Thursday, December 27, 2007

Showcase Presents ... Holidays In Hell

No, that's not a summary of Christmas with our families. I took Showcase Presents Jonah Hex Volume 1 along for light reading during the Christmas break. I had already plowed through Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock (also Volume 1), and was curious to see how Hex would compare.

Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock Volume 1 covers just over three years' worth of comics. It begins with what is apparently Rock's first appearance, in G.I. Combat #68 (January 1959), and then reprints the Sgt. Rock stories from Our Army At War #s 81-117 (April 1959-April 1962). None of these stories are what we'd consider full-length today, with the longest ones being 13 pages. Most were written by Bob Kanigher and/or drawn by Joe Kubert, including the "prototype" story from G.I. Combat. (Bob Haney wrote, and Ross Andru and Mike Esposito drew, Rock's OAAW debut.) Of course, Rock is identified pretty closely with both Kanigher and Kubert, so this isn't surprising.

The stories each tend to have the same basic structure: Rock introduces and narrates each, and each tends to depict some object lesson Rock teaches the somewhat interchangeable men under his command. There's two-fisted action, naturally, with the men of Easy Company facing off against implacable German machinegunners, tanks, or planes, but the emphasis is on the characters. Of course, since the point of virtually every story is for Rock's men to learn from him, Rock doesn't really experience many epiphanies, but he's still a very engaging host. In fact, Rock's constant presence is one of the book's real charms. As hard as he comes off to his men, Rock is much friendlier to the reader, and that "behind-the-curtain" look drew me into the book in a way I hadn't expected.

The book does develop some of Easy Company's other members, including Rock's second-in-command Bulldozer, the formerly wimpy Ice Cream Soldier, and the well-named Wild Man. Other Easy soldiers aren't so lucky, meeting their ends during their introductory tales. Death -- personalized death, that is -- isn't a big part of these stories, but it's there. I got the feeling that the youngest intended readers of OAAW were probably in 5th grade or older -- older, to be sure, than the kids reading the superhero books. Still, this was the late '50s, well into the superheroic revivals of the Silver Age which gave rise to the "aging fan," so I could be wrong.

Outside of their shared World War II timeframe, the stories take place for the most part on anonymous battlefields. Similarly, other than Easy Company's constant antagonists being (mostly) faceless Nazis, the stories aren't overtly jingoistic. I also didn't get the sense that these stories glorified combat for its own sake. The collective message of the "Sgt. Rock" series seems to have been that grace under pressure, steadfastness, and teamwork were the paramount attributes of any soldier. The '50s and '60s probably produced better war comics -- I'm thinking particularly of the EC war comics, which have an excellent reputation -- but Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock Vol. 1 is endearing in its own way, and it's got me waiting for Vol. 2.

* * *

Showcase Presents Jonah Hex Volume 1 wasn't as big a hit with me. Maybe it was reading such an unrepentantly nihilistic Western series in the days leading up to Christmas. I didn't dislike these stories, but I didn't find myself wanting to spend more time with ol' Jonah anytime soon. In some ways I'm sure that's the point.

SPJH Vol. 1 reprints some four years' worth of Hex stories from (the bimonthly) Weird Western Tales (nee All-Star Western) #s 10-33 (February-March 1972 to March-April 1976). It also reprints a couple of relatively obscure All-Star Western features, "Outlaw" and "Billy The Kid," which I'll discuss at the end.

Jonah Hex, character and series, was born into a world quite different from Sgt. Rock's. Hex had to acknowledge, and in some sense compete with, the revisionist Westerns of the '60s and '70s. Hex also had to balance being a misanthropic, antiheroic killer with being both sympathetic and palatable to the newsstand crowd. (Each issue's cover carries the Comics Code Authority seal.) Accordingly, although Hex's good heart was hidden pretty well, dealing with characters who were demonstrably evil gave him frequent chances to reveal it. Having him spurned by polite society, both for his profession and his hideous scarred visage, also made him more sympathetic.

(By the way, for those of you who listen faithfully to "A Prairie Home Companion," I couldn't help but give Hex the gravelly voice of Tim Russell's Dusty from "The Lives of the Cowboys." Don't judge me.)

Hex's creators John Albano (writer) and Tony DeZuniga (artist) collaborated on a little less than half the stories in this book, with Michael Fleisher writing most of the rest for a variety of artists. Fleisher's artists included DeZuniga, Noly Panaligan, George Moliterni, Doug Wildey, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Garcia-Lopez's two stories may be the most accessible to today's readers, art-wise, due to their clean, crisp figures and layouts, but the others each have a particular earthy style which suits the subject matter. I wasn't as impressed with the storytelling on display as I was with Kubert's in the Sgt. Rock volume, but nothing is hard to understand.

Although this volume includes a few flashbacks to his Civil War days, it doesn't offer much clues as to Jonah's postwar "origin." Still, the overall impression of Hex is as a tragic figure, doomed to wander the West making a career out of killing and bounty-hunting. Again, he's certainly not unsympathetic. If anything, the stories tend to weaken whenever they introduce gender and/or racial issues (the threat of rape, for example) to which today's readers might ostensibly be more sensitive. Ultimately, though, Jonah is the agent of a certain variety of rough, pulp-flavored justice which perhaps satisfies no one but the reader. Mindful of Fleisher's background writing ironic punishments for the Spectre series, I soon saw Jonah in the same angel-of-vengeance light.

Really, now that I think more about it, I'm eager for Vol. 2, just to see if (and how) DC softened Jonah as the '70s wore on.

As for the "Outlaw" and "Billy The Kid" features, they're perhaps best appreciated as filler. They don't have a lot to do with Jonah Hex beyond sharing some creators, and they're not very true to their respective premises. The "Outlaw" series is advertised as the adventures of an aspiring Texas Ranger who runs afoul of his Ranger father and must clear his name. The "Billy The Kid" premise is pretty familiar too, although I won't spoil it. Suffice it to say that "BTK"'s premise is undercut by the art. "Outlaw"'s is undone by its writing, which suddenly decides in mid-story that the central conflict is over.

I can't figure out whether Hex Vol. 2 has been rescheduled -- it was part of that group of '70s-'80s Showcases cancelled back in the summer -- but I guess I liked Vol. 1 enough after all.

* * *
Really, I liked both of these for fairly different reasons. For good bedside reading, I'd definitely suggest Sgt. Rock. For something more involved, story-wise, I'd go with Jonah Hex. It's a trade-off -- you can't beat Joe Kubert's artwork, but I can see where the stories would get repetitive. Still, I found myself wanting to read more after each Sgt. Rock story, whereas it was easier for me to put down the Hex volume.

I hope to see what a Vol. 2 brings to each series.

1 comment:

H said...

Interesting overviews. For me, the Jonah Hex Showcase was surprisingly compelling. Having read very little Jonah Hex up to that point I expected a trite western tough guy with little character and cliched stories. Instead, I found the Hex character intriguingly understated, the stories to generally give the reader something to chew on after reaching the end and far less cliche-ridden tales than I feared.

I have not yet been tempted to read the Sgt. Rock collection and your overview doesn't change that-WWII battle tales is another comics genre I'm not drawn to (despite having grown up playing a slew of WWII battle recreation board games) and it seems that the tales are overly formulaic, but your observation how stories of the era aimed at older kids praised teamwork and determination under pressure is interesting and accurate.