It’s not just great artists who steal. Highly competent, occasionally inspired craftsmen do too. Passing off a script based substantially on an old Batman plot had once allegedly led to Michael Fleisher being blacklisted by editor Julius Schwartz.
Yet by 1978’s Jonah Hex Spectacular, Fleisher had become skilled in reframing his inspirations in smart and intriguing ways. That issue’s “The Last Bounty Hunter,” for example, was sown together from a host of influences which Fleischer made no effort to obscure, and why should he have done so? The murder of the ageing Jonah in a saloon while playing cards quite obviously drew upon the reports of Will Bill Hickok’s assassination by Jack McCall in Deadwood. The turn-of-the-century America which serves as the backdrop of Fleischer’s tale is self-evidently informed by the string of elegiac after-the-Frontier movies from the late Sixties and Seventies such as Death of a Gunfighter and The Shootist, and that’s true even down to the appearance of a single 3-Horsepower Oldsmobile in the mainstreet of the town in which Hex dies. But “The Last Bounty Hunter” is far, far more than the sum of its obvious inspirations because of the innovative ways in which Fleischer weaved his material together, the social comment that his script was designed to express, and his obvious and touching fondness for the character of Hex himself.
“The Last Bounty Hunter” presents us with a 66 year old Jonah Hex, still formidable enough to collect the rewards offered on a four-strong gang of bank robbers, and still so blissfully ornery that he punches out young and disrespectful policemen. But as his Native American wife Tall Bird will later argue, Jonah seems to be willing his own end. He’s careless of his own safety and certain that a man who stops, as Hex thinks of it, living “starts tuh dyin’!” Jonah knows that he’s a relic of a lost past, but he’s no interest in accommodating himself to a world of “automotives” and “flyin’ contraptions”. In that, he seems at first to be standing for a better world of some sort, for a simpler and more direct way of existing. When he’s shown reminiscing about his past to Professor Wheeler, it’s not the trauma of the Civil War or the horrors of the so-called Indian Wars that we’re shown, but a world in which Hex masters the skills to survive in the wild while thinning out the ranks of the Frontier’s least salubrious citizens. With his beautiful log cabin and his young and quite frankly gorgeous Comanche bride, Hex seems to be not just a symbol of a long-disappeared race of justice-dealing paragons, but an expression of the American Dream itself. He has his home and his land, his family and friends, his privacy and his freedom. What more could an American want? The wildlands have been tamed and civilisation, it seems, is rolling across the continent.
Yet Fleischer’s purpose is no more to idealise the past than it to celebrate what America became in the 20th century. “The Last Bounty Hunter” describes how the violence and exploitation which characterized so much of the West in the 19th century remained central to America’s culture despite the arrival of a more recognizably modern world. Modernity here means nothing more heartening than the replacement of the outlaw by the businessman, by the subsuming of an intense and immediate experience of life with a mass of fact-distorting, profit-turning myths of the same. Even dead, Jonah’s body is transformed into a sideshow exhibit fought over by gangsters and peddled as entertainment for a nation which knows nothing of the reality of the past while retaining a prurient fascination for its supposed excesses.
Dressed in the most ridiculously impractical theatrical outfit, Jonah’s cadaver is shown being fought over, forgotten and finally hauled out of storage to stand as a spacefiller on the edge of an amusement park. The truth of the past has been respun and mutilated so consistently that no one who visits Westworld knows that they’re passing the body of a man rather than a gaudy, cheap statue, just as none of them recognise that the West itself had nothing to do with the money-extracting diversions now associated with it. Russ Heath’s beautifully framed art shows a single thin tree hemmed in by a wood and concrete basin standing in a broad expanse of rides and attractions, visitors and employees. A few pigeons squabble for scraps, a distant punter fires an air-rifle at a sideshow, a child in a cowboy outfit being dragged by a disinterested woman in stretch pants takes aim at what little is left of the last of the bounty hunter: “Bang! Bang!”. Fleischer’s opinion seems clear. The West was never won at all, or rather, it was conquered by American capitalism rather than by or for any more lofty enterprise
In his eulogy for Jonah Hex that’s also very much an eulogy for America itself, Fleischer’s most audacious strategy was to fuse the traditions of the western with those of the E.C. horror tale. Criticised by some at the time for gleefully glorifying in Hex’s murder and the subsequent injuries and insults which were used to desecrate his carcass, Fleischer’s script remains remarkably disciplined and free of prurience. Hex isn’t killed off because Fleischer wants his audience to glorify in the sensation of a hero’s death that’s as appalling as its inglorious, but rather to show how the Republic of the 20th Century implacably reduced everything of the West to nothing more than wealth-generating commodities. Fleischer shows Hex facing the same fate as the West’s original inhabitants; his home is seized, his property stolen or destroyed, his loved ones abused and murdered. What could be a more appropriate form to present such a tale in than horror? He appropriates the matter-of-fact tones of the EC cartoon-narrators and guides us through one not-so-absurd, gut-wrenching event after another, trusting Russ Heath’s beautifully telling artwork to match the laconic text with the fact of events. Heath neither sensationalises or underplays the fundamental sickness of the world he’s portraying, creating with his measured and entirely transparent panels the sense of world where exploitation and violence in one form or another are the defining qualities of American life. As with Fleischer’s script, so with Heath’s art; their work together describes a predatorily dishonest world in unpretentiously honest terms.
One purposefully morbid moment follows another; Hex’s wife is appallingly assaulted and Michael Wheeler, who’s been recording Hex’s reminiscences, is slaughtered; the hair triggers of Hex’s Colts cause the death of one of his murderers as Jonah’s corpse is dressed as a carnival attraction; his stiff abandoned corpse passes decades leaning against the backwall of a downtown Detriot warehouse. Indignity upon indignity hammers down on Jonah and those he cared for, but there’s no comforting suggestion that his spirit is affecting the murderous events which follow his passing. His body is associated with a string of deaths, his murderers are themselves murdered in return, but that’s just how America works in Fleischer’s tale
Those who thought that Fleischer was treating Hex with disrespect couldn’t have been more misguided in their judgements. Fleisher himself told the Comics Journal how moved he’d been by the experience of murdering off the old gunfighter, and the writer could surely have shown no greater measure of respect than he did by creating a death, and a form of soulless afterlife, which ensured that Hex’s passing stood for something far greater than just another tear-inducing hero’s farewell. Jonah Hex’s death was never meant to sentimentally indicate that America had somehow died as the 19th century rolled into the 20th. Rather, Fleischer appeared to be telling us that the America of myth had always been exactly that, and that underneath the comforting legends had always lurked the real Republic, a merciless, rapacious monster of a nation, transforming everything it could to the means of making more and more profit. Finally, all that’s left of America’s citizens is an amnesiac herd of consumers grazing across a landscape of alienating entertainments before the sightless eyes of the corpse of Jonah Hex. In that, “The Last Bounty Hunter” is a purposefully Godless tale, just as is the Republic it describes. There’s no justice here. Even Jonah Hex is dead.
The hero’s death serves no greater good at all. His wife cannot bury him, his friends cannot save him. The greater good is never served, the private suffering is never lifted. Everything was for nothing at all. Even the memory of the events and the players is irretrievably lost. Fleischer’s tale really is a remarkable, bleak howl of anger and despair.