REVIEW: All Star Western #1

Over the past three weeks, amongst making my planned DC New 52 pickups, I’ve also, on a whim, grabbed another last-minute addition that I’d had no intention of buying up until the 11th hour.  These were, respectively, Detective Comics, Red Lanterns and Nightwing.  In each case, I didn’t really feel vindicated for my spontaneity, as in each case my wild card selection was the weakest offering of the week, with me unlikely to come back for issue #2 of any of them.  So, when I was in the store this week, and – with no prior planning – grabbed All Star Western #1 off the shelf and added it to my buy pile, in the back of my mind I had a worry that I would be going 0 for 4 on such decisions.  Thankly, in the case of All Star Western #1, this concern was unfounded.

For a long time, I bought DC’s  Jonah Hex series – also by co-writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti – faithfully each month.  Shoved in a box somewhere, I have the first 50-odd issues of that series in my overgrown and wild comic collection.  But when I was trying to curtail my buying habits and thin down my list of monthly purchases, arguably the biggest strength of Jonah Hex – the largely one-and-done structure of standalone tales each month – became one of the things that made it an easy choice to cut.  And though I came back for the final two issues of that series, that to me felt like my goodbye to the character.  I had no inclination to return to that world with All Star Western in the relaunch.

But reading All Star Western #1, it’s clear that with a new title comes a different approach to storytelling.  The simple, standalone tales have given way to what seems to be a dense, intricate murder mystery, the first chapter in a multi-part saga that very quickly drew me in.  While I still think that Hex is a character best suited to those one-and-done fables, I can’t deny that Gray and Palmiotti make a skillful transition to a longer-form narrative for the scarred bounty hunter.  Aiding in that transition is the shift in locales from the wilderness of the Old West to the burgeoning city of Gotham, where Jonah Hex partners with Amadeus Arkham to discover who has been killing and mutilating prostitutes in a case that bears parallels to Jack the Ripper.  This change of scenery has a twofold effect.  First, it alters the dynamics of the story, so in spite of the title this feels less like a classic Western than it does like a Victorian murder mystery.  Second, it gives us a Jonah Hex story that feels more connected to the current DCU rather than existing in its own distinct historical corner: we even get some references to the ideas and even the characters Scott Snyder has been playing with in his Gotham-based writing.

In terms of characterisation, by this stage Gray and Palmiotti could write a compelling Jonah Hex in their sleep.  But, in introducing Hex to a potential new wave of readers here, they take an interesting angle of presenting him from the clinical perspective of an outside observer: in this case, Dr. Arkham.  His evolving insights into Hex’s personality and motivations help to show new readers that there is more to this apparently amoral bounty hunter than meets the eye, while those more familiar with the character will get a kick of seeing how certain comments by Arkham accurately (or inaccurately) allude to Hex’s storied history.

Over the course of their Jonah Hex run, Gray and Palmiotti were fortunate enough to work with a wide range of talented artistic collaborators, and Moritat carries on that fine tradition.  Aided by the muted color palette of Gabriel Bautista, Moritat evocativelly brings 19th Century Gotham to life, right from a breathtaking opening splash page of Gotham train station and the emerging city behind it.  He also provides us with a fine rendition of Jonah Hex, capturing the fine balance between ugly and heroic.  If I had any small complaint to make about Moritat’s work, it would perhaps be that his ink lines are a bit too thick and heavy at points, to the point where it can get distracting.

Another thing worth mentioning is the length of this comic.  This has a bumped-up price tag compared to other DC comics, and my understanding was that this would allow a regular-length main feature, plus a shorter backup.  There is no backup feature here, just the main Jonah Hex/Amadeus Arkham story.  This means we get a whole 28 pages devoted to this opening chapter, letting the creative team go more in-depth with establishing this world and its characters than a lot of comics got the chance to do in their debuts.  You really feel like you’ve got your money’s worth after reading All Star Western #1, a full, dense chapter of storytelling.

So, when it comes to my wild-card selections from DC’s relaunch lineup this month, it seems I’m now 1-3.  I don’t yet know if I’m ready to make another long-term commitment to DC’s weird western world, but for the duration of this storyline at least, ALl Star Western has grabbed my interest, and reminded me why I had such fondness for Jonah Hex in the first place.

 

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