In the early 1990s, DC launched the Vertigo imprint on the back of years of comics full of sophisticated suspense – with long-running titles like Sandman, Hellblazer and Doom Patrol easily and obviously folded into the new mature readers line, keeping the cool kids coming back.
It was still finding its feet in the early days, though. Those first few months and years were full of wild experimentation, even if the tried and true tactic of ‘getting some British guy to write it’ didn’t always pay off. The line only really started to find its voice by embracing the sexy, with legendary editor Karen Berger and her crew deciding they wanted their comics smart and they wanted them attractive.
So they made comics that made all the goths feel a bit funny inside, and comics for the club kids who wanted to look at the bright pictures while coming down at dawn. There were, also, comics that made attempts at non-binary identification that can now feel horribly ham-fisted, but were genuinely progressive at the time.
However, one of the line’s first notable little hits didn’t just reject any kind of sex appeal, it took down its drawers and took a giant turd on the very idea. In fact, Joe R Lansdale, Tim Truman and Sam Glanzman’s revival of the classic Western character Jonah Hex were arguably the least sexy comics Vertigo ever published, revelling in filth and dirt to a truly disquieting degree.
And while a lot of Vertigo’s shambling early efforts now look like adolescent fumblings, the most ornery Jonah Hex comics of all still stand tall.
Hex was created in 1972 by writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga as an obvious answer to the revisionist westerns that filled cinema at the time, with his history and character fleshed out by writer Michael Fleisher in a long run. Wherever he rode, people spoke his name in whispers.
The series was always a bit meaner and a bit weirder than your average cowboy comic, and lasted for a decade, long after more square-jawed cowboys like the Two-Gun Kid and the Lone Ranger bit the dust. It ended after a brief diversion into science fiction as DC comics hurtled towards its first big Crisis and then Jonah didn’t really have much of a place in the new DC universe. He became a legend and an easter egg and a stuffed corpse in a carnival. (No, really; the series ends by showing his corpse, stuffed, in a carnival. The 1980s could be surprisingly brutal.)
And then someone at DC had the bright idea of getting Lansdale and Truman involved.
Joe R Lansdale was – and still is – a prolific and talented novelist and short story writer, who has found vast depths in the dark hearts of men and beasts, and mined genuinely unsettling horror on the back roads and swamps of East Texas. A sly wit with a genuine touch for the macabre, the fantastical and the weird, he can write gritty crime novels that scar your soul and stories about the God of Razors at the end of all things.
By the time he started on Hex, Tim Truman had established himself with the violent pan-dimensional western comic book series Grimjack and was fondly known as one of the few creators to actually make a decent Hawkman comic, while the third indispensable part of the team came in the form of veteran inker Sam Glanzman, who always delivered on the shocking bloodshed.
When, in mid-1993, less than six months after Vertigo launched, Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo blasted on the scene, it was easily the grossest thing in the entire line.
This was not the gorgeous intimacy of Peter Milligan’s Enigma and Shade comics, or the hot sweat of Rachel Pollack and Linda Medley’s Doom Patrol. There were no Constantine charms or the Endless possibilities of the Sandman’s family. It didn’t even have the seething repression of the Sandman Mystery Theatres.
Instead, Two Gun Mojo was just full of the ugliest people in the comics, with sweat and dirt and mud on every page. It does have Hex dosed up on drugs at some point, because it is a mature readers comic from the 90s, but his hellish trip stays mostly inside his ornery skull. A lot of people die very badly and the never-ending carnage brings instant flies and rapid decomposition, and the great bounty hunter Jonah Hex will literally hide in some manure if it’ll keep some bushwhacker from getting him while he sleeps. Assorted scum often accidentally shoot their own kin in the head.
The Truman/Glanzman team is one of the finest at this kind of grossness and, as a result, the old West never looked so moody. Truman’s line is always straight and clear, and that just gives you more detail of the mire.
Under their pen, Hex himself is grotesque. He is a tiny bit charming in his usually obvious manner, but is a world away from the rugged capability of Preacher’s Jessie Custer, or the fetish-wear fun of King Mob from Grant Morrisons’ The Invisibles. His trademark scar isn’t just a weird thing in the corner of his mouth, it’s a chasm of flesh ripping up the side of his face, into a devilish red eye. His hair is lanky and filled with beads, and his greys haven’t been washed since the war. He stinks.
