Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s All-Star Western #34. Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (Batwing, Star-Spangled War Stories) with art by Darwyn Cooke (Richard Stark’s Parker, DC: The New Frontier) and colorist Dave Stewart (Hellboy In Hell, B.P.R.D.), this issue closes out a monumental 104-issue run by showcasing the value of genre diversity at superhero publishers. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
Writing 104 consecutive issues of a title is impressive in itself, but the fact that Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti accomplished that feat on a Western series at modern-day DC Comics is downright astounding. Since debuting their initial Jonah Hex series in 2005, Gray and Palmiotti have done remarkable work diving into the scarred bounty hunter’s character and expanding the world of the DC Universe’s Wild West, shining a brighter spotlight on other Western superheroes when the book was rebranded as All-Star Western after the New 52 relaunch.
While the rest of DC’s line became increasingly homogenized, All-Star Western stood out as a refreshingly idiosyncratic title, but that didn’t translate to sales. The writers tried to boost interest by finding clever ways to cross over with events unfolding in other DC titles—going so far as transplanting Jonah Hex into the present-day DCU for a fish-out-of-water arc—but ultimately it wasn’t enough to keep the title afloat in a competitive marketplace.
And that’s totally fine. DC has been more than patient with All-Star Western, and clearly respects Gray and Palmiotti’s passion for the character and the time period. It’s sad to lose the series because of the genre diversity it brought to DC’s line, but this book has been winding down to a natural conclusion for the last year. It’s the right time to say goodbye, and the series bows with an exquisite finale that embodies all the qualities that made it last for nine years.
Gray and Palmiotti have worked with some of the industry’s top artists in their 104-issue run. The brilliant Moritat handled the majority of the artwork for All-Star Western, and Jonah Hex had the writers collaborating with A-list creators like Jordi Bernet, Phil Noto, Darwyn Cooke, Eduardo Risso, and Fiona Staples. This run has featured some of DC’s most visually engaging and surprising comics of the past decade, and that artistic excellence is put on full display with Darwyn Cooke’s exquisite work on All-Star Western #34.
Cooke’s understanding of character expression, environmental detail, and action staging heightens the impact of every aspect of this story, and pairing him with frequent collaborator Dave Stewart creates a beautifully lush visual experience. Stewart’s skill with textures adds an earthy realism to the art, but he maintains the cleanliness of Cooke’s linework. The visuals are grounded, not gritty, and the natural humor of Cooke’s animated style creates an intriguing contrast between the serious story and the cartoonish art. (It’s a contrast that Cooke also takes advantage of in his Parker adaptations for IDW.)
The splendor of Darwyn Cooke’s art for this issue’s opening two-page splash captures all the joy and freedom Jonah and his partner Tallulah Black feel when they’re isolated in a serene, quiet place. It’s a breathtaking nature illustration that throws the reader into the environment with incredible force, and Stewart’s colors reflect the relaxed atmosphere of this private hideaway. The relationship of warm and cool shades plays a large part in the ambience, with Stewart striking a precise balance of complementary blues and oranges to visually evoke the romantic feelings of Jonah and Tallulah. She is connected to the water’s cool tones by the blue highlights in her hair, while Jonah’s orange locks connect him with the warm hues of the earth that surrounds the lake.
The playful mingling of the colors on the page reinforces the well-balanced relationship at the heart of this issue, but Stewart’s intent is completely different when he returns to that hot/cold contrast later in the issue. After the aquatic canoodling, the pair heads into town to confront a scarred man using Jonah Hex’s name, launching an assault on the imposter’s hotel in the middle of the night.
The sequence sees Stewart playing with the balance of warm and cool shades to amplify the initial suspense and the force of the ensuing action, beginning by covering everything with a deep grayish blue that erupts into fiery orange when Jonah starts shooting his way through a burning hotel. Unlike the shades in the opening sequence, the intensity of the hot and cold colors puts them at odds on the page. Rather than coming together in a softer middle ground, these colors are moving farther away from each other to create strong visual tension on the page, which is very valuable when the scene shows one man confronting his former self and sticking a knife in his heart.
All-Star Western #34 is packed with callbacks: Narration from the first page of the first issue of Jonah Hex is repeated in a different context on the final page; buildings are named after past artists on Gray and Palmiotti’s run (Bernet Livery, El Noto Ladie’s Wear, Moritat’s); and the entire plot is a revisionist take on 1979’s “The Last Bounty Hunter,” the story of Jonah Hex’s death in the pre-Crisis DC continuity. Healing the title character’s scars through the wonders of modern plastic surgery may have eliminated Jonah’s signature design element, but it makes this week’s excellent story possible, giving the writers the opportunity to take a classic Jonah Hex story and put their own spin on it.
“The Last Bounty Hunter!” had Jonah Hex getting shot during a game of poker by a man named George Barrow, the name that a non-scarred Jonah assumes in this issue after seeing George Brand flour being carried in a wheel barrow. Various characters from the 1979 story reprise their roles in this issue, and that knowledge and appreciation of the past has been one of this run’s most admirable qualities. The writers gave Jonah considerably more emotional depth and historical significance over the course of their run, but they never lost sight of the attitude that makes him such a cool character.
Jonah Hex’s scar meant he would never be able to escape his reputation, but that all changes when his face was healed. He now has the opportunity to walk away from his old life, and discovering a Jonah Hex impostor makes it even easier for the real Jonah to make a complete break from who he used to be. By publicly murdering the fake, Jonah puts the final nail in the coffin of his old scarred self, choosing to embrace a life of love and happiness on the open sea with Tallulah.
“The Last Bounty Hunter!” was a depressing, cynical end to Jonah’s story, but All-Star Western #34, appropriately titled “The Final Curtain,” takes a much more inspirational and hopeful path that leaves the reader feeling elated by the end. It’s not the kind of ending that is expected for rough characters like Jonah and Tallulah, but after everything they’ve gone through, they deserve a chance to spend the rest of their days in peace.