DC Comics’ wonderfully weird western series, “All-Star Western,” continues to deliver thrills into the new year as Jonah Hex and Dr. Arkham find themselves forced to deal with the evil Black Diamond and the malevolent Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde as they blow into old-timey Gotham.
Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti with art on the main feature by Moritat and Phil Winslade on the “Tomahawk” backup feature, the creative team has rapidly expanded the book’s roster of characters, adding Hex’s semi-romantic interest Tallulah Black to the team and introducing new hero, the Barbary Ghost. As for the backup, the co-writers have taken on the task of re-imagining the old DC Comics Western hero Tomahawk, putting him in the middle of the otherwise historically accurate Northwest Indian War.
With the Black Diamond and Jekyll/Hyde set to make their debut in Gotham, Palmiotti and Gray spoke with CBR about the new arc, new characters and whether they see Hex and Arkham’s partnership continuing in the new year!
CBR News: Last month’s “All-Star Western” #13 had Haly’s Circus and a murderous clown hitting Gotham. Though the circus folk were obviously suffering from the Jekyll/Hyde potion, were we seeing a precursor to the Joker in the green-haired Jingles?
Justin Gray: Obviously we wanted to have a little fun with the book being set, for now, in Gotham City and the way the story was rolling along, Haly’s Circus presented a crazy clown scenario. Why wouldn’t we want to exploit that? We’ve been fortunate to have such a great fanbase for both “Jonah Hex” and now “All-Star,” and the challenge has always been to tell entertaining and relevant stories with DC’s western characters. The Joker is the Joker, a classic and one of the most recognizable fictional villains in the world. The idea, going back to the three issues of “LODK” that I wrote is that Gotham has always been a place prone to madness. The inclusion of Dr. Jekyll’s formula felt like a natural fit.
Jimmy Palmiotti: The fun of this book being set in Gotham is that we can do some research and from time to time tease at a bigger picture as well have some fun with established characters and story ideas. The main thing always is to expect the unexpected, and that goes for the back-up stories as well.
Moving forward, we’ve got Jonah, Arkham and Tallulah running afoul of Jekyll/Hyde and the Black Diamond. While you’ve reintroduced old DC characters like Bat Lash and Tomahawk in the comic, what made you decide to add the literary figure of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde to the mix?
Gray: The duality of Jonah Hex, both physically and mentally, the time frame and the city of Gotham all seemed to work perfectly with the idea of Jekyll and Hyde. We wanted to develop a different kind of Hyde in this story, one who was sexier and less of an obvious monster. The idea that Jekyll is this small, refined scientist who turns into a physically powerful, seductive and uninhibited male figure gives his relation to Hex a nice twist.
Not only is the Black Diamond showing up in your comic but it’s also appearing in “Catwoman,” “Demon Knights” and “Team 7.” Will “All-Star Western” tie into those books? Is this a crossover of sorts?
Gray: The Black Diamond has been around for a long time and we felt that it worked better as a catalyst within the story as opposed to needing to be represented in a traditional way. The diamond changes hands throughout history, and in this time period of old Gotham, it lands in the hands of someone that is already dangerous.
Palmiotti: We are always in crossover mode simply because of where the book is set. We stay close to the Bat office and what the guys are doing there, and we speak to guys like Scott [Snyder] anytime we can about how we can both have fun peppering the stories with events that tie the past to the present day Gotham — and how to make them work best.
While your main story is filled with more fantastical elements, the Tomahawk backup is more serious, dealing with an actual historical event and real historical figures (Tecumseh, Little Turtle, etc). Why have you set Tomahawk in a more realistic and historically accurate setting?
Gray: To be honest, the idea was to tell a story in a Western where the hero was Native American. So many comic book western heroes have been of a mixed racial background, we wanted a protagonist that was sympathetic and grounded in history with a completely different perspective. Therefore, Tomahawk came about as a means of showing the irony of America being built on freedom then turning around and taking freedom from anyone in its path. I think it is important to take a look at history from many different perspectives.
