All-Star Western, Vol. 1: Guns and Gotham review

Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have been writing Jonah Hex stories for a good long while now but with the start of the New 52 they’ve mixed things up a bit by bringing Hex to the burgeoning city of Gotham and tying his adventure closer to Batman lore. He confronts the Crime Bible, partners with Jeremiah Arkham, and even the Court of Owls make a brief appearance. So that’s why we here at Batman-News.com are taking the time to examine All-Star Western, Vol. 1: Guns and Gotham.

Content

This TPB collects the first six issues of this series and I have actually read the first two chapters back when the New 52 originally began. I found All-Star Western #1 to be a terrific read but #2 disappointed me enough that I dropped the title and waited for a collected edition (I have a lot less patience for $4+ comics). Little did I know it would take this long for it to finally get published!

Now let me say right out of the gate that I’ve never read the Jonah Hex comics before All-Star Western. My familiarity with the character comes from a great Ra’s Al Ghul episode of Batman: The Animated Series, the god-awful Jonah Hex movie (which is really, really bad. I think it was cut down to only 80 minutes or so), and this:

That show doesn’t get enough credit

He’s a character I’ve never known much about, but one that I always liked based off of what little I’ve seen (except for the movie, that was a travesty) so I was excited to pick this book up. The first chapter is impeccably drawn by Moritat, whose sketchy style really made Gotham and all of its grime and grit come alive. This chapter has Jonah Hex coming to Gotham to collect a bounty on three bad dudes when he somehow finds himself smack-dab in the middle of a Jack the Ripper style murder case. But All-Star Western isn’t a book that keeps things as simple as that. It’s not a traditional western by any means. Those looking for something akin to John Ford/Sergio Leone films, Larry McMurtry novels, or the TV show Deadwood are likely to be disappointed by this. Instead, All-Star Western takes the pulp route and delivers some really over the top, fantastical scenarios in a setting that feels less like the old west and more like drizzly 19th century London.

Still, you’ve got to salute them for trying something different. It’s Jonah Hex, but with a Holmes/Watson/buddy cop kind of twist. He partners with Amadeus Arkham, who is the exact opposite of Hex and serves as the Murtaugh to Hex’s Riggs. They’re always bickering and it leads to some pretty funny moments but overall Arkham doesn’t really contribute much to the journey other than providing the narration that the strong and silent Jonah Hex otherwise wouldn’t. It’s interesting at first to see Jonah Hex in a totally new environment bringing old west justice to an east coast that thinks it’s more civilized than it really is, but neither of the two stories collected in these 6 issues found a resolution. By the time I finished the book I was ready to see Hex leave Gotham and go back across the Mississippi where maybe he can find a case that can be followed through to completion.

As the book goes on the artwork wavered slightly, getting a bit too crude and un-detailed in some panels. Certain characters wouldn’t have faces in wide shots while extreme close-ups had messy faces filled with too many lines. Some chapters felt more rushed than others. Even the typically muted colors that work great throughout the series falter in one scene that’s supposed to be in complete darkness but looks overwhelmingly bright due to the shade of blue that was chosen for a nearby waterfall. Also, as the book went on the threats became more ridiculous. It went from Snidely Whiplash-like villains who worship evil on to a second story that was a knock-off of Temple of Doom immediately followed by an attack by a giant underground monster.

I know a lot of readers like exaggerated, more fantastical action in their comics so if you just want to relax and see your favorite cowboy kick the crap out of evil-doers and the occasional larger than life creature then this book is going to knock your socks off. But if you’re looking for a more traditional western that’s more grounded then you’re going to furrow your brow at the one-dimensional baddies, gigantic sewer systems, monsters, and the way the bad guys take Jonah’s guns but let him keep a hatchet.

The plot might not be that great, but the book’s strength comes from its main character, it’s unique art style, and Amadeus Arkham’s narration, which only stumbled around chapter 4 when it switches from the prose coming directly from Amadeus’ diary (which he is seen scribbling in throughout the first half of the book) to him talking directly to the reader breaking the 4th wall.

I do feel though that the book’s greatest strength should be that when you read All-Star Western you get to take a break from the superheroes who dominate the comic book market. You don’t get that sort of break here. There are way too many nods to Grant Morrison’s Batman run and they went way overboard on the Court of Owls imagery. It’s distracting. A key scene was absolutely overwhelmed by owls making it look ridiculous and it totally pulled me out of the story.

And like all too many of these New 52 TPBs, there’s no ending!!!! The story covered in the first 3 issues didn’t conclude and the story from the last 3 issues leaves you with a cliffhanger. So it left me pretty unsatisfied. I’ll be back to read Volume 2, of course. What was here was plenty entertaining, but when I read a book I want things to pay off in the end.

Notes:

  • Fun, adventurous tone but rarely feels like a Western
  • Unique art style that fits the material and sets the book apart
  • Jonah Hex is a great protagonist with depth
  • Clever choice of partner, Amadeus Arkham complements Hex well
  • Rich narration
  • Poor, one-dimensional villains
  • Plenty of over-the-top action
  • Distracting, unnecessary nods to Morrison’s Batman run and Snyder’s Court of Owls
  • Doesn’t have a satisfying ending
  • Dull back-up stories
  • Really cool, detailed bonus material
  • Fairly priced

Supplemental Material

Seeing as how Hex is the main attraction I suppose you could call the bonus stories of El Diablo and The Barbary Ghost bonus material, but the real extras here are the sketches by Moritat. Looking at these pages really makes you appreciate his attention to detail. There are 10 pages in total, way more than what’s typical in these New 52 trade paperbacks. Each one shows his notes and rough sketches of various characters, uniforms, weaponry, clothing, and hair styles of the time period. It’s fascinating stuff and worth checking out.

Value

It’s available at a good price. If you buy it in shops it’ll be $16.99 which is already less than it would’ve cost you to purchase single issues. The Amazon price of $11.35 is cheaper than it would be to buy 3 monthly floppy issues of this series.

Overall

The good guys are really interesting and play off each other well, but the book needs better villains and it needs to stop worrying about connecting itself to Batman and just focus on creating its own mythology. It’s an alright read and those who love comics with monsters and big action should enjoy it but I don’t think All-Star Western is reaching its full potential as long as Hex has to stay in the shadow of the bat.

SCORE: 7/10

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