Friday, October 21, 2011

My Heart Rebels and Longs for Vast, Open Fields

Today, there is no perfect western.

That’s a shame, because that is what this blog is for.  Any media, cross genre, out seeking the perfect western.  Lately I am having trouble finding anything that engages me. 

I blame the mountains.  Two weeks of hiking in Utah has ruined me for the virtual experience rather than the visceral one.  I don’t want to watch, I want to do.  I don’t want to be served, I want to create.  I don’t want to let the news tell me what’s happening, I want to go to Wall Street and see for myself.  I don’t want to read Batman comics, I want to be wrapped up in a Poison Ivy plot.

There just doesn’t seem to be magic today in the words on the page or the motions on the screen.  I keep ranging about looking for something that can take me back to a high, dry place in the hours between work and sleep and am coming up short.  My own novel lies untouched for weeks, yet my masterful article on financing safety technology for concrete pumpers (from my day job) is the talk of the office.  Truth be told, I have no idea what a concrete pumper is.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West has been sitting nearly finished on my book shelf for several years.  Many years ago I gave a copy of The Big Sky to my father, an avid reader of Bernard DeVoto’s histories, and suggested that we read The Big Sky together.  I had no idea what an emotional trainwreck reading that novel would be.  The story of Boone, a not too intelligent, overly violent man and his quest to find peace in the mountains ends in a series of tragedies and disasters.  My father read The Big Sky, then its next five sequels (including the Way West) within a month.  He sent me his copies and told me to keep up.

When I finally slogged my way through the beautiful but tragic language of The Big Sky I set out to read The Way West.  While The Big Sky’s narrator was little more than rage barely restrained, Dick Summers of The Way West swims in a constant tide of melancholy and introspection.  As he travels by wagon train over lands he rode as a mountain man he laments the passing of his old world, where adventure and danger lay in every pass, where the attentions of young native women were easily had, where every daybreak was golden and every breath magnificent. 

Of course Guthrie won a Pulitzer for The Way West.  Who doesn’t feel that way?  In the history Greek Adventure: Lord Byron and Other Eccentrics in the War of Independence, there is a line that says men are often drawn to lands where they were young and successful.  Thus for me England, Scotland, the Rockies, are part of the sad dream of the past that Dick Summers sees riding through the plains. Knowing that The Big Sky ends in a series of tragedies I have never had the guts to see what happens to Dick Summers in the last pages of The Way West.

Where westerns are failing me lately, my mind returns again and again to a single line from a comic book with the unlikely title of G.I. Joe: Cobra Special #1- “I’m a veteran businessman, but my heart rebels and longs for vast, open fields.”  Nothing else in this world sums it up better.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The New All Star Western #1- The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

DC Comics recently cancelled all of its long running comics then relaunched fifty two of them in a vast marketing effort called 52.  There is something mystical connection to 52 in the DC offices that I don’t get, but I’m sure someone out there understands.  The only DC comic that I have purchased on a regular basis for a number of years was Jonah Hex, so to me this just meant a relaunch of that series, but as I started to see what they were working on I got intrigued.  DC is essentially “Ultimizing” their line in the way that Marvel did ten years ago, and merging the DC Earth-1 Universe with the Wildstorm Universe, allowing Batman and Superman to play with Midnighter and Apollo.  Alright, enough comics nerdery, let’s get back to Jonah Hex’s new home in All Star Western.

The Good
The Writing- Palmiotti and Gray have consistently nailed the character of Jonah Hex.  My favorite interpretation of the character for years was the Tim Truman and Joe Lansdale version, but this version’s grim, decadent, violent manner has won me over.  There are lots of dark comics characters out there, but in this case Palmiotti and Grey weave details of his past that make Hex three dimensional.

The Art- One thing that I enjoyed about the last Jonah Hex series was the rotating artists.  Some I liked, some I loved (that’s you, Mr. Kubert!), and some just didn’t work, but it was always fresh.  I was disappointed to see that there would be one consistent artist, but if the first issue is any indication they made a good choice in the art team.  The coloring, in particular, is great.

