I’ve only recently begun to dabble in the world of comics, graphic novels, and manga. I’ve dipped my toe in a few times in the past, never fully committing to anything other than a few issues or volumes of the weirder stuff. My only real exposure to graphic novels prior to 2016 was Watchmen, a decidedly easy pickup despite its heavy cultural weight. I say 2016 because that was the first time I went to Comic Con, lured into the den of comicdom by Andrew. It was an overwhelming experience. But the booths called to me, especially the buy 4, get 1 free deal at Image comics. They had a huge variety of interesting titles that didn’t require a long history of comics, a huge selling point. While there were many covers that tickled my fancy, there was one in particular that stood out from the rest.
East of West, by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Frank Martin, was an instant sell for a newbie like me. It had intense and contrasting color palettes. It was a science fiction western set in an alternate universe where the United States was divided into seven totally different nations. There is a pleasant mix of technology and mysticism that builds upon American exceptionalism in various ways. And the cherry on top of that layered sundae? Three of the horsemen of the apocalypse are on a revenge quest to hunt down everyone’s new favorite daddy (both in the literal and metaphorical sense), Death. The real kicker is that his son is the beast himself, the ender of worlds. Whoever finds him will hold the world in their hands.
Attempting to plot East of West is an exercise in madness, and I commend Hickman and Dragotta for staying the course. It develops organically and dynamically, branching out like a tree from a central point. The horsemen are let loose, wreaking havoc, installing the leaders who truly believe in The Message. The beast, a child, wanders the American west, aided by a reality-altering robot named Balloon who is programmed to train him to end humanity. Death stalks the land looking for his son, killing anyone who might get in his way. And the leaders of every nation are trying to find their own leverage to use The Message for their own gains, pulling everyone into War’s Charybdis-like maw.
There is a clear end point with the Apocalypse constantly on the horizon, but the different lenses through which it is viewed is fascinating. But the authors never really lose sight of the end goal, and that is immensely satisfying. There is not a single thread that feels unrealized by the end of it all, and I’m impressed that nothing feels superfluous either. There are tangents, but they always find themselves looping back to add to the whole, instead of veering off into their own little stories. It’s a focus I dream of for day to day tasks, let alone a several year long artistic project.
There are twists and turns all dictated by character agency that keeps the whole narrative feeling fresh. Threads weave and tangle in interesting ways that I would not have expected. Characters hang around longer than one would expect given their choices, but it never feels unearned. Everyone has a part to play and it makes the story feel unpredictable. It also moves like a demon, rarely giving the reader time to rest on the events of the world. But they know exactly when to let a reader sink in a moment. Even owning the entire series, the impact of the individual issues is felt through the plotting. I often found myself taking a few minutes after the end of each issue to let the weight of everything sink in before picking up the next issue. While written chapters can capture that feeling, there is something about being silenced by a final full page spread with a single sentence, and East of West uses that je ne sais quoi to its full advantage.
This story is incredibly realized on every page. Nick Dragotta knows exactly how to frame epic scenery and battles, while capturing intimate and intense moments up close. Each character develops their own body language, cluing the reader into their motives as the story goes on. Some characters are more expressive with their faces, while others employ their entire being to convey their emotions. Every frame has a dynamism to it, except for the rare few chosen to be still enough to take your breath away for fear of disturbing the page. Important moments that are highly absurd are caught in beautiful and striking ways that only add to their weight.
The coloring, by Frank Martin, is special as well. The world is painted in colorfully drab ways. It heightens the reader’s understanding of what part of the continent they are on, but factions are separated cleanly even in the most chaotic of battles. Realism is for suckers as the horsemen themselves are encapsulated by the primary colors of light, Red, Green, Blue and White. The Union don perverted versions of their classic Civil War Uniform. Confederates have their flag splashed all over their fatigues in grotesque abundance. The peoples of the Endless nation are arrayed both in the traditional Indigenous American garb of different tribes and technological curiosities.
It’s beautiful, and it makes it all that much more horrifying when they are painted with blood and gore, which is often. The action scenes are ferocious, whether they are small duels or grand battles. Bodies are meat, blood is paint, and the page barely contains it all. My favorite were the sequences in which the only two colors employed are scarlet red and midnight black, symbolizing the carnage. These scenes are also cleverly framed, never looking directly at the violence, as if the artist themselves could not bear witness to gore in its face. It’s impactful as hell, and Dragotta just nails it.