Palmiotti As well, we also believe that the American Indian culture is a fascinating one and wanted to present it as a grounded story to show just how beautiful and interesting their history really is. A lot of horrible events have happened throughout history, and you really cannot tell a one-sided story of them anymore. People are smarter than that.
Along those lines, when writing a Western, how do you approach the parts of history, like the Northwest Indian War, where the US government is the bad guy?
Gray: Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie gave a great TED speech called “The danger of a single story” that exposes the idea that entire cultures have been raised with a collective perception about other people and nations. That was one of the things we were thinking about when approaching Tomahawk. It wasn’t very long after the American Revolution that expansion became a crucial part of nation building for America. As a result, wars broke out and Native Americans were pushed farther and farther North and West as a direct result of government policy. That’s a reality that has been glossed over in a lot of popular entertainment media. We wanted to address it in a fictional context.
Palmiotti: The actual history is a vicious and cruel one where there were heroes and villains on both sides. The fantastic thing about setting characters in historic backdrops is that you get to tell the stories that have been forgotten and humanize what was once thought of as the enemies.
What does backup artist Phil Winslade bring to the table in terms of drawing this more serious backup story?
Gray: Phil is exactly the right guy for this kind of story because he meticulously researches and has an eye for detail that strives for perfection in accuracy.
Palmiotti: Phil was the only guy we thought would take the time and go into detail with the specifics of dress and historical backdrop we were looking for. His artwork is done in a classic style and his attention to detail should one day get him a job in Hollywood helping out with any film set in the past. He is an amazing draftsman and storyteller and his eye is amazing on so many levels. We had him draw “The Monolith” years back and again, he researched just about every single detail there was and he impressed us so much, we try to use him any time we can. He is one of my favorite artists, ever.
You also have a third storyline running through “All-Star” as Yanmei Tsen tracks down her mother. What was the inspiration behind the introduction of the Barbary Ghost?
Palmiotti: We were looking at the overall broad strokes of ethnic characters out there, and with the Barbary Ghost, we did some research and were able to create not only a unique character but set her in a backdrop that hasn’t been explored much. Like Tallulah Black, we got a chance to create a brand new character in the DCU that we think, and hope, will be around for a long time. It is so much fun to write her because she is so different from any of the other cast members in the book. So far, we have gotten a ton of great feedback on her and Tallulah, so that’s all good news to us.
You’ve have been working with artist Moritat on the main story; now with a full year and some months under your belt, how has the writer/artist relationship changed from where you started out on the book?
Gray: Moritat is another research fanatic. We’ve had numerous discussions about the architecture of Gotham, the clothing styles, action sequences and dozens of other story elements. He’s brilliant and always willing to not only expand on what we’re attempting to do, but he’s also very open to suggestions on how best to portray each issue.
Palmiotti: He was, at one time, just someone I knew in the business that I picked up anything he did. I was just a fan. When we were lucky enough to get him to work on the book, our relationship took on another exciting level, and over the past two years I have been lucky enough to spend some time with him and have grown to like the man as much as his work. He gets better every single issue. There is a passion in his line, and his ability to create some amazing set pieces and action [is something] that no one can touch. He nails a monthly book, never late and very professional, which I respect as well. We are so lucky to have him — and we are never gonna let him go. You hear that? NEVER!
Walt Simonson is providing the cover for issue #16. How did this collaboration come about?
Palmiotti: We are lucky bastards and have two brilliant editors like Joey [Cavalieri] and Kate [Stewart] always looking to improve the book. Walt is a friend of mine, and I am a die-hard fan, so it all worked out. His work is always stunning and full of his unique energy.
Finally, without giving too much away, what can you tell us about what’s coming down the line for Jonah and Arkham? Will we see their relationship or the book’s format evolve going into 2013?
Gray: We’re going to shake up their relationship, and hopefully it will evolve and progress in surprising ways. This is the longest time Hex has spent with another person. Usually, if you stay around him long enough you end up dead, so we need to expand the scope of the stories and you’ll see a stronger focus on Hex. Also — Vandal Savage is coming…
“All-Star Western” #14 is in stores now; the Black Diamond continues its malevolent path in “All-Star Western” #15 out January 2.