måndag 23 december 2013

Gray, Palmiotti & DeZuniga: Jonah Hex: No Way back

You know how in old movies, they have the bad guys do something really bad, like beat up or kill somebody, to show how bad they are? And how in old-but-not-that-old movies, say from the seventies-eighties, they have the bad guys do something really bad, like torture or kill somebody? And how in films from the nineties-onwards, they show how bad the bad guys are by having them do something really bad, like rape somebody or commit mass murder?

This evil-deeds inflation is something that bugs me; it seems the violence keeps getting nastier and gorier even in mainstream, big-studio movies, and it's real unpleasant to watch – and it also, IMO, shows a lack of respect for the characters in the story to so casually and cruelly use and abuse them just to paint the bad guys as sufficient monsters to justify all the vicious violence the hero will use against them. Yes, I know, those characters aren't really real, but it still bugs me, even apart from the aspect that I don't think it's a good thing to normalize really nasty acts of violence. It's just lazy – "we can't be bothered to spend time and energy to do actual characterization, because we'd rather use that time for explosions and overlong action/fight scenes". Bleah.

Anyway, let's leave the big-budget, well-crafted (if not necessarily good) movies and move to the done-more-on-the-cheap B and C movie fare that can be seen so frequently on television and in the dvd rental shops. Here, the same technique for establishing the bad guys' badness is used, but it's done even more slapdash, with even more clichéd situations and dialogue. They can't be bothered to use a writer who writes dialogue that actually sonds like something real people might conceivably say. Also, the same laziness and recourse to stereotypes can be seen in the way the setting for the film is established. You know how John Ford would use the landscape not just to establish the setting, but also to create a mood, in his movies? Well, nowadays, in the B fare, you'll see a couple of standard scenes to establish the setting and basic premise of the story, and then the moviemakers'll go straight to the trite fight scenes – which is, after all, what their audience is there to see.

This can be done very swiftly. For a western, you can have a stranger riding into a town dragging three dead bodies behind his horse. Scared women peak through their windows and then quickly draw the curtains. A rich fat cat observes from his office on the second floor above the saloon; then nods to his (ugly) henchman: "Check out who this guy is." A couple of prostitutes hanging out outside the saloon come on to the stranger with some lewd suggestions. Another, better-looking prostitute recognizes the stranger, greets him by name and is rewarded with a crooked grin and a promise to look her up later. Hard-looking men walking down the street pause, look at the stranger, then on the corpses he's dragging along, and spit at them. Finally, the stranger reins in his horse in front of the sheriff's office, and a frightened-looking, not particularly athletic or young sheriff comes out from his office and asks why the stranger had to come with the Holder boys to his town; he has enough problems as it is.

Now, I'd be the first to admit that the above isn't any great writing, but I'm betting you already know how that film would play out. That's because we've already seen basically the same story again and again – and sometimes the film is actually good, because it is well made, has some good dialogue, and good acting. Mostly, however, it's not very good; in fact, usually, it kind of sucks, because everything seems done by rote and nothing is original, not even – or rather, especially – the sadistic, sociopathic depredations of the bad guys. And it still "works", at some level, because even though very little care goes into crafting how the story unfolds, because we already know the story so well, we still know what's going on – leaving the moviemakers free to concentrate on the stock confrontational scenes that is the film's real raison d'être.

And that brings me to Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Tony DeZuniga's Jonah Hex: No Way Back.

The previous, Swedish-language, review was basically a lament that All-Star Western: Guns And Gotham was basically Jonah jumping from situation to situation where he could shoot-shoot-shoot and punch-punch-punch more-more-more than anybody else; not winning his battles through any cleverness but just the incompetence of his multitudes of enemies, who can't seem to hit him even though they're two dozens and he's basically standing unprotected out in the open while he's gunning them down by the, well, dozens. So I wasn't happy with it.

Anyway, I figured I'd give them one more chance, as I'd already bought this book quite a while ago, and it had the art of good ol' Tony DeZuniga, the original Jonah artist, whom I've always appreciated.

Anyway, in No Way Back we are told the story of how Jonah was left by his mother in the uncaring hands of his vicious beast of a father, and how he many years later happens to find his mother, an alcoholic prostitute with tuberculosis, and learns from her – through basically torturing her by withholding booze from her until she tells him what he wants to know – that he has a half-brother. Then she dies. Jonah takes the coffin with his dead (and now rather smelly) mother to the peaceful town where the brother lives and works as a sheriff and preacher. Meanwhile, he also finds time to use a beautiful young woman who's turned on by this merciless killer for sex, and to casually kill a very large bunch of Mexican criminals who've murdered a bunch of innocent indians for the bounty the government has put on Apache scalps. As it happens, the leader of the gang they belong to very much wants to hurt and kill Jonah, so he follows in his tracks, casually torturing, murdering and raping the people Jonah's been in contact with.

I won't give away the final battle and its ending; instead I'll just note two things:
a) How well the story conforms to the stereotyped generic story I outlined above; you've seen all these elements before, and you don't get much more than just the bare basics of characterization, because, well, you know, you already know all the elements of tis story anyway, don't you?
b) It's not really the fact that the story is clichéd that annoys me, it's how it's done with so little flair. Jonah being abused by his father, his relationship with his mother, the contrast between himself and his goody-two-shoes brother – all this is stuff that could have made for really interesting reading if Gray and Palmiotti had bothered to delve a bit more deeply into it instead of concentrating on "boy, Jonah is one tough, bad hombre, delivering casually cruel and hard lines with inerrant reliability, doesn't he?" and "boy, Jonah sure guns down bad guys casually and brutally efficiently, without a scintilla of emotion, doesn't he?".

I doesn't help that DeZuniga's art isn't really up to his old standards; in fairness, he was an old man when he drew this, and perhaps already marked by illness, but it's still too sketchy, anatomically weak and stiff in the movements of the characters at times to be really enjoyable; at times it reminded me of sort of a Gene Colan who'd lost his elegance and was inked by some awkward, not-very good inker. At basically 4-to-6 panels per page, the individual pictures are so large that they really need an artist that's on his toes. Sadly DeZuniga wasn't here, despite his long history of excellent art, especially as an inker.

So this book suffers from a combination of unoriginal content and execution without flair. Not recommended. I recommend the first John Albano-written parts of Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex Vol 1 instead – and if the second volume, coming out very soon, includes the Michael Fleisher-scripted, Russ Heath-drawn story about Jonah's ultimate death and taxidermy (yes, you read that one correctly), I'll recommend that as well. But Jonah Hex: No Way Back is just a B movie.

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