All Star Western has been one of the biggest surprises to come out of DC Comics' 2011 reboot. While there was no way this comic could have been bad (writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have been working magic with the book's main character, Jonah Hex, for years), there probably aren't a lot of readers who anticipated just how excellent it would be (everyone who's been buying it since issue #1, let's pat ourselves on the back). At first glance, you may think "why should I care about a Western? Aren't those boring and old-fashioned?" Come, friends, as we walk you through why All Star Western is a Comic You Should Be Reading.
1) It's not just a Western. I mean, there's nothing wrong with Westerns, at all. But for many younger pop culture enthusiasts, it's kind of a genre that's past its time. Fortunately, Palmiotti, Gray and artist Moritat throw enough twists and complications into their book to make it interesting to all kinds of readers. For one, far from taking place out on the frontier, this book's set in Gotham City… the Gotham City… just about 100 years or so before Batman starts to operate. What happens when you cross a rugged, Wild West bounty hunter (Jonah Hex) with a growing urban environment? Storytelling magic!
To make that contrast even more interesting, Gray and Palmiotti pair Jonah Hex with a second lead character -- Amadeus Arkham, who longtime DC readers may recognize as the psychiatrist who builds Arkham Asylum and then goes insane (this book's set before all that). So what we have here is some twisted kind of buddy cop flick where the Plays-By-His-Own-Rules Hex cleans up crime in nineteenth-century Gotham with a weak, whiny and overly book-wormy Arkham. It's tempting to look at them as a prototypical Batman and Robin, but perhaps a Jekyll/Hyde comparison would serve us better (also, classic literary references sound uber-smart).
The Western/urban mashup leads to some great story moments, like Hex having to deal with a giant (albeit corrupt) legal system unlike any he's seen before, and an 1880s version of a drive-by shooting, in which a horse-drawn carriage hobbles past victims as an assassin in back cranks a manual machine gun. Stuff like that is both kind of funny and really cool, and you'll only find it here.
2) This is the most important Batman book you're (maybe) not reading. Last week we heaped mountains of praise on Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman. Did you know that All Star Western has a lot of Very Important Connections to that title? Keen readers can have a lot of fun playing a game of dominoes across these two books. Most importantly, in All Star Western we can see some early activities of the Court of Owls -- the secret society of villains currently serving as Batman's main antagonist. These guys have been making bad stuff happen in Gotham for centuries, so it only makes sense that Hex and Arkham would run into them here. This connection's more than just cool trivia -- it's actually about to become a key part of All Star, which in the coming months will be a part of the Bat-book crossover Night of the Owls.
But let's say you, for some reason, don't care about the new Batman comics (hey, we still love you). All Star's connection to Batman's history doesn't stop there. We already mentioned the heavy role Amadeus Arkham plays in this book. Anyone who enjoyed previous series like Gates of Gotham or Return of Bruce Wayne will also find a lot of really cool stuff happening in All Star. Recent issues, for instance, have incorporated the Miagani, the ancient race of Batman-inspired Native Americans who live beneath Wayne Manor (if that sounds confusing to you, don't worry about it).
3) It's beautiful. We couldn't discuss this book without mentioning the excellent pencils of Moritat, or the colors of Gabriel Bautista. Their look fits the tone of this comic perfectly; Moritat has a true grit (pun intended?) to his thick pencils that really suits a Western style, and he draws action scenes like nobody's business (a major highlight is the shootout at Arkham's mansion in issue #2). His Hex, in particular, is a fascinating figure; Jonah is, after all, horribly scarred, and Moritat skillfully uses that to create mood here. Credit must also be paid to cover artist Ladronn, whose work looks like it comes from pulp novels of the 1930s. His painted horror scenes pop off the racks in a way few comic covers do. (side note: Harry Potter fans, check out Moritat's DeviantArt page post-haste; as of this writing, the top image is a recent sweet commission of Hermione Granger, who is a pretty cool chick, though sadly not a part of All Star Western... YET).
There's a lot more to say about All Star Western… we haven't even touched on the back-up stories yet… but in short it's a super-interesting, surprisingly Batman-centric, well-thought out read month after month. So far it's only six issues in, so catching up shouldn't be that hard, and each issue's available digitally through Comixology if you can't get them at your local shop. For Batman fans and Western fans this book shouldn't be missed, but even more casual readers who enjoy smart action/adventure/detective stories will find themselves with a lot to enjoy here.