Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Last Bounty Hunter

A downer ending for a character can often be an unsatisfying and cop-out way to bring that character's story to a conclusion. But there are times when a tragic or sad ending is appropriate.

Jonah Hex was always a cynical and violent guy, so when DC Comics used DC Special #16 (Fall 1978) to bring his story to a conclusion, a cynical and violent ending was indeed appropriate. It is one of my favorite Jonah Hex stories.

Written by Mike Fleisher and drawn by Russ Heath, "The Last Bounty Hunter" is set in 1904. Jonah is now 66 years old. The world is changing--automobiles are replacing horses and there's a story that someone back East built a working airplane (though Jonah is convinced nothing will come of that). But Jonah is still working as a bounty hunter. He might be a tad slower with a gun than he used to be and he needs eye glasses, but he's still bringing in bad guys---usually dead rather than alive.

As the last active bounty hunter, Jonah is pretty well-known. In fact, a former teacher named Michael Wheeler has come west to find Jonah and write his biography. Jonah is amused by Wheeler's enthusiasm and brings him to his cabin, where Tall Bird--Jonah's common-law Indian wife--is keeping house.

I like the character of Wheeler. There might have been a temptation to make him a little bit of a jerk who wants to write sensationalized dime novel versions of Hex's adventures. But, since Jonah lives in a Comic Book Universe, his adventures are already a bit sensational.

Wheeler is a likable guy and is trying to write an accurate biography. This story appeared a few years before a later series that had Jonah Hex transported into a post-apocalyptic future. I wonder how Wheeler would have reacted to those stories. "Oh, come on, Jonah! I want to write the truth! Stop pulling my leg!"

Wheeler is also dependable and has guts. When vengeful outlaws kidnap Tall Bird, Wheeler takes part in the rescue.

But Jonah's failing eye sight allows one of the outlaws to escape. Later, this guy ambushes Jonah in a saloon and kills him.

It's an abrupt death for Jonah. You would expect him to go down with guns blazing, surrounded by a heap of corpses. But the script and art are excellent and, though tragic, the ending feels right for both this specific story and for Jonah Hex in his entirety.

And things continue to get even more tragic. A circus owner who earlier tried to hire Hex as a sharp shooter arrives to steal the body. Wheeler ends up getting murdered. Tall Bird also apparently dies, though she turns up alive as a old lady in a 1987 issue of Secret Origins. (Though that was set after the '86 reboot of the DC universe, so might be a retcon.)

But we're still not done with tragic irony. The circus guy is killed in a robbery and the thieves take Jonah's corpse (now dressed in his sharpshooter outfit) to a fence. After being stashed away for years, Jonah ends up being used at as a display in a Wild West-themed amusement park.

Mike Fleisher had a tendency to slant his writing towards the dark side. Here, it fits. As sad as it all is, it has the right vibe for the world Jonah Hex carved out for himself during life. Sometimes, tragic irony is just what a particular story needs.

In the mid-1980s, Jonah got a series in which he was thrown forward in time to a post-apocalyptic future. The last book in that series, from 1987, had him seeing his own stuffed corpse and taking comfort that one day he would find his way home. I'm in the camp that thinks that series was a misstep--Jonah belongs in the Old West and doesn't really work as a character outside of it. Though the few stories I've read from that series were all good, they never felt completely right. (And its only fair to concede that I haven't read more than a couple of issues from the futuristic series, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt.)

But, if you look back at "The Last Bounty Hunter" with the knowledge that Jonah had been in the future, it adds an interesting slant to it. It means when the circus owner tried to hire Jonah and showed him the sharpshooter outfit, Jonah would have recognized it as the suit his stuffed corpse was dressed in. Makes you wonder exactly what was going through his mind at that moment and adds poignancy  to the moment.

Next week, we'll return to the Hulk and find out what he finally does about having a girlfriend who has been turned into glass.


  1. Was this story ever reprinted? All the 1978 comics have yellow a bit.

    1. I don't think this one has ever been reprinted. It should be.


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