Before I dive into this review, I have a confession to make: this is the first time I’ve read anything by Jonathan Hickman. I haven’t read his seminal Fantastic Four run. I’ve barely touched his other current Image book, The Manhattan Projects, let alone his earlier creator-owned titles like The Nightly News and Pax Romana. And let’s not get started on how much I haven’t read his Avengers/New Avengers/Avenger’s World trifecta, a trio of books which continues to divide the internet. So I don’t know much about Hickman from reading his work.
However, I think can paint a pretty accurate picture of his public perception based on his reputation. If you’ll indulge me a little, I’d like to give it a shot: Jonathan Hickman has a tendency to A) create high concept stories that often involve science fiction, metaphysics, labyrinthine plots, and meticulous worldbuilding, B) write characters that sometimes take a backseat to these high concept ideas and worldbuilding, and C) blow up, or at least threaten to blow up, the universe. How did I do?
Anyway, East of West has all of this in spades. The high concept? Our main character, the physical manifestation of Death as a steely-eyed, pale-skinned cowboy, searches for his long-lost son amidst an alternate history-version of America where the civil war ended in a draw, the country split into six factions kept in check by an apocalypse-obsessed death cult, and the horseman of the aforementioned apocalypse have manifested in the form of creepy children. The word “dystopia” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The characters? There are plenty of them, to be sure, and most of them are intriguing, badass, or at least memorable thanks to some stellar designs by Nick Dragotta, but they do occasionally get lost in the machinations of Hickman’s spectacularly complicated plot.
Is the universe in jeopardy of being Michael Bay’d? You betcha.
You may have noticed that I’m not talking about the actual issue very much. That’s because it can be summarized in three short, concise sentences. Death tussles with the Ranger (it’s pretty awesome). Wolf offers his soul to his daddy’s ghost debt-collector (which is far more complicated than it sounds). And The Endless Nation begins mobilizing its army in ships that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Borg cubes from Star Trek: The Next Generation (also awesome).
See now, that’s everything that happens in this issue, but in typical Hickman fashion – or so I’m told – this is the norm. While each issue is entertaining in its own right, they don’t quite stand on their own. Hickman’s story isn’t so much decompressed as it is so massive that he can barely fit two meaningful developments into a 22-page comic.
But you know what? It works for me.
East of West is like a gigantic jig-saw puzzle where every piece is beautiful in its own right, despite actively denying you a glimpse at the finished design. Every month we get just a tiny sliver of this incredible tapestry, but Hickman’s confident storytelling serves as a steadying hand on the shoulder, almost as if to say “Hey, buddy. I know this is complicated as all hell but I know what I’m doing here, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.” And so I do. And it feels pretty good.
I hate when comic book critics leave the art to the last paragraph or two (it’s a sin that I myself am guilty of from time to time) and unfortunately this is one of those cases. It’s such a shame too, because Nick Dragotta is treasure. A lot of artists can make a splash page look good (of which East of West has several impressive examples), but Dragotta makes every panel look good. There’s always an interesting perspective that adds depth to an otherwise ordinary scene or a great angle to show off the action in a unique way. In a full-page shot of the Ranger tackling Death, the way their bodies twist and flail gives much needed weight to the brawl.
My one complaint about this issue is in the use of Death’s powers. Since the beginning of the series, Death’s abilities have been ill-defined, probably intentionally so, but here we see him speak to man several miles away while whispering and absorb the force of an explosion with his…body? It’s unclear, and it’s something that Hickman could easily rectify if he took the time to layout Death’s strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge could greatly elevate the stakes of any future conflict involving the character. Otherwise, Death could do literally snap his fingers, killing all the villains instantly, and Hickman could claim “He could do it all along, guys! What’s the big fuss?” A minor issue, but one that continues to bug me.
Hickman’s insistence at playing the long game may frustrate some readers, but East of West is the kind of comic where I’m able to enjoy the journey so much that I trust that he’ll bring us to the hypothetical destination in due time.