and this new direction gives the series an energy and momentum that will hopefully carry it far. The $3.99 price tag is steep, especially from a Big Four publisher, but I’d buy this over most current titles with that price.

(On a completely unrelated note, I’m annoyed that the title, recycled though it is, reminds me of DC’s near-dead All Star line of books, all of which were far more interesting than DC’s regular superhero-universe line. I cannot fathom why, in the face of stellar sales and critical acclaim, DC would not do everything in its power to hold onto top talents. With the loss of Bob Schreck, one of the best comics editors in my lifetime, DC has done nothing to continue attracting top creators to its top properties. Jim Lee is busy with Justice League, so who knows if we’ll ever see the rest of his wonderfully ridiculous Batman story with Frank Miller. All Star Superman is over and done – though wouldn’t it have been cool to see more, either from the same or other top creators? All Star Wonder Woman by Adam Hughes might never come out, given Hughes’ speed as a story artist and the fact that he makes much more doing covers than interior work. Matt Wagner is working with Legendary and Dynamite, so who knows if we’ll ever see more Batman work from him – which might as well have been under the All Star banner, as his two recent miniseries were far superior to the ongoing Batman titles. I guess getting less special talent to do more “DC Universe” titles is more important to DC than producing the next Watchmen, The Authority (the real one by Ellis/Millar), Long Halloween, or whatever…)

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6 Responses to “DC New 52: I read All Star Western #1”

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