Retributive Justice in the Book of Jonah and the Jonah Hex Comic Book Series
I have taught the book of Jonah for years, and I used to be very pleased with my reading of it. I taught my students that the author was using the characters of God and Jonah to prescribe a new concept of relating to others. In the story, Jonah — who I saw as a stand-in for Israel — is clinging to a traditional sense of justice that is countered by the actions of God. This sense of justice is mainly concerned with the pagan “others,” which are sailors or Ninevites. God is showing Jonah (or Israel) a new way of looking at the “other” through God’s compassion in response to the actions of the “other.” The final section of discourse in chapter four1Jonah 4:9–11. is where God lays out the basic teaching of the entire book: relating to others through kindness and finding a new understanding of the responsibility of Israel in a new, challenging time. This, I told my students, is the central trait of God the author intends to be imitated.
Over time, though, I became bothered by this neat and tidy understanding of Jonah. I finally realized that my problem was Jonah’s final silence. None of the interpretive possibilities I researched seemed persuasive, as none of them seemed to me to explain Jonah’s silence adequately.2See, e.g.,, Terence E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary (1977); James Limburg, Jonah: A Commentary, in Old Testament Library (1993); Uriel Simon, Jonah, in The JPS Bible Commentary (1999). Instead, they implied a happy ending for the book that I increasingly found implausible, given Jonah’s actions and silence. I became unsure how to or if I even should continue teaching Jonah as I had been. And then I met Jonah Hex.
More precisely, I started reading the Jonah Hex comic book series, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, that ran from 2005–2011. In the seventy issues of this series, I discovered numerous points of contact with the biblical book of Jonah, and, more surprisingly, I realized that my own view of Jonah and his silence was being reshaped and crystallized. Put briefly, betwixt and between these two texts, I came to the view that Jonah’s silence at the end of the biblical book should not be taken as his acquiescence to God’s universal love. That is, Jonah’s fury with God never abated; he never gave in to God’s new, larger conception of concern for all peoples. I came to see the comic book character Jonah Hex as a kind of Jonah redivivus, an incarnation of his namesake, who works as a bounty hunter in the American Old West to punish the wicked. The comic book series frames Hex as a God-hating killer, but one who is fully immersed in the ideology of retributive justice endorsed by his eponymous ancestors. Through this mutually reciprocal reading in which I read and reread both the biblical and the comic texts in light of one another, Hex’s displeasure with the divine became more comprehensible, and Jonah’s unwillingness to cooperate in God’s plan was given a fresh perspective.
Readers of the comic series are confronted with the themes of Hex’s relationship with God and the series’ view of retributive justice in the very first issue, titled “Giving the Devil His Due.”3Jimmy Palmiotti et al., Giving the Devil His Due, in Jonah Hex (2006). The first issue can be purchased online here. See Jimmy Palmiotti et.al., Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence (2006) for a collection of the first six issues. The narrator tells us early on that based on his experience of suffering and brutality, Hex firmly believes that God hates him, and, in turn, he hates God. The plot of the first issue is simple enough: Hex is hired to find a young boy named Jacob. In his search, he finds that a man named Victor Romanoff has been forcing boys to fight vicious dogs and allowing the audience to gamble on the outcome. Finding Jacob in Romanoff’s outfit in the final stages of rabies, Hex makes the awful decision to smother Jacob rather than allow him to die a slow, agonizing death. Hex then strips Romanoff naked, covers him with pig’s blood, and turns two dogs loose on him before taking Jacob’s body home to his family.
The series’ view of justice is seen clearly here, as one of the hallmarks of these Hex stories is that, in many cases, Hex makes the villains endure the same type of punishment they meted out to their victims. Additionally, Hex’s relationship with God is shown to be based on experience, worked out amidst the blood and death Hex sees every day. Even so, the relationship is not a static one. His act of euthanasia causes a kind of identity crisis for Hex, as is seen in the closing narratorial comment: “Until that day, Jonah Hex never questioned his feud with the Lord . . . . It had always seemed his talent for killing was in direct opposition to the Lord’s work. But now? Now he wasn’t so sure.”
The thirty fourth issue, titled Outrunning Shadows,” also addresses these themes.4Jimmy Palmiotti et al., Outrunning Shadows, in Jonah Hex (2008). The thirty fourth issue can be purchased online here . See Jimmy Palmiotti et.al., Jonah Hex: Bullets Don’t Lie (2009) for the thirty first through thirty sixth issues. As it begins, we see Hex burying his Confederate uniform and guns. The narrator then connects this with a recent experience that has left Hex shaken and a little unsure about his calling as a bounty hunter and a dispenser of harsh justice. In the aftermath of that experience, we are told, “lies a lesson of the wear and tear of almost constant death takes on a man’s soul.”
Over the next few pages, we see Hex building a house for himself and keeping his distance from the townsfolk — he even adopts a false name. Trouble begins when a group of gunmen ride into town and demand businesses pay them protection money. Meanwhile, the general store owner’s pretty daughter, Sandy, rides out to Hex’s new place, ostensibly to welcome him to the area with a fresh baked pie. It is obvious, though, that she is attracted to him. True to form, Hex tells her to go home and leave him alone. Not long after, her father is killed and Sandy becomes a prostitute. When her first client beats her up, she rides to Hex’s place and the two end up in bed. The next morning, they get into a fight after Hex accuses her of trying to use him to get revenge for her father. Sandy tells Jonah she was wrong about him, and she leaves angry.
