Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. Over the course of their travels through comicdom, they have encountered numerous stories via the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Once a month, Nick and Greg will review one of those collections in The Longbook Hunters.
Nick: Don’t doubt your eyes, loyal readers, because the Hard-Traveling Fanboys are back again this week and for an unprecedented second time in a month, we’re digging into our long boxes to review a little something here for all of you. This time out, we’re jumping into one of Greg’s favorite GENRES — the Western.
All-Star Western, in fact. We’ll be looking at the first volume of DC’s New 52 All-Star Western book, “Guns and Gotham,” by writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Moritat.
Greg: There’s no doubt that if you’re looking for a fan of the gritty, violent morality plays taking place in the Wild West, I’m your huckleberry. I grew up watching all of my dad’s favorite Westerns, finding myself particularly drawn to the works of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood — films like the Man With No Name Trilogy, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Unforgiven.”
Yet I’ve sadly never been exposed to much of the genre in comic book form. Probably the closest thing to a comic book Western I’d read before All-Star Western was Preacher, which was more of a modern day Western than a traditional one. Despite that, I’ve grown fond of the Jonah Hex character through the years, always enjoying when he’d pop up on one of the animated series or in the occasional flashback comic (the “Blackest Night” tie-in edition of All-Star Western was particularly great). Unfortunately, I’ve never read the more than half-decade run on Jonah Hex’s solo title by writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, but the launch of the New 52 allowed me a chance to jump on board their revamped All-Star Western book to catch Jonah’s adventures from the ground up.
Nick, did you have any experience with Jonah or the Western genre in general before reading this?
Nick: Unlike you, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Western films, so the thought of reading Western comics had never really entered my mind.
However, like you, I enjoyed Jonah Hex in his animated series appearances and was curious enough to check out his feature film debut, which was regrettable to say the least.
But when you picked up ASW after the start of the New 52 and gave it such lavish praise, I figured it would be at least worth a shot.
As you said, the book features Jonah Hex, albeit with a slight twist: Hex has come to 19th century Gotham City and is tasked with tracking down a serial killer. Along the way, he is joined by Amadeus Arkham, the man who will eventually found Arkham Asylum. So, you’ve got some neat nods to the Batman mythos along the way. But, the real draw of the book is the interactions between Hex and Arkham. One is a man of science and intellect, while the other is, well, Jonah Hex.
Greg: That relationship illustrates one of the primary themes in “Guns and Gotham”: contrast. In this book, we see the rugged loner Jonah Hex, a hard man from a hard region who has suffered through one of the hardest lives imaginable, making his way from the every-man-for-himself West to the more refined urban sprawl of Gotham, personified by the eloquent Dr. Arkham. Where Hex is used to solving problems with fists and gun barrels, Arkham is the type that would rather pen a strongly worded letter.
And yet, there is also the contrast of the overtly cruel American West, where people at least know where they stand in life, and the more subtly cruel big city, where people make a habit of lying to each other’s faces to preserve their social standing.
And underneath those relationships sits a murder mystery as vile as anything Hex has encountered in his war-ravaged years.
Nick: Indeed. Hex and Arkham are on the trail of the Gotham Butcher, and the hunt intensifies when the Butcher murders one of Hex’s friends, a local, ahem, woman of ill repute.
Greg: Hex tends to surround himself with people whose morals are, like his own, not necessarily fit for high society. Yet they share a bond of loyalty and their own code of honor, in many ways. And with that murder, the book turns into a sort of Western-horror-buddy cop mashup, with Arkham annoying Hex and Hex mortifying Arkham with great frequency.
If there was a surprise about the Gotham Butcher story, it was just how funny the Arkham-Hex relationship was. We view much of the story through Arkham’s journals, which reflect his often-pretentious view of the world around him. It’s the source of much of the humor, as Arkham’s descriptions often work in tandem with Hex’s much simpler, harsher way of describing situations. Gray and Palmiotti deliver some fantastic dialogue throughout the book, and the tone — darkly humorous but packed with high stakes — is established early on.
What did you think of the rapport between Hex and Arkham?
Nick: It was a bit grating at first, but over time it really grew on me. While I loved Hex and his simplistic, understated reactions to events from the get-go, Arkham’s shock and horror became increasingly entertaining to me as the book went on. As the mystery deepens and begins to spiral into the realm of conspiracy, the banter intensifies, with Hex getting the better of nearly every exchange — often in hilarious form.
Greg: Yeah, Arkham is a good guy who tries to do the right thing, but he’s also a coward of hilarious proportions who has about as good a chance at winning a fistfight as the Dolphins and Falcons have of meeting in the Super Bowl this year.
The overarching murder mystery is not as simple as it seems. Like you mentioned, we see a conspiracy begin to form in this volume, one that ties into the pre-New 52 concept of the Crime Bible. Introduced by writers Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid in the pages of the limited series “52,” the Crime Bible is the…well, Bible of a cult known as the Religion of Crime. I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s a pretty cool concept that involves the worship of Cain and has ties to a certain Apokoliptian overlord.
Anyway, the Religion of Crime is just one of the ways ASW references the DC Universe as a whole, tying in concepts familiar to us in the “present day” timeline while showing us how they impacted the lives of our modern-day heroes’ ancestors. What did you think of the villains, particularly the Crime Bible worshippers?
