(Image Comics, 2013)
Review by Shawn Warner
WRITTEN BY: Jonathan Hickman
ARTWORK BY: Nick Dragotta
East of West is a love story in much the same way that the tale of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul is a love story; both are tragic, full of longing, misplaced feelings and ultimately result in the immolation of an innocent victim. Jonathan Hickman is a master story teller. He takes his time to meticulously build tension and suspense creating an air of anticipation that is almost unbearable. Hickman pulls back the curtain just enough to allow us a glimpse of what exists beyond, just out of sight. He gives us just enough to know that there is something magical awaiting us and if we just hang on our perseverance will be greatly rewarded. Reading Hickman is an investment; you put in time, pay attention and receive a big payoff usually in the form of a blown mind or a brand new perception, in either case you are enriched for having made the investment.
In just five issues Hickman has built a world that is part Wild West, part dystopian science fiction and part New Testament, all within a Chinese feudal society but feels strangely familiar to us. He has populated this world with characters that for unconventional reasons have endeared themselves to us, we care about them, we love or hate them but we undeniably care about them. At the center of the narrative are the most star-crossed lovers ever created, one is Xiaolian a Death Dealer, an extremely proficient killer, her lover is Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They have been estranged for some time but Death’s love for his Xiaolian has not been diminished by the years. He was misled and thought Xiao to be dead so he left; now he has returned with news that will forever change both of them. In fulfillment of an ancient prophecy the couple conceived a child and Death has found out that their son has been kept alive all these years by The Chosen, the very element that took him. They believe that the child of the prophecy is in fact The Beast of the Apocalypse and have kept him attached to bio-mechanical machinery all in accordance to some apocryphal text known as The Message. At opposite sides of the child’s fate and everything that hangs in the balance are two men, the shadowy Archibald who treats the entire situation as a game and all the lives at stake as pawns. He is willing to manipulate events to gain an outcome he deems desirable. Then there is the sage-like Bel Solomon who holds a vastly more noble and altruistic view of events. He is repentant, full of regret and wants to rectify past mistakes that led to the current state of things.
In the midst of these potentially cataclysmic occurrences Xiaolian, who now knows the truth of her lover’s disappearance as well as the fate of her long missing son, remains in New Shanghai while Death mounts a solitary search for their son. God help anyone who tries to get in his way.
The highlight of this issue is the dialogue between Death and Xiaolian. Death’s pleading, his longing and desire to move Xiaolian’s time hardened heart fill his words with urgency and a sense of despair that simmers just below the surface threatening to boil over. It is a dramatic scene built of a tangible heartache and tempered by the years of loss and a love that for artificial reasons remained unrequited. Hickman has scripted a broken heart, we experience East of West more than read it. These characters are some of the most genuine of Hickman’s stellar repertoire. He has filled these pages with unrelenting assaults on our heartstrings, not just tugs but full on ripping. Death is so pitiable that anyone who has ever loved and lost has to identify with him. His loss is universal, his pain is beyond that of the jilted lover’s and as immense as the weight that threatens to crush him is we must consider Xiaolian and a mother’s grief. She was denied the sweet tether that is the maternal bond. Her heart was broken into the tiniest pieces possible. Hickman masterfully captures all of these feelings while telling an incredibly complex and multi-layered story. Just to create such sincere and authentic characters is not enough, they must be placed in jeopardy for us to care about the outcome and Hickman does that so well. He slowly and methodically builds this story, upping the emotional stakes exponentially with each page. This is a story that lives in the grey areas, the blacks and whites are never that easy to define. The sides are clearly defined but who is on which side is not quite as obvious.
The anxiety and magnitude continue to intensify as the stakes are raised for Death and Xiao. Their existence depends upon the outcome of his quest. The gauntlet has been thrown down and regardless of the result of Death’s mission; war is an all but foregone conclusion; however the road to war is sure to be one that contains myriad twists and turns.
Nick Dragotta’s use of facial expression is incomparable. He tells the story in the character’s eyes. If there is a more expressive artist working today or one more skilled at getting every ounce of feeling from his use of expression I don’t know of that person. Dragotta brings a pallet of emotions and paints each panel with strokes of gut level sentiment. You can discern the mood of this book just by looking at his drawing before a single word is read. To me that is the definition of an effective artist.
East of West is an epic destined to become a modern classic and mandatory reading for anyone who considers themselves a student of comic books as literary art form. Hickman is approaching the head of the class, picking up the mantle of Morrison, Moore, Claremont, Ellis and Miller. There are very few writers working at this level today. His work is multifaceted, engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable. I can find no reason to give this issue anything less than a 5. It delivers on all levels; the plot is genius, the pace is brisk and the characters are fully actualized. Visually it’s lush and dynamic. Please pick up the first five issues and add East of West to your pull list, I’m sure you will not regret it. So until next time, see you at the comic book store.
Follow Shawn Warner on Twitter: @shawnwarner629