When word of DC’s New 52 first rolled into town, I was immediately concerned for Jonah Hex. The hard-as-nails, rough-around-the-edges, Old West bounty hunter, while a success among critics and my own personal favourite character in anything ever, never sold very high numbers. But the New 52 revealed itself to be full of non-superhero risks, and that thankfully included the re-titling of Hex’s eponymous series to All-Star Western.
The first collection of this new series, while maintaining writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s masterful grasp on the character of Hex and serving as a punchy intro for new readers too, changed the classic “one and done” formula of past stories. There were now longer arcs, transitioning from plot to plot, as well as recurring characters. Such change made me wary.
But it was still good enough quality to entice me to pick up volume two: War of Lords and Owls. After a brief visit to New Orleans — and a guest appearance from Nighthawk and Cinnamon, two of DC’s other western heroes — Hex makes a reluctant return to Gotham City, and gets caught in a war between secret societies the Religion of Crime and the Court of Owls.
The choice to set much of Hex’s adventures in Gotham so far is an obviously fan-pleasing one, used to draw in more readers. Thankfully, it never seems too much of a gimmick, and any in-jokes and knowing nods come as welcome surprises. The use of Dr. Amadeus Arkham works well, too, as the yin to Hex’s yang, rather than as an annoying sidekick or cheesy “historical” guest character. The way he and Hex play off each other is endlessly amusing, but Arkham himself also proves an intriguing man.
Of course, it goes without saying that Gray and Palmiotti maintain their skill with Hex himself. He remains one of the most enigmatic yet brazenly simple characters in fiction. If anything, being stuck in Gotham longer just brings out his trademark surliness more, and in that sense is a benefit. Also, this volume sees someone from Hex’s past return to add to the already sparkling dynamic between him and Arkham.
As I alluded to above, this collection somewhat crosses over with the Bat-Family’s “Night of the Owls”, albeit about a hundred years earlier. As with most prequels, given that we know the outcome, there is very little feeling of tension, but the writers do the best they can. The overall atmosphere is one of a thriller rather than a horror, like most “Owls” crossovers. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it adds another dimension to the Court.
As does artist Moritat. Aside from giving the Court members distinctive appearances and body language, and doing the same thing for all players, his style really suits the grisly, gritty aura of not only Hex stories but westerns in general. It even seems at times to be completely different, becoming sharper or softer as the plot requires, a noteworthy feat.
As the change in the series’ title would indicate, Hex is not the only Old West hero in this collection. There is the appearance from Nighthawk and Cinnamon in the main tale, and they get one in a back-up too, loosely tying them into the Hawkman/Hawkwoman mythos, and greatly rounding their backstories out. Bat Lash, another favourite of mine, gets some time to shine in the back-ups too, and it is exemplary of the comedic, fast-paced Lash stories of old. Finally in the back-ups we have Dr. Thirteen, a more supernatural hero. While the story is appropriately dark and smart, the real treat for me was seeing Scott Kolins doing interior art again, albeit darker than his usual style.
It may be different from the classics, but All-Star Western still delivers quintessential Jonah Hex stories, as well as being a damn fine western.