Paired with the writing, the art really makes the characters come into vivid focus. East of West boasts an insane cast of sharply drawn bastards to root for and against in the end times. Hickman lends each character a voice of their own, heightening their presence with individual cadences. Dragotta and Martin makes each one pop with their own unique style that fits in with the rest of the eclectic style present on every page. There is never a moment where any of the characters, no matter how small or insignificant, could be mistaken for someone else. Even characters that have bit parts are burned into my memory after their short stay on the page.
The real stars, though, burn bright as hell. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed Archibald’s lengthy anecdotes that drip off the page in a heavy southern drawl. Each one feels like he’s Mark Twain explaining one of his many deals with the devil, and how he plans to beat the devil at his own game. He may be one of the chief players from the Confederacy, but he’s easily the most charismatic. The horsemen are a fun and sadistic trio as they tear up the land around them, searching for the beast and installing the chosen in places of power. They carry history with them wherever they go, and the only immovable object they seem to encounter is Death himself. And Death, well, he’s just about the baddest dad in town, and has no qualms about showing off.
I could spend a lot of time diving into the various characters that flip in and out of the pages, but that would probably equal the totality of East of West. Instead, I just want to highlight that Hickman and Dragotta have created a truly wonderful balancing act. Yes, there are “main characters” in the sense that the story seems to revolve around certain individuals. But they are deliberate in making sure that every “little” character has moments of agency and empathy. While Death and the gang are waging their war for the beast, the world still turns. All of the human characters have anxieties, fears and motivations that let them engage with the world on their own terms. Everyone changes throughout the story, except for those that don’t and those are relegated to the dustbin of history. I became heavily invested in Doma Lux as a character even though she’s a sadistic little monster because of the way she advances the narrative and becomes trapped in the world she’s helped to shape. And she’s just one of a dozen smaller characters, not a big player by any stretch, but she isn’t just window dressing.
I won’t spend too much time outlining the absolutely insane future Dragotta and Hickman have realized within this series (that can be found within volume 4), but I will heap praise on it. Every region within East of West’s vision for America is distinct. There is a lot of heightened reality, playing on established historical tropes that litter alternate histories of yore. The Texan Republic is a more insane version of its initial conception, bolstered by techno augmented Texan Rangers with their own sense of justice. The Confederate states are exactly what you would expect, focusing more on their aristocratic and power hungry nature, with implications of where all the slavery went. The Midwest is home to the Nation of the Endless America, a machine state populated by a homogenous polity of Indigenous Americans who rejected the mystical for the technological.
But Hickman and Dragotta don’t stick to the tried and true either. The Union of the northern states is decrepit and backwards, having control of a strong military, but imbued with the bitterness of losing the south and the west. California is dominated by the People’s Republic of China, led by the exiled family of Chairman Mao. Yes, that chairman Mao. New Orleans has a distinctly afro-futuristic monarchy dominated by oil politics that adds a fascinating degree of nuance to their structure. Each faction employs a sort of funhouse satire to make them all distinct, while adding bits of real world history to their mixture to ground them. Yes, they are absurd, and have some cartoonish tendencies, but it makes their contradictions much more fun to watch in action.
East of West is not short of themes, and I could spend all day just diving into them, but in a rarity, I feel pointing them all out would be a disservice here. Ultimately, everything within the story revolves around the end times and the coming Apocalypse. It’s a grim story where its moments of levity are monologues from a worm of a man running the Confederacy, or ironic and quippy one liners as characters dole out death. People die, sometimes alone, sometimes en masse. Some are given the chance to die wrenching agency from a cruel world, while others are victims of fate all in the name of power for someone else.
What makes the bleakness compelling is that the individual characters all have their own sense of hope. The story does not pin the reader to one view or another, welcoming a kaleidoscopic view of the light at the end of the tunnel. The darkness encroaches on the edges all the time, and each issue feels like a turn of the rod, making the hope feel and look a little different, but not all that much brighter. It never feels like the end of the tunnel is close, after all, the end is THE END. East of West plays with this so often, it feels like a second nature to the authors very quickly, but it oddly never wears thin. There were so many times that I almost wished the Apocalypse would just end it all, because the world is already Hell. It’s astonishing that the end brings the level of satisfaction that it does, but the story makes the reader really work for it, just as Hickman and Dragotta have. And it’s worth the journey.
You should read East of West if there is even a spark of curiosity within you. I didn’t even get into how beautifully it is written, or how often I cackled at the dark humor littered across it’s pages. Hickman employs a very prophetic cadence to the narration that will suck you into his church of the Apocalypse. It’s a gorgeously dismal story about the end times, offering the right balance of what it means to hope against hope, and the relentless sounding of the horns of heaven. It doesn’t outlive its stay, but you’ll want to make as much room for it as possible. So, have you heard The Message?
Rating: East of West