In just under two weeks time it’ll be that most special of days: the release of the final issue of East of West.
For six years now Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Rus Wooton, and Frank Martin have been wooing the readers with their pre-apocalypse, Manga inspired tale of the End of the World. We’ve followed Death on his search for his son, watched the remaining three Horsemen as they’ve wreaked havoc across The World, marvelled at the backstabbing politicians from every nation, and basically been in awe of the majestic storytelling.
Before that final issue drops on 25th December (I’m not sure if my local comic shop will be open but breaking in on Christmas Day can’t be a crime, can it?) I thought I’d look back at some previous posts and reviews about East of West.
East of West #19
Balloon, Babylon’s technological teacher, has instigated some new programming and advanced the son of Death’s educational regime. This involves instigating situations where Babylon will be forced to kill for a number of different reasons. There are three lessons to learn; you have to kill to eat; you have to kill to survive; you have to kill to protect your future. Needless to say Babylon rises to the challenge and after a blip at the beginning he learns with incredible speed. Unfortunately the Squirrel and the wild hog family only learn one thing; how to die.
Babylon’s reaction to the situations which Balloon puts him in raises questions regarding the idea of Nature versus Nurture. To start with he is nervous and even unwilling to kill as if he has a sense that what he is being asked to do is wrong. However the underlying family instincts kick in and Babylon takes to killing in such a way to make his father proud.
There are two outstanding parts to this issue. Firstly, there is the deeply philosophical script by Jonathan Hickman. There are layers within layers to the seemingly simple narrative that is on show. Whatever level you read at, whether its surface or depth plunging, this issue will keep you occupied for a long time. I’m sure there will be dissertations written about this sometime soon.
Secondly, the artwork is superb and also as simple as the script. The two worlds of Balloon are expressed in such a simple format using a rose tinted colour wash for the world as portrayed to Babylon and a murky blue wash for the real world. I can’t say this enough: it’s so simple yet absolutely brilliantly realised.
With these long running monthly comics, especially ones written by Jonathan Hickman, it’s easy to just accept that they are good and take it for granted that they reach a high standard month on month. Sometimes it takes an extra special issue to remind us why we continue to keep these comics in our pull list and this month Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, and Rus Wooton have done just that.
East of West #21
It starts with a juxtaposition of ‘Love’ and ‘War’ and shows how the manipulation of one can influence the other. Doma has become a pawn in the game between the Nations and despite her confidence it would appear that she is out of her depth and clueless to what is really going on.
The pre-credits sequence this month has an incessant tapping to accompany the secret dialogue and this is cleverly illustrated with broken text spread across each of the panels. The repeated tap, tap is like the ticking of a clock counting down, building the intensity within the scene. Sly looks between the characters and constant close ups help to build the suspense so that when things finally explode it’s almost a physical shock for the reader. This shock is then turned to horror at the grotesque panel that follows.
All of this is book-ended with the intimate relationship that Doma is in and the erotic lighting of these panels is a stark contrast to the greys of the drool meeting and the blood red images of death.
All of this makes the opening of this issue superb, proof that Hickman can still write a compelling comic. Unfortunately some of this is lost over the next few pages as another meeting, this time with a deep blue backdrop, unfolds rather like every other dull meeting of the Nations. This meeting is nothing more than set up for Narsimha to go walk about in the land of the Dead.
The final third of this issue recaptures the opening in style and pace and builds up to another act of violence. The design of the machines and the characters is wonderful and makes me wonder how much these guys have been influenced by the work of Frank Herbert? There is an element of Dune about the style and pacing of East of West and one that is enjoyable, if you like your sci-fi deeply political.
Hickman has been a bit hit and miss with some of his work in the last couple of years, leaving long gaps between issues been the greatest miss, but his standard of writing for East of West is always of a high quality. Whereas the Marvel event story Secret Wars is slowly drifting from its brilliant beginning into something less than farcical, East of West maintains, if not exceeds, the brilliance of its beginning. Even when dubious moments make their appearance, such as meeting number two in this issue, the art work lifts the quality of pages up. I have yet to see a bad panel by Nick Dragotta in this title.
