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    Review: All-Star Western #5

    By | January 26th, 2012
    Posted in Reviews | % Comments

    Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
    Illustrated by Moritat Phil Winslade

    Slippery sewer pipes make a brutal place for a fight — but that won’t stop Jonah Hex and Amadeus Arkham from facing off against a gang of kidnappers beneath Gotham City. And when the thugs get the best of them, Hex and Arkham find themselves swept away to a pitch-black cave with seemingly no way out — and lots of bats! Will they find a way to escape Gotham City’s dark underbelly before Hex’s matches are all burned out? Also: For the Barbary Ghost, death is only the beginning of her plan for revenge!

    All-Star Western is an anachronism in the world of mainstream comics – there simply aren’t many books like this being published right now.  Not only is the subject matter unusual for the Big 2, but it is the rare book that is almost hype-less.  And yet, a book with almost zero hype that takes place in the 19th century is connecting with audiences.  If you are not part of that audience, maybe after reading this, you will be.

    Hit the jump for why you should be buying this book, and why DC, Marvel, and every other publisher, should be buying into its game plan.

    For multiple generations of young boys, being a cowboy was the dream. There are pictures in my parents’ house of my father, now 68 years old, dressed as a cowboy, chasing his brother, dressed as an Indian, around the backyard of their childhood home. To be eight and a cowboy was tops, and the media knew this. Western movies, cowboy hats, toy revolvers and, yes, western comics became huge money makers and were ubiquitous in the average American household with a young boy in it.

    Over time, the cowboy has become less and less popular as a dream for young boys. I have 6 nephews, and I don’t recall seeing any of them with as much as one Western style toy, save for Woody from Toy Story. The western is no longer a commonly made film genre and, when it is, it is usually not a young man as a cowboy story – it is more of a True Grit, or an Unforgiven, where the world is moving on, with a character struggling to hold on to the past.

    It is usually at this time in the pop culture arc that a comeback is primed and ready to go – but we are entering year 30 or so since the last real push at kids liking Old West culture, with no reprise in sight. Which is a roundabout way of saying that the continued success of Jonah Hex and All-Star Western is pretty puzzling. Granted, being #70 on the December single issue sales chart isn’t exactly a runaway victory of the popularity of this book, but for a $3.99 comic without a perennially popular character in the title, is still a bit of a surprise.

    That said, issue #5 has continued the task of attempting to make this series “matter” in the grand scheme of the DCnU. The first step of this was establishing Gotham City (a decidedly non-”Western” locale) as the setting for the book, and dropping a ton of Bat-names throughout the book – Mayor Copplepot, Amadeus Arkham, Alan Wayne, etc. We are now moving into phase two of “Operation Western Relevance,” which is flat out referencing current day Batman stuff on the cover of the book – a more shameful and less accurate version of their initial plan. Phase three is coming later this year, with the book tying into the upcoming Court of Owls Bat-crossover, with the book exploring some of the history of the Court of Owls.

    Now, I’m all for a cheap shill to get people to read a good book, and All-Star Western is, indeed, a good book. In fact, I think All-Star Western has a lot of lessons for the rest of the comics industry buried inside of it, just waiting to be implemented.

    Continued below

    The term anti-hero is thrown around a lot in modern comics, but Jonah Hex might be the best example of an anti-hero done right. Hex is pretty much a mercenary who just doesn’t give a shit. And I’m not talking about a Han Solo, “tough on the exterior but a teddy bear underneath it all” archetype. Hex doesn’t appear to care about much other than himself, getting revenge on those that have harmed him, and money. The motivation behind the current story running through this book is that he was offered $50,000 to find a child. That’s it – no sense of doing right, or a code of morals to uphold – just cash.

    Hex really is almost the window dressing in his own book, as there isn’t really all that much to do with him as a character. He’s scarred, he hates just about everyone, he wants money, and will do just about anything he can to get it. And so, he is a character that can be used in just about any setting that makes sense (as in, during the 1880s) to tell a variety of stories.

    As for this story, cover art and solicitations will tell you that Hex and Arkham spend this issue in the Bat Cave which, although may be technically true, is the cheapest type of hype you can have. Hex and Arkham are in a cave in Gotham and, yes, at the end of the issue, they encounter a giant bat, but to call this an adventure in the Bat Cave is certainly a stretch. In fact, if it had not been on the cover, I don’t know if I would have made that leap of logic. Maybe I’m slow, but to me the Bat Cave is only interesting when dealing with its inhabitant and what remodels he did to the space – a cave in Gotham is a cave in Gotham.

    Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have been the creative force behind Hex books for the last 7 years, writing 70 issues of his titular series before jumping over to All-Star Western. Their work with the character has been three things becoming more and more rare to find together in comics: consistent, well-received and unique. The fact that they managed to produce this almost universally praised body of work, while being left alone to do what they want with the character – interrupted only by the box office flop (and sin against cinema) Jonah Hex feature film, staring Josh Brolin and Megan Fox – is no small feat in itself. The “one and done” style of self-contained single issues of the Jonah Hex book has been replaced by the longer story arcs found in All-Star Western and, unfortunately, this new style doesn’t work quite as well as the single issue stories of the old series.

    The reason for this is basically because of what I said before – this character isn’t all that interesting. So, to constantly be shaking things up, telling stories from various times and in various locations, lets the character become the Zelig of the history of the DC Universe or, in a more modern, less nebbishy reference, the http://www.flatstanley.com/Flat Stanley of the 1880s. This current arc has nothing inherently wrong with it, in story or in execution, but it isn’t the plot that keeps me buying this book. I don’t like seeing kids get kidnapped just as little as the next guy, but my heart isn’t racing page to page waiting for the story to unfold. I simply like spending 20 pages a month in Hex’s world (as crafted by Palmiotti, Gray and Moritat) – this little corner of the DCnU makes me really happy.

    And that is where a lesson can be learned for comics in general, but specifically for DC and Marvel – not every issue needs to be solicited with more exclamation marks than commas. There are some books, some creators, some characters, that merely being able to spend time in their universe is enough. Look at Journey Into Mystery – people love those darn Asgardians, and want to spend more time with them than they were getting in a Thor book. I think people just like Loki, and are happy to see a creative interpretation of the character.

    Continued below

    The other big difference between Jonah Hex and All-Star Western is the presence of a consistent artist on the book. At first, this was the change I was most upset about – I loved the contrasting styles you’d get each month. However, Moritat, a name that I am sorry to say I was not all that familiar with before starting on this book, has been doing some incredibly fun and detailed work on this series. As my MC cohort David Harper described in his review of issue #1, his heavy inking of the characters makes them jump off the page in a way that resembles (and I mean this in a good way) Colorforms – it is almost as if you could pick up Hex and Arkham and place them in kooky positions over and over again to your heart’s content. It is an unusual, but extremely successful approach. There is a rawness to Moritat’s work that fits right in with the Gotham described in these pages, and his backgrounds and settings manage to be entirely unique while still nodding towards the Gotham City of 130 years later. As mentioned earlier, there is some action in the “Bat Cave” in this issue, and Moritat does a nice job of stripping away all of the elements that have been a part of the Bat Cave for the past 70 years, and focusing on what might have been before Wayne Manor landed on top of it. That is the key to his approach in general: nothing here is overdrawn, but executed perfectly in an inimitable style.

    The backup for this issue is part two of the Barbary Ghost’s inaugural story. This character, created by Palmiotti, Gray and, artist for the piece, Phil Winslade, takes the idea of a Western character in a totally new direction. The eponymous character is a Chinese immigrant living in San Francisco, and using deception to haunt a crime boss who murdered her family. Winslade does a nice job on the pencils here, using a classic late-Silver Age style to tell this story. To have a Chinese woman at the heart of a western story is certainly a change from what we are traditionally used to, but that is part of the fun. The backups in this book have been used, so far, to tell stories that wouldn’t normally fit in a typical cowboy-centric western book. This, again, is a good thing.

    I don’t love paying $3.99 for a book, but when there is 28 pages of actual illustrated story content, with a quality creative team at the helm, it is a bit easier to swallow. I am hopefully optimistic that All-Star Western can have a run as impressive as Jonah Hex, both in terms of quantity and quality. I hope that leaning on the Bat-connections don’t grow tiresome, and I hope that the backups continue to be a place to tell slightly left-of-center stories. Above all, I hope people keep buying this. DC’s “new” war book, GI Combat, seems to be trying to model itself off of All-Star Western’s pattern: take an established property (“The War That Time Forgot”), surround it with simpatico back ups (“The Haunted Tank,” “The Unknown Soldier”), give it to a creator with some clout behind it (JT Krul…oh wait…), and let it flourish. If GI Combat takes off, perhaps All-Star Western can truly be something that Jonah Hex wasn’t – a trendsetter, instead of an outlier.

    Final Verdict: 8.1 – Buy

    Brian Salvatore

    Brian Salvatore is an editor, podcaster, reviewer, writer at large, and general task master at Multiversity. When not writing, he can be found playing music, hanging out with his kids, or playing music with his kids. He also has a dog named Lola, a rowboat, and once met Jimmy Carter. Feel free to email him about good beer, the New York Mets, or the best way to make Chicken Parmagiana (add a thin slice of prosciutto under the cheese).