The Masked Bookwyrm's Graphic Novel (& TPB) Reviews

Westerns & Related Milieus... (Page 1)

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for other "Western"-related reviews try Zorro, Origin (in the Wolverine section), and others
 

Bat Lash: Guns and Roses 2008 (SC TPB) 132 pages

Walt Simonson Written by Peter Brandvold and Sergio Aragones. Illustrated by John Severin, with
Javi Pina & Steve Leiber.
Colours: Steve Buccellato. Letters: Pat Brosseau. Editor: Rachel Gluckstern.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (2007-2008)

Rating: * * * * (put of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Bat Lash was a short lived 1960s western comic from DC Comics, created by Sergio Aragones (creator of Groo the Wanderer) and co-written with Denny O'Neil. A light-hearted (with a serious edge) series about a lovable rogue who wandered the Old West, it owed more to TV series like Maverick than, say, the up-right heroes of Gunsmoke. But though short lived, it was critically well regarded, and Bat Lash cropped up occasionally in other western comics from time to time.

This 2008 mini-series, dubbed "Guns and Roses" inside, follows the current trend in comics of remaking older tales, in that this isn't a "new" adventure of Bat Lash, but a retelling of his origin story (which had previously been told in the 6th issue of his 1960s series). But though I don't think this is meant to be a radical reinterpretation of the story, it is, one assumes, greatly expanded (going from one issue to six!) and with more modern grittiness (profanity like "bastard" and an attempted rape scene -- but only attempted).

Aragones returns to the property, this time teamed with co-writer Peter Brandvold and artist John Severin.

And the result is a strange beast. Because in many respects it comes across as pretty trite, telling its Romeo & Juliet type tale of young, clean cut Bat Lash being in love with the daughter of a greedy land baron -- who has eyes for the Lash family farm and with a corrupt sheriff in his pay. It's pretty straight forward and doesn't really warrant six issues.

Yet, it's quite enjoyable.

Maybe it's because the very triteness of it all means it is kind of appealingly evocative, seeming like -- well, like a good ol' western, which can be fun even if, like me, you aren't really a hardcore western fan, per se. But it remains just fresh enough that it doesn't seem tired or uninspired, the way some recent western movies have seemed so desperate to evoke their milieu they end up a collection of cut and paste cliches.

You're interested to see where it's going...even if you don't really expect it to go anywhere too surprising. Nonetheless there are a few curve balls thrown at you here and there, particularly in the dynamics of the villains, as the land baron finds his crooked sheriff is not as easy to control as he'd like.

As mentioned, it really didn't warrant six issues (heck, when there are no less than two scenes of Bat Lash being strung up by a noose, only to be rescued at the last minute -- and by the same character, no less! -- you know there could've been some trimming). At the same time, unlike my criticism of some modern comics with their "decompression" of scenes, it doesn't really feel like the creators are padding out pages with a lot of pointless panels and the like. The pacing might be a bit relaxed, but not slow.

Of course, a large appeal of the series can be laid at the feet of artist John Severin, one of those guys who can probably enjoy the title of "Old Master". There's an understated elegance to his work that suits this rustic tale of men -- as opposed to super-men -- and their hoorses. And though the story is, primarily, serious, there is a thread of humour through it in spots which Severin, deftly mixing realism with a hint of caricature, serves well. (Severin who enjoyed a long association with the satirical comic, Cracked, where his deft blending a realism and comedy was ideally suited to movie and TV spoofs).

Towards the climax, artists Javi Pina & Steve Lieber pinch hit about 5 pages. They're a solid enough pairing that it doesn't hurt the story -- it's mainly an action sequence, which they handle well. It's more in the close ups of the faces that it becomes more obvious that it isn't Severin. (Funnily enough, their style is a bit evocative of Walt Simonson -- who contributed the covers for the series). Severin is back for the epilogue and you wonder, did he just fall behind the "dreaded deadline doom" (as comics used to call it), or was the original climax maybe scrapped and reworked at the last minute, but by then Severin had other commitments. Who knows?

I mentioned earlier that this is a strange beast. Part of that is because it is a big, six part  mini-series -- re-presenting a property that, though critically well regarded, is, nonetheless, pretty obscure. In the wake of DC's successful revival of cowboy Jonah Hex, it stands to reason they might be looking to dust off other western characters, but still... But more, what makes it strange is that, in essence, this isn't really about the Bat Lash that was known -- the likeably amoral gambler and ladies man. This is about him as a younger, more up right character. And this is, primarily, serious, whereas the original series was humorous. In other words, if they were hoping to interest new readers in the character...why start with a six issue story which isn't really representative of the character or the tone?

