By: Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray (writer), Moritat (artist), Gabriel Bautista (colorist), Phil Winslade (feature artist), Dominic Regan (feature colorist)

The Story: Instead of seeing the situation as a death trap, Arkham, consider it an adventure!

The Review: I think the real fun of these buddy stories—although calling Hex and Arkham buddies is admittedly a stretch—is not only the misadventures they can get up to, or even the energy that comes from their interaction, but seeing how each one affects the other over time.  Obviously, that kind of thing works best when you have characters who are polar opposites, and you can’t get more polar or opposite than our two stars here.

In the long run, it’s doubtful Hex will change much under Arkham’s mild-mannered influence, but we can see that this extended companionship with the bounty hunter has definitely opened the stodgy recluse of a doctor to a whole new world of experiences: the numbing horror of hard exercise, the value of violence in a pinch, the rush of excitement and hysteria that you only get when you know death is imminent.  It might be too much to hope that Arkham will take to these things as habit, but he should buck up after a while, and grow hardier for it.

Besides, it’s great fun to see his usual, intelligent composure completely undone as he tackles the sweatier side of the emotional spectrum.  In short order, he expresses paralyzing fear (“Oh God…I fear I’ve soiled myself.”), biting sarcasm (“I should have anticipated your keen intellect would factor into our liberation from this hellish…”), and screaming panic (“Hex?  Where are you? HEX?!?!”).  Breakdowns are often entertaining to watch, and Arkham’s is no exception.

As it turns out, Arkham’s outbursts turn out to be the saving grace for both men at the bottom of Gotham’s cave network, although the sudden appearance of the Miagani (Grant Morrison’s tribe of Batman-inspired natives) doesn’t really seem as such.  On the other hand, you got a cowboy in Hex and now a passel of Injuns before him—can circumstances be any more perfect?  Palmiotti-Gray aren’t the most inspired of writers, but this scene is very clever, and quite enjoyable, too.

Moritat has always been good, but he just grows better with each issue, by my estimation.  Plenty of artists sport a similarly cartoony style, but none bring more life, weight, detail, and dramatic depth than he does.  Hex and Arkham’s battle with the Miagani is well-choreographed; not once do you feel like any of their movements are forced, awkward, or out of place.  And Arkham’s constant change of face throughout this issue is a great study in emotional expression, especially with those tiny spectacles that somehow always manage to stick on the bridge of his nose.

As for “The Barbary Ghost”, if this is a sample of the kind of back-up features we can expect from the title from now on, I’m more inclined to say it’s worth it.  Palmiotti-Gray have the luxury of working a fairly novel subject-matter with this story of Chinese-Americans in Post-Reconstruction America.  What’s particularly admirable about it is it doesn’t call attention to the characters’ ethnicity or culture except incidentally, boiling down to a tale about a family seeking justice against tyrannical odds, and regaining their dignity.  It helps that Winslade provides strong art that makes the back-up look like it’s a comic with a worth all its own.

Conclusion: It’s hard to write a Western that breaks out of the strict trappings of the genre, but Gray-Palmiotti are actually starting to do it, in two stories at once.  Here’s wishing them even more progress in issues to come.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Is the grandfather in “Barbary Ghost” related to Yan Mei on her mother or father’s side?  He calls the former his daughter and the other his son, with nary a qualifying “in-law” to clarify things.

– Let’s get real here, Arkham—you don’t really need those glasses, right?  They’re smaller than your actual eyeballs!  Especially when they get all bug-eyed from unadulterated histrionics.