20 Questions: Palmiotti & Gray on "Jonah Hex"

You'd think the release of the first ever Jonah Hex original graphic novel would make June 2010 a big enough month for the iconic DC Comics Western anti-hero, but he also has a movie coming out in a couple of weeks starring a couple of up-and-comers to the acting profession, namely Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men") and John Malkovich ("Burn After Reading").

Of course, every month is Jonah Hex Month as the horrendously scarred gunslinger also headlines his own ongoing series, which has been written since its debut in 2005 by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray.

Palmiotti and Gray also teamed up to write "No Way Back," the 136-page hardcover featuring art by Tony DeZuniga, who co-created Jonah Hex in 1972 with writer John Albano. "No Way Back" delves deeper into the oft-times mysterious past of Jonah Hex and sheds new light on how his early family life transformed him into the justice-thirsty vigilante he became.

In the story, Hex comes face to face with one of his most bitter enemies, El Papagayo and his gang of bandits, while he deals with the loss of a woman, who played a very important role in his life.

CBR News spoke with Palmiotti and Gray about "No Way Back" and the writing duo also shared their thoughts on the "Jonah Hex" ongoing series, the forthcoming movie and the DC Universe Animated Original Movie, "Batman: Under the Red Hood," scheduled for July, which will also feature a Hex animated short.

1. We're going to have to rename June, "Jonah Hex Month" with all of the Hex- related projects heading our way over the next 30 days. How fun is it to be at the epicenter of all this Hexed goodness?

Justin Gray: It has been a fun ride so far, and hopefully the exposure Jonah Hex is getting both in comic shops, online and in theaters will generate an interest in the character that translates to greater sales for the monthly comic.

Jimmy Palmiotti: Just Name it "Jonah Hex Month," already [laughs]. Watching the "Survivor" finale last week was fun, catching the "Jonah Hex" commercial was more fun...at least for me. It's a pretty exciting time to be writing this book, and the crew at DC has been great. It's nice to see all the hard work paying off in so many ways.

2. Are you at all surprised by all the love DC and Warner Bros. are giving the character, or is this all well deserved and long overdue?

JG: DC has always thrown their support behind Jonah Hex, especially when you consider that the original series ran for 92 issues - that shows a level of commitment to a genre that isn't nearly as popular as it once was. There's also been a desire to make a Hex film for at least 13 years.

JP: I agree with Justin. The WB crew has always shown this character much love and we are just glad to be a part of the picture.

3. It is no secret that "Jonah Hex" is not amongst DC's top-selling ongoing series, yet, with the title well into its fifties in terms of numbering, it doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Has DC made any type of promise or commitment to how long this book will last in its current format?

JG: There are a lot of factors involved with a book like this. Yes, it could always use more readers and we've always been committed to making "Jonah Hex" accessible, but it seems reasonable to connect the production of the film to the comic. Ultimately you're seeing an opportunity for our little western to generate a considerable amount of revenue outside of comics and trade paperbacks if the film clicks with audiences. That's one of the important factors that go into lower selling genre titles.

JP: We know the numbers and the hard fact is, we have to push this book, every single issue, as if it's gonna be the one that breaks the bank. DC has been amazing with giving us the room to see this through, standing by us and promoting and hiring some unbelievable talent on the book, and things like the movie, the OGN and guest stars help, as well as the trades being adapted in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil and so on. The trade books have a solid audience here in the States, but it's our job to not let the monthlies slip.

We do everything in our power to promote the title. I do at least 15 shows a year to promote, and we cultivate our fans on Facebook and Twitter and other sites as best we can to make people aware. The retailers have been amazing in getting new people interested, and recently [DC Comics VP Sales] Bob Wayne did an amazing job not only talking up the books but making a $1 edition of the title available to retailers a few weeks ago as an inexpensive gateway to the series for new readers, as well as movie goers who might be interested. The only way we would ever relax and not worry is if the book was doing four times what it is, but we have faith that one day, we might get that number up there. This is a business, after all, so the almighty dollar always speaks louder than anything.

4. So the DC Comics braintrust - Dan DiDio, Jim Lee, Geoff Johns et al. - must believe your book fills a particular niche in the marketplace?

JG: Dan has been championing the book from the beginning, and the response we've gotten from Geoff is equally complimentary and enthusiastic. Everyone at DC recognizes the challenges we faced and continue to face, and I think they respect the fact that we've been able to turn out a consistently engrossing and entertaining comic for nearly five years. It is great when a publisher with such a successful superhero pedigree continues to embrace and publish other types of genre comics.

