Review by C.J. Bunce
I had mentioned early in the New 52 reviews that 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. After six months of story development and world building, All Star Western remains both the most creative and my favorite of all the New 52 series.
Much like modern police departments attempt to keep quiet about tapping the resources of psychics in working kidnapping cases, the police of old Gotham City are adamant to not reveal they are using the resources of one Doctor Amadeus Arkham, a criminal psychologist before the term was coined and the field was in its infancy in the 18th century. Gray and Palmiotti create a world in transition from the Old West to the Industrial Revolution. The gun-toting days of cowboys and outlaws in frontier towns would seem to visibly contrast with the early days of street gangs and mob bosses, but Moritat and Bautista combine imagery of Gothic Noir and post-Civil War era culture, creeds, and weaponry to spin readers into an eminently believable and interesting time and place.
You can’t understate how unique Moritat’s panels and pages are compared to anyone else drawing comics today. For one thing Moritat does not use standard comic sized paper to render his pages. He uses 8.5 X 11 inch art paper. So his images are drawn much smaller compared to other artists’ panels. This means what he draws need to be crisp and clean and get the point across. And the result is beautiful imagery of dark and dusty places. From page one of issue one his fabulously detailed cityscapes look like they must have taken weeks to draw. His buildings are regal and elegant. His characters range from creepy lecherous street drifters pawing at bar room dancers to the timid Dr. Arkham himself, who manages to stand out as an oddity in room equally with the shredded face of Jonah Hex.
Moritat also uses panels to their maximum effect as quantity is concerned. Instead of spending an entire issue on a fight scene, much like you’ll find has occurred with other New 52 superhero titles, Moritat (and presumably an equal hand at from tight scripting by Gray and Palmiotti), gives you all out action–as much as you’d expect and as much as the story requires–but it will be packed into 24 panels in two pages. When drawn on two 8.5X11 pages this just seems to require incredible precision and pacing.
I appreciate the fact that Moritat drew the first three covers and the interiors to all six issues so far. It’s pretty rare today for any comic book publisher to have the interior artist draw his/her own covers. The result is a cohesive whole from cover to cover in each issue. Moritat’s covers are single works of art themselves.
Gray and Palmiotti’s dialogue is the best around. By the end of issue one we had a full grasp of Dr. Arkham’s persnickety nature, and Jonah Hex’s dialogue is written like Mark Twain wrote the dialogue for Huck and Tom–“Ah” is how Jonah’s says “I,” for example. Where Arkham is long-winded, Hex’s words are few and far between and he speaks his own language, literally.
Recapping the first six months of All Star Western, issue one introduced how Arkham got hooked up with the violent Jonah Hex as they teamed up against skull-ringed members of Gotham’s society and a mission to find the one killer known as the Gotham Butcher.
In issue two Hex and Arkham hole up at Arkham’s house to defend themselves from an attack by those protecting this early brotherhood–a criminal religion of sorts. We get to see why a son of the confederacy as scarred and damaged as Hex is was able to survive for so long, as he uses his rifle to level pretty much everyone in his path. This leads Arkham and Hex to follow the carriage of the culprit who has kidnapped and tortured a local magistrate. The murderous thugs are too much for Hex as Hex tells Arkham to run. DC Comics couples the same writing team with artist Jordi Bernet on a two-part quick and dirty story featuring the masked hero El Diablo, concluding in issue three.
The reason Hex stumbled into Gotham City, the hunt to collect the bounty on three members of the Trapp gang, cause Hex to head out of town in issue three. A successful conclusion to their first mission, and Arkham coming out of his shell a bit, results in Hex being asked to join the police force (he refuses). Arkham is allowed to build a hospital to study the mind. But that all comes apart before it begins. Hex survives another attack, rescues, Arkham, and returns to his original pursuit.
Despite the unlikely team of Hex and Arkham splitting up in issue three, they are found back together again after Hex is offered $50,000 to locate a missing boy by the boys’ father. Money talks, and that is all that is needed to get Jonah Hex’s attention. After four issues the character of Hex is well established as a Han Solo, Dirty Harry of the Old West. He’s smarter than we read of a lot of real Old West legendary characters, like Jesse James, and smarter than later outlaw types like John Dillinger. He seems to follow the cowboy code to some extent, despite his chief tool of resolution being a quick draw. Despite Hex chalking up a body count, we like this anti-hero, and apparently his tough ways are par for the course in old Gotham. Following the main storyline, Phil Winslade joins the writing team for the beginning of a new monthly serial, this time a new three-part, mini-series called “The Barbury Ghost.”
In issue five the quest for the missing boy takes Arkham and Hex into the dark underbelly of Gotham, literally below Gotham in its caves that would one day house Bruce Wayne’s batcave. Saving the children is not as easy as they had figured and they get stranded in an underground river where they must fend off the Miagani, a Native American village living in the caves. And Hex continues ups his body count and must rescue Arkham yet again.
In the final chapter of the first major story arc, Hex and Arkham unravel who is behind the plot to use child labor to build the city’s sewer system, enlisting the help of the Wayne family, who live atop the batcaves.
All Star Western Vol. 1: Guns and Gotham is scheduled for release as a compilation in trade paperback in November, but individual issues are available in first and later printings. All Star Western is exciting, smart, and visually and interesting read. If you’re like this reader and have not thought to check out Western comics before now, this is a great place to begin and you won’t regret adding this series to your reading pile.