Review: East of West #1 – Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

East-of-West-issue1-coverEast of West is one hell of an interesting comic, and that’s just the tip of this beautiful iceberg.  Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta have brought us a world that, while set in what would be our history, looks more like our future…and our past.

We open on a circular arrangement of stones, thin and tall, like fingers attempting to wave their tips at the stars.  In the centre, we see a stone placement, also a circle, with four triangle depressions around the edge.  An explosion of light, bluster, energy and smoke shoot out from this, and as it slowly drops to a layer of thin smoke we can make out some movement within one of the triangle fixtures.

Small hands tear through it and eventually a body pulls itself out, abnormal tubing and the like attached to his chest.  Three others rise from the other triangles – a female and a larger male, all children of a darkly twisted nature.  These are three of the Four Horseman of Apocalypse and, as one can tell from the group of kids – they are missing a member.  Namely, they are missing Death.

We move into a perfectly fitting introduction of the universe this story exists in, and some of the major events that sent it in that direction.  A country already divided due to violent disagreements.  The formation of ‘The Endless Indian Nation’ and a Civil War interrupted by political change, morphing into a double-headed battleground.  It is in this setting that what looks to be a ‘comet’ crashes from the sky, forever changing the Earth as we know it.

We are introduced to the mysterious and unsolvable ‘Message’, one that began with a Prophet and a Chief of Chiefs telling their parts of this message, then falling dead to the ground upon completing their piece.  The final piece – an addendum to exiled Chinese Leader Chairman Mao Zedong’s ‘Little Red Book’ – completes the missing portion of the message, and thereby solving it.  The story within the message?  The story of the end of the world.

With the re-marking of territory and the forming of the “Seven Nations of America”, we leave the ‘flashback’ and are left with a prophesy – a lone man, a ‘broken sparrow’, and a ‘Son of Night’.  “The first of four…” – the end of everything.

Enter the present day, and we’re at a bar known as ‘The Atlas’.  Our lead character walks in, his two companions in tow.  What strikes one right away is their skin color – our lead in all white clothing (including an awesome hat), with bright, bleached-white skin.  A large American Indian man with similarly colored skin.  A woman with skin a dark black, contrasting strongly against the rest of the crew. The team is there on important business, finding a man who had been hired by an unknown party to track them down.  The three use violence (and a little bit of a ‘vision’, showing the man who exactly he is dealing with) to convince the man into giving up his boss, and they take the name and location of their prey away with them.  Whoever it is, they are in ‘The White Tower’, which one can already assume is the seat of some form of Government or another.  With talk about how the Tower is warded – “Bones and Bonded”, as they call it – and the fact that this would hinder any approach by his companions.  Deciding to all meet soon at the ‘Golden Bridge’, our protagonist heads off on his own, jumping onto the back of an insect looking creature and speeding away.

We return to the three remaining Horsemen, finding they have killed loads of people, piling the bodies high into a massive pile.  As they sit and otherwise hang out on this mess of gnarled flesh, they joke about killing, and how hilarious it can be when people react to being murdered by what seems in every way to be only a 5 year old boy.  They exchange quotes and laugh a good while, when they are stopped by the sudden movement of a man – still alive among the pile of carnage.  The three joke with him, asking if he knows any jokes, all while the man begs for his family and for help.  This whole scene is hilariously demented, and is made more so by the characters themselves – a group of three ‘children’.  It is here that we learn the three remaining Horsemen are Famine (a young girl with deep black almond shaped eyes and haywire hair), War (the youngest and smaller looking of the trio), and Conquest – a larger boy in what almost resembles a form of armor.  Eventually, the man learns who these three are, and point out that there is only the three of them.  This angers Famine, and she violently snuffs the voice out.

Our ‘hero’ makes his way not only to the Tower but also – somehow – into its innards, where he comes face-to-face with his prey.  After a lengthy conversation about the nature of his being there, our main character announces that he, himself, is Death, and that he is there to pay the man back for taking something from him in ‘the Badlands’.  We are left here with a scene of gore, and many, many questions left asked and unanswered.

I really enjoyed this title.  It has a similar feel to comics like “Preacher”, and this is in tone as much as in subject matter or setting.  Speaking of the setting, this world is an interesting mix of old and new, something well explored in the ‘Steampunk’ universe – but with a style and a look completely its own.  Let’s call it “Dirtpunk”.  High tech mixed with standard dress and buildings of the day, the White Tower being an insanely large mecha-city while other surrounding areas look right out of a John Ford western.  It works, and the scale is kept even, never dipping too far into either idea.

The artwork is stunning, and one of my favorite points of this book.  It’s just damn beautiful, with thoughtful lines taking full advantage of the unique and interesting character designs. The color art is outstanding, and can dip and dive in all spectrums and schemes, from the lightly phased out look of the ‘backstory’, to the excitingly bright and rich colors found in the remainder of the comic.

The script for this comic finds a nice point between beginning a story arc with rich characterizations and a strong sense of where we are – all with leaving us enough questions to want to know more, but not so many that we feel lost or confused in any way.  The dialogue is as tough and is well written, with far less ‘tough guy’ posturing than you might expect.  The characters aren’t all that layered or filled in, but this is the opening book and what we get here is more than enough to get a grasp on who these people are.

My favorite parts of this title were with the Horsemen ‘children’.  The darkly funny scenes, along with their own confusion in regards to humans and their emotions, is a sell on its own.  Add in the world Hickman has wrapped around it all, and you have yourself a damn fine comic.