A woman much smarter than me, but also sadly less alive, once said that writers are, as a rule, proficient in three things: lying, cheating, and stealing. Seeing as I’m only slightly good at the former, and absolutely pitiful at its closest relative, I figured I ought to take a crack at the last one. As such, I’d like to welcome you to a new feature on The Scratch Pad, called Tomato Fixes.
Maybe it’s just my parasitic, crippling narcissism speaking for me, but every so often, I finish reading a comic at a comic, and I find myself thinking “With a few tweaks, this comic could be eons better.” Naturally, I’ll spend the rest of the day tweaking the comic in my head, nipping here and tucking there, pecking at premises and clipping at characters until I either want to throw the whole smoldering mess off of a steep cliff, or, on a better day, arrive at something that would make a pretty compelling comic or animated series. This set of post is for the lucky few ideas that fall into the latter category, the rare beasts that miraculously manage to claw themselves out of my head with their vital organs mainly intact.
That’s all well and good, but what then arises is the equally pressing dragon of how to go about this tricky business. What seemed like the sensible thing to start with, to me, was to diagnose the problems that the original story had, pre-tweak, usually restraining myself to three flaws per story. On nine different occasions, doctors of all shapes and sizes have seen fit to cut my body open and fix things within it, and I attribute the fact that I survived all of them to said doctors knowing exactly what they were trying to fix about me in the first place, before any potentially fatal cuts. (As an aside, this is why most of the myriad continuity reboots at DC Comics fail faster than the Hindenburg: writers are so intent on cutting patient open that they forget why they did so in the first place, only to react in sheer surprise weeks later when the bloodstained body is convulsing and bled dry.)
Of course, if you know somebody well enough to swipe a knife down their back and stick needles down their veins, they really should know about their medical history, so I’ll preface each post with a brief history lesson on the comic I’m fixing, for those of you new to the trade.
After that, I’ll prescribe three solutions to the problems I outlined earlier, usually sweeping changes to the characters, universe, or story that, if the chips fall correctly, make the previous bloated and unwieldy craft more suitable to fly through the dangerous skies of modern comic book consumerism. However, whenever possible, I’ll try to curtail my changes from rendering any story out-of-continuity. As a writer, I have a respect for the whole process of writing, and I never want to step on the toes of those who’ve written the character before, no matter how pestilent the previous stories prove to be. This isn’t a guarantee, though, so much as a rule of thumb.
With the semantics and frills out of the way, we’ll then move on to the three key ingredients of both any good pitch and any story worth the paper it’s printed on: the plot, the characters, and the setting, usually in that specific marching order. Provided I do my job correctly, this is the point where the big picture comes together, and you start to see the larger machine composed by all of the chinks and pieces.
Once the main course is concluded, we’ll move on to my favorite part: the sample. In the sample, I’ll put my money where my textual mouth is and provide synopses for a hypothetical first five installments of my revamped series, complete with terrible and overbearing titles.
Lastly, I’ll top the whole whirring tempest off with some boring legal mumbo-jumbo, so that no gun-toting hacks can steal my stuff. Speaking of, let’s talk about Jonah Hex.
Jonah Hex, by nature, is a lonely man. Whether it be in the gritty, horrible movie or in the excellent modern Hex comic, Jonah’s destiny, it is assumed, is to die alone, in an unmarked grave, not a soul surrounding the pine box that no one will ever bother to buy him. This is the core of Jonah’s character, and has been in all of his various iterations, even those that were less than serviceable. It’s a core that I find to be really compelling, and plenty of others do, too: the lone bounty hunter, forging a path of blood and sorrow with only his thoughts to lap at his coattails. There is, however, something missing in this traditional approach: we never find out exactly why this iconic, ghostly figure has never kept anyone as a companion or cohort, even a mother or father. Surely, he’s tried, at some point to make friends. No matter how legendary he is, Jonah Hex is human, and humans are sociable animals. In short, Jonah must be carrying a Wild West-sized issue beneath that faded Confederate jacket. So, how do we help the audience gain insight into Jonah Hex’s big problem? Well, that’s simple. You’ve got to surround him with a supporting cast, and watch in awe as he breaks down every last one of them, crushes any love they have for him, and walks away into the dusty sunset. There’s one problem, though. Jonah Hex has literally no supporting cast, apart from the bland adversary of Quentin Turnbull and the barely-appearing Man With The Eagle-Topped Cane. Sure, he’s had a whole slew of blonde, brunette, and ginger-haired broads to tumble around with, but here’s a thought: name one of them. Go ahead, you have at least seventy to choose from. Stumped? That’s OK, because so am I. As complex and deep as Jonah Hex’s character can be, the audience can only hope to gain minimal insight into Hex’s character if he doesn’t have a robust and equally interesting supporting cast swirling around him at all times. Of course, before we worry about a supporting cast, we’ve got to fret over another missing player. In short, will Jonah Hex’s arch-nemesis please stand up?