In fact, there is a stench and aroma to the whole comic, not least because the unfortunate souls who dwell within these pages are always commenting on it. Baths are rare and good laundry rarer, and body odor is almost drifting on the page. A lot of the stink in their first Hex comic comes from the walking corpse of Wild Bill Hickock, still walking around and still shooting his pistols, long after he left most of his brains behind on the floor of a Deadwood bar.
None of this is a criticism – it takes real skill to get that kind of dank mood out of lines on paper, and while Truman’s clarity really brings out the horror of the tale, there is some definite deep south dark humor. These are inventive, smart and really fucking funny comics. But they really ain’t sexy.
(Unless this kind of thing is your kind of thing. Good for you. No judgments here.)
Even though it was still fucking around with comics about Di Vinci and adaptions of the Tank Girl movie, Vertigo was well into the sexy two years later, with The Invisibles and Preacher underway, and Tim Hunter getting his faerie freak on. Animal Man and Black Orchid came to hot and heavy conclusions and a whole generation of geeky kids would give everything up for the heroes drawn by Phillip Bond in Kill Your Boyfriend – never realising that they’ll always be the Paul in that story.
But again, after Two Gun Mojo had been successful enough to be quickly collected, Jonah Hex came along to stink up the joint, with the truly repulsive second series, Riders Of The Worm and Such. Lansdale’s stories have often had the edge of the fantastical, and Hex stumbles into a proper science fiction story for the first time since his 80s adventures in the future. There’s worm people and lost underground civilizations and graffiti left by Cave Carson and Rip Hunter.
It’s still another gross experience, with plenty of filth. Oscar Wilde is in there, somehow, trying desperately to stir poetry in the hearts of Americans, but getting the tar beaten out of him by inbreeds and rednecks. There is the only real sex scene in this cycle of Hex, and it explicitly takes place on the grave of a dead cat, and a truly horrific home invasion yields even more terrible results.
The comic even gained some weird fame when Johnny and Edgar Winter sued the creators for the portrayal of the (definitely fictional, and in no way related to the Winter Brothers) characters, the Autumn Brothers. Lansdale said it was all satire and part of the story’s general pastiche of Texan music, but you almost can’t blame the Winters for taking such offense, when their analogues are thick as pigshit and have revolting tentacles bursting from their chests. (The case was thrown out of court.)
There was one final burst of this Hex in the last year of 20th century, when Vertigo were starting to look for a new direction while several legacy titles started to wrap up. The comics that would keep the imprint strong for another decade – Y: The Last Man, Fables and 100 Bullets – were still around the corner, but nobody seemed very interested in following the example of Jonah Hex: Shadows West.
It’s a relatively quiet final three-issue bow for the Lansdale/Truman/Glanzman Jonah Hex, with a lot of straight action and more absurd humor, with Hex is blasting away at a carnival crew to save a baby with the head of a bear. Jonah and his world is still as gross as ever, and still an outlier in Vertigo’s dreamy line-up.
And despite the consistent solidity of this interpretation, that was all the world got of this Hex. Lansdale and Truman worked so well together (and still do, with the artist providing spot illustrations for the writer’s Ned The Seal adventures as recently as 2019), but there was no more of this Jonah.
Shortly after the Two Gun Mojo series, they also produced a revisionist Lone Ranger – he gets his teeth knocked out by Tonto on page one – for Topps Comics that also embraced the weird, but didn’t quite have Hex’s truly grungy attitude. After Hex, Truman drew an adaption of Lansdale’s short story On The Far Side Of The Desert With Dead Folk for Avatar Press, with lots of dusty zombie carnage and grotesque undead nuns, kept fresh through the miracle of refrigeration.
As for Jonah, there was a movie that nobody ever needs to talk about ever again, and the character was revived with a new comic series in the 22nd century, led by writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, who proved far more suited to short, weird western tales than long-winded superhero nonsense. But with glamorous artists like Darwyn Cooke, Moritat and Jordi Bernet on the character, they couldn’t help but make Jonah more palatable. He certainly doesn’t stink that much, and that era of Hex even ends with an unscarred Jonah literally sailing off into the sunset and given the most unlikely of happy endings.
The Jonah Hex of the Vertigo series had no sailboat in his future, he would be lucky to keep his skin away from roving Native Americans with legitimate grievances. His was a harsh world and he was a harsh man.
The entire Vertigo imprint itself faded away several years ago. Some sex appeal is still dripping off the pages of the books that remain in print, but any new reader who stumbles across this Jonah better be prepared to get dirty. And speak his name in whispers.