Nick: I liked them well enough. As someone who wasn’t familiar with the concept of the Crime Bible coming in, I feel like I needed to know more about their religion and how it came to infect Gotham so deeply. But they were certainly sinister and intimidating. And even though Hex bested them, it wasn’t without a pretty creepy bit of prophecy or scripture or what have you that teases bigger and better threats coming down the road for Hex and Arkham. But, the crime worshippers weren’t the only villains in volume 1, as the next storyline featured Hex and Arkham tracking down missing children who it turned out had been captured by an evil overseer seeking to force them to work on a secret underground mine. It wasn’t unlike that early episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “The Underdwellers.” Well, except that in ASW, it wasn’t even kind of lame like it was in the rare BTAS misfire.
Greg: Ha! Now there’s a reference, and it’s exactly what I thought of while reading this plot. While that episode failed in many respects, this story delivered in spades. While the serial killer plot felt like a Western-tinged Sherlock Holmes mystery, this felt like it was ripped from the stark reality of the time period — children being exploited by wealthy bullies who fail to see any moral error in their ways.
This adventure is rife with horror elements as well, including giant bat creatures (careful, that’s how urban legends get started) and even a secret race of people living beneath the city. It also features Jonah getting bloody, violent revenge on several of the perpetrators. One thing that stood out to me on my readings of this volume was how adept Gray and Palmiotti are at putting Hex and Arkham in genuine peril. It’s hard to get me too concerned about characters’ fates in ongoing mainstream comics, but the writers put Hex in some situations throughout “Guns and Gotham” that truly felt inescapable. In some ways, it reminded me of being a kid and wondering how Batman would escape the traps on syndicated episodes of the old ’60s show. Except, of course, with a lot more blood and guts involved.
Nick: Yeah, and it wound up giving Hex an almost superhuman feel to him. There’s only so many times you can see a man hold off dozens of armed men singlehandedly, take out an entire village of underground savages and kill a giant bat creature with his bare hands before you stop believing that he’s just another Civil War soldier.
But, the slip into superheroics didn’t bother me at all, mainly because watching Hex maim and kill was so much fun.
Greg: In many ways, Hex serves as sort of the Batman of the 1800s — a man who seems to have supernatural aura around him. Actually, Batman is kind of an amalgamation of the best qualities of Hex and Arkham rolled together.
There are a few subplots going on as well during these crazy adventures. One of the most intriguing, at least to me, was Arkham’s rather odd relationship with his mother, who appears to be locked away in her room most of the time.
I got the feeling throughout that there’s more going on than meets the eye, especially given what we know about Arkham’s future.
Nick: Yeah, I’m thinking there’s a Norman Bates-style twist coming there, even if that would be a tad obvious. But, that’s a topic for later volumes, which leads us to the next question. I know you have since read later issues, but was that due to the quality of this volume or just because you wanted to give it a chance to fully win you over? Me, I enjoyed it pretty well and would be willing to give another volume a look.
Greg: It was definitely because of how much I enjoyed it. I picked up this first volume based on strong word of mouth, but I really didn’t know what to expect. What I got was a book I’d put near the top of the list of New 52 titles. “Guns and Gotham” provided thrills, chills and laughs throughout and got me addicted to these characters and their interactions.
One thing we haven’t yet discussed is the art by Moritat. I’d only seen Moritat’s work a few times before, but it lent a consistent mood to the books that felt like something out of a Jack the Ripper film.
Nick: Certainly, The art had a gothic, yet realistic feel that lent itself perfectly to the tone of the book. His depiction of Hex, in particular, was fantastic. I’ve seen some renditions of Hex that go too far with the trademark gruesome facial scars. Those versions of Hex draw your eye to his face even when it isn’t the focus of the scene, while Moritat gives Hex’s grisly appearance just the right amount of detail. It’s off-putting at first, but becomes endearing and never distracting.
As you said, Moritat’s art was so consistent that when the it came time for backup features starring El Diablo and the Barbary Ghost, the change in artists took me completely out of those stories, and had a hard time pulling me back in. In the case of the Barbary Ghost, it never really did.
Greg: As a big fan of the Batman mythos, what did you think of Moritat’s vision of Gotham’s early days?
Nick: That’s a great aspect of it. Moritat packed the city with gothic architecture and a cramped feeling that seems era-appropriate for the Western genre, while at the same time laying the groundwork for the decaying, outdating sections of Gotham that Batman frequents. Some of his building designs wouldn’t feel out of place in the main Batman book, so long as they were covered in a layer of grit, grime and a few missing shingles.
Greg: Interestingly, I think we had opposite reactions to the backup tales. I found El Diablo’s tale to be somewhat forgettable, whereas the Barbary Ghost story drew me to the character and left me wanting more. Neither story had the advantage of Hex’s charisma, though.
Nick: Absolutely. In the case of El Diablo, its length felt appropriate for a backup, whereas I thought the Barbary Ghost, with her tragic past, tried to fit in way too much backstory for just 16 pages. The titular Ghost is rarely seen, making it difficult to get a sense of what the character is all about.
In any event, neither can hold a candle to everyone’s favorite Confederate.
Greg: I’d definitely recommend anyone interested in action-packed comics, buddy cop stories or murder mysteries to give this book a look. What would you say to our readers about ASW Vol. 1?
Nick: I’d also give it a recommendation, especially for those who love a good, bloody romp. The murder mystery is fun and all, but it’s Hex and his brutal dispatching of villains that bring the real value.
Greg: And with that, we bring another Longbook Hunt to a close. We hope you enjoyed our discussion of this gritty Western romp, because we’re flipping the script next month as we discuss Norse gods and time-hopping mass murderers in Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic’s Thor: God of Thunder story “Godbomb.”