Author: Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray
Artist: Moritat (Vol. 1-5), Staz Johnson (Vol. 6)
Mood: If you’re always drawn to dirtbags and you’re craving excellent historical fiction about Gotham City in comic book form.
“He had no friends, this Jonah Hex… but he did have two companions… One was death itself… the other, the acrid smell of gun smoke.”
I’m obsessed with Jonah Hex.
As mentioned in other reviews, I credit Hex (the graphic novel character, NOT the movie) with rekindling my love of Westerns. I didn’t know paranormal or ‘Weird’ Westerns were a thing until reading Hex, and now they’re MY thing. If you get me talking about them, you’ll quickly regret it because I will not shut up. I f*cking love them.
I discovered DC’s All Star Western on a visit to Portland’s beloved book haven, Powell’s Books. I had no idea what it would be when I pulled it off the shelf, but the words ‘all star Western’ intrigued me. It had never occurred to me that Western graphic novels existed.
I was hooked from the moment I opened the cover.
Each All Star Western follows Hex through a series of related mini-adventures, and includes a couple of Western stories featuring characters from the DC archives. Hold onto your hats, because this review probably contains more words than the entire six-volume series.
TL; DR Summary:
- Volumes 1-3 are the best, 4-6 are not as good
- The best bonus stories are El Diablo’s (Vol. 1), Nighthawk and Cinnamon’s (Vol. 2), and Madame .44’s (Vol. 6)
All Star Western Vol. 1: Guns and Gotham
This volume drops you into Hex’s world, 1880s Gotham City. Hex is a bounty hunter and former Confederate soldier (he still wears the uniform), with a nasty scar that’s more of a gaping hole in the side of his face. He’s gruff, volatile, mean, and often also drunk. I was that kid who always loved the villains, which is probably why I dig this asshole.
Hex is hired to find out who’s murdering Gotham’s ladies of the night. He gets stuck working with psychiatrist Amadeus Arkham (eventual founder of Arkham Asylum). You briefly meet Alan Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s great-great-great grandfather.
That case leads to a millionaire hiring Hex to find his missing son, with Arkham once again tagging along. That story introduces the Court of Owls, the secret society of organized crime that has regularly appeared in Batman issues. The two bonus stories feature El Diablo (Lazarus Lane) and The Barbary Ghost.
There’s a sweet multi-page saloon brawl in this volume that’s every bit as enjoyable as bar fights in Western movies. The art is awesome, and the writing for Hex is SO GOOD. His dialogue is hilarious, and it sets the pace for the whole series – fast and dirty fun.
All Star Western Vol. 2: War of Lords and Owls
This volume has Hex (and Arkham) teaming up with Nighthawk and Cinnamon in New Orleans. A group of racist anarchists are burning down buildings, and Hex is hunting down Court of Owls member Thurston Moody.
This is when you first meet Tallulah Black, a foul-mouthed gunslinger who is every bit the female version of Hex. They’re totally perfect for each other. Black is hunting the man who killed her family and stole their land.
These stories are more political, involving two secret societies: the Court of Owls and the Followers of Cain/the Crime Bible (which includes Lorna Kyle, ancestor of a certain cat-loving Gothamite). The bonus stories feature Nighthawk and Cinnamon, the super cheeky Bat Lash, and Dr. Terrence Thirteen.
The supporting characters in War of Lords and Owls are really strong. Cinnamon is so f*cking cool, I immediately started looking online for more of her stories. I also love that the authors didn’t make Tallulah weaker than Hex in any way, from her attitude to her dialogue.
All Star Western Vol. 3: The Black Diamond Probability
The art in this volume seems somehow better, even though it’s the same artist. This is one of my favourites because it’s got a bit of Hex’s origin story, and Dr. Jekyll is a great villain. The tie-in with the Barbary Ghost is pretty good, although she’s not my favourite ‘guest star’.
You also get to see a rare flicker of Hex’s human side. He’s weirdly gentle with Arkham’s looney-tunes invalid mother, and protects her when Jekyll goes Hyde-crazy. The single bonus story in this volume features Tomahawk.
All Star Western Vol. 4: Gold Standard
This volume starts with a super dark story about Gotham’s ‘forgotten history’, when a plague broke out in the slums so they put up walls and trapped people inside for the winter. Hex faces the seemingly immortal Vandal Savage, then meets Booster Gold and chases a gang of bandits out in the desert.
Even though the art is still on point, this volume was harder to get into because the two stories are jarringly different. The Vandal Savage story was super engaging, but the Booster Gold story just didn’t do it for me. There are three bonus stories, all about Stormwatch – there’s a lot going on there, and it overshadowed the Hex stories by sheer volume. I wasn’t into it.
All Star Western Vol. 5: Man Out of Time
This one ranks pretty low for me. The annoying thing is that if Hex wasn’t saddled with Gina Green, I probably would have enjoyed it.
Hex falls through time thanks to Booster Gold, lands in present-day Gotham, and almost immediately gets arrested. No one believes he’s the real Jonah Hex (obvs). Bruce Wayne bails him out of jail after Jeremiah Arkham tells him that Hex is claiming Alan Wayne promised him 30% of his casino – and Wayne (or should I say Alfred) unearths the paperwork to prove it.
Hex meets Gina at a bar and they go to a ‘weirdo sex festival’ in the desert (aka Burning Man), and the whole thing is totally un-Western. Plus, Gina is annoying. Her character adds nothing to the story. At the festival they meet John Constantine, then Swamp Thing… then f*cking Superman. At that point it feels like they’re trying too hard to stuff in as many characters as possible.
I only liked three things about Man Out of Time:
- Discovering Hex’s shockingly Leftist views on modern things like gay marriage, crime, packaged food, and colonization
- The nod to Westworld as the original owners of Hex’s taxidermied corpse, on display in the Jonah Hex exhibit at a Gotham museum
- When Hex holds the door for a woman and, surprised, she says, “A gentleman. I thought they were in short supply”, and Arkham goes, “You’re thinking of Western fans” – that had me laughing my ass off
All Star Western Vol. 6: End of the Trail
Here’s the thing – they abruptly switched artists for the last ‘chapter’ in Man Out of Time and that same artist did this final volume, and it’s just not the same. The art is all over the place, changing styles multiple times, and that’s not how you want to end such an epic tale.
The story is good – it’s just Hex and Black, up against the same gang of bandits from Gold Standard. They work well as a team, even though their mutual love of getting shitfaced lands them tied up and stranded in the desert. I don’t want to give away the end of the series, so I’ll leave it at that.
The bonus story features Madame .44, another totally badass woman of the West, courtesy of DC Comics.
I’ve read the series three times now, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. If you’re looking for a dark, hilariously inappropriate paranormal Western read, get you some All Star Western.