In DC’s New 52, where every book attempts to carve out its own unique niche (to varying degrees of success), All-Star Western still manages to stand apart. It’s a mishmash of genres, a remix of familiar worlds that when thrown together seem totally fresh. Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat have made a book that hopefully will delight many, but certainly has me hooked.
The plot established in All-Star Western feels pretty familiar: bounty hunter Jonah Hex comes to Gotham City after being contracted to help solve a string of prostitute murders. There he’s paired up with clinical/experimental psychologist Amadeus Arkham, who should be familiar to any readers of Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel. The two begin to investigate the murders and find themselves trapped in a conspiracy larger than they had imagined, and now the reluctant partners are forced to help each other stay alive.
It would be an impressive enough feat for All-Star Western to feature two distinct, compelling and rounded main characters, but writers Gray and Palmiotti sneak in a third. But let’s start with the first two, whose relationship powers this book. In many ways, the twin leads of the rough-and-tumble Hex and the academic Arkham couldn’t be more different: Arkham’s a wealthy milquetoast, Hex a boisterous brawler. What connects our heroes is their fringe social status. It’s obvious why no one wants Hex around, but Arkham, too, seems to be a bit of a reject; Gotham’s police commissioner here casts him as something of a pervert, reflecting that all-too-familiar distrust of intellectuals among those in power. It’s a real testament to Gray and Palmiotti’s abilities that they can make both these opposite voices seem so believable. What results is a book that feels something like a buddy cop movie but more legitimate and compelling.
It’s this book’s third character that really pushes All-Star Western into excellence. That character: Gotham City itself. In fact, the city is this book’s main antagonist. If, like me, you’ve been following the Batman family of books pretty closely over the last few years, a lot of the material in All-Star Western will elicit some recognition. We can see the status quo of Gotham’s present already set up in its past: the rogue vigilante, the corrupt institutions, the pervasive crime. Above all, the notion persists that Gotham’s an evil city at its very core, a city where those corrupted by power perpetuate misery for their own gain. Put another way, perhaps, it’s a machine designed to build Batman. Grant Morrison used this idea that Gotham City shapes its citizens to great effect in his own run on Batman, and recently Scott Snyder built up this lore with Gates of Gotham. As I’d hoped from the solicitations, Gray and Palmiotti are continuing those writers’ work by more fully realizing the Gotham City of centuries past… and Arkham’s opening narration to the contrary, it seems not much has changed.
None of this would work were it not for the art of Moritat. His images are kind of ugly, but they need to be to convey the level of slime in which Gotham City steeps. He’s got a keen eye for characters, and his lines can tell you a lot about a person — just contrast the way he draws the beefy Hex to the gaunt Arkham, especially in their faces. Complementing that, the colors by Gabriel Bautista are perfectly muted to fit the drab scenes, and the book uses random splashes of red to indicate particularly intense moments. Overall, All-Star looks like it feels, and that seems to be the goal of any comic’s art.
All-Star Western delivers a solid first issue (and an extra-long one, too!), but perhaps more importantly promises to continue paying dividends month after month. I myself am fascinated by potentially deeper hints to Morrison’s ongoing Batman saga (do you think the skull-ring guys relate to Leviathan at all?) and a chance to get to better know Amadeus Arkham, whose mother problems this issue only hints at. Hopefully, fans of many different types of stories, from westerns to psychological thrillers to straight superhero fare, will find something to like in this book, because I’d like to keep reading it for awhile.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more