East of West #1
“One: Out of the Wasteland”
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist/Cover artist: Nick Dragotta
Colors: Frank Martin
Letters: Rus Wooton
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.50 US
At my local comic shop, there’s a slightly unusual entry on my pull list: “Anything by Jonathan Hickman from Image.” I don’t need to know what a new Hickman creator-owned title is about; I don’t need to know who the artist is — I know it’s going to be something I want to read, and East of West continues that track record. It’s certainly an ambitious storytelling experiment. Hickman is no stranger to developing alternate histories in which to set his stories, but this transformation of America into seven separate nations seems particularly ambitious. But the story’s not really about an America moulded by prophecy, the Civil War and spiritualism. What this is really about is the apocalypse — or to be more precise, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I really don’t think the hero of the story has even presented himself yet, but I’m definitely captivated by the intensity of the plotting and characterization. Hickman plays around with genre to great effect, but it does make for a complex and challenging read at times. Fortunately, it’s a challenge well worth taking on.
The prophecies of a select few a couple of centuries ago have shaped America into a very different place, one made up of seven distinct nations guided by conflicting philosophies. As a result, this land in the mid 21st century is a harsh and dangerous place. More akin to the Wild West than any vision of a futuristic utopia, the Seven Nations are the perfect backdrop for the return of the Four Horsemen. There’s just one catch — this time, only three arose at a place to magic and power. One of the Horsemen has cast its destructive mission aside, giving its now-angry siblings a new target.
I was thrown by the art style I found waiting for me inside this comic book, as artist Nick Dragotta’s name is rather similar to that of frequent Hickman collaborator Nick Pitarra. Dragotta’s style is much different than that of Pitarra, but it’s just as effective in bringing Hickman’s skewed, complex vision to life. His work here reminds me a bit of a cross between the styles of Paul (Leave It to Chance) Smith and Mark (Fables) Buckingham, and it occurs to me his work is also reminiscent of that of Criss (Captain Marvel, Slingers) Cross. The designs, especially for the Three Horsemen, are simple but striking, and I couldn’t help but notice how the elder Prophet Longstreet, once a Confederate soldier, bears a strong resemblance to the symbol of America, Uncle Sam. Dragotta’s elongated figures manage to capture and convey a strong sense of power and grant the central characters an imposing presence.
Frank Martin’s colors add a great deal to the visual side of the storytelling here. The glowing tones he employs reinforce the arid, desolate nature of several settings; the mysticism running throughout the plot; and the dark brutality of several developments in the story. He also capably distinguishes the “historical” flashbacks with a washed-out look, as though he overexposed the art when adding the muted colors. The lack of hairlines for the panels depicting those scenes further adds to the effect. Also on display in the art is the trademark sense of design Hickman brings to so much of his work. The convergence of triangles to represent the Horsemen and how one is central to the story while the other three surround it sums up the essentially simple idea at the heart of this meticulously constructed history and mythology.
Due to the strong Western-genre riff running through this story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Garth Ennis on Just a Pilgrim. Sure, there’s no shortage of dystopian Western stories out there, but the overall tone of Hickman’s dialogue and the character concepts reminded me of Ennis’ work, not only Just a Pilgrim but Preacher as well. And yes, that’s meant as a compliment, obviously. There’s a danger some might view this work as derivative, I suppose, but Hickman’s definitely left his own mark with this take on the subgenre with his construction of the Seven Nations of America and the pop of his flair for iconography.
In a key scene in the latter part of the book, we see the Three Horsemen shortly after their rebirth, and it has a powerful punch with its juxtaposition of contrasting images: violence and the innocent look of the children perpetrating it. But how the scene ends left me scratching my head. The last surviving victim of an apparent genocide/atrocity says something to the Horsemen that struck me as being incredibly funny, but the pained, tearful look on his face at that moment was in direct contradiction to the amusing nature of the line. I’m honestly not sure if Hickman was being funny intentionally or if it was an unfortunate misstep. It look me out of the story briefly as I considered the issue, unable to arrive at a determination.
I’ve seen a couple of references online referring to East of West as “the next Saga.” I hope the reference is one to its potential collectibility and the fervent following Saga has engendered, because as fascinating as East of West is, I’m not quite as enthralled as I am by Saga. I can see some parallels, yes — the mix of magic and sci-fi, some oddball designs, such as the weird steed ridden by Death as he parts ways with his siblings. But I think Saga, despite being set against an interstellar war and its weird, monstrous character designs, it ultimately has a positive tone, celebrating nature and life. East of West — at least so far — is dark, dark, dark. It’s about ugly people doing ugly things in ugly places. And I’m great with darkness and harshness. I’m eager to meet the missing Horseman, though, and to learn its motivation for turning its back on its nature and prophecy. 8/10
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