The Bad
The Setting- All Star Western #1 takes place in Gotham City, which we are presumed to believe takes place along the Atlantic coast somewhere in the Northeast.  The story is a Jack the Ripper / From Hell type plot that is firmly embedded in the squalor of 19th century industrial cities.  No wild west here, and that is a damn shame.

The ghost of Jonah Hex once possessed a supermodel
The Plotting- To me the best part about the last Jonah Hex series was that it was for the most part one issue stories, with a few two or three part tales and in one instance (Six-Gun War) a six part story.  You could pick up one issue and not need to understand the complex backstory to understand it.  At several points they even referenced Jonah Hex’s Chinese wife, who to my recollection hasn’t made a comics appearance in three decades, yet even without that in depth knowledge of Hex’s tale it was still enjoyable.  Now we seem to have an ongoing series rather than a collection of one shots, which takes something away from the flow of the last series.  To make matters worse it is now definitely set in the DC Universe.  I recognized ancestors of Batman and the Penguin, as well as the founder of Arkham Asylum.  This wouldn’t be so bad if DC hadn’t fraked with Jonah Hex so often in their mainline comics- he has always stood best on his own.

The Ugly
It only comes out once a month!  Despite some reservations, All Star Western was still good.  Something only tangentially Western is still better than no Western at all.  I hope that it quickly goes back to being a Western and that some of my other favorite DC cowpokes (especially Bat Lash) find their way back in. Having just read the plot outline for the first four issues, though, it looks like the sagebrush and tumbleweed will have to wait until 2012 at least.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jonah Hex- Why Comic Book Movies Shouldn’t Look Like Comic Books

I was playing cards with a friend last night (unfortunately not with whiskey and not while smoking bad ‘backy in a saloon) and we got to discussing Jonah Hex.  We both like the character and he collected the comic for a time.  He asked me if I liked the movie.  “Honestly, I’ve never seen the whole thing,” I told him.  “I didn’t go see it in the theater, and whenever I try to watch it on cable after twenty minutes of so I end up thinking of something better that I could be doing- taking a nap, going for a run, writing, reading, doing taxes, cutting my grass, methodically banging my head against the wall, stuff like that.”

When the Jonah Hex movie was first announced I was pretty excited about it.  It wasn’t long before I started lowering my expectations.  First were the Josh Brolin interviews, where he basically intimated that after making great movies like No Country For Old Men and W, he was ready to make a bad movie from a bad script.  Way to sell the concept, big guy.  Then the publicity shots all had Megan Fox walking around half naked with an impossibly thin waist. Surely every faithful reader knows that Hex has a weakness for dirty frontier soiled doves, but there’s got to be more to the movie that this, right?  The final straw came when Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray interviewed the director in an issue of the comic.  He claimed to have read all of the comics and loved them.  Then Palmiotti and Gray asked him what his favorite scene from the comics was.

Great question.  So many scenes to choose from.  One showing Hex’s deep loathing and self-doubt?  One of the amazing flashbacks with his father?  One of his grim determination and utter lack of compassion?  No, the director said he liked the scene with the kid fighting the dog.  From the first issue.  Certainly an interesting image, but hardly a cornerstone for the comic. 

Upon watching parts and pieces of the movie I was left with the impression that the creators flipped through a few issues of the comic, liked the imagery, then threw in a bunch of things that they felt were more “comic-booky”- talking to the dead, Gatling guns on the horse, the dynamite crossbows, the secret lairs, the Joker-esque villain, etc.  In an effort to make the movie feel like the comic, they tried to make it feel like a generic comic book.  That is where they failed.

This image upsets my notions of firearms and physics
Great comic book movies do not look like comic books.  X-Men 2 was an espionage thriller.  X-Men: First Class was a James Bond movie with super powers.  Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films succeed because they do not feel like they are comic book movies.  They are disturbing, gritty crime stories filled with human emotion. 

The owner of a local comic shop told me that he thought the Hex property was too good to ignore, and that a better movie will be made despite the massive failure of Jonah Hex.  I doubt it.  If we are lucky we may see a great Hex movie some day, but in the mean time I’ll stick to the comics.