The next two pages contain one of the two instances in the series in which Jonah addresses God.5The only other instance I can find is in Issue eighteen, “I Walk Alone” (June 2007). Sitting in front of his fireplace, Hex says:
You press me ta action against muh will. Set a bush burnin’, why don’t ya? Through manner a’ guilt and persistence, ta flauntin’ the horrors a’ simple folk just tryin’ ta live peaceful in the company a’ cowards an’ killers.
[Holding a Bible on his lap] This is yer word scribed by men teachin’ eye fer an eye an’the like!
[Placing open Bible into fire] Love thy neighbor and Thou shalt not kill stand at odds with each other an’ ya prefer ah take up the work of yer angels who ain’t but assassins with wings! And when Judgment Day comes, ya’ll put these deeds in shadow an’ condemn me nonetheless as a killer and a sinner.
Hex then rides to town to talk to Sandy, and learns she has been killed. At her gravesite, he says:
Ya couldn’t leave it be, could ya? Comin’ ta me with pie an’ sins a’ the flesh. Comin’ ta me with the promise of comfort when ah already buried more lovers than ah care ta reflect on. Mark that as muh mistake as not ta recognize the trap yer God lay before me. Ya know ah tried, an’ repentant as ah may be, he still felt moved ta take ya by violence.
Hex then picks up a shovel and notes,
Gentle an’ reasonable, they call the Lord. That’s jest because they don’t know him like ah do. Wrath an’ vengeance. Floods an’ salt. Lamb’s blood an’ sacrificin’ first born sons…that’s his stock an’ trade.
Hex has obviously dug up his guns and Confederate uniform, because on the next page, he is wearing them as he enters the saloon and starts shooting. As he fires, he reveals his name, describing himself as “[t]he man what dangles from strings that reach ta the heavens grasped in hands as cruel as any can imagine.” He then kills them all, and on the last page, as his newly built house burns to the ground, the narrator notes, “For Jonah Hex, escaping the past is as useless as trying to outrun his own shadow.”
Obviously, there is much to unpack in this issue. First, how do Hex’s comments reflect his biblical namesake? To begin with, there is the theme of recalcitrance. For example, neither Jonah nor Hex want to do what they have been called to do, whether it is prophesy to the Ninevites or to administer unrepentant justice. In order to avoid their fates, Jonah runs to the other side of the earth and Hex buries his past and tries to forge a new identity. The more substantial parallel has to do with their understanding and experience of God. Jonah’s recalcitrance is linked to his view of God as a merciful, forgiving deity, and he is scared that that forgiveness might manifest itself in response to the Ninevites’ repentance, which he sees as inappropriate, since they are foreigners and outside the covenant relationship. As such, he refuses initially to carry out his divine commission. As we are shown in the first issue of the comic series, Hex’s experience with the divine is rooted in immense suffering and pain, both his own and what he has inflicted on others. We see that his attempt to leave that suffering behind, though, is futile. Like Jonah, Hex feels pressed into the service of the Lord, but he is no happier about it than his prophetic ancestor. In fact, he characterizes himself as a puppet on sacred strings, doing the work of God’s angels, for which he will ultimately be condemned, like enacting the harsh, retributive justice his eponymous ancestor favored.
Finally, both Jonah and Hex abandon the merciful, compassionate vision of God in favor of their colder, harsher sense of divine retribution. Jonah does this by “opting out” of dialogue with God in chapter 4. Through his repeated desire for death and what I see now as an angry silence, Jonah indicates his abandonment of God’s forgiving inclusiveness of the Ninevites. Similarly, Hex digs up his guns and uniform, kills all the gunmen, and then burns his newly built house to the ground in order to recapture, albeit unwillingly, his role as dispenser of ruthless justice. In so doing, Hex verbalizes his abdication of the “gentle and reasonable” view of God, a God who teaches both “Love thy neighbor and Thou shalt not kill.”
There is obviously more to be said, but the two issues I have mentioned should provide an understanding of how the Jonah Hex comic book series receives, renders, and reimagines the biblical book of Jonah, as well as how engaging the series can allow readers — in this case, me — to return to the biblical text with a new perspective on the ambiguities present therein. This kind of reciprocal reading is far more common than one might expect. In my case, spending time with Hex allowed me to re-engage the biblical book of Jonah with a better sense of Jonah’s anger — his severe view of God’s inclusive actions on behalf of Nineveh. Now, I imagine that after God’s questions to Jonah in the final verses of the chapter,6See Jonah 4:10–11. the disgruntled, grizzled prophet rose and silently walked away into the desert, steeling himself for the horrors he would encounter during his journey, prepared to enact the justice he felt God so carelessly cast aside. ♦
Dr. Dan W. Clanton, Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Doane University in Crete, NE. A researcher of aesthetic interpretations of biblical literature and the intersection between religion and (popular) culture, he is currently co-editing the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Bible in American Popular Culture.