By: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti (story), Moritat (art), Gabriel Bautista (colors)

The Story: Anyone care to guess the one thing that puts a merry smile on Hex’s face?

The Review: Don’t tell anyone, but I actually don’t care too much for these short features Gray-Palmiotti keep inserting at the back of this series.  This is no reflection on the concept of back-ups themselves; Nick Spencer’s Jimmy Olsen bit was a fantastic bonus to Paul Cornell’s already solid run in Action Comics, and was even better collected.  But the All-Star Western short features have been mainly jumbled, pointless, underwhelming at best and dull at worst.

The tale of Bat Lash generally follows in this vein.  Despite fun art from José Luis Garcia-López (colored by Patrick Mulvihill), the story makes only a weak attempt at fun by portraying Lash as the most hustlin’ swinger in the Wild West.  The idea isn’t bad, but Gray-Palmiotti just try way too hard to sell Lash’s bon vivant manner, to the point he just comes across as the dirtbag you don’t even care enough to hate: “Aside from my enviable gambling skills, did I mention that I am also devastatingly handsome?”  By the end of the feature, you have no idea why it exists in the first place, other than to take up space no one knew what to do with.

Sadly, the stuff going on in the main storyline certainly can use the extra space.  Even though comics do this kind of thing fairly often nowadays, it’s still exciting when two different points of continuity manage to intersect.  Even though the followers of Cain and the Crime Bible predate the Court of Owls in publishing, here Gray-Palmiotti accept the status quo of the Court as the more venerable order, with the upstart Crime Bible in direct competition.

This plotline works very well since in Gotham, more violent and sustaining than the conflict between the good and bad guys is the conflict between the various factions of bad guys.  You always get this sense that with this city, the heroes are the ones struggling for control, even among themselves, while the villains have their balances of power perfectly managed.  Consider the organization of the followers of Cain: “There are houses devoted to each of the five criminal disciplines: thievery, assassination, extortion, prostitution, and terrorism.”  Now compare them to the unfortunate Officer Bard, who struggles to even get a hint of a lead on his targets.

Even if the plot itself didn’t have much to it, this series can always reliable count on support from the chemistry of its two main players, which continues to evolve with every issue.  At one time, Arkaham’s intellectual, erudite persona naturally made us view him as the straight man, but he has definitely become the comedic foil flopping around next to the stolid Hex.  One exchange between them says it best.

Arkham: “You do have an astounding number of bizarre associations with questionable characters.”

Hex: “An’ yer one of ‘em.”

You can compare their dynamic to Sherlock Holmes and Watson, or, more accurately, a spirit-guzzling, mentally ravaged, trigger-happy Sherlock and a sweaty, squeamish Watson.  Add in the ball-busting yet simultaneously seductive Tallulah (“[Hex] in the house?  Cos if’n he is, ah won’t be needin’ them clothes right away.”), and you have a pretty colorful cast for its size.

Moritat continues to develop his subtlety in all areas of his art, and the one that stands out in this issue is in the character expression.  While he still pulls off panels of close-up melodrama with great flair, his intricate linework can now convey very complex emotions in the characters’ faces, like Arkham’s countenance to the madman in the Gotham prison, which is both sympathetic and humoring.  Tallulah is the perfect subject for Moritat’s growing confidence for facial work, as he makes her many sudden changes in mood transition naturally from threatening to playful.

Conclusion: Get rid of the back-up feature and this title would be the perfect dosage of western pulp every month.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – I agree with the doc on this one: Hex laughing is actually more cause for anxiety than when he frowns.