East of West #1
Jonathan Hickman is known in the comic world for his big stories and the even bigger ideas that inspire them. He’s known for scripting sprawling epics for the superheroes he is handed and short but staggeringly dense sci-fi tales in the indie realm. His comics are known for being complex, challenging and convoluted and in many ways his latest, East of West, both bucks an respects these expectations. Taken as a whole it is certainly as weird and wonderful a comic as you could possibly want and yet it is made up only of sequential-art stories – no maps, no graphs, no timelines – that are, when seen solo, quite simple and safe in their own way. East of West then, as its title suggests, is a book built out of conflicts, hybrids and juxtapositions like this; one that shows you black here and white there, distinct from one-another, and assumes that you will mix them to grey, to ambiguity, on your own.
The issue begins with the now familiar feeling Hickman-brand cover, credits page and issue title – all white space, wise quotes and colour contrasts – then begins the intentionally confusing cold open that introduces us to the book’s three characters as they emerge slimy an bickering from beneath the desert. The identity of these children is something of a spoiler, but its also a part of the book’s synopsis and press notes so I will mention it here, but purists you have been warned. They are three of the Four Horseman, resurrected as they always are to bring about an apocalypse; it’s a twist but not an entirely new one, these characters now quite familiar themselves. The powerful force in a puerile body concept is also becoming something of a trope, though Hickman’s dialogue does a better job of making it amusing than many past examples do. Theirs is not the story that the series seems to follow though, for they are simply introduced in this issue and not given much yet to do.
The next section of the issue is the one that Hickman traditionally puts on the inside of a cover or in the ancillary section of the book, it’s a timeline of this particular parallel universes history only it is told in the more traditional art-panel plus narration style. Here Hickman introduces some of those traditionally crazy concepts and imaginative ideas: telling of the conflicts, calamities and characters that lead to the founding of the Seven Nations of America and a message that was delivered to three of the great people in this place. If you have read any of his other works then you know how enthralling these alternate-histories can be and East of West‘s doesn’t disappoint but it does feel a little distant from everything else that we are shown, the Seven Nations established but then never explored because the book now jumps again to another vignette.
This third tale is the one that I expected from both the covers and title and it appears to be the core narrative of the comic. It is Hickman writing a revenge Western, so naturally it is set in a a strange, sleek and shiny future desert. The gunslinger steps of his thermal-insect-hoverbike-thingie and strides into a saloon full of Union soldiers with his two Indian side-kicks, sculls a blue whiskey and starts a fight, flashing back mid-way to the Harmonica-esque stand-off he had with six (if you count the shadow) very sinister figures that started this whole endeavor. It’s an effective little piece of pulp, providing plenty of callous thrills and clever callbacks to a genre that I so dearly love but again it seems a little simple for Hickman, even the really revisionist Western something that can be seen elsewhere. It’s important to consider though that we’re not seeing it anywhere, that we’re seeing it here scattered amongst those two other stories and in that context it begins to become something entirely different.
The way that this particular story is told by both artist Nick Dragotta and colourist Frank Martin makes it even more interesting though because like those credit pages the characters here are all contrasting blocks of black and white. The Indians are inversions of each other – one pitch black with white highlights, the other the opposite – and the Gunslinger is colorless, a fact that clashes with the shadowy version of him shown in the flashback. As to what all of this means I have literally no idea but it is quite interesting an very pretty to look at, especially given how lush and vibrant the colours are in every other panel of the comic; Martin making good use of the blue/red binary an other such pairings. Dragotta’s design work also impresses with his landscape shots often as telling as the boxes of text that Hickman overlays upon them: the Spaghetti-Western rendition of Stonehenge that the book begins on, the Golden Gate bridge redesigned to resemble actual Chinese gates an the imposing White Tower are all amazing examples of scenery as storytelling.
The primary storytelling technique employed in East of West is similarly new, Hickman’s script sort of mirroring the way in which the three prophets received The Message: he tells three small stories in order to outline the shape of a larger fourth one that sits sketched somewhere in-between them. It’s because of this technique that I feel bad about berating individual elements as being too small; he is introducing us to each tree so as to fully impress upon us the size of the forest once we see it. There are hints enough that this kin of larger plan is at play, but the way in which he is arcing up to it means that the series is entirely accessible to those perhaps a little put-off by the perplexing complexity of his other personal works. So while it hasn’t yet wowed me East of West has me very intrigued, its hooks in deep enough already that I need to see where it goes and whether it will.