Posted by Don MacPherson on August 21st, 2008
I recently had the pleasure of reading a great short story in DC’s Jonah Hex. What drew me to the story — an intense tale of survival in the Canadian wilderness, penned by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray — was the art by Darwyn Cooke. Cooke is, of course, a superstar in the industry these days, and I always keep an eye out for new work from him.
Shortly thereafter, I discovered that J.H. Williams III, the stalwart artistic talent from such books as Promethea and Batman: The Black Glove, has contributed art to be featured in the 35th issue of Hex, on sale Sept. 3. Those familiar with the series are also well aware of the frequent contributions from legendary Spanish comics artist Jordi Bernet. Seeing his work in North American comics has been a rare occurrence in recent years, and he’s provided some amazing visuals for the DC western title.
It occurred to me… what’s attracting these high-profile artists to this little series? Jonah Hex is far from one of DC’s top performers; it doesn’t even make it into the Diamond Comic Distributors Top 100 on any given month. So why is talent of this caliber — artists who would pick and choose whatever project they choose, including any Top 10-selling title — contributing to what seems like the runt of the DC Universe litter? Eye on Comics talked to a couple of the creators to find out what’s going on.
“I think what you see happening is basically this: Hex is an intriguing character written well by a team who put a lot of thought and care into what they are doing,” Williams said. “It’s also not a super-hero title, which is attractive to folks like myself, a western with mostly one-shot stories. You just can’t beat that combination. This is why you see artists wanting to do this title.”
Hex co-writer Justin Gray agreed.
“Some artists come to Hex because they like the book and are looking to do something different. Sometimes it is a love of the character, and sometimes it is a desire to work on stories that allow them to illustrate stories that they might not normally be offered,” he said. “That’s the beauty of doing a single-issue story format; it allows an artist to dive into a project that is short and sweet.”
Gray said there are other factors as well that come into play when artists are recruited for the book.
“As far as the artists are concerned several factors come into play. Both Jimmy and I are good friends with Darwyn and he expressed an interest in working with us on Hex. That’s a no-brainer. That’s generally how it works, either we have an artist in mind ahead of time and try to get them involved or we customize a script for them. Artists e-mail me often looking to do an issue,” he said.
“Our first Hex editor, Steve Wacker, brought both Jordi and J.H. Williams on board during the first year. Where Jordi Bernet is concerned, we’ve developed a great friendship and working relationship with him. He loves us and the book so you can’t blame us for collaborating as often as possible.”
The niche nature of the title also allows the writers to work with promising new talent, he said.
“We also work with artists that are less familiar names in the industry. There isn’t a payment incentive to bolster this little cowboy book,” Gray said.
Williams said the quality of the book merits better sales, but its lesser status in terms of sales might just be one of the reasons the quality remains so high. Its lower sales might keep it off the radar of the Powers That Be, he suggested.
“Hex deserves to be just as popular as any Batman, Spider-Man, JLA and other similar titles, but I guess if it were, the book could possibly end up not being as good because too many ‘company’ eyes would be on it,” he said. “I certainly want to do more issues myself or even a graphic novel if the opportunity and schedule presented itself.”
Jonah Hex may be solicited under the DC Universe banner in the Diamond catalog every month, Gray said, but measuring and comparing its performance to DC’s super-hero titles is a mistake.
“I don’t know that you can make the comparison of Hex to the DCU as a line because the title operates outside the super-hero universe in chronology and content,” he said. “Plus it helps a publisher to diversify their content and support books that show comics aren’t just capes and tights.”
The most recent sales-chart information indicates that Hex #32 sold 12,969 units, representing a steady decline over the life of the series. However, analyst Mark-Oliver Frisch notes: “As always, it should be pointed out that first-month direct-market sales for Jonah Hex paperback collections are better than usual for DC Universe titles.”
Gray said there are several reasons why Jonah Hex continues to be published in the face of low monthly sales, and trade paperbacks are among them.
“For one thing, the collected editions sell well and counterbalance lower selling monthly issues,” he said. “Secondly, Hex is a western, which makes it impossible to compare to or compete with super-hero books in the direct market. Hex has survived through the last three years of mega crossover events at both mainstream publishers, including Civil Wars, Skrulls and a Crisis or two. The rules are slightly different in terms of what qualifies as a success with a title like Jonah Hex.”
Gray said it doesn’t hurt that there’s a movie in the works, and the existence of the comic book might be a factor in moving that potential production along.
“We’re not taking credit for the interest in making the film because it is clear that Hollywood is chasing down properties left and right, but it had been 30 years since Hex first appeared in his own title under the DC bullet,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people outside of the comic-book industry — meaning film, TV and video-game professionals — that have commented on how much they enjoy the book.”
In the direct market, Hex isn’t lighting the sales charts on fire or anything, Gray said, but the audience it does reach includes a lot of “non-regular comic book readers.”
“In light of that and the film, it makes good sense to keep a publishing presence for the character leading into the film’s release,” he said.
Ultimately, a major factor in Hex‘s continued presence on comic-shop shelves is what made him so appealing to readers in the first place 30 years ago.
“At the end of the day, Hex is a compelling and visually interesting character,” Gray said.
Note: Artist Darwyn Cooke adds his input to the topic in the comments thread below, so keep reading!