With the film of DC’s scarred cowboy Jonah Hex riding into theaters on June 18, it’s only appropriate that the writers of Hex’s monthly series would pull out something special for the occasion.
And indeed they have, with No Way Back an original graphic novel illustrated by Tony DeZuniga, who co-created Hex back in the 1970s, and has held onto this idea for decades. It’s a tale that reveals a previously unknown aspect of Hex’s past…his brother.
Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti stopped by to tell us about Hex’s latest bounty, why they’d like to do more original graphic novels in the series, some of the artists they’d love to work with on the monthly series, and more.
Newsarama: Guys, sell us about the storyline for No Way Back.
Justin Gray: John Albano and Tony DeZuniga originally conceived the premise for this story, but were unfortunately unable to tell it for one reason or another. Tony mentioned to us that they’d wanted to do a story that involved Jonah Hex having a brother.
The original hardcover has grown from that seed into a very personal and revealing look at Jonah Hex in ways that we haven’t fully explored in the book. Because the hardcover is meant to open up the world to Jonah Hex around the release of the film and hopefully bridge the gap from film to comics, we wanted to do something special.
It works both as a standalone story and a gateway to the monthly series.
Nrama: Why did you want to tell this story as a graphic novel and not part of the regular series?
Jimmy Palmiotti: With the movie coming out and the extra attention the character would be getting, we pitched the graphic novel as a special project where we would get to work with the legendary Tony DeZuniga.
This is also a story that could never be told in a single issue…or even a couple of issues. At the same time, we are always looking for ideas and different formats to expand on for Jonah other than the monthlies. This is our first graphic novel for the character…and we are hoping it does well, so there could be others in the future.
Nrama: You've worked with Tony on the series before --what's your collaboration like? Given his long run on Hex, what do you feel Tony contributed to the legacy of the character?
Palmiotti: When I think of Hex and his origins, I think of Tony. I have been a fan of his art my whole life; so getting to work with him on a character he co-created is a real gift for us.
For anyone that has not had the opportunity to meet Tony, he is one of the sweetest, most giving people I have ever met and smart as a whip…the guy is a class act on every front, and we both are humbled in his presence.
For this overwhelming job, we totally let Tony do his thing and go to town on the book. In a lot of ways, it totally makes sense that Tony worked with us on this, because the half brother idea was something that Tony pitched to John Albano when they worked together on the original series.
Tony is responsible for the look and feel of the character. He is a staple in the legacy of Jonah Hex, and always will be.
Gray: I feel honored not only to have been working with Jimmy in writing Hex the last few years, but also to have collaborated with the artist responsible for bringing his iconic appearance to life.
There are so few opportunities for people that enter an industry, particularly one like comics, where you can work side-by-side with a legend. This is Hex as he was imagined decades ago.
Nrama: Tell us about this new character of Jonah Hex's brother. Who is he, and what kind of conflict is sparked between the two?
Gray: It felt very important to bring a contrast to Jonah Hex in the form of his brother, who is handsome and loves people, God and lives with an optimistic view of the future.
Basically he is the antithesis of Jonah Hex, and yet there is still something far more noble about the black, white and blood red world that Hex so desperately clings to. Needless to say these two brothers aren’t overjoyed to learn of each others existence.
Nrama: And the original solicitations say Tallulah Black is back -- and things were in a dark place with those two when last we saw. What is the status for them going into this story?
Palmiotti: Actually, Tallulah Black is not in this storyline at all. We last left her in issue 50, and she will be back soon in the regular series for sure.
Gray: Oddly enough, elements of the story in issue #50 were originally part of this OGN, but it was more important to keep the focus entirely on Jonah because of the relation to the film.
What happened creatively as a result manifested in two strong and personal Jonah Hex stories.
Nrama: How does this tie into the overall storyline of the comics?
Palmiotti: No Way Back is an important part of Jonah Hex’s life because it deals with his history in a big way. We visit Jonah as a child, dealing with the separation of his mother and father, and it also deals with Jonah confronting his mother much later on in life.