The story marches ever on to War and the creators of this comic make sure that the reader’s journey is always worthwhile.
East of West #22
When a creator owned comic runs for long enough, especially when you have confident artists/writers working on it, it will eventually reach a ‘concept’ issue. Issue 22 of East of West is an example of such a comic.
In this issue silence is golden and, in the hands of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta, ‘golden’ is definitely the word for it.
The simple story revolves around an assassination attempt on Mao Xiaolian. A group of armoured unknowns sneak into the citadel and murder their way to Mao’s inner chamber where they come face to face with Death’s Ex. All of this with no speech or sound of any kind.
Sometimes it can be difficult to review an ongoing comic; there’s only so many ways to say that the comic is good, or bad, especially if each issue is of the same standard as before. But of course there is always a way to make readers sit up and pay attention again; guest artists; out of arc standalone stories; crossovers; or, in Hickman/Dragotta’s case, produce a stunning work of art. There are illustrious depictions of stealth and speed, subtle moments of pause and one truly kick ass scene of uber violence.
Okay, the assassin’s find Mao in the bath, naked as the day she was born which could cause some worry but this situation isn’t dealt with coyly, there isn’t any school boy tittering to be heard over these pages. In fact her nakedness allows the character to move in ways that serve her situation, unlike the bulky, stealth costumes her assassins wear that ultimately hold back their abilities in such an uneven fight. The way that Dragotta handles this fight scene is magnificent and it has such a powerful energy to it.
The movements flow from one panel to the next forcing the reader to flip from page to page eager to battle through the bloodletting and get to a moment of calm. The silence deepens the trauma because there’s no distraction there; you are forced to witness the violence and desperation in the emptiness left by the lack of text.
The splash page of Mao at the end of her fight is haunting, soaked in red and black, but there is also an unquestionable beauty to the character that makes you understand why Death was attracted to her in the first place. Beneath the arm wrenching, disembowelling and blood splattering violence there is a subtle character dissection happening.Hickman is showing the reader exactly who Mao is and what you can expect from her. He is portraying her strength physically and emotionally. Mao is a force to be reckoned with so Gods help the Seven Nations.
This issue is an outstanding example of what you can do in the comic book medium. It will take your breath away. And speech or no speech, this issue screams out about the talent behind this comic
Page Transitions in issue 40 of East of West
A more exciting use of a page transition can be seen in issue 40 of East of West. Image Comics provides an advantage for its creators, like Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta, over the Big Two publishers because it gives them greater control over their comics. This works in Hickman and Dragotta’s favour because they design each issue of East of West from cover to cover, choosing the layout and content for every page.
The transition from page 14 to page 15 (Fig. 5) is especially interesting because, not only does it lead the reader from one page to another, it breaks the usual conventions of reading an American Comic book page. Page 14 reads like most of the other pages in the comic, starting with a widescreen panel and stepping down in a usual Z-path reading pattern but when you get to the bottom of the page, where the character Death ignites the engine blast, your vision is drawn uncontrollably directly to the right and then up, across the large panel on page 15 to the top of the page where you read the first panel on the page out of the usual order.
Dragotta and Martins image in that large panel is a direct line from the bottom right of the left page to the top right of the right page. The simple, arrow like image forces the reader to buck convention and read the page in reverse. The dialogue at the top of the right page links directly with the dialogue at the top of the left page and the entire double page spread acts like a circle leading the reader from the top of the left page, down and round back to the top. It is an extremely clever piece of art work and also has narrative merit as it portrays the strength of Death’s character. By manipulating the reader physically and subconsciously the creators are expressing Death’s strength of character and influence on the world around him.
A double page spread can be used for a number of different reasons, in a number of different ways. This East of West example demonstrates that two pages of well-designed layout can speak a lot to a particular character. When used wisely creators can use the two pages to reflect upon and even compare specific characters within their narrative.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.