As well, knowing the man he is to become, one can suspect the story won't end happily for him and his true love -- though it doesn't necessarily end the way you might expect.

But that becomes another issue, as it's basically a self-contained story, with no guarantee of any sequels...yet ends in a vaguely open way that might leave readers scratching their heads if they weren't aware this was essentially a prequel to a pre-existing character who has many adventures ahead of him. In fact, it's curious that even as comics companies seem to more and more shamelessly cannibalize their own catalogue of stories, they don't necessarily make that clear to the reader. Nowhere in the original mini-series issues is there any editorial mentioning that Bat Lash is an established character dating back decades.

But the bottom line is, the series works more than it doesn't, as an agreeable, old fashioned western drama/adventure.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: ___

***

Desperadoes: Epidemic! 1999 (SC GN) 48 pages

cover by John CassadyWritten by Jeff Mariotte. Illustrated by John Lucas (layouts: John Lucas, John
Cassaday).
Colours: Nick Bell. Letters: Gene Doney. Editor: John Layman.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Homage Comics / DC Comics

Set in the days of the Wild West, Desperadoes features a quartet of heroes whose gun slinging exploits tend also to involve a dollop of the supernatural. Created by Jeff Mariotte and John Cassaday, they've appeared in at least a couple of mini-series (at least one of which has been collected in a TPB), and this one-shot graphic novel.

The plot has our heroes, pursued by a posse, arriving in a quarantined town in mid-winter that's suffering from a flu epidemic. They stick around, helping out as best they can...and, eventually, a supernatural evil rears its ugly head.

It's bad enough when monthly comics provide very little introduction for the novice reader, but when you have a "series" that appears only irregularly in, ostensibly, self-contained stories (mini-series, graphic novels), it might behoove the creators to provide some background. But here it's not really clear who or what the heroes are, or how they came to hang out together. The title -- Desperadoes -- allows one to infer they're outlaws of some kind, and the fact that they are being pursued by a Sheriff re-inforces this. But otherwise they deport themselves properly, and when discovering the town is quarantined, happily do their civic duty; it's not clear how they make a living, actually. We are told the Sheriff is hunting them because they "accidentally" killed his wife...but no explanation is given for how this happened.

A great deal of the story is concerned more with character than action and adventure -- without the characters being that well--defined. Sure, leader Gideon Brood is obviously a battle scarred middle-age guy, and Race Kennedy is the well-tailored easterner; Jerome Alexander Betts is perhaps most clearly defined simply as "the black guy"; and while narrator Abby DeGrazia is, in some respects, the main character, she's not especially well delineated. The character stuff doesn't really go much of anywhere, anyway. Partly my objection can be laid at the feet of the story's format: the graphic novel. If this was one or two issues of an on-going title, it might not seem so strange. But presented as it is, you expect a little more detail to who and what these people are.

The plot is pretty basic. Characters are thrown in, then nothing is done with them -- the heroes are befriended by a boy...whho then dies from the flu a couple of pages later. Abby romances a local doctor...but he isn't given much personality.

The supernatural threat only starts being introduced about half-way through, and when finally confronted, proves anti-climactic. Always a fan of larger-than-life fantasy and SF, normally I'd approve of mixing the western milieu with fantasy elements. But precisely because it takes so long to show up, it felt frankly intrusive and tacked on. Like the story might've worked better as a straight western story (since there aren't too many of those in comics these days).

Then again, the problem is that I never quite felt the period milieu was entirely evoked as well as it could be. In his afterward, writer Jeff Mariotte puts a big emphasis on the flu aspect of the story and its historical precedents. And yet, for all that the story takes place in a quarantined town, and we are treated to frequent landscapes dotted with grave markers, there's little actualization of the illness -- I'm not sure anyone even coughs once in the story. Nor is there any sense the heroes are unduly concerned about being trapped in a town being decimated by a plague.

The art may be part of the source of my ambivalence. Though co-created by John Cassaday -- an artist with a detailed, realist stylle (and who provides some lay-outs) -- the actual drawing is done by John Lucaas. Though Lucas has a bold, confident style, it also tends toward rudimentary, even a little cartoony. Sure, he draws cowboy hats and stables, but without much detail. He doesn't generate the kind of necessary reality that would really transport you back a hundred and some years (the way I remember some of DC Comics' 1970s western comics like Jonah Hex managing to do). Another Desperadoes mini-series (and TPB) was drawn by the great John Severin, and I'm guessing that would evoke the period better.

