Review by C.J. Bunce
All Star Western #1 was the coolest, most unexpected surprise of DC Comics’ first round of 52 issues. But to the extent All Star Western #1 was a standout series opener, writer Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Moritat along with colorist Gabriel Bautista set the bar even higher with issues #2 and #3.
First off, the design and format of the book is unique among DC Comics’ New 52. Chapters have an Old West style separation and font, with catchy titles like “Showdown at House Arkham,” “A practitioner of murder,” and “No news is good.” The aura of Gothic and Old West can be found at every angle.
The foreground of landscape scenes have a nice, almost ghostly style that evokes the 1800s-1920s, using a lot of brown and sepia tones. But the silhouette of grand manor houses and leafless trees on the landscape of an almost photo-real, painted horizon backdrop will have readers stopping in their tracks. Two page spreads with 22 individual panels keep the action scenes moving at full force, and the would-be campy “Pow,” “Crunch,” “Crash,” and “Clop Clop Clop” fill in the necessary sound effects for a Jonah Hex-led shoot ‘em up. We also get some nice splash pages of Hex, looking tough in his own half-faced way.
Unlike several other New 52 titles that unapologetically are going for the biggest shock they can provide to readers, the cartoonish quality of Jonah Hex’s gore serves to tame down the realism of the violence, creating the right venue for a fine good guy vs. bad guy battle to the end, with guns a’blazin’ and bodies fallin.’
The writers have kept up the momentum of the story with the most unlikely of pairings, the fragile Doctor Arkham against the stout Jonah Hex. These two continue together to confound each other, but, for once, in issue #2, Arkham has revealed that there is a killer about even within his own timid, early-era psychiatrist reality.
By the end of issue #3 we have a better look at the villainy coming in future issues, a “cult of crime” based on the story of Cain and Abel. Arkham serves to sleuth out the story while Hex is there to destroy those who get in the way and leave a body count. In issue #3 we also see the duo forming their first potential ally, by saving a city leader named Cromwell. Yet, no one lives long in early Gotham City.
The story has a vibe reminiscent of a short-lived series published a few years ago starting on Free Comics’ Day called The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty (one of the best titles ever), an eight-issue series from Image Comics, by Gabriel Benson and Mike Hawthorne, that hinted at the potential it was ultimately unable to fulfill—a “Gothic Western” that immersed the reader in the Old West. All Star Western is far better, but it does show there are limitless Gothic Western stories that can be told, not just with Jonah Hex and not just in Gotham City.
As an added feature to All Star Western, these issues #2 and #3 have an ongoing mini-series about the character El Diablo. This add-on bonus is full of quick stories in limited panels, but adds to the Saturday serial mystique of a Western series like this. If you like the character El Diablo, I’d suggest Jai Nitz’s very cool El Diablo: The Haunted Horseman graphic novel, drawn by Phil Hester and Ande Parks. And as for another book with a similar Gothic vibe, check out Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, by Brian Augustyn, with a powerhouse art match-up of Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell.