Ecce liber cum pictura: East of West #1
Among the many excellent comics that came out this week, Jonathan Hickman’s latest Image book, East of West, showed up, and it made me think of Hickman’s Avengers #1. That was a perfectly fine superhero comic, and Hickman has brought the ambition from his early Image work over to Marvel, which is great, but at the end of the day, there’s something missing from Hickman’s Marvel work, because even with the best superhero comics, there’s always a sense that everything will be undone. That’s not a problem with creator-owned comics, of course. East of West is more dangerous than anything Hickman has written for Marvel, because the possibilities are endless. It feels like it could have been a Marvel (or DC, of course) superhero comic if the PTB at those companies would really allow their creators to cut loose. There’s a thrilling pulse in East of West that, even in Hickman’s best Marvel work, is more muted.
Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, and Rus Wooton round out the creative team on East of West, giving us 32 fairly dense pages for $3.50. Hickman gives us a typical post-apocalyptic landscape – the book is set in 2064 – with his typical counterfactual history that he used to good effect in Pax Romana. At the beginning of the book, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are reborn as children, but one of them is missing. Then Hickman gets us caught up on the “history” of the world in his comic, as we discover that the Confederacy was able to survive the Civil War because the western Indians united to pose a threat to the Union. There’s some babble about a prophecy which I’m sure will be important down the line, and then Hickman launches us into the main story, which is about the Fourth Horseman, Death. We don’t know for sure it’s him until the end of the issue, but we have a good sense that it is. He’s on a quest to find someone, and if that means hunting down the President, that’s just what he’ll do. He has two companions, the Wolf and the Crow, who are fairly stereotypical Indians, although the fact that they’re archetypes is probably important. All of them, not surprisingly, are pretty nasty.
Hickman’s ambitions are always on the page, and this is obviously yet another one of those. Death is seeking something, and it appears the leaders of the six nations into which the United States has been divided are involved, as they took something from him years earlier. Meanwhile, the other Three Horsemen are doing something that has to do with the logo of the book – the triangle within the triangle that you see on the cover up there. It’s all very mysterious, which is to be expected in a first issue, but more than that, it feels epic in a way that “bad guy throwing Captain America at the Earth” in Avengers #1 didn’t. When I say that East of West feels more dangerous than Hickman’s Marvel comics, I don’t mean because he can kill characters and not worry about them coming back to life. I mean that it feels more consequential, like absolutely anything could happen. We don’t know the characters well yet, so there’s a sense that they could go on any tangent and it would make sense. That’s why it’s so thrilling. Plus, this is possibly the funniest Hickman comic I’ve ever read, so the humor keeps things from getting too dark.
Dragotta has been evolving from the guy you call when Mike Allred can’t hit his deadline to a superb artist, and this book is spectacular-looking. Martin tends to over-render art a bit – there’s a lot of soft creases and orange in this issue – but he does complement Dragotta’s work nicely. The artists nail the epic beginning, as the Three Horseman rise from the Earth and discover that the Fourth is missing, ending with a full-page drawing of the circle of power into which they’ve been reborn. There’s a tremendous page where the Wolf and the Crow kill everyone at a bar, but we see very little of it – Dragotta focuses on Death talking to the bartender, who reacts with horror to what’s happening over Death’s shoulder. Dragotta’s cartooning skills come in handy here, as the bartender slowly turns into a terrified puddle as he watches what’s going on. When Death confronts the President, Dragotta almost turns him into Jules Winfield, and it’s a good choice as we haven’t seen Death freak out until that moment, and we can tell he’s not happy. Dragotta’s strong, cartoony style keeps Martin’s colors from overwhelming the work, much like Kev Walker’s did on Thunderbolts when Martin was coloring that book. The book might not work if Martin were coloring at more “realistic” artist – Dragotta’s style makes the craziness a bit more palatable, while Martin’s aggressive rendering helps make the few flashbacks a bit more gauzy and the desert setting a bit more dusty. It’s a good combination.
Hickman is always in it for the long haul, and his books do tend to start sliding behind schedule, either because his artists can’t keep up or Hickman keeps editing himself (I don’t know the reason; it seems like it’s a combination of both), so who knows how many issues of this book we’ll get in the next year or so. I don’t know how long this story is supposed to be, either, so it might be a while before Hickman brings it to fruition. But this is a stellar first issue, full of power and myth, wonderfully written and beautifully drawn. Hickman usually sets the bar high, and occasionally he’s even been able to clear it! I look forward to seeing him try with this new series.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