Friday, May 22, 2015

Artist Spotlight: Gray Morrow's Jonah Hex

I wouldn't call Gray Morrow's output for DC Comics prolific, but throughout the the 70s & 80s, the artist illustrated many stories in many of the genres the publisher printed.  Morrow drew mystery stories, war comics, westerns, romance, and even left his unique mark on a few super-hero features.  It was his work on The Vigilante (actually it was the entry for the character that Morrow drew for Who's Who) that 1st attracted my attention.

Morrow was a superb draughtsman, excelling in an almost photorealistic rendering of - equally - people, weapons & vehicles, and drew some very attractive ladies.  An excellent storyteller, if he had any weakness, at all, I'd say it was with action.  I consider Morrow to be the anti-Kirby, on the complete opposite end of the artistic spectrum from The King.  Where Jack Kirby's figures seemed packed with more power than they could contain, Morrow's figures were statuesque by comparison, frozen in time, and sometimes a little awkward inhabiting their space.  And although Morrow was able to convey a great deal of detail, sometimes with minimal linework, some of that detail suffered & was lost in the printing process, especially in some of his 80s work.

Despite working in genres that supported an anthology-type of storytelling (mystery, romance, etc.), Morrow put in some work on a couple of established characters including Zatanna, The Spectre, the aforementioned 'Prairie Troubadour' - The Vigilante, and DC's longest running and most popular western character, Jonah Hex.

Morrow's work on Jonah Hex consisted of exactly 1 cover (#10, March 1978), 3 full length issues (#s 90-92, the last three issues of the series, 2 of which he also colored) and a Secret Origins story - all of which were written by Michael Fleisher, whose long association with Jonah Hex has only recently been rivaled by Jimmy Palmioti's & Justin Gray's long & excellent run.

Good grief, indeed!  Carolee 'thanks' Hex for getting her an audition. From issue #91
Fleisher's Jonah Hex scripts play to Gray Morrow's strengths - issue #s 90-92 (April-Aug. 1985) follow Hex's search for estranged friend/lover Emmy Lou Hartley.  Along the way he meets a couple of other femme fatales, including Silver Ames, a gun fighter trying to climb the ranks by knocking off the best of the best; Carolee, a stunt rider who uses more than just her feminine whiles to get an audition with a traveling show; and Emmy, herself, on the run from some outlaw low-life - all rendered smokin' hot by Morrow.

Jonah Hex, himself, is drawn with handsome features - Hollywood good looks, even, and his disfigurement is toned down, though it is most certainly present.

Michael Fassbender played a creepy lackey in the 2010 Jonah Hex film, though I swear Gray Morrow cast him 25 years earlier in the lead role (in that bottom panel, especially, doesn't Hex look remarkably like Fassbender? ). From issue #92
The pacing of these issues is interesting, especially at the end of each story - there's something very abrupt & uncomfortable about the way each issue ends.  The last page of issue #90, featuring what ends up being the 1st & last confrontation between Hex and Silver Ames is probably the most abrupt and brutal last page of a comic I've ever seen.  Despite a 1 panel cliffhanger depicting Emmy in trouble, #91's strangely beautiful page depicts a frustrated Hex in full clown makeup (?) smashing a mirror, and, of course #92's last page (which happens to be the very last page of the series) has the  strangest cliffhanger of all - Hex disappears from a saloon just at the moment of confrontation with Emmy's pursuer, only to reappear the following month in the pages of Hex #1, Fleisher's complete left turn re-vamp, plopping the Western bounty hunter in the midst of a 21st century post-apocalyptic war zone.*

The most abrupt last page of a comic I've ever read.  No 'The End,' no 'Next Issue: Jonah Says I'm Sorry! Brutal.  From issue #90
Weird western - yep, that's Jonah under all that clown makeup.  The 2nd of 3 strange finales.
Exit Jonah, hello Hex; another strange, awkward ending, though this time it's the end of the series

*These adventures would be illustrated by a different artist, but I'm kind of curious what Gray Morrow would have done in this interesting, but to my mind misguided, series.

Fleisher & Morrow were reunited in the pages of Secret Origins #21 (Dec. 1987) for an interesting story involving Jonah Hex's preserved corpse.  A scholar who'd written a Hex biography is called upon to judge the authenticity of a stuffed figure thought to be the body of the long deceased gunfighter.  The writer is pulled into a tug of war for the remains, eventually helping Hex's late-life companion, Tall Bird, secure the rights to the body, ultimately fulfilling Hex's final wishes.

This story is another fantastic piece of work by Morrow, who transitions easily between the present day and flashbacks (through Tall Bird's eyes) to earlier episodes in Hex's life.

A stuffed Jonah Hex gets the drop on one bad hombre.  Wonderfully foreshortened revolver in that bottom left panel.
Jonah Hex gave Gray Morrow something to chew on.  The stories, with their horses, guns & babes, were right in his wheelhouse, and he delivered - with style.

The very month this issue of Secret Origins was released, Morrow began the longest uninterrupted run on a DC title, drawing 7 issues of The Spectre.  I'd love to take a look at those in a future post, and also publish a checklist of the stories Morrow drew for DC's horror/mystery anthologies, so look for those soon!

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