Capeless wonders entertain with six-guns, SF and young detectives

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

 

Tired of super-heroes? There’s plenty of good stuff out there without capes.

 

One of the best is DC’s All-Star Western, a book featuring the ongoing adventures of bounty hunter Jonah Hex, with back-ups starring other DC Western characters. The first collection, All-Star Western Volume 1: Guns and Gotham ($16.99) is out, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone.

 

Despite what you might have seen in the movies, Jonah Hex doesn’t have any supernatural powers – which is one reason he’s such a fascinating character. Just using his wits and his six-guns, Jonah is more than a match for anything the Wild West throws at him.

 

That’s why he’s so challenged in this collection, which puts him in 1880s Gotham City. Jonah comes to town – a stand-in for 1880s New York City – for his own reasons, but is soon hired to find a vicious serial killer preying on the town’s many prostitutes, Jack the Ripper style. Jonah soon finds that the overpopulated, crime-ridden, polyglot East is far more dangerous than anything he found out on the plains.

 

Now some may be experiencing the reaction I had when I first about this storyline, which was “Oh no! Does everything in DC Comics have to tie in with Batman somehow?” But don’t worry, as nothing Batty happens in this story. Gotham City is just a great setting – no, a great character – in this grim tale of vile people. It forces Jonah to step out of his comfort zone, which just raises his performance to the next level.

 

The story is by Hex veterans Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, who are responsible for Hex becoming an A-list character, so you’re in good hands. Artist Moritat captures the America of 140 years ago superbly with pen-and-ink and some washes. I have to give credit to colorist Gabriel Bautista as well, who favors a natural sepia palette and transforms some panels into virtual paintings.

 

Two back-ups are included, both written by Gray and Palmiotti. The inimitable artist Jordi Bernet delivers a luscious El Diablo story, while Phil Winslade renders a new character, the Barbary Ghost. The former is a paralyzed man who is possessed by a vengeful spirit to battle evil, while the latter is a female Chinese immigrant who uses various tricks to convince the underworld of 1870s San Francisco that she is supernatural.

 

Both are pretty good, and I won’t mind seeing more adventures of either (or, really, anything drawn by Bernet). But the true star of All-Star Western is Jonah Hex, and Guns and Gotham surely delivers.

 

Another new star in the firmament is Saga Volume One (Image, $9.99), by writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and artist Fiona Staples (North 40). It’s been getting rave reviews, and while I think Vaughan’s done better work (Pride of Baghdad), Saga has some refreshing elements.

 

It’s a love story, for one thing, between two characters caught on opposite sides of an interstellar war that pits a magic-based society against a science-based one. The story opens with, of all things, childbirth – our heroine, Alana, is delivering her child with our hero, Marko, and it is the charming (albeit salty) dialogue between the two that is the beating heart of the story.

 

They met cute, we learn in flashback, when Alana (from the science side) was a P.O.W. guard where Marko (from the magic side) was being held captive. Now, in the present, the duo is on the run from both sides, while picking up a snarky, teenage ghost as an au pair. It’s fun, it’s science fiction and it’s a love story, so it has pretty broad appeal.

 

Meanwhile, everyone’s favorite teen detective returns in Papercutz’ Nancy Crew and the Clue Crew #1: Small Volcanoes ($6.99). Did I say “teen”? Maybe years ago, but this series launch features an 8-year-old Nancy in an elementary school adventure that isn’t terribly dangerous, but is pretty sweet. It’s a professional job by people who know their way around this kind of story: writers Stefan Petrucha and Sarah Kinney, familiar names from Papercutz’ line of young adult graphic novels, and Stan Goldberg, a veteran Archie Comics artist.

 

Finally, as a change of pace, let me mention Dark Shadows: The Visual Companion (Titan, $39.95), by Mark Salisbury. The connection to comics is tenuous, in that Gold Key published a Dark Shadows comic book  (1968-76) that has recently been collected in five hardback volumes by Hermes Press ($49.99 each), and Dynamite Entertainment launched a new series in 2011. And the movie wasn’t a big hit at the box office.

 

But, hey, Dark Shadows was by Tim Burton, a pretty big name in comic-book circles, having directed such movies as Batman, Batman Returns, and A Nightmare Before Christmas. And the star of  Dark Shadows was Johnny Depp, another name comics fans revere for having appeared in such genre films Edward Scissorhands, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Sleepy Hollow and as Tonto in the upcoming Lone Ranger.

 

And whatever its relative cinematic merits, Dark Shadows was a movie informed by gorgeous sets and a darkly elegant mood. You’ll relive that and more in this lavish, photo-filled book, with chapters on the cast; sets; costumes, hair, makeup and prosthetics; cinematography, stunts and special effects; and visual effects, editing and scoring. There are plenty of quotes from Depp and the other principals, as well as a history exploring the TV show and how the movie came about. 

 

It’s a very pretty book. And, frankly, a lot better than the movie!

 

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

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