Ultimately, I'm hard pressed to know what to say about Desperadoes: Epidemic! It's not terrible, certainly, and might work better a second time through. But as a western, it didn't quite evoke the period the way I hoped it would; as a supernatural thriller it was thin; and as a character drama -- at least for someone unfamiliar with these characters -- I didn't really feel I got to know them much by the end.

Original cover price: $9.25 CDN./ $5.95 USA.

***




Jonah Hex: Welcome to Paradise 2010 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover by Garcia-LopezWritten by John Albano, Michael Fleisher. Illustrated by Tony DeZuniga, others.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Joe Orlando.

Reprinting: the Jonah Hex stories from All-Star Western #10, Weird Western Tales #14, 17, 22, 26, 29, 30, Jonah Hex #2, 4 (1972-1977)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted Nov. 2010

Published by DC Comics

By the 1970s, super heroes had almost completely pushed out all other genres from serious/drama comics, making the few long running non-super hero adventure comics noteworthy, like Conan, The Warlord...and western gunslinger Jonah Hex.

Hex clearly sprung out of the Spaghetti Westerns of the cinema, which were perceived to have shaken up the nominally clean cut morality of the traditional western movie with gritty, violent tales featuring morally ambiguous anti-heroes. So with this inspiration, married with a loosening of Comics Codes guidelines, came Jonah Hex...a gruff bounty hunter who tended to bring 'em back dead more often than alive, and was himself a hideously scarred misfit. And his exploits took place against a cynical, violent
backdrop where "good" guys often weren't much nicer than the bad ones. After a healthy run as a straight forward western (in All-Star Western, Weird Western Tales, and his own self-titled comic), the character's path took some curious and -- arguably -- ill-conceived turns. He was transportedd into the far future for the spin-off comic, Hex, then appeared in some later mini-series which relocated him back to the 1800s, but with an added supernatural element. Then after a long dormancy, he was revived more recently for a successful series, returning the character to his western roots. He even was featured
in an ill-fated motion picture (which seemed to take its inspiration from the supernatural flavoured 1990s stories).

In addition to the obligatory TPB collections of the modern comics, DC has released collections of vintage 1970s comics as both an omnibus Showcase volume and this...a selection of seminal issues.

Created by John Albano, the character was introduced in the title story, and it's a pretty simple, straightforward tale -- but effective for that. Hex is hired by a town to rid them of an outlaw gang...but finds himself unwelcome otherwise. As I say, it's pretty obvious...but does pack a bit of an emotional punch in the end.

In general, the tales are fairly simple, albeit well-paced. A big appeal is simply the atmosphere, from the idiosyncratic phonetically-spelled dialogue intended to evoke southern twangs, to the dark, gritty but realist art that lend the tales a palpable sense of place, the men craggy faced and unkempt (though the women are generally pretty). The visuals maintain a stylistic consistency, even as with a variety of artists at work (including well known names like Tony DeZuniga and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez), it also boasts enough variety to keep it from getting monotonous. And the underlining violent nihilism to the
stories is its own appeal -- if only as a guilty pleasure. Indeed, though the character has enjoyed a successful revival, one could argue he was more interesting in the 1970s. Today, with too many comics (even super hero comics) embracing a similar a-moral nihilism, Hex is less of novelty.

Although the stories here are mostly stand alone, there is some continuity. In the second story reprinted here, Hex has a pet dog that dies -- but in this collection you wouldn't realize the dog had actually appeared in previous tales. More obviously, there's a slow building sub-plot introduced by scripter Michael Fleisher, so that this is both a collection of individual stories...yet also feels like a graphic novel. A few stories give us vague glimpses of a man with a cane, Turnbull, pursuing some cryptic vendetta against Hex, eventually building to a climactic confrontation and a flashback to Hex's Civil War adventures, and how he was -- mistakenly -- believed to have betrayed his Confederate regiment to
the Union army.

Granted, given his notoriety as a bounty hunter, where people usually know him by sight...it's awkward to suddenly thrown in the idea that he's equally notorious as a traitor, to the point where an entire bar shuns him. Don't you think it would've come up earlier? As well, the fact that Hex wanders about in his Confederate army jacket seems unduly provocative when he knows people believe him a traitor to the cause.

