Following his temporary stay in the modern-day DC Universe, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have brought Jonah Hex back to the Old West, and Staz Johnson's opening splash page shows that it's business as usual for Hex in "All-Star Western" #31. The lead-off splash, an overhead shot of Hex and Tallulah in the prototypical Old West saloon surrounded by outlaws with guns drawn, is an effective old school tactic that grabs readers immediately, and shows that Hex is right back in the comfortably dangerous environment where he belongs. This issue is actually split between the main Hex feature and the second part of a Madame .44 backup that reimagines the character's origin with an otherworldly spin, also by Palmiotti and Gray, and drawn by veteran artist Jose Luis Garcia-López.
Palmiotti and Gray have been with the character for so long that Hex has become like that beloved old pair of cowboy boots: worn and rugged, but a favorite for a reason. As Hex and Tallulah shoot up the bar and their foes, they trade verbal jabs like a cantankerous old married couple across the dinner table, yet there is palpable sexual tension between them. It's a very tricky dynamic that the writing team has typically pulled off so well during their run, and they do the same here.
With Johnson's layouts and pacing, and his loose, gritty look that suits all characters involved, this sequence of the story is all but perfectly executed; it's funny without being campy, yet thrilling without being over the top. This kind of excellence is what has made "All-Star Western" one of the best, most consistent, but unfortunately underrated, comics in the New 52.
Also unfortunate is the aforementioned Madame .44 feature that follows, which has none of the same character dynamic as the lead story. It's not a bad story, in absolute terms, and it does have the creative spin of being a kind of supernatural/western hybrid. The story follows the character as she makes her way through this twin-mooned alien world, populated with strange looking beasts and alien creatures, and is wonderfully designed and drawn by Garcia-López.
It's a clever take on the origin of this longtime but little-used character, but Palmiotti and Gray don't bring the same kind of storytelling precision to Madame .44 that they have with Jonah Hex. The largely solitary nature of the story leaves little room for any kind of meaningful character interaction, handicapping the writing team from telling the kind of story that they tell best. Any opportunity for Garcia-López to illustrate a feature is a welcome one, but it unfortunately outshines the story itself.
"All-Star Western" #31 is a worthwhile if surprisingly uneven comic, but one that looks great throughout. With the title reportedly being slated for cancellation, this issue is a pretty good showcase of what existing readers have already been enjoying, and non-readers have been missing.