Chief among writer Jonathan Hickman's current obsessions is the destructive potential of unlimited power. Whether it's genius-level intellects willing to do whatever it takes in the name of "progress" (The Manhattan Projects) or the beings who gave life to the universe deciding to take it away (Infinity), the end result is the same: characters who are powerful enough to bring the world to its knees and who are often minded to do exactly that.
Yet beneath the destruction, there are always reasons or justifications. Both the scientists and the Builders destroy, but they do so in the name of creation, rationalizing that a certain amount of sacrifice is acceptable if it leads to the creation of something better. They’re not cartoon villains wreaking havoc for the sake of it; they’re characters driven by the unshakeable belief that they’re in the right.
This is evident throughout East of West. The Four Horsemen are laying waste to humanity across an alternate-reality America. Death, having broken away from his brethren, is motivated by revenge against those who forcefully separated him from the woman he fell in love with. His former companions kill because it’s imprinted in their very nature: bringing about the apocalypse is their entire reason for being. And the nation’s leaders are driven by various different motivating factors, ranging from the pursuit of power to nihilism to religious devotion.
Compared to what preceded it, East of West #5 is much quieter and more contemplative, recounting how Death fell in love with death dealer Xiaolian, how they let go of their old lives and settled down together, the birth of their child, and the circumstances of their parting. The issue plays to artist Nick Dragotta’s strengths; he keeps the backgrounds simple (and sometimes completely bare) so that the focus is on his wonderfully expressive characters, and in doing so establishes the emotional stakes perfectly. And Frank Martin emphasizes the somber tone by using a muted color palette, which subtly furthers the idea that graces the cover of each issue: that this world has gone wrong.
On that note, the only thing lacking is a greater sense of the America depicted in the story. The governing hierarchy and the four horsemen are strongly defined, but life for the average citizen has hardly been touched upon, and so from the reader’s perspective there’s little reason to care about their fate. Hopefully future issues will throw a spotlight onto the wider population.
But in finding the heart of the tale, and focusing on characterization among all the end-of-the-world destruction, the creative team are delivering one of the most compelling comics currently on the shelves. Amid the hype surrounding Infinity and the critical adoration received by The Manhattan Projects, East of West has been somewhat lost in the shuffle. With the first collected edition due next month, now is the perfect time to remedy that.