As well, the idea that Jonah has a half brother out there is another interesting idea and an important one in his overall history.
Gray: As I said it is a gateway between people that might be interested in reading about Hex after seeing the film and fans of the ongoing series. Much of what we’ve done is tell stand-alone stories, and that same premise works here, only with a much larger canvas.
Fans of the series are going to find everything they need in this book and people that know nothing about Hex will be able to pick it up and start reading without a learning curve. That’s been our goal all along – accessible storytelling every month in any form.
Nrama: What are some of your favorite classic Hex stories, by Tony or other creators? I'm particularly interested in your thoughts on “The Last Gunfighter...” (the controversial 1978 story flashing ahead to Hex’s last days, where he’s shot, stuffed and put on display in a Wild West show).
Palmiotti: “The Last Gunfighter” is a wonderful “what if” story, and I don’t look at it at all as Jonah’s last stand by any means. It’s a blast for sure, but I never felt it was the right ending for the man…just one that the writer imagined it would be…and what a story it was.
There are hints in the current series, here and there, that Jonah has a bigger plan than most people would think he would have, and if we had to go down that road one day, we would put it into effect…but honestly, why tell the death of a character when there are so many wonderful stories to tell while he is alive?
As far as my favorite stories other than that one…there are a bunch, and we actually are going to revisit one of the storylines in a future issue, so you will have to just wait and see.
Nrama: What have you been able to do in the graphic novel that you haven't in the monthly series?
Palmiotti: Tell one giant cohesive story that doesn’t have to be broken up into chapters and cliffhangers. Personally, I wish D.C. would consider giving us one of these to do each year aside from the monthly…sure it was exhausting, but it was a lot of fun as well. Liz, our editor, would probably want to shoot me for saying this.
Gray: I loved it because it is essentially a much larger canvas to work on in telling a single story. Something of this scale can flow naturally without worrying about solicitations or advanced imagery spoiling the different chapters. If this were broken into six or four parts it wouldn’t have the same epic feel.
Nrama: How has working with so many different artists helped you evolve as writers?
Palmiotti: Working with so many super talented artists forces us, on a monthly basis, to constantly step up our game…and that’s something most writers need to have done with them at all time.
It is really difficult when you get to work with someone like Jordi (Bernet), not to feel you have a responsibility to do the best single story you can each and every time. These books get translated all over the world where the work is scrutinized, so at times, it can be intimidating.
Sometimes when we have a simple story to tell, Justin and I sit back and ask ourselves “is it enough?” Did we hit all the right marks? Will the reader not only feel like they got their money worth…but will they walk away, after 22 pages, feeling satisfied and ready to come back for more?
With the sales so low on the title, every single issue is a key issue for us…we are constantly walking on the edge of a cliff here, and I think that’s part of what makes this book work.
Gray: It is extremely challenging and equally rewarding. Each artist is different. Telling the stories we love to tell and then thinking about how to script them in a way that plays to a specific artist’s strengths, tastes or whatever has shaped the way we write this book.
Writing a single-issue story where the artists asks for no more than four or five panels a page and having it flow with emotional resonance is a different challenge than working with an artist who prefers to incorporate anywhere between six and twelve panels a page.
Our philosophy with Hex has always been to work with talented artists from all different styles and to step back and let them do their thing. Sure there are going to be times when we discuss how we’d like certain things to be illustrated, but we respect the people we work with and want them to enjoy working on Jonah Hex from a standpoint of freedom and creativity.
Nrama: Tell us about what's coming up in the monthly series.
Gray: There are a bunch of stylistic single-issues coming up including the one in June that features two short stories, one by Phil Winslade and the other by C.P. Smith and some great bonus material.
Jordi comes back to illustrate what I call the most cuddly Jonah Hex story we’ve ever written and it has a ton of guest stars that haven’t been in the book before. Giancarlo, who we’ve worked with on both Random Acts of Violence and Last Resort is illustrating a tale narrated by bullets. Nelson is drawing a sad and sick little tale about an unfortunate girl who falls in love with Hex.
