Roundtable Review | All Star Western #1

Well, it's the final week of DC's reboot, which means the final 13 of the New 52 are in our hands. While our past roundtables have looked at the biggest superhero titles of each week, we decided to take a different path this time around, instead crowdcritiquing All Star Western #1, featuring DC's scary and scarred bounty hunter, Jonah Hex. For all of our reviews, and for more ongoing coverage of comics, check out TOC's Comics Shop.

Jonathan Messinger: Well, that was fun. I'm going to admit that I'm a Hex noob, aside from picking up a couple of issues here and there a long time ago. So for all I know, and based on the past few weeks, there could be an angry contingent of Jonah Hex loyalists tearing up Livejournal over this new book. But I thought it was great. It certainly helps that this first story ran a few pages longer than your average weekly comic, and Justin Gray took full advantage, loading it with well-paced story. Though we're all a little weary, at this point, of Gotham City and its most famous resident, setting the story in a post–Civil War Gotham was actually a very smart bit of storytelling: It piques the interest of the reader by setting them in a place out of time, and allows Gray to play with the city's mythology a bit. I also like the idea of inverting the Deadwood formula, and bringing the frontier back to the burgeoning city.

The story is straightforward enough, with bounty hunter Hex being brought into Gotham by Amadeus Arkham—a doctor just beginning to explore the frontiers of psychoanalysis—to track down the Gotham Butcher, a maniac killing the city's prostitutes. Gray does a really solid job setting up the world, the various characters' role in it, and steeping the action in atmosphere. Moritat's art had an appropriately player-piano quality to it, a tinny and lively jumble that captured the story well. Personally, my favorite scene comes on page 14, when Hex and Arkham are chatting, and we're given a full view of all the characters in the saloon. Not even the MYSTERIOUS CLOAKED LADY could ruin it.

Brent DiCrescenzo: I picked up a Jonah Hex here and there, as it was built for that kind of reading, a rare comic to tell one-off tales, with a rotating team of artists. The recent issue by Jeff Lemire, for example, in which Hex finds his father rotting in the desert, was stellar. The Spirit was one of DC's best and most underrated pre-reboot titles as well, primarily because of the noir art of Moritat. The mononym sounds and draws like a Frenchman, but the throwback penciller is from Washington State. In short, no other New 52 issue had me poring over the panels like this one.

Moritat's Rubenesque women curve through corsets like Belle Époque pinups. But the real star here is Gotham itself. The bustling and bleak bay city resembles an imagined version of Poe's Baltimore, a, well, gothic hub settled by Pentecostal industrialists from Northern Europe. Steeples and smokestacks crowd the skyline. Grotesque guys and va va voom dolls are drawn with smooth economy, but the architecture and interiors are packed with baroque details, down to two amusing brands of whiskey, Hangman and Deadman. That first splash page of the Gothan City train station is stunning, as is the saloon interior you mention, Jonathan. Moritat even shows a knowledge of how absinthe is prepared.

The plot reminded me of From Hell and a bit of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, in that there's amusement to be had in observing the ancestors of modern titans. We get a Cobblepot (Penguin's grandpa?) and Hex's wingman, psychologist and asylum founder Amadeus Arkham. He and Hex form a sort of Sherlock and Watson relationship, if the latter were Jason Statham in a Reb costume and the former a brainy mama's boy. Arkham's incessant analysis of Hex's mental workings gets a bit burdensome, but it's a clever way of introducing newbies to a character whom Hollywood did it's best to ruin. The baddies here are far more sinister and real than Will Arnett.

Kris Vire: Yeah, I've never really read any Jonah Hex either—I was aware of his existence, thanks to his occasional appearances elsewhere in the DCU, but I feel like I'm just young enough to have missed the ’70s and early-’80s resurgence of non-superhero genre comics like All-Star Western. Even without much knowledge of the character, I was wary of trading the Wild West for wild Gotham; it's starting to feel like 75 percent of the New 52's activity takes place in Gotham City limits. And besides, what's a Western without the West?

But I'm won over in spite of myself by Gray and Palmiotti's take on Gotham's mythology, as you said, Jonathan. Mayor Cobblepot and Arkham's mention of Alan Wayne and the Gate Brothers are apparently references taken from Batman: Gates of Gotham, the Scott Snyder–Kyle Higgins miniseries that concluded just before the New 52 launch and laid some in-continuity, 19th-century groundwork for Gotham's history; since it looks like that's going to carry over, I might see if my comics shop still has it on the shelves.

Oh yeah, who's the star of this book again? I don't know how I feel about Hex's silent antihero thing, but the interplay between him and Arkham is fun (even if Arkham's psychoanalyzing narration is a bit heavyhanded). The Gotham Butcher has me intrigued, and the establishment of some kind of nefarious secret society makes for quite a hook at the end. And I concur with everything you guys said about Moritat's art.

Web Behrens: I didn’t love this comic so much. It suffers from odd pacing, although maybe I was just surprised by the extra pages we get for an extra buck. But that first-person narration was overused at best, ponderous at worst. Of course, I don’t really know how an 1880s-era psychologist would write or speak, but Gray and Palmiotti’s version seems dubious.

We also don't get (yet) any significant female characters. Worse, the only one with any panel time gets brutally slaughtered a couple pages later. In and of itself, that’s not a killer fault (no pun intended)—but it’s part of a trend so notable in superhero comics, it goes by the name Women in Refrigerators. And in this last week of the New 52 rollout—after we’ve been served up embarrassing new versions of characters like Starfire and Catwoman and Harley Quinn and Godiva—it looks like there’s a significant inability on the part of many of DC’s writers to create and develop fully rounded female characters.

That said, All Star Western packs plenty of plusses—starting, of course, with Moritat’s gorgeous art. Beyond that, the two writers develop a clever conceit with their twin protagonists. By pairing the bookish Arkham with the surly and violent Hex, this comic reads to me like a mashup of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and some grisly pulp novel. Those factors alone wouldn’t have won me over—but then I got to that final sequence at Mayor Cobblepot’s party. That twist at the end ramped up the stakes about a thousand percent. Didn’t see that coming. Which means I’m willing to give All Star Western #2 a try.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)