Sunday, September 6, 2015

Good readings: The Westerns

As a child I was always the American Indians, and my brother was always the cowboys.  He liked the Lone Ranger, I liked Turok.  I was not, nor am I presently anti-cowboy, simply, I was drawn to the people who knew the land, used those awesome bows and arrows, and could bring down a dinosaur in the lost valley.  And beyond that, I liked Turok and Andar, but I liked dinosaurs way more than either cowboys or Indians, regarding books or comics.  Large dinosaurs such as irradiated ones like Godzilla were my very favorites, but I digress.

I think there have been some great western themed comics in recent years, not many, but in my opinion at least, the majority of them were better than those I read from the past.  The writing was superior, the art was often better, and, I think for the fact that there is in the present a desire to avoid telling lies in the disguise of myth instead more truth in the content leads to better stories.

Sometimes artists and writers from outside the culture that the legends and stories occur within tell a better story than those within the culture.  This might be from the distance and looking from the outside in, or affection for the theme, or perhaps just because the talents were able to grow up without the stereotyped cultural symbols and could develop on their own.  The best example of this is Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius, from France.  He created alongside Belgian writer Jean-Michel Charlier, Lieutenant Blueberry.  He was not a stereotypical western figure, as might be expected, and remains an interesting figure for the present audience of comics.

The best part of Jean Giraud (Moebius) doing western comics were the many gorgeous heavily detailed images he conjured.  Color photos of the time could never have been nearly so beautiful.  And since we only have colorized images, we might as well soak in the beauty, because they are the best we can hope for.

People do have expectations of their heroes and villains of the American West.  Without question, most works succeed in providing the readers with fulfilled expectations.  However, in the US comics market, while their might still be an opening for westerns, it is not a large one.  Some have suggested that the theme is tired, a vein of ore that has been fully exploited, or simply, that the best tales have been told.   Which is, of course, bullshit.  If every movie at the cinema, on the internet, home video, and television had Adolf Hitler as the villain, you might well argue, he is overused.  If every time there is a villain behind a terrible event in comics, you find it is the Joker, you might argue, he is overused, but westerns are not any different than any other genre, the imagination's limitations are the sole factor limiting the genre.

There are many talented writers in the world of comics.  Some give you the straight story, some take you on a twisted path, while the guy who I think is best, Chuck Dixon, tells you an action packed story, with dialogue that sounds real, and in the end you feel satisfied, excited, and looking forward to the next chapter or volume.  Dixon's best works are not label ready, except for the label of high quality and worth your while.

Jonah Hex is DC Comics most successful character of the American West.  He was an abused child, sold into slavery, left for dead twice, his background story gave him many aspects of story telling for the quality writer.  The visual look of Hex that is memorable is that his face was scarred in punishment for killing the son of an American Indian chief.  Hex is a man of a bitter soul, having been cheated, betrayed, scarred and hated, but he has a moral code, that often comes into conflict with a desire to punish his tormentors.  Michael Fleisher and Tony DeZuniga were great tellers of the earlier Jonah Hex works, and they've been collected in B/W large volumes.

Jonah Hex was reintroduced to the reading audience in 2006 with Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray writing.  The series was vibrant, utilizing themes and consistency that allowed for longer, more detailed stories.  With the writing team being the same over time, there grew a hum and dynamism between the writing team and rotating art teams.  Rather than being relegated to back up stories and short works, the character was fully developed in serious, dark, mature toned work.

John Ostrander is one of the best comic writers of the present day. Apache Skies and Blaze of Glory feature Marvel's more popular Western characters, placed in danger, and exciting action.  Illustrated by Leonardo Manco, both series are recent demonstrations that comics in such settings are fun, wildly exciting, and work in the present day.  Ostrander does more than westerns, as is also true with Manco.  But, I'd be happy with both getting together again and doing more, or doing their own with new talents. 

Joe Lansdale, John Ostrander and Timothy Truman created in stories of the American West in such ways that there was a power, and epic weirdness.  Jonah Hex was a portion of the weirdness, but there was so much more.  Truman's skills as a creator and artist sang with the words created by Lansdale and Ostrander.  The story found in The Kents is a generational saga, and one that shows how foreshadowing and legend can precede an upcoming event.  It is magical.   With the three series of Hex you find magic, occult and mythic tales with allegorical content.  Hex is neither good guy or bad guy, and not even an anti hero, he is a person trapped between forces that threaten him, and he responds.  This is great stuff.

Lastly, and by no means is that to imply any sort of order of preference, Timothy Truman's drawing pencil and ink pen was put to work again, but with his words to follow.  He adapted Tecumseh by Allan W. Eckert, and wrote and illustrated the life of "renegade' white man Simon Girty, in the work called Wilderness.  Truman was born for this.

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