JP: The nice thing is that all three of them have complimented us on our work at one point or another, and that's a big deal with us. Dan is the man that got the series back into publishing mode and greenlit the series, so he has a personal watchful eye on the book. Geoff enjoys the title and understands that a company needs diversity and even gave us the ultimate blessing by having his quote on the OGN cover. And Jim is an artist and businessman and totally gets it. We are still waiting on a "Jonah Hex" cover from Jim, one day, maybe done in washes, a cool technique he has been doing a lot of. Jim?

5. This week, Hex is getting his very own OGN, "No Way Back." What can you share with us about the story?

JG: "No Way Back" is interesting because the story is a love letter to the original "Weird Westerns" by John Albano and Tony Dezuniga, being drawn by Tony and based on an idea he and John had long ago. It is a very personal and important story to the mythology of Hex and his character, involving his family and the brother he never knew existed. There's also plenty of blood, dark humor and bullets.

6. What was it like working with Tony on the project? I mean, he did co-create Jonah Hex. Are you long-time fans of his work?

JG: Of course. The man is a legend and we wouldn't have this opportunity if it wasn't for Tony. Not only was it imperative that Tony draw the first original graphic novel, but it had to happen now, with the release of the "Jonah Hex" film. Every fan of the character owes him a huge debt and it has been a dream come true to collaborate with him on this book.

JP: Tony's art made an impression on me at a younger age when he was doing work on "Conan" and some other books. Tony's work has a real artistic eye behind it and that's why he stood out to me at a young age. Not only was he telling the story in each panel, but he pulled off some hyper-realism at the same time, with shading and texture that made his work stand out from the pack. I got to meet Tony, as a fan, years later, and he has been nothing but nice and generous with his time. When we started to write "Hex," we spoke as one professional to another and I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunity to work with a master on a character he co-created.

7. How important is it to further explore Hex's mythology and origins to flesh out the character for fans of the character both new and old?

JG: One of the more interesting creative aspects of Jonah Hex is balancing who he is and how he became the scarred gun fighting bounty hunter we know and love, without damaging the sense of mystery that makes him so engaging. That has to be one of the more appealing aspects of a good Western. The stoic hero who doesn't wear his feelings on his sleeve is rare in the chatty and touchy-feely modern culture. You'll notice we never use internal monologue with Hex. You're never going to know exactly what goes on in his head. He is a man of actions and not words.

JP: Unlike superhero books, Jonah did not have a single origin moment. In our eyes, it was a series of events that shaped the twisted man featured in the books, and these events with his parents, the Indians, the war and his relationships are extremely important on all levels. The reader deserves a bit of insight to what makes him tick and to be reminded of what that is from time to time.

8. The story also features El Papagayo? How important is the Mexican bandit to the overall Hex mythos?

JG: El Papagayo and [Quentin] Turnbull are as close to having arch villains as Jonah Hex gets. This is not going to be mistaken for a superhero book, not just because it is a Western, but also because Hex doesn't have a recurring rogues gallery. We're telling stories in the 19th Century, where bad men are hung and shot more often than they're thrown in jail. People don't live long enough around Hex for there to be villains in the classical sense, so we have to treat Papagayo differently. One thing we did was to give him a richer backstory and tie his history to Jonah's in an interesting and unexpected way.

9. Why tell this story in an OGN and not make it part of the ongoing series, perhaps as a multi-issue arc like "Six Gun War"?

JG: Because we wanted to bridge the gap between the film and the comic by doing something special and original rather than offering up a direct adaptation of the film. This is a high quality hardcover stand-alone story that anyone can read even if they have no idea who Jonah is.

10. Any chance that we'll see another extended storyline in the ongoing series, or will you continue with done-in-ones for the foreseeable future?

JG: We're sticking to our single-issue format, especially now. We want the book to be an effortless read.

JP: This format gives us the opportunity to work with artists we normally would never get for a multi part story, so on some level, we up the game with the talent we showcase, and this format is perfect as is.

11. "Jonah Hex" #56 is teased as an excellent jumping on point to coincide with the upcoming movie. Can you share some details on what's to come in that story?

JG: It contains a pair of stand-alone stories that show not only who Hex is, in a story illustrated by Phil Winslade, but also part of how he became the man he is with a story from his days as an Apache slave as drawn by C.P. Smith.

12. I see Darwyn Cooke is contributing the cover, which is awesome news. Are we going to see him return to draw a complete issue again anytime soon, like he did for#33 and #50?