A strong villain is central to any good hero. Think about some of the less popular good guys to ever grace the page of a comic book: Plastic Man, Blue Beetle, Aquaman, or my personal favorite, The Phantom Stranger. Now, compare them to the big guns of Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Green Lantern. What’s missing from the former group, which our scar-faced soldier sorrowfully saunters in? None of the lesser-known heroes have an arch-nemesis, of course. To borrow a phrase from the great Detective Comics writer, Scott Snyder: “Every good hero has a black mirror.” Mr. Snyder, who certainly knows a fair bit about how to craft dark, immaculate comics, is alluding to a simple truth of storytelling: the best villains are the ones that the hero could’ve easily became, if the winds of fate had blown slightly differently, twisted fun-house mirror versions of the very people we’re supposed to be rooting for. If we use that method to spin Hex a new doppelganger, we need to find Jonah’s key qualities, and then invert them. For starters, as we’ve established, Jonah Hex is a lonely man, and refuses to connect to anyone, forging his own path. So, it’d make sense for our big baddie to be connected to everyone and everything, turning the entire universe around his own gravitational pull. He’ll need to be influential, and not above using people’s lives as a staircase to his own goal. Whereas Jonah is reactive, fighting with the quick draw of a gun, we need someone who prefers to sit and ponder, only crushing his adversaries when it sets in how utterly, irrevocably trapped they really are. Jonah also has a strong to the idea of personal justice. He’s mentioned before, in the excellent modern Palmiotti run, that if God doesn’t exist, someone should right well do His job for Him, delivering justice and enacting vengeance upon those who’ve wronged others. Justice, to Hex, is a very intimate matter, a burden carried by the one who was wronged and the one who wronged them. If we were to subvert that sense of private vengeance, we’d need a villain who sees justice as a luxury, a decadence to be enjoyed by those who can pay for it, at the expense of those who cannot, someone who wields power like an accolade and cannot stop trying to attain more. All of those qualities combined would make a perfect dark mirror for the Confederate cowboy. We’ll fix that in due time, though, because there’s an even bigger barrier standing between our titular gunslinger and superstardom. It’s something that’s been a formidable, key part of Hex’s mythos for years. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and, as I see it, you can’t make a fresh take on Jonah Hex without breaking a few rules. And as long as you’re breaking rules, why not break the biggest of all: what if Jonah Hex was plucked out of the Old West, and dropped somewhere entirely different?
I can already hear the pitchforks sharpening, and the torches sizzling. Being a Western is the most integral part of not only the Jonah Hex character, but the story of Jonah Hex himself. For years, Jonah Hex has been the pinnacle of the Old West comic, a genre that, save for a few outliers, is all but dead. Why, then, would I want to rip Hex away from the roots that a whole legion of writers have fostered? It’s a matter of evolution. If an organism becomes too dependant on its environment, it dies the minute that environment is taken away. In my opinion, an over-reliance on Western tropes has made even the best stories about Jonah Hex develop a thin layer of distance from the characters, As good as they are, seeing a series of unconnected Western vignettes that hop through time faster than a grasshopper leaves one to wonder exactly what the thematic point of the whole is, no matter how astounding each part may be. What Jonah Hex comics have been missing for a fair while is a focus on Jonah the man, instead conceptualizing him as a kind of storm, sweeping from lullaby land to placid plane; all sound and fury, signifying nothing. So, if we want to focus on Hex the man, it’d make sense to remove him from any other variables, and put him in a new place entirely. Where, exactly? Well, come back next week as I take “One Giant Leap” to a point in the future where Earth itself is the Wild West in a burgeoning cosmos, and Hex, well:
… he’s the only human within it.