Nrama: Have you had a chance to see the film version yet, and if so, what are your thoughts?
Palmiotti: We have been on set, have seen clips and trailers, (but) not the entire film yet. What I have seen is an interesting take on the character that I feel was done so it could be appreciated by the masses.
I think they have to sell the character to a world where there is no attention span and nobody knows who the character is, so looking at the trailer, it’s gotten a lot of people’s interest, and that is a win-win for us.
At the end of the day, doing a film version of a character is always going to be something that gets scrutinized like hell…and that’s for others to do…for us, we just have to make sure we got the best book possible on the stands for the minute and a half the film fans might think of looking for Hex material.
Like most people, I can’t wait to see what they have done… and hope people flock to the theatres to see the movie. On the casting front, I don’t think they could have done better.
Gray: My opinion is that the film is intended to introduce Jonah Hex to the rest of the world. Let’s be honest there are still tons of comic fans, even long-time fans that haven’t given the book a shot for whatever reason.
My hope is the film gives them the motivation to see what we’ve been doing, and how inventive you can be with Jonah Hex on paper or on the screen. All I’m looking for out of the film is an enjoyable experience, fun, explosions, sexiness and the love I have of Spaghetti Westerns.
People forget how many of those films were outrageous and experimental and I think much of their experience is limited to the Dollars trilogy or Unforgiven. There are at least two dozen great lesser-known westerns from the sixties and seventies.
For us Hex has never been a straight Western. We’re simply telling human stories set in the 1800’s. The film, from what little I’ve seen, seems to be incorporating that sentiment.
Nrama: Why do you feel Jonah Hex has remained so iconic even as other Western comic characters have fallen into obscurity, or whatever it is they did with the Rawhide Kid at that other company?
Palmiotti: Hex remains iconic because, simply put, it’s the best western comic character ever. This has everything to do with the stories told in the ‘70s, that how they have hit their mark in so many people…and we try today to keep that tradition alive.
After all is said and done…the most fun about the character is simply waiting to see how he will react to a situation…at least, it is for me.
Gray: I go back to his appearance. One look at this guy with his fucked-up face and refusal to take off that Confederate uniform and you know some serious shit is going to go down.
Hex is a man that will always do what he thinks is right and 99% of the rest of the world is too gutless to try.
Nrama: Wish list time! Name five artists you haven't worked with yet on the monthly series with whom you'd like to collaborate. Who knows, maybe one will contact you about doing something.
Palmiotti: Well, Frank Frazetta has always been on the top of my list. Sadly, that can never happen. Next would be Joe Kubert, and I ask him all the time…(laughs). After that would be Moebius, simply because I think he is a genius…Arthur Adams, another brilliant artist that I just about love every single thing he does…
…and last, I have a few that come to mind, including Frank Quietly, John Romita Jr, Mike Mignola, Kevin Nowlan and last, Adam Hughes.
Gray: I agree with every one of those, but I’d like to again make a plea for Eduardo Risso to ride with us. Geof Darrow, Jim Lee (I can dream right, Jim?) Gene Ha, John Cassaday, Ethan Van Sciver and there are a lot more, but if anyone is still reading this far down the page I’m afraid they might nod off if I’m just name dropping.
Nrama: You always have a ton of things on your plate – can you give us some hints of your upcoming projects?
Palmiotti: We got a lot more Hex coming your way…as well, starting in July, we have Time Bomb coming from radical comics illustrated to perfection by Paul Gulacy. We also have a new series coming from D.C. comics that will be announced probably in San Diego.
Gray: Yes, Time Bomb is something you’ll enjoy, and I’d still like to ask people to check out Random Acts of Violence from Image Comics – especially if you like what we do with Jonah Hex.
Discover why there’s No Way Back for Jonah Hex on June 8.