JP: We have spoken about some more, but we have to wait till at least he finishes the current Parker novel. We would love nothing more than to one day have him do "Jonah Hex" #75. Wouldn't that be cool? We already know what story we would do with him if he gets the time.

13. And then Mr. Bernet's back for #57. Can you speak about Jordi as a collaborator? I know Darwyn thinks Jordi is the artist of record on "Jonah Hex" and everyone else who contributes is just a fill-in artist.

JG: We've been so lucky to work with so many brilliant artists and we do have a policy that whenever Jordi finishes a script, we get him another one. It is difficult to fully explain what Jordi brings to the table in terms of storytelling and an acute understanding of the period and Jonah Hex as a character. It is a tremendous luxury to hand scripts to an artist who consistently challenges himself and changes nuances in his style to suit the specific story. Some of these stylistic changes are not always immediately noticeable. It could be a panel structure or a change in inking.

JP: Jordi is the one artist that is always working on a "Jonah Hex" story. He does maybe four or five a year and we take each one and treat it like gold. Jordi is a dream artist to work with on every level and one of those professionals that not only gets the job done, but also adds a bit of flavor to every story he tells. The Jordi issues of the series are a real lesson to telling a story with pictures. He is one of our favorite artists and a wonderful man that deserves every award there is to give, so yeah, I love the guy. And I tell him so all the time.

14. It's also been teased in the solicitations that #57 will feature an all-star lineup of classic Western heroes. Can you share a few of the heroes we're going to see - fingers crossed for Bat Lash - and maybe some details about the story?

JG: We'll give you Bat Lash, for sure, but it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out when we mention that a majority of the characters haven't been seen during our run. Until now, that is. This particular story is unique because not only does it feature DC western heroes, but it also is the most tender and innocent tale we've told. You don't want to miss this issue.

15. No mention of her in the solicitations for "Jonah Hex" #58, but when will we see Tallulah Black again?

JG: We'll use Tallulah again only if the story is important and natural. Obviously, we set up a powerful dynamic in #50, and when you're playing with that kind of emotional fire, you want to make sure you stay consistent in the portrayal of our girl.

16. I know I ask you this every time, but while we're talking about future issues, are there any plans for one set in a post-apocalyptic 22nd Century?

JG: It would take a very special set of circumstances to go in that direction. We could do it, we both have a great love of post-apocalyptic stories and the genre, but it would have to be a situation that doesn't detract from who Hex is and what the book is about.

JP: If they asked us to do a separate series, then we would do it in a heartbeat. We are both fans of science fiction, so we would have a blast. Let's hope DC feels like experimenting.

17. We're going to be hearing about your "Jonah Hex" set visit eventually, but can you quickly share your thoughts about the movie and specifically, what it means to the health of the overall Hex franchise?

JG: We view the film, at least I do, as a completely different animal from the comic. While there are similarities, the focus is different. For one thing, if you think it is hard to sell a Western comic, it is even more difficult to sell a Western film. It isn't just that the genre is less popular than it was 30 to 50 years ago, but it is also very difficult to make one that has universal appeal. Then, add to that the need to break away from the slow paced and conventional panoramic style of some Westerns. By its very nature, a Jonah Hex film has to include elements that no one has seen before, and rightfully should be aimed at not only a broad audience but also one that is younger.

JP: They have to sell the idea and character to a larger audience. It's win-win for us.

18. Will we be meeting any characters from the movie, like Megan Fox's Leila or Will Arnett's Lieutenant Grass, in the ongoing "Jonah Hex" comic series in the months or years ahead?

JG: You never know.

JP: You might have already met one of them.

19. Finally, have you had a chance to see the animated short that is being released along with the "Batman: Under the Red Hood" animated feature?

JG: Nope.

JP: All we know is they took one of our stories and adapted it. We haven't seen a thing, but look forward to it for sure.

20. Thomas Jane was actually angling to play the role of Hex in the movie before Josh Brolin landed the role. He's playing Hex in the animated short. What are you expecting from his take on the role?

JP: Thomas Jane is a friend of mine and I think he would have been awesome. I am glad they got him to voice the animated short. As far as Josh, well, one look at him in that make-up and I am sold. He was friendly, fun and understands the madness of the character, so he gets it. From what we have seen, Josh is brilliant.

JG: I told Josh on the set that they'd have been crazy not to cast him as Hex. Citing his performance in "No Country for Old Men," you see all the elements of Jonah Hex; the stoic nature, the quiet confidence, the calculating mind and let's face it - the man looks like Hex. I'm sure he's tremendous in both the action and dark humor, because he's so talented.

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