Why the final two stories are included (over any others) is unclear. They establish that  Turnbull did not die in the previous stories, but as such kind of rob the collection of the sense of closure it might have had if we had stopped with the story where Hex thinks Turnbull is dead. Maybe the final two stories here were included because they introduced some adversaries that, I'm guessing, recurred (most of Hex's foes end up dead by the end of an issue) and so this collection was seen as establishing the basics of the Hex mythos. By this point, Fleisher has also introduced a sub-plot where Hex has been framed for
murder -- not that the collection feels like it ends "to be continued" or anything.

That's because, for the most part, the stories are meant to stand alone, with only minor sub-plots linking one issue to another.

As mentioned, the plotting overall is fairly straight forward and simple. Even the sub-plot with Turnbull isn't really a "plot" per se, where each chapter adds to the narrative. And the flashback story doesn't add much to Hex's origin (other stories, not included here, detailed how he was scarred and why he became a bounty hunter -- questions more likely to be posed by a reader). Though it does establish the idea that Hex, though a southerner sporting a Confederate army coat, was nonetheless uncomfortable with slavery.

Though that brings us to an awkward issue, "Showdown at Hard Times" (WWT #22), in which Hex squares off against a black outlaw and his gang of Indian and Mexican henchmen. The characters are irredeemably sleazy but, granted, most of Hex's foes are cartoony villains -- though making all the gang non-white iss odd. But where it becomes bizarre is when the black outlaw starts talking about his love of watermelons! At first one assumes the character is satirizing the stereotype...except, sure enough, Hex tracks him down and he's eating a watermelon, even throwing it at Hex as a weapon! You can find
yourself flipping to the copyright dates, wondering if this story was from the 1940s, rather than the 1970s. Admittedly, I have no idea of the origin of the black-man-loves-watermelons cliche (doesn't everybody love watermelons?!?) but as with any cliche or stereotype...it's inherently offensive to employ it. So what was Fleisher and company intending by it? I mean, the Hex stories were supposed to revel in a kind of raw historical realism other western comics didn't...so depicting attitudes of the era is understandable. But this isn't depicting the characters with attitudes true to the era (such as Hex still being friendly with a man after the man ruthlessly puts down a slave revolt, or Turnbull's black manservant speaking in slave-style patois)...this is the comic itself perpetuating the attitudes.

So were the creators just racists? (And did no one at DC question it?) Or was it intended as part of the series' "politically incorrect" tone? Fleisher stirred up controversy with his Spectre stories (collected as Wrath of the Spectre), and even a couple of novels he wrote seemed to deliberately court controversy, apparently. So maybe Fleisher just fancied himself a rebel, a provocateur, tweaking the nose of propriety. But provocative is forcing us, the reader, to confront truths we're not comfortable confronting -- simply using a racist cliche to show you can is just childish (I mean, as a white writer, working in a predominantly white profession, read by predominantly white readers, at a time when segregation and race-based murders were part of the recent past...who exactly would he be "rebelling" against?).

I'd like to think the reprint editors were aware of the uncomfortableness of that issue...but included it because it's part of the larger Turnbull arc. But the fact that no on-line review I've read of this collection comments on the scenes is, itself, curious and disturbing -- I guess we haven't come a long way, baby, after all.

But that aside, otherwise these old comics hold up well. As mentioned, they aren't particularly complex or sophisticated, Fleisher not one for a lot of deep thinking or subtle character development. In one story -- "Face-Off with the Gallagher Boys" (WWT #26)-- the train robbing outlaws are embraced as folk heroes by the locals, while Hex is mistakenly arrested and mistreated in prison. Then you realize, ah hah, that's the clever theme, the turnabout as the villains are treated as heroes and vice versa. So you wait to see where Fleisher is going with it...but after juxtaposing the scenes for a few pages, he
simply has Hex escape and have his usual showdown with the villains, any themes not really developed beyond the concept. Arguably some of Albano's stories, like the title piece, and "The Hanging Woman" (WWT #17) have -- marginally -- more emotional depth.

But the pacing throughout is good, the atmosphere and milieu palpable, the visuals moody, and Hex himself a memorable personality. If only as a guilty pleasure, you can kind of revel in the dark world where even the hero is an anti-hero. And the mix of stand alone stories with a sub-plot allows the collection to act as both a sampler of tales (generally as good as any of the other Jonah Hex comics, old or new, I have in my collection)...and also as a story arc.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $17.99 USA.
 

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