Back when writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga created Jonah Hex for DC Comics, the character was a classic Western hero. He was a little mean, a little cynical and a whole lot of ugly. As time went on, he went through the usual twists and turns that comic characters go through, even going so far as traveling into the future for a brief period of time. When Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray relaunched the character and series in 2005, they took him back to his roots. No more superheroic trappings, no rogue's gallery of interestingly deformed villains and definitely no time travel. Jonah Hex was returned to being a mean man in a mean world.
'Jonah Hex,' the comic, is pure. When you pick it up, you're going to get a solid dose of the Old West featuring a character who is a meaner, uglier version of Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name. He embodies the best and worst aspects of the Western hero, from the insanely accurate aim and physical prowess to the willingness to kill a whole mess of people to make some cash. He isn't all bad, but if you get on his bad side? Well, you tend to end up dead.
Gray and Palmiotti have spent the last five years telling a series of stories about Hex in the Old West that have covered everything from standard revenge tales to attempted eugenics experiments. He's made enemies of men and women alike, and even found friendship, or at least a grudging tolerance for certain people at very specific points in time, over the course of his adventures. They've been ably assisted by a murderer's row of artists, people who can make the Old West look just as gritty and beautiful as the movies tell us it is. Month-in, month-out, they've given us stories that, at their worst, have been just okay, and at their best, and worth rereading over and over again.
In today's market, where new comics are canceled after five issues or revamped into oblivion after a year, 'Jonah Hex' is impressive. Gray and Palmiotti have quietly carved out a niche where there once was nothing at all. 'Jonah Hex' isn't the only Western comic these days, but when it launched, Westerns were a dead genre in America. Deader than funny talking-animal comics. Somehow, someway, 'Jonah Hex' ended up being a book that secured a dedicated fanbase and revitalized a genre.
'Jonah Hex,' the movie, isn't the book that people have been reading since late 2005. Where the book was subdued, and maybe even a little subtle, the movie screams at you. Where Hex as a comic character was simply a man who was good at his job and uglier than sin, the movie Hex has some connection to the supernatural. Where Hex's female companion was Tallulah Black, a cowgirl who was more than his equal, in the movie she's an entirely unconvincing Megan Fox.
From the first trailer onward, it was clear that the movie jettisoned a lot of what makes the comic good. The simplicity, the economy of storytelling and, most of all, the way it was grounded in something like reality are all gone. They've been replaced with an ultra-dramatic past, magic crows, one-liners, dynamite-launching crossbows and horse-mounted twin gatling guns.
Josh Brolin is fantastic casting and is extraordinarily talented, but that's about where the compliments stop. The changes the movie makes from the source material feel like a vote of no confidence. Rather than enhancing or explaining things that comics fans might accept but moviegoers wouldn't, the changes in 'Jonah Hex' are cynical. They are calculated to make Hex more of a modern action star, a better fit into the Bruce Willis mold.
The silly additions turn what should have been a classic Western in the Sergio Leone mode into a CG-enhanced, loud and unforgivably bland action movie. Everything about the movie screams, "If you like Jonah Hex, stay away! We have a carefully-crafted movie here that is designed to please everyone, not just fans of Westerns!" The problem, of course, is that attempts to please everyone tend to come